DeKalb educator named participant in nationwide program
One DeKalb County School District (DCSD) employee has traveled Washington D.C. to begin the journey of a lifetime—the first of many stops in a quest for education. His mission? To memorialize one World War II service member who never made it home, joining seven others in invigorating the study of history in American classrooms.
Jason Butler, former social studies professor at DeKalb Early College Academy (DECA) and current DCSD professional development facilitator, was named one of eight participants in the Understanding Sacrifice program by the American Battle Monuments Commission and National History Day. Throughout the 2018-2019 school year, Butler will travel to Washington D.C. and Europe to advance his studies.
Understanding Sacrifice engages teachers with World War II research through primary and secondary sources, virtual lectures, and online discussions. Each selectee studies one fallen World War II veteran and publishes their research online. The collaborations support the development of lesson plans and profiles of World War II service workers, which will eventually be published on ABMCeducation.org.
A 15-year education veteran, Butler has always had a passion for history. Throughout his time at DCSD, he has taught U.S. history, civics, world geography, world history, senior literature and Spanish at all levels, including Advanced Placement (AP). Butler is looking forward to adding even more to his skillset as a scholar.
“This is an amazing opportunity and I consider myself very fortunate to be selected. I can’t wait to dive in and take part in the amazing experiences and growth this program has to offer,” Butler said. “With anything I do in life, I try to gow in one way or another. That will happen a few different ways in this program.”
Specifically, Butler hopes he will gain exposure to new strategies, resources, tools, as well as access to primary resources. Primary resources are firsthand accounts of historical events, which often arrive in the form of a letter, journal entry, or day-of newspaper article. Primary sources are indispensable in the realm of history, and Butler hopes further access will expand his views on World War II in general.
Butler says primary sources allow students to think about history in new, exciting, and engaging ways. Butler calls this “thinking like a historian,” or relying more on scholarly interpretation and critical thinking than memorization. He says it’s important to challenge students to place themselves in certain situations and consider context.
“Instead of having students try to memorize information, we want to them to take ownership of their learning and become historians,” Butler said. “This means they think like political scientists, like geographers. Within the discipline, it’s not just about memorizing facts—it’s also about understanding cause and effect, different points of view, and connections across time among different groups of people. Remembering people, dates, and places—that old model doesn’t really move the needle, so to speak. What’s more engaging is using your own curiosity to explore, investigate and connect your own dots. Why do you think something has happened? What would you have done in this position? What were the emotions involved? What were the different perspectives? These are much more and engaging and enriching to students. We hope, in DeKalb County, to assist teachers and students in advancing in that process.”
Butler also hopes the program will also add to his new role as a professional learning facilitator, a position that calls for supporting social studies teachers districtwide in developing strategies for helping students perform research, seek out primary sources, and engage with elements of the past.
World War II is a passionate subject for Butler, who looks at the conflict as one that helped shape the modern world.
“It was 75 years ago, so in some senses, it seems pretty disconnected from our current reality,” Butler said. “But there are a whole lot of things you can trace back to that moment in history and a lot of lessons we can learn. Yes, things were different in the 1930s and ‘40s, but there are some issues that are the same when it comes to peoples’ rights andidentities. Whether there’s a hierarchy of groups. Issues of migration. Who does a country belong to? Who gets to run the government and why? These issues are very relevant. They were at the forefront of World War II, and they’re at the forefront in 2018—not just here, but around the world.”
Beyond those facts, Butler is quick to point out that World War II is the last war to unify the population behind a single effort. People on the home front, in all aspects, worked jobs to support the war effort. This expanded beyond racial, cultural, or religious barriers.
“This involved most Americans in some way. It wasn’t just, ‘Those are soldiers, that’s them and I’m me,’ it was everyday Americans saying, ‘We need to step up and be a part of this,’” Butler said. “People wanted to do what they could, whether it be from a cornfield in Iowa or an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. That’s something that’s very foreign to us.”
Beyond general knowledge, Butler is excited to learn more about soldiers who haven’t made it to history books.
“We know the names of famous soldiers and generals and their stories get told in movies and books,” Butler said. “But there are literally millions of others who fought just as hard, who were just as courageous, whose vision was just as important, who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Their stories are just as important but forgotten.”
Honoring fallen soldiers is nothing new for Butler. Beyond the normal curriculum, during the 206-2017 school year, he took part in Sacrifice for Freedom® Albert H. Small Student & Teacher Institute program through National History Day with DECA valedictorian Sydnie Cobb. That program, like Understanding Sacrifice, allowed Butler to travel to Normandy and study American World War II veterans who perished on foreign soil.
Online discussions between other Understanding Sacrifice selectees is already taking place, Butler said. Beyond that, Butler will choose a soldier to honor, develop a website based on that soldier, produce education materials on that soldier, and eventually deliver a eulogy at their gravesite.
“I have a couple of stories that have caught my interest,” Butler said. “There are a lot of worthy stories to be told. It depends on what we can get our hands on. Every person’s story is worth telling. It really depends on what’s available to find out what that story is. There are a lot of compelling human interest stories as well. Maybe a student had plenty of opportunities but decided to leave them to become a soldier. That’s a heck of a story.”
Butler hopes to mimic the new will be just as successful and allow him to evolve the discipline of history in education. He hopes other educators in DCSD and beyond will follow his example of pursuing interests—both in academia and beyond.
“I’m lucky to have found these outlets for my passion,” Butler said. “Everyone has a passion. Mine just happens to be aligned with these amazing opportunities. Anything I can do to help people grow is wonderful and something I get very excited about. If I can grow and convey that to the teachers of DeKalb County, that’s a beautiful thing.”