Experiencing history up close

A Langley educator’s passion for teaching sends him to World War sites in Belgium and France

Walnut Grove Secondary teacher Gerry Hanlon has earned himself the trip of a lifetime thanks to his passion for education and history; he is embarking on an expedition to Belgium and France through the Juno Beach Centre’s Summer Institute and Battlefield tour.

“My wife brought home the papers one day and said that I needed to apply. I thought ‘good grief this is perfect for me, but the chances of being selected won’t be good’,” Hanlon said.

“I sent it off thinking there’d be at least 1000 other applications, but I was rather taken aback when I got a letter saying congratulations.”

The Juno Beach Centre is Canada’s only museum on the D-Day landing beaches in Normandy, France – founded by Second World War veterans in 2003.

For the past 14 years, Juno Beach has hosted the annual educational tour, awarding 20 teachers with a trip to some of the most important locations from the First and Second World War.

Recipients are selected based on personal letters describing the anticipated benefits of experiencing the historic sites.

“There were about three or four years there where I did a lot of touring around Germany, Rome, and the U.K. with a backpack,” Hanlon explained, “but I have not been to the sites the tour is taking me to before. I’ve been teaching about them forever but not actually stepped foot.”

Hanlon grew up on Vancouver Island and moved to the Lower Mainland to teach history. Interested in Ancient Greece, all the way up to and beyond the World Wars, Hanlon said his methods to get students interested have always been a bit unorthodox but effective.

“I was the kid always watching documentaries and the History Channel. When it came time to answer ‘what are you doing to do when you grow up?,’ I looked at what all I was interested and thought I might like to teach.”

With a passion for theatre, music, and literature, Hanlon found himself proudly organizing the school’s Remembrance Day ceremonies – dressing up as a WWI Scottish solider to make the history feel more tangible.

Hanlon has since used his own singing talents to get history across to his students, also playing classic folk songs and even carrying out dramatic reenactments.

“It brings history alive because everything happened so long ago, it’s hard for kids to connect. I don’t approach from the academic level, these stories need to be told with human impact.”

Read more: Premier joins B.C. veterans to mark 75th anniversary of D-Day

The tour spans July 25 to Aug. 6, including visits to the Ypres Salient, Vimy Ridge, Beaumont-Hamel, Dieppe, and the D-Day landing beaches in Normandy.

A portion of the trip is funded by participants while Juno Beach covers the majority of costs and arranges tickets and accommodations.

“It’s so hard to choose,” Hanlon said when asked about the stops he was most looking forward to. “I’d say Vimy and Dieppe. Vimy because of the Great War and Canada’s involvement and Dieppe because of the tragic loss.”

Hanlon said he was excited to visit those spots because of some personal connections; his wife’s grandfather survived Vimy Ridge after being buried twice during an explosion while his own great-grandfather was killed in WWI.

“I want to take a whole whack of photos and think of an audience while I’m doing it. What would a high school class want to see? I hope to make a slide show presentation that’s exploratory or inquiry based.”

More information about the museum and Summer Institute tour can be found at www.junobeach.org.

Hanlon said he is very grateful for the experience and believes it will help humanize both World Wars.

“If students see that Mr. Hanlon is really effected by this, they are more likely to pay attention and connect. I learned this through trial and error, but there us great power is seeing your teacher emotionally invested in the material,” Hanlon said.

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Email: ryan.uytdewilligen@langleyadvancetimes.com

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