Memorializing African Involvement in WWI: A PBL Unit

The Legend of John Chilembwe
John Chilembwe on Malawi’s Ten Kwacha note.

Memorializing African Involvement in WWI: A PBL Unit by Peter Hatala

This Project Based Learning unit asked students in a high school African History class to create memorials and accompanying artist statements that would commemorate African participants in the First World War. By working with both popular and scholarly sources, motivated by the knowledge that their final products would be considered by an authentic audience (the publishers Africa is a Country) outside the school, students considered and reflected upon the much overlooked African dimension of the Great War. This project was presented at “Decolonizing the Classroom,” Africa Network’s Biennial Conference, Smith College, Northampton Massachusetts- September 27-29, 2019. 

Frameworks: Project Based Learning, the Scholarly Dimension, and the Authentic Audience 

It’s outside the scope of this description to provide a full treatment of the mechanics of Project Based Learning (PBL), its power, and how it differs from “doing projects.” Many excellent resources are available on the internet for those interested in learning more. In particular, the Buck Institute for Education’s “PBL Works” offers the “gold standard” in PBL, and organizations like New Tech Network– a network of schools in which I taught for several years– excel in bringing PBL to life. Still, here’s an overview of some foundational PBL principles.

Teachers begin by identifying relevant state and national standards they might use, often combining multiple standards that can translate into compelling projects/topics to explore deeply. Because I work in an independent school with an independent curriculum, I began by identifying core essential knowledge and skills within the discipline of history and in relation to specific content (as well as themes and problems) from African history. Dr. Wendy Urban-Mead, Professor of History at Bard College, was a great help in “framing” the work and in providing scholarly resources (more on that later). 

From here, teachers write an essential question to drive and provide shape to the project and an “entry event” is created as a way to “launch” the project to students. Our essential question was: How should the African experience of WWI be remembered and memorialized? Teachers also create a rubric detailing project constraints and desired outcomes (e.g. characteristics of the final products) for what will be summatively assessed. Details on this below. 

Ideally, teachers are able to locate an authentic audience for student work. In our case, we were fortunate to receive permission from Africa is a Country to “pitch” the project to students using their organization’s name. They also agreed to review student work at the end of the project. Having an outside and authentic audience for their work– work that will essentially be public and has the potential to solve real-world problems or join in real-world discourse– can be incredibly motivating for students.  From here, teachers map the project, combining the variety of approaches to teaching and learning detailed in the lower tier of the image below. 

Launching and Managing the Project 

In PBL, the problem that students tackle is front-loaded, meaning that students are presented with a challenge or problem before instruction and deep engagement with the content begin. The problem is typically introduced to students through an “entry event” of some kind in the form of a challenge or invitation. In this project, the “entry event” was a letter from Africa is a Country, shared in-full below, calling on students to popularize African involvement in WWI:

Dear Students, 

2018 marked the centenary of the end of World War I. A brutal war fought between Europe’s allied and axis powers from 1914-1918 that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions. While the war is most commonly known for its European trench warfare, deadly new technologies, and the way in which it dismantled the old empires of Europe, what is not commonly known is the way in which Europe’s colonies were brought into the war, or how they suffered for European interests. 

During the 2018 centenary celebrations, as the publication Africa is a Country pointed out:  “..once again Africa is not invited to the party. The story of Africans’ involvement in the Great War is unheard of outside of academia, and thus remains to be told: the tens of thousands of African lives lost at home and abroad, defending the interests of foreign powers and the lives of complete strangers; the forced recruitment of African soldiers to fight Europe’s war, and of African workers to replace the labour force gone to the front; the battles between colonies pitting Africans against each other on their own soil; the reshaping of Africa’s borders and inner workings after the war under new rulers.” 

Because “the story of Africans’ involvement in the Great War is unheard of outside of academia”, your task will be to popularize this involvement- to make it known to a larger audience. Guided by the driving question, “how should the African experience of WWI be remembered and memorialized?” you will design a memorial that captures the African experience in WWI. This design should be accompanied by an artist’s statement that explains and justifies your choices. Your work will be sent to Africa is a Country as our way of contributing to the the work of, “unpack[ing] what the world thinks it knows, and put what it should not ignore right under its nose.” 

