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A fourth grade class learns what it was like to be a kid during WWII - from the people who lived it

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Forest Hills fourth grader Brystol Leslie reads a letter from her grandmother who lived in Europe during WWII as part of her class letters project.

This story has been updated from its original version.

What was it like to be a child during WWII? One fourth grade class set to find out.

Mary Neerhout, a fourth grade teacher at Forest Hills Elementary School, thought of an interesting way to teach kids about the difference between primary and secondary sources and capture a bit of history in the process — have them gather some primary sources themselves.

She worked with her students to write letters to people in the community asking about their experiences being children during one of the most prominent wars in American history.

"I'm a collector of stories," Neerhout said. A few months prior to beginning the class projects she heard a story from a friend about her brother's memories of being a child during WWII.

"I thought, 'we have so many stories of the soldiers, but none of the children. What are the children's memories?'" Neerhout explained.

She said that since many people who were children during that time are still alive, this could be a viable project.

"We figured about 79 is about the youngest to have their own true memory," She said.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Mary Neerhouts fourth grade class at Forest Hills Elementary is working on a project to receive letters from people who have lived through WWII and want to talk about their experiences.

Neerhout said this project checks a lot of boxes on a curriculum level. Through it the students learn how to format a letter — with a formal greeting and polite closing, how to distinguish between primary and secondary sources and learn the fundamentals of a research paper including citing sources and using quotes.

"This was actually a lesson on how to write a letter — how to politely ask for something," she said. Neerhout added, "It's a fairly easy original research project for a nascent ten year old researcher."

She said it also feeds their curiosity about WWII in an age appropriate way.

In addition to their inquiry about childhood experiences, the students also asked recipients to forward the request to anyone else they may know who also had WWII stories to share.

The results were surprising. They've received letters back from all over the world.

"We've got some from German experience, Japanese experience, east coast, west coast, Dutch —so we're getting them from all over the world," Neerhout said.

Neerhout said not only were the students happy to receive a response, the elderly people writing were so happy to be asked.

One response, written in painstaking cursive, caught Neerhout's eye.

"(A) 95 year old took the patience to write — to me that's so indicative of how much they want it told," Neerhout said.

Neerhout is starting to see commonalities among the letters and said and overarching theme is that everyone, even the children, helped in the war efforts. She's excited to see what else they'll learn through this project.

"We're just starting. I would actually love to have this be next year's project too because there's stories out there," she said.

This spring, the students will begin the research paper part of the project.

"They're very excited about delving into them in May and coming up with their own original research on what it was like to be a child (during WWII)," Neerhout said.

The class is still looking for more letters to use in their research projects. If you have childhood memories from during WWII or know someone who does, Neerhout welcomes you to contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The class was surprised to receive letters with perspectives from all over the world, including the East and West Coasts, Germany, Japan and more.


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