The Life of a Soldier: Understanding World War I Through Personal Perspective

Guiding Question:

What impact did World War I have on the American way of life?


Using the method of narrative inquiry, this lesson provides a voice for the personal experience of soldiers in World War I (WWI). Students will take on the role of a documentary filmmaker and develop a pitch to get funding for a film on the life of a private in the U.S. Army using a short biography and historic photographs as sources.


Historical Context

The United States watched the conflict rage through Europe between the Allies: Britain, France, Italy, and Russia, and the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria from a distance until the sinking of the RMS Lusitania compelled America to declare war against Germany in April of 1917. This decision would change the role America would play on the global stage away from its former isolationist stance towards the superpower it would be by the end of the twentieth century.

Military service in WWI was a life changing experience for thousands of American soldiers. For many of the young men who traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to the battlefields of Europe, it was their first time away from the United States or even their hometown or family. Most of the soldiers had no prior military experience and they received only a short period of training before facing the enemy. Once the soldiers arrived in France, where the majority of American troops were sent, they were confronted with sleeping in rough conditions, eating rations, marching for miles across unfamiliar terrain, and the terrors of the battlefield.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Use WWI era primary source documents as the basis for informed perspectives on the historical period
  • Demonstrate knowledge of an individual soldier’s experience in WWI that is both personal and historically contextualized
  • Write a persuasive pitch for a documentary film that highlights an individual soldier within a narrative that has historical authenticity

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Connections to C3 Framework
D2.His.1.6-8. Analyze connections among events and developments in broader historical contexts.
D4.3.6-8. Present adaptations of arguments and explanations on topics of interest to others to reach audiences and venues outside the classroom using print and oral technologies (e.g., posters, essays, letters, debates, speeches, reports, and maps) and digital technologies (e.g., Internet, social media, and digital documentary).

Lesson Preparation


Activity One: Analyzing Photographs (20 minutes)

  • Pass out copies of the Photo Analysis Worksheet and the historic photographs (if not available digitally).
  • Have students analyze each photograph and fill in their responses on the Photo Analysis Worksheet.

Activity Two: Pitch for documentary movie (45 minutes)

  • Read the Life of a Soldier Narrative together as a class.
    • Teacher Tip: It may be necessary to check for understanding throughout the narrative. You may want to read the Historical Context section to the class or make it available for students to read individually.
  • Instruct students to complete the Documentary Film Worksheet
  • Students should write a 200-word paragraph on the Documentary Film Pitch Handout using the information from the Life of a Soldier Narrative and the Photo Analysis Worksheet to formulate their pitch for a documentary film. It should contain a synopsis of the basic story line and a statement of why the subject matter is significant.

Assessment Materials

Methods for Extension

  • Students can create a video trailer for their documentary film that previews the content.


  • Teachers may have students work in groups to complete the photo analysis and pitch paragraph.


Return to Activity

Primary Sources

  • If an ABMC source, Link title If external link at the attach If pdf, If photo, Name If video, unless youtube link:

Secondary Sources