Your individual artist’s statement will be due Monday, May 6th, and then your team will decide which portions of each individual statement you will include in a final statement that will accompany your memorial.

Your memorial is due, along with this final statement, Wednesday, May 8th. 

Good luck! 

Students were asked to take a pen to this entry document and begin circling those things that they know they’ll need to do or understand in order to be successful in the project. They were then asked to underline those things they need to know in order to be successful in the project. The same process was followed when the project rubric was shared with students, immediately after they marked up the letter. The project rubric can be found here. 

The full “know” and “need to know” list can be found here– a list which I collected and collated in front of the class as we talked through the entry document and rubric. Some highlights are below to give a sense of how clarifying such lists can be for students embarking on what might otherwise feel like a behemoth of a project with multiple, complex pieces and demands.

  • We are making a memorial 
  • We need an artist’s statement 
  • It’s a group project! 
  • We are popularizing the involvement of Africans in this war 
  • Africans were a large part of the war that have gone unnoticed
  • We are sending our memorials/statements to Africa is a Country 
  • We have to include sources and cite them! 
  • The artist statement is kind of like an analytical history of African involvement in WWI. 
  • If we use advanced scholarly sources, we’ll do better. 
  • We have to recognize the diversity of the African experience 
  • It has to be relevant to Africa

Those things students identified as “need to knows” then become what is taught in the project. This way of “front-loading” much of the content to be considered through the entry document and rubric, and allowing students to discover for themselves what they need to know, gives the learning experience a feeling of greater authenticity.

The project was broken down into three phases: 1.) Getting Started: Project Overview, Requirements, and Organizer for Research Materials, 2.) Research, and 3.) Design and Testing. These steps were supported by a basic learning management system that allowed me to arrange materials like this: 

The second column extends down further, revealing more sources, which are divided into two categories: “Shorter, More Accessible Articles” and, below that, “Advanced Academic Sources.” 

The project rubric was written in such a way that a group could choose to work exclusively with the more “accessible” sources and still earn a grade in the A range; however, most students chose to push deeper into the scholarly sources provided. These sources (a fuller list below) were provided, in part, through the efforts of Prof. Wendy Urban-Mead at Bard College. Dr. Urban-Mead specializes in African History and also teaches in the Bard College Master of Arts in Teaching Program– a combination of talents and interests that gives her familiarity with scholarly treatments of the subject and the particular needs of high schoolers. Through conversations with Dr. Urban-Mead my own understanding of Africa’s involvement in WWI expanded and I was able to better help students understand and interpret some of the challenging sources she suggested. Because my own doctoral work was not focused on Africa, this was a major asset and it was not the first time her guidance was used to “frame” the course. Such school-college/university partnerships, even on a one to one level, can be incredibly valuable in ensuring fidelity to and staying up to date with a particular field of study. Additionally, I drew on our school’s director of research who supported our students in reading and citing scholarly works. 

From here, the whole class spent time learning about memorials, their function and meaning, and considered the variety of approaches the creator of a memorial might take. They also learned the story of Maya Lin, the 21 year old architecture student whose design was chosen in a national competition, to become the Washington DC Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial design submission, entry number 1026. (Photo: Maya Lin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Students then began a process of research and close-reading. For this project, most of the resources and articles were given to students (rather than found in databases), broken into the categories mentioned above, but students were asked to find additional sources as they studied the African dimension of the war. To aid that process, students were given a simple organizer on which to record their findings. 

In the two weeks that followed, students experienced direct-instruction on WWI, homework assignments that included short documentaries, primary source analysis, textbook readings (excerpts from Kevin Shillington’s History of Africa), and in-class group work that centered on applying all they were learning to the creation of a memorial. This work was interspersed with formative assessment in the form of short quizzes to check for understanding of content. Over the course of the project I often acted as a facilitator, meeting with students individually and in small groups to discuss the scholarly sources they were working to interpret, clear up misconceptions, encourage students to add more depth to the notes they were taking on their organizers, and to ensure that they were remaining faithful to the project in focusing specifically on the often overlooked or over-simplified African dimension of the war. Toward the end of the project, each student was asked to write an individual artist statement to accompany the memorial (see the rubric for details). They then worked to proof-read and provide feedback to each other in order to finally decide which elements of each of their group’s statements should be submitted with the final projects. 

