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Murray Journal

Dance shoes instead of textbooks: Educating Highland Park sixth graders about World War II

Jun 22, 2017 04:15PM ● By Natalie Mollinet

A World War II veteran named Duane attended the event and had fun watching the sixth graders dance to the music of his generation. (Jennifer Going/Highland Park ELP).

By Natalie Mollinet | [email protected]

Highland Park’s sixth-grade students got a unique look at World War II not through history lessons, but with dance lessons. The sixth-grade class learned about the dances of the ’40s as well as the clothes, music and history.

“We learned a bunch of songs that were kind of in the era, and we dressed up like we were from the ’40s and every Monday after school we practiced swing dancing,” Caitlin Bramble, a sixth grader who participated said. “It was really fun.”

The students weren’t forced to be a part of the performance if they didn’t want to but those that did had a fun time. If they chose not to, they could participate from watching from the stage. Caitlin chose to do it after a friend asked her if she wanted to be his dance partner.
This idea came to Diana Alvarez, Highland Park’s music teacher, three years ago and with immense success, she has kept the program running since.  

It is a program combining music, history, and dance,” Alvarez said. “We do songs like ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ and ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo.’ On the day of the performance the students dress in clothing authentic to the World War II era, and they always look great.”  
Students worked for about six months to get their dances together and with the help of the sixth-grade teachers who run the sound and hold extra practices in their room, the performance comes together.

“They told us that people would swing dance to rebel against Hitler, so we were learning what it was like to be in that situation, it was really cool,” Caitlin said. “We already knew a lot about World War II, but we learned more through the songs.”

During Adolf Hitler’s reign in Germany during World War II, one of his goals was to indoctrinate the adolescence in Germany by putting them into the Hitler Youth organization. Boys and girls under the age of 14 were expected to be a part of the German Youth Group. When the children reached the military age of 14-18, they were put into the Hitler Youth Movement. If any of those teens were rebellious against it, the Gestapo—German secret police—would threaten the families.

 A youth group called the Swing Youth or Jazz Youth rebelled by swing dancing. The songs they would dance to were American and many would not wear the Hitler Youth uniform. The Gestapo started to crack down on this and SS Official Heinrich Himmler told officers that if they found anyone listening to jazz they should be beaten. Some of these rebels were taken and hung for all people to see. In 2005, however, German officials relabeled them as resistance fighters.

The students learn about America’s participation in the war,” Alvarez said. “Women going to work in factories here at home, the Jewish partisans and the Holocaust, the high level of military support during that time, and many other things that happened in their great grandparents' generation.”

The students wore clothes from the era too. The girls wore lipstick and dresses and some even dressed up as Rosie the Riveter. The boys wore slacks with white shirts and bow ties and some wore vintage hats. During the program, a slide show featured some of the students’ ancestors who fought in the war.

“It is one of my favorite programs that I do all year,” Alvarez said, “and the kids have a blast with it.”