Nickel, students were really digging this hands-on exercise

Sask Bulletin
December 27, 2020

Like many of his colleagues, Clavet Composite School history teacher Jonathan Nickel is a strong proponent of hands-on activities in an effort to enhance the students’ experience and thereby their recollection of what the unit entailed.

But we’re hardly talking about a nice walk in the outdoors by any means. Try immersing yourself in digging a nine-metre-long, two-metre-deep trench akin to what was the order of the day during World War I.

“I’ve been thinking about doing this in History 20 for at least a couple of years, but when we had standard classes it just wasn’t possible to tackle something like this. Now with the pandemic we have the longer blocks of time so I just jumped on it,” Nickel explained.

So with input from educational assistant Shirley Salahub, his Grade 11 students literally dug right into the project near the school.

“I’m always looking to do hands-on learning in order to help students more fully understand and they are more likely to take something away that will last,” Nickel stated.

This is a photo of the nine-metre-long, two-metre-deep trench that Clavet Composite School history teacher Jonathan Nickel and his Grade 11 students completed as part of the History 20 class. The hands-on project was intended to make a stronger connection for the students with what soldiers endured during World War I.


Not dissimilar to the actual soldiers who dug the trenches in northern France and Belgium, in particular, this was hardly a glamorous activity, but rather one that required considerable toil, to say nothing of dealing with cold, muddy conditions throughout the weeklong endeavor.

Prior to the actual physical, back-breaking aspect, the students did considerable research, including having watched the Peter Jackson-inspired documentary entitled They Shall Not Grow Old, which featured a series of those who actually lived through this horrific ordeal as a form of defence from the German war machine.

“It was a lot of hard work, but it was cool to see how the kids really got it. They were using different muscles every day and one of the things that was most memorable to me was one student dug so deep that he hit water, and then the next day the trench was filled with probably a foot of water and one of the kid's rubber boots got stuck in the clay and the water. It took us probably half an hour to extract it.”

Nickel said there was also the connection that while students could go inside to warm up, that was not an option afforded to those who literally lived in these trenches during World War I. “And we talked about the fact that they didn’t have to fear for their lives, and there were no rats,” he said, while chuckling that they decided not to take up one student’s offer to have brought their pet rat.

“But the kids were so passionate about it and they make the real connection. We had a mix of male and female students and I wanted to try to get that perspective because there were a lot of females in World War I who were in those trenches as health-care providers. It was great to see how passionate and committed the kids were. We had female students who were probably only five-feet tall digging as hard as any of them,” Nickel noted.

As well, Nickel lauded the resourcefulness the students showed when it came to finding materials for the planks in order to provide a better vantage point for those in the trench.

He recalled how they wound up scavenging some rebar from a nearby parking lot and discarded garden boxes to make 25-foot-long light posts.

Although his original intention was for the project to be completed as close as possible to Remembrance Day, the unpredictability of Saskatchewan weather in late fall meant having to proceed earlier (which was a huge blessing given the historic blizzard that was to cover the site just days after it had been covered in with a backhoe).

So would he replicate this exercise in the future? Nickel said he thought he might, although he has no intention of making this an annual tradition or anything of the sort.

He was, however, discouraged from the message that reached the school via the Ministry of Education to have the trench filled in as quickly as possible due to safety concerns.

“We talk so much about thinking outside the box and to make experiences impactful for students that sometimes we do them a disservice in cases like this. So it can be somewhat discouraging to have to go through all these hoops.

“I totally get the safety concerns, and as teachers we care about our students and would never want to put them in harm’s way. This was just a way for kids to really learn about the realities of war and to realize it’s the very last resort. War isn’t about looking for glory,” Nickel stressed.