Review note: a reasonably flexible Anzac Day package from DVA for little kids

‘Review note: a reasonably flexible Anzac Day package from DVA for little kids’, Honest History, 26 April 2016

Honest History has often been critical of the products the official commemoration industry puts in front of children. We thought the prize-winning Audacity (Australian War Memorial-Department of Veterans’ Affairs) was ‘sanitised, distorted and bizarre war history’. The Memorial’s ‘Hands on History’ holiday show we described as ‘a fudged presentation about bombing the tripes out of wartime Germany [which] becomes just another unthreatening, comfortable holiday experience’. We were not the first observers to see the Memorial’s Discovery Zone as a ‘mini theme park’ where the little uns could ‘dodge a sniper’ but be spared the unpleasant reality of Great War trench parapets reinforced with corpses.

Cover as jpeg_0While we have never attempted to read the complete DVA collection of free war books for children (we understand that some children don’t get to read them either as the books are binned by teachers) we favourably reviewed DVA’s Schooling, Service and the Great War, a set of teaching materials which made a sterling attempt to look at an aspect of war history, not just military history. Then, some time ago we heard that DVA had commissioned a booklet intended to target children as young as four-years-old. And here it is, Here They Come: A Day to Remember, along with an online booklet of teachers’ resources, both launched recently by Minister Tehan.

The package is meant for Foundation to Year 3 but can be modified for use throughout primary school. (Regarding the four-year-old targets the Australian Primary Principals Association confirmed that in seven jurisdictions out of eight – everywhere except Tasmania – ‘Foundation’ could include four-year-olds, based on the age cut-offs for that first year of school. For example, ‘kindergarten’ pupils in New South Wales have to turn five by 31 July and ‘preparatory’ pupils in Victoria have to turn five by 30 April.)

What is most noticeable about the package is that the teachers’ resources, in the separate booklet linked to the Australian Curriculum and called Learning Activities, allow for more flexibility than the pupil’s booklet does. It is almost as if the authors (the same joint authors for both booklets) snuck off the DVA reservation to put the teachers’ booklet together. A DVA officer is credited with ‘concept development’ for the pupils’ booklet but is not mentioned in the teachers’ booklet. (Perhaps we should not read too much into this; we did ask DVA for comment on this specific point but there was no response.)

The pupils’ booklet is a mix of traditional themes (community, mateship, remembrance, the remembrance torch passing between generations, and the suggestion that the dead were not much older than the schoolgirl giving the oration). The community aspect is especially interesting: the illustrations (by Warren Brown) seem to depict a small town commemorative service around a small memorial against a background of paddocks. Does DVA see its market particularly in rural schools, perhaps?

The booklet gets beyond the trope of old codgers remembering – though there is a disproportionate number of blokes in the illustrations – to feature a female Afghanistan veteran marching and a war widow and family, perhaps also victims of the Afghanistan venture. There is also Samir, a refugee from the Sudan, who feels it is important to learn Australian customs. On the other hand, the booklet does no more than flirt with the really hard questions (why we have wars and whether we learn from the past).

The teachers’ booklet chances its arm rather more. The pictures are much the same as in the pupils’ booklet but the questions suggested for teachers to put to pupils are quite thoughtful and challenging. The tone is set in the introduction to the resources booklet which says the pupils’ book includes

a range of perspectives possibly found in Australian communities towards the concept of commemoration. Anzac Day will mean different things to different communities and individuals, and this book does not intend to cover all of them … [S]ome of the common elements of commemoration which have become a traditional part of these ceremonies are explored within the book.

Later on, we have pupils coming ‘to understand why many people choose to commemorate’ (not all people), there is a ‘Many points of view’ activity sheet, an invitation ‘to identify people or groups in Australian communities for whom Anzac Day may not be significant and meaningful’, and a number of thought bubbles for the different characters for pupils to fill in but with no explicit instructions on what thoughts to attribute to the characters. There is certainly none of the coaching which one imagines is required to get so many young visitors to war memorials to write with monotonous regularity Lest we forget or They died for our freedom or Thank you for your service on whatever surface is at hand for their use.

14820884871_aea63b33c2_zCommemorative cross with inscription (Australian War Memorial)

There is also an exercise where pupils are asked to distinguish between ‘celebration’ and ‘commemoration’. A version of this exercise should be mandatory for politicians and wranglers of official remembrance. It was good to see that Minister Tehan’s media release took particular note of the distinction.

Other parts of the teachers’ booklet, like the booklet for pupils, contain standard remembrance fare (Anzac biscuits, Last Post, poppies, Rolls of Honour, wreaths, and so on) but there is enough wriggle room for teachers to step back from what has in other publications looked like an Anzac catechism directed at children.

Samir from the Sudan, too, hearing his children’s reports of Anzac events, might feel less pressure to get his head around the customs of his new homeland. He might even feel able to take a position on Anzac that respected the views of others but left him free to plough his own furrow with or without Gallipoli fertiliser. All of us and our children should have the same freedom.

Regardless of what one makes of the different styles of the two booklets, they both seem to be a product of DVA on its own, without the involvement of the War Memorial. Perhaps that is why they are somewhat less gung-ho than some of the War Memorial’s offerings or some joint Memorial-DVA products. We hope the trend to more flexible material spreads from DVA’s new home in Constitution Avenue, Canberra, down the Avenue through the long-running roadworks, and then around the corner and up Anzac Parade to the War Memorial. Such a change is long overdue; we are or should be long past the stage of requiring belief in Simpson and his donkey as a loyalty test.

David Stephens

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