Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Social Media Meets My Great Grandparents

Last week I shared a status update on Facebook requesting the help of "friends" to solve a family mystery.  I have an old postcard that was written by my great grandmother, Elise, in 1915 in Germany to her husband, Theodore, while he was away at war.  The letters on it are incomprehensible to me and my immediate family and I've always wanted it translated. 


I tagged several friends in my post, including two relatives from Germany (who I have never had the opportunity to meet).  Along with the post, I included a link to a VoiceThread I had created with a picture of the postcard (front and back) and my questions in voice and text (to help with translation).  You can view that VoiceThread above.  (By the way, additional photos have since been added to the VoiceThread in response to the dialogue -- a couple of which I had never seen before.  The VoiceThread is becoming a family archive and I hope to continue adding voice descriptions and stories to it.  Imagine the relevance this will have to my own grandchildren.) 

The postcard is a family relic and I had been told by my mother that it contains a message from my grandmother, who was home caring for her five daughters (one of them my grandmother, Ella), while her husband was away on the battlefields of World War One. I wanted to know more than that though -- especially what the red text on the right side of the postcard said.  The meaning of the postcard had been conveyed to me through my mother through oral stories but what did the postcard really say?

Within 12 hours of the status update, a dynamic exchange had ensued between my cousin, Thomas, in Germany, and a close family friend, Lore, who lives in the US but is from Germany.  A high school friend, who I haven't talked to in more than 20 years but now lives in Germany, assisted with identifying the type of script used on the postcard too.  The script, apparently, is not German but Suetterlin.  This is one of the reasons why it's been so hard to translate over the years.  Lore, apparently, had received instruction in reading and writing in Suetterlin when she was young. 

The writing on the left side of the postcard, by Elise, shares her happiness upon hearing recent news that Theodore was healthy (we assume she had received a note from  him not long before this was written).  The postcard is date stamped 8-16-1915.  But there is a handwritten phrase in red dated 8-25-1915.  This phrase says, "killed in action."  I had understood that the postcard had been returned to my grandmother with this handwritten mark upon it.  However, my Facebook community keenly identified that the red letters are in ballpoint pen, indicating that it was written much more recently than the Suetterlin text which was made with a fountain pen.

The death of my great grandfather has been verified by another of my relatives in Germany who has located a photograph of Theodore's grave -- on which the date 8-23-1915 in inscribed (matching the red text on the postcard).  Since I posted this on Facebook, I have also received never seen before pictures of Elise's parents (my great, great grandparents) including one of them standing in front of their own porcelain shop (these have been added to the VoiceThread).  My cousin has also shared stories with me about Elise which I've never heard before -- she said that her husband had volunteered for the war but soon thereafter was "shot in the head." She was a strong woman, up until her death at age 99.

The postcard is a precious family relic to me.  It is a metaphor of love, loss, and the incredible courage and human commitment of both Theodore, who voluntarily left for the war, and Elise, who raised five young daughters alone in early 20th century Germany.  

With the combined help of Facebook and VoiceThread, a new layer of family history has been revealed and more keep coming.  I'm very grateful to be alive right now.  We have an unparalled opportunity to leverage social technologies to learn about and tell our own stories. We are all experts in something -- and when we have the opportunity to share those gifts with others, the power of social technologies is felt.  That is part of our quest in this century, I believe -- to identify our passion and area of expertise and share it with the world.  This empowers each of us to give something back to the world and leave our mark.

Finally, as an educator, I'm realizing the significance of this "moment" and how important it is to weave these opportunities into our students' learning experiences.  Doing so would illuminate the deeper relevance of social media to our students to open up their own stories -- and encourage teachers to move away from our reliance on textbooks to facilitate learning.  Mashable shared a related story today about how social media is informing world history events.  How many history professors are working this concept into their curriculum, I wonder.  I remember how difficult it was for me to connect with history when I was young -- I can't imagine how different my academic experience would have been if I were introduced to history through an opportunity to tell my own story and share it with the entire world.

As a result, I'm thinking about integrated a project into my online History of Photography class that requires students to "tell a story" involving a photograph and a defining family event. This project would include a research stage in which social media would be used to reveal new bits of information and the story would be shared in a student-generated VoiceThread.  I really can't think of a more valuable learning experience.  What do you think?  

History is yours.  What's your story?
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