Florence Farmborough’s WWI diary shows that first-person case studies help students learn history

September 18, 2011

As a high school world history teacher, I cover the history of each continent from 3.7 million BCE to the present in one school year. I teach thematically, focusing on the major political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and artistic achievements throughout the world and their development over time. The course places particular emphasis on gender roles and comprises four “world tours,” one per grading period, which survey world history during ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern times. — Eric Martone

      In an urban school district with several ESL students, primary sources pose a challenge due to the prevalence of antiquated or unfamiliar words and writing styles. Yet, interpreting documents is an essential skill that students must learn. Furthermore, the thrill of the connection to the past that primary sources bring is a rewarding experience. My ninth grade classes enjoy the simple, yet powerful writing of Florence Farmborough’s journal, written during the Great War.  The students also enjoy its intimate nature and element of familiarity to the reader. I use Farmborough’s diary at the beginning of the fourth grading period to coincide with our final “world tour.” I work with students during the year to help them read primary sources and draw conclusions from them. They initially have difficulty understanding content. So I begin by having them focus on reading for information. Then, we gradually move to drawing conclusions from sources and to writing arguments supported by primary evidence.

     Farmborough’s diary works well because it divides easily into short segments and is not difficult to understand because it uses modern language. Farmborough was an English nurse working on the Russian front. Her diary contains many descriptive, lively accounts of the war and the very active role played by women, both in the traditional role as caretakers of the wounded, but also as fighters. For example, her profile of Yasha Bachkarova, leader of the Women’s Death Battalion, contradicts a stereotypical view of women. Farmborough also notes that women soldiers were a common site at the Russian front. When she sets off for the front, she notes receiving the same ceremonial send-off from her adopted Russian family as that reserved for male soldiers. There are several selections detailing the role of nurses at the front and the wretched conditions under which they lived, traveled and worked.

     The exploration of selections from this source allows students to compare different roles occupied by women in war and to examine perceptions of gender. The 20th century was one of extreme changes in women’s roles, particularly in western society. Farmborough reveals her disapproval of “masculine” women, such as those serving as soldiers, and mocks female doctors. Such notations reveal how much gender perceptions had changed by World War I, while simultaneously revealing how much they would still change by the present.

Read more . . .             Find out more about Farmborough’s first-person account of being in the Spanish Civil War . . .


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