Sacrifices in the name of U.S. History #DogGoneIt

Did you know that the U.S. military trained suicide bombers in World War II? The living instruments of warfare were dogs. That’s right – dogs. In fact, tens of thousands of people enlisted their family pets to serve in WWII in a program called Dogs for Defense – part of the Canine Corps. The dogs were trained for a number of tasks – to carry ammunition, to attack shooters’ trigger hands across battlefields, and to bust bunkers.

I had heard of Victory Gardens and scrap metal donations in the early 1940s, but I had never learned of the animal sacrifices made during WWII. Until this morning. While walking Lucy today, I listened to This American Life – Episode 480: Animal Sacrifice. In Act 1,

Susan Orlean tells us about the moment America asked untrained household canines to make the ultimate sacrifice: to serve in World War II. Susan talks to Gina Snyder, who remembers being a teenager when her dog Tommy joined the service. And Susan digs into the national archives to learn the fate of other dogs that fought on the front lines. A version of this story appears in Susan’s book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. (20 minutes)

After watching Hachi (briefing on Wikipedia) last night with the family, and because I was listening while walking my faithful companion Lucy, I’m sure the Dogs for Defense story resonated more poignantly with me. But despite my emotional priming, I found the WWII story compelling and interesting in its own right.

Of course, I wondered why I had never heard or learned of Dogs for Defense or the Canine Corps before now. I used to teach seventh graders the subject of U.S. History, and I had never even encountered a hint or a glimpse of this fascinating military effort and civilian sacrifice. I thought the story would make an ideal artifact for the typical middle school history course. I’m feeling a bit of regret that Dogs for Defense was never before in my teacher’s toolbox. From another perspective, though, I am thankful that I found the story in my learner’s toolbox.

It’s fascinating to me what we curate into the curriculum, and it’s equally fascinating to me – maybe more so – what we intentionally and unintentionally curate out of the curriculum. In a content area like history, time is our greatest enemy, I guess. In historical survey courses, many are driven to cover as much history as possible (at a particular altitude), so we skim a surface for as many years as possible. Therefore, a certain degree of depth and a luxury of search-and-discover is sacrificed. What if we let the student learners do more of the curating?

It would be interesting to me to see what middle schoolers would find – through search and discovery – if they were guided to more self-discovery in subjects like U.S. History. I may be admonishing only myself, but I regret not being a more creative facilitator of learning when I was a part of a formalized learning space for U.S. History. I now wish I had served fewer completed meals, and I wish I had allowed more for students finding their own ingredients and recipes. I don’t doubt that we would not have covered as many years of history, but I bet we would have all learned – and retained – so much more.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d make my own sacrifice – giving up my traditional march through the chronological years in order to catalyze more searching, discovering, story finding, and connecting. To do so might even be responding to a higher calling of service to my country … and to the future learners’ world.