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The goal of Bears to School is to keep Australia’s proud military history alive in classrooms across the country. But it isn’t all about the past. Many young Australians have parents that are currently serving our country in uniform. For these Australian Defence Force families, the demands of service can mean frequent relocations and absences from home because of deployment or posting.

The Defence School Mentor Program is designed to assist Defence students and their families with changing schools, integrating into the school community and providing support during parental absences. At Jerrabomberra Public School (JPS) in New South Wales, the Defence School Mentor Program is run by Danielle Barry and Debbie Nielsen, who have integrated Bears to School as a means for Defence Force children and families to explore the nature of service in their own lives.

Two Great War uniformed bears and accompanying educational resources were donated to the school by former JPS parent, Ben Farinazzo, who also represented Australia at the 2018 Invictus Games held in Sydney. According to Danielle, the bears immediately resonated with the young students.

Newspaper created by Connor (Year 5) telling the story of Sister Bernadette O’Meara

“Children respond well to tactile stimulation, and being able to hold the bears was very beneficial in engaging the students’ interest right from the outset. Without prompting, students began to ask about the details they observed on the individual bear uniforms – from the three ‘pips’ on Sister Bernadette O’Meara’s rank epaulettes, to Private Ernest Harvey’s webbing and unit colour patch on his shoulder.”

According to Debbie and Danielle, this genuine interest in the bears helped the young kindergarten students to accurately recall specific details and information about the different bear characters and their stories. These details later formed part of activities like colouring in their own teddy bear templates. For these very young students in particular, the bears provide an engaging and non-threatening way to introduce themes such as Anzac Day and Australia’s historically important role in WWI.

Meanwhile, the older students in Years 3-6 also worked on creative tasks as part of their experience with the bears. They expressed their interactions with the bears through poems, short stories, letters, paintings and drawings.

“We were especially proud of the ‘Letters from the Frontline’ that a Year 6 class created” says Debbie, “we used authentic, archived letters as examples. One example was written in 1915 by George Herbert Bourne to his mother. The students were truly touched by this young man’s letter and went on to create their own heart-felt letters.”

‘Letters from the Frontline’ created by Year 6 students

Exploring stories of service from WWI helped children to understand the geographical separation between Australia and the operational areas, and the challenges of communication across such vast distances without modern technology. In this way the bears have helped to deepen students’ understanding of Australia’s role in the First World War, as well as the challenges faced by parents and family members who are currently on deployment abroad. According to Danielle, visualising these journeys was of particular value:

“Using a world map, we pinpointed the various locations the bear characters might have been stationed. We also charted the course that the transport ships carrying the first ANZACS likely took – departing from Western Australia and sailing via Egypt where they trained for Gallipoli … many students did not realise that the soldiers didn’t sail directly to Gallipoli.”

Aside from the educational value the bears are able to unlock, they also give young children a supportive way to explore the way they feel about service in their own lives. What Danielle and Debbie found most heart-warming as Defence School Mentors in a school where 193 children had serving parents, was the pride that was demonstrated by the students as they learned about the bears: “Both Defence and non-Defence children wanted to share their own family’s ANZAC ancestor stories, and the achievements of family members who still serve. The bears provided a way for us to have those wonderful conversations.”

To find out how to introduce the Bears to School program in your local school, visit Donate a Bear.

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