Final Products

Their final products- in the form of memorials and artist statements- revealed an impressive depth of understanding. Not only that, there was a palpable sense of something like love in this work. Through reading closely the stories of the John Brown-inspired rebel John Chilembwe of British Nyasaland, or about the experience of some of the one million porters who served in the war, or the finer details of the East Africa Campaign– details and stories that are sadly not well known in US outside of Academia– students came to more deeply see and feel dimensions of the war previously unknown to them. 

Examples of student work, which were accompanied by presentations: 

Artist statement excerpt: “Chilembwe became known as a political and religious figure in Nyasaland. His ideals revolved around three main elements: a hatred for British involvement; a belief that the poor should be equal to the rich; and a desire for the independence of Nyasaland. To further the application of these concepts, Chilembwe began to bring his ideas to the British government in Nyasaland. When his ideas were rejected, he began to plan a rebellion, taking ideas from John Brown…” 

Artist statement excerpt: “Scattered beneath the sand are stones, which represent a story or groups of Africans who made contributions and sacrifices to the war effort. Each is inscribed with a name or a job, such as ‘Porters’ or ‘French Tirailleurs.’ We chose rocks because of their enduring strength and to symbolize that, although the contribution by Africans has largely been hidden from view, it remains ingrained in society and will never erode. Rocks come from a place of destruction, tumbling over and over again down mountains and through rough terrain and still end up as relatively smooth and strong organic objects. To find them in the sandbox, visitors must dig. The time and effort taken by each visitor is a metaphor for… the work we must all do to recognize the debt African participants in the war are owed.” 

Artist statement excerpt: “People in Malawi fled their villages in mass numbers in fear of being seized as ‘Tenga-Tenga,’ or as forced laborers. Similar efforts occurred around Senegal, Nigeria, and what is now Benin. More aggressive and violent forms of resistance occurred around Africa as well, including armed resistance to the Portuguese in Mozambique and assaulting recruiters that came to Malawi. While many of these efforts proved to have limited military significance, they disrupted war recruitment goals and had a direct impact on wartime colonial politics and economics.  The memorial we designed is to commemorate the African soldiers who resisted against the brutal exploitation they have experienced.”


A paucity of accessible sources, combined with scant attention to Africa in state-level high school curricula, make it challenging for teachers to find ways to make African history complex and compelling to students. For now, many of the materials that could allow students to engage in deeper thinking about the African past (with some notable exceptions like MSU’s Exploring Africa curriculum, which is a godsend) can only be found in scholarly sources, which requires a teacher who can “translate” this work to the secondary school classroom or sustained support to help students access and work with challenging sources. 

Secondary school teachers faced with these limitations and constraints, or those teaching a subject outside their area of expertise, should look to develop connections with university professors who specialize in the topic. A reading list or a more sustained partnership might come from it. Teachers might also consider the power of partnering with organizations that can give students greater impetus to create and think at the highest levels by engaging in authentic work that is meaningful to an audience outside the school. Such work is engaging, authentic, and, in exploring the details and nuances of another’s past, ultimately humanizing.  

Some Scholarly Sources Used

  • “Resistance and Rebellions” by Michelle Moyd
  • “More Than Just von Lettow-Vorbeck: Sub-Saharan Africa in the First World War” by Bill Nasson
  • “Mobilising Britain’s African Empire for War: Pragmatism vs Trusteeship” by Timothy H. Parsons
  • “Malawi & the First World War” from A History of Malawi, 1859-1966 by John McCracken 
  • “The Chilembwe Rising” from A History of Malawi by John McCracken 
  • No Insignificant Part: The Rhodesia Native Regiment and the East Africa Campaign of the First World War by Tim Stapleton 

— Peter Hatala


    • Thanks very much! For the sake of brevity there are some process/learning pieces missing in the description, but the gist, I think, does come through. I was so impressed with the quality of the students’ work.

      Liked by 1 person

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