This High School Teacher Gives a Unique Lesson Each Remembrance Day

Mike McKay's students are given the opportunity to spend the night in a simulated trench for a taste of what it was like for WWI soldiers.

At the local school here in the small town of Eaglesham in northern Alberta, my colleague and fellow teacher Mike McKay gives his students a unique lesson every Remembrance Day.

Before coming here to teach at Eaglesham School, Mike served as a reservist in army communications. As the students here got to know “Mr. McKay,” they had lots of questions for him about his time in the military. The students had many misconceptions about what it was like—mainly due to the video games they play—so one day in 2007, Mike said, “Let’s go dig trenches and stay in them all night, so you can see what it is like to be a soldier.”

Students Digging TrenchesJanet Collie

It was a pretty miserable night, but it was the beginning of something real for these kids. The following year, they wanted to do it again—and again. Now, years later, students are still looking forward to experiencing this special event.

Students from Grades 7 to 12 are invited to spend a night “in the trenches.” For the last couple of years, they have been digging their trenches on the back field at the agricultural fairgrounds in town, which is within walking distance from the school.

They are provided with a list of items to bring that must all fit in a pack on their backs, along with a pick and shovel to dig their trenches. Mike has students perform guard duty and provides a distraction during the night to mimic wartime, to see how they cope.

Community groups provide a hot supper of stew, and a breakfast of oatmeal before students fill in their trenches and head to the hall for the Remembrance Day ceremony.

Mike Digging TrenchesJanet Collie
Teacher Mike McKay assists in digging the trenches.

In the years he has been doing this, Mike has experienced all kinds of weather, including rain, snow and temperatures ranging from as low as -30°C to weather so warm that you are bathed in sweat when finished digging your trench. The students always say that they’ll never again view Remembrance Day as just a day off from school.

Perhaps some of the greatest learning comes the day after the trench digging, when students have to run the community Remembrance Day ceremony. Each student has to do a presentation on a relative or friend who served either during war or peace time. The students’ presentations have covered relatives who served on opposite sides of a war; who served in wars that the students had never even heard of; and who were lost in war, but whose remains were never found.

As a result, these youngsters all become keenly interested in their family histories as well as gain a better understanding and respect for the significance of Remembrance Day.

Don’t miss these Remembrance Day stories honouring Canadian veterans.

Originally Published in Our Canada