NEEDHAM, Mass. - One can study history or experience it.

Each year for more than a decade, Soldiers from the Natick Soldier Systems Center have helped history come alive for seventh graders at Monsignor James J. Haddad Middle School. It happened again April 8 as 62 students began studying Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War.

The NSSC Soldiers stopped by the school to give students a taste of today's military before the boys and girls got more deeply into a war that began 150 years ago. As Soldiers walked into the school gymnasium in their Army Combat Uniforms, students were "enlisting" in the Union and Confederate armies, donning blue or gray caps, and picking up simulated rifles.

After getting into formations, the students watched the NSSC Soldiers demonstrate how to march before breaking up into pairs to work with the youngsters.

"I think it really just truly brings it to life for them, and it really is a great way to start off, because it gives them the direction," said Bobbie Flynn, seventh-grade history and religion teacher. "OK, this isn't just fun and games. We're going to try to do this out of respect for the men who died but also ... the present-day military."

Next month, students will re-enact Pickett's Charge at a nearby park. Later, they will travel with teachers to Gettysburg to visit the actual site of the famous battle.

"But this, truly, with the Army - the men and women - always, in their journals, is their favorite part," said Flynn of the students. "I think it brings it to reality for them."

Sergeant David Arvizo of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, who led the NSSC contingent at the school, patiently answered questions from a circle of students in the gymnasium.

"I love getting involved in the community," Arvizo said. "It's nice to go somewhere ... the community actually shows an interest in the military and they want the involvement. This just gives us a chance to ... reach out and be like, 'Hey, we're people. We're just regular people.'"

According to Bette Lavery, who founded the Civil War program at the school, the hands-on approach to studying Pickett's Charge at Cemetery Ridge, during which the Confederates lost more than half of their 12,500 men in an hour, has made a lasting impression on students over the years.

"Hopefully, that battle will stick in their heads," Lavery said. "That's the experience we're trying to get across, anyway. We firmly believe that you learn by doing."

On this day, the seventh-graders learned with American Soldiers at their sides. As Flynn looked around, she saw children talking with Soldiers in the gymnasium.

"I think that one-on-one interaction really makes the difference with them," Flynn said. "It means a lot to these kids. They love this."

"We just want to make it fun," Arvizo said. "It should be fun."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16