WATERLOO — Students in Columbus High School’s Advanced Placement European history class testify year after year to the power of actually seeing the battlefields, cemeteries and war memorials from the conflicts they’ve studied.
For the past 15 years, Gary Schnieders has led his classes to those sites across France and Belgium. That has included 242 students and dozens of chaperones.
This year, the class traveled from March 25 to April 5. The 14 members — all seniors who recently graduated — talked about their experience earlier this month.
The trip, focusing on World Wars I and II, was described as memorable and emotional by many of them.
“We had spent months preparing for this trip,” said Maryann Schmadeke, through study and classroom discussion. “It hits you differently when you see names on graves. It just really put it into perspective.”
“We also visited a lot of battlefields and bunkers,” added Madeleine Kapler. “That really made the war real in my eyes.”
Being ready to absorb what they saw made the students’ reading and the class discussions preceding the trip essential.
“We’re not so much here to learn the statistics on how many people died, where the battles were,” said Eli Olmstead. Rather, their focus is the lessons that can be drawn from war with the idea of not continuing to make the mistakes that led to the conflicts. “The lessons we learned here are once in a lifetime.”
Schnieders’ approach to teaching was important to what students learned, added Olmstead. “Mr. Schnieders is really good at letting us lead the class.”
“There are certain things that we wouldn’t think about without Mr. Schnieders guiding us,” said Kapler.
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“He’s the most passionate teacher I have ever met in my life,” said Jennifer Haag, noting he had helped her open up to other viewpoints. “I’ll state an opinion or an idea and Schnieders will ask me why. It made me realize how much we don’t know.”
Kapler had a similar experience.
“I’d say before this class I was pretty set in my opinions,” she noted. But, thanks to the questions he has presented in class, “I have hopped the fence” numerous times. “Each and every day we walk into this class and are challenged.”
“Without Mr. Schnieders we would not have the same knowledge and background,” said Trey Mudd. Through his class, students learned “to think for ourselves. Don’t go with the flow of what everyone else is saying, have your own thoughts.”
Parents who served as chaperones on this year’s trip also offered high praise for Schnieders, who has been teaching social studies at Columbus for more than 40 years — since 1977.
Chris Olmstead suggested that his classes help students develop critical thinking skills.
“They gain an understanding that decisions matter in little things as well as grand things,” he said. “Everything they do affects other people.”
Several parents said discipline is important in this and other classes Schnieders teaches. It’s hard for students, but the parents noted their children benefited greatly from the experience.
“They respect him,” said Jim Benda. He added that “more kids should be” exposed to the AP European history class.
“Mr. Schnieders teaches these kids study habits, which is priceless,” said Jim Mudd Jr., recalling how difficult the first few weeks of freshman world history class was for his daughter, Olivia. Eventually, though, she was ready to meet his expectations — earning Schnieders admiration from her father.
“This guy is amazing,” said Jim Mudd. “This guy is the best teacher I’ve met in my life.”