GOWANDA - Instead of having his students just read from textbooks, a Gowanda Middle School teacher is bringing history right into the classroom. Steve Cocca who teaches history to fifth grade students is using artifacts to bring World War II alive.
Cocca used artifacts from his wife's family. He spoke of his wife's aunt, Helen Chimel who used to work in a factory in Lackawanna.
"When she was a young girl, she went to work in a war factory before World War II started. She always reminded me of Rosie the Riveter," Cocca said. "I was always telling my kids about this real live person who was like Rosie the Riveter. She wore coveralls, carried a metal toolbox to work and worked at the Curtiss-Wright plant in Cheektowaga."
OBSERVER Photo by Samantha McDonnell
Middle School Teacher Steve Cocca teaches a history lesson at Gowanda Middle School. Cocca has brought in artifacts from his family to help students learn.
Chimel, who is now 93, was proud Cocca would share her stories with the students. She told Cocca he should use the stories of her brother, Matthew, who was killed in combat in Leyte, Philippines.
"She said 'You should tell him the story of Matty. ... You should use the telegram that we got that notified us of his death,'" Cocca said.
Chimel began the search of the telegram in her belongings. Once she found it, even more artifacts from her brother, John and her husband, Joseph were uncovered. Along with Matthew, both John and Joseph served in the U.S. Army.
"(It was an) incredible treasure trove of artifacts," Cocca said. "This year, I decided I got to use those (artifacts). Kids might appreciate history more if they see things like this. They always like to see things."
As part of Cocca's regular history curriculum, American history is required. Cocca decided to bring in a select number of artifacts and did a scavenger hunt with his students. Each station had an artifact and students had to answer questions. The artifacts used included a soldier's uniform, the telegram, a painting, a soldier's handbook, a pillowcase, a newspaper clipping, a letter from Douglas MacArthur, dog tags, badges and a photo of Matthew.
"It was tremendous. In all my years of teaching, you have a select number of lessons you teach, this ranks right up there," Cocca said. "They were fascinated by these things. They wanted to know more about the people involved (and) that time period."
Students were fascinated by a pillowcase sent to Chimel from Joseph and the telegram. The pillowcase was sent from Camp Stewart for her to "use this pillow and dream on it in his absence during the war," Cocca said.
The telegram was received to alert Chimel and her family of the death of Matthew. The telegram was delivered to Chimel's home on Feb. 24, 1945 following Matthew's passing on Jan. 31. The students were shocked that families would receive a telegram to notify families of death and that it took almost a month to arrive. The students were also puzzled by the three year wait for the return of Matthew's body to his family.
"When the knock arrived at the door, Helen tells the story that her mother, Ella (Fik) believed it was John coming home or news of John coming home. ... She started to read (the telegram) and Helen was in the back of the house getting ready for church. She heard her mother say 'News of death of...' and that was the last word she heard out of her mother's mouth. When she came into the room, her mother had dropped the telegram and slumped down into the chair.
"A boy brought (the telegram) and he knew what was in the telegram. He gave it to Mrs. Fik, turned and ran as fast as he could. He didn't want to be around," Cocca said. "(The students) were surprised (Ella) didn't get a phone call. Some of them had watched movies and they thought someone would come to the door."
The generation of students in Cocca's class and their connection to World War II is beginning to become nonexistent. According to Cocca, many of the students' grandparents have more connection to the Vietnam War than World War II. If students have a connection, it is a relative that the student may not see all the time.
"The connection to these things are pretty shady. Teaching it out of a book, you can understand why (students) get bored," Cocca said. "Teaching it this way, at least they can touch, feel and get some sense that real people used these things."
By using artifacts and talking about previous wars, the students were also able to discuss and share stories of family members currently serving in the military.
"It allowed them to make connections to their own lives," Cocca said.
Middle School Principal David Smith had the opportunity to observe Cocca's lesson during the scavenger hunt. Smith was thrilled to see the students' excitement.
"It was a great pleasure to see the students so excited about genuine artifacts ... primary source documents," he said. "To see the kids' faces, it was truly learning coming alive. They were so excited to learn about it. I give Mr. Cocca all kinds of credit for making it personal, for making it real. It was a lesson our students will not forget. It was awesome."
For future lesson plans, Cocca plans to use the artifacts. He wants to refine the lesson and swap out some of the artifacts. Cocca also believes he will change some of the scavenger hunt questions, incorporating questions which students came up with during the activity.
"Overall, I was real pleased with the reaction of the kids," Cocca said. "I really felt they got something out of it. That was the most important thing, to bring it alive and to make sure they understood this period of time."
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