From Europe to the classroom—how one local teacher makes school fascinating

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Chris Thomas teaching his WWI class at The Altamont School. Photo by Jacob Blankenship via Bham Now.

Imagine having the chance to travel abroad and document your travels so you can bring first-hand knowledge and artifacts back to the States to enhance the education of students. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? That’s what one local teacher from The Altamont School did. Read on to learn about his travels and the positive impact it’s had on students in Birmingham.

Meet Chris Thomas

Altamont School
Chris Thomas in history class at The Altamont School. Photo via Jacob Blankenship for Bham Now

Chris is a Birmingham native with a lengthy history with The Altamont School. After attending and graduating Altamont in his youth, he later became part of the staff. Currently, he is in his 25th year teaching for the school. 

“I really enjoy being in a high school classroom with motivated and interested students and very supportive families. A school like Altamont also offers the opportunity to teach some neat senior history electives—the kind of stuff students normally encounter at the 300-400 level in college.” 

Chris Thomas, History Teacher, The Altamont School

A Grant to Travel Abroad

The Altamont School
Finds from a relic hunt around Orvillers and La Boiseller. Photo via Chris Thomas

In January 2021, Chris had the idea to take a sabbatical, travel abroad and bring home first-hand knowledge to his history classes at The Alamont School. The information would pinpoint key places that played prominent roles during WWI.

For Chris to make his idea a reality, he applied for The Altamont School’s professional development fund, the Zohar Grant. The grant allows teachers the opportunity to travel in exchange for a positive impact on the classroom. 

To apply for the Zohar Grant, Chris wrote a proposal for a 10-day journey along the British section of the Western Front. Here he proposed he would be able to capture a lot of footage for use in his class on various WWI topics. 

“I was thrilled when the application was approved. I’m really fortunate to be at a school where such things are possible.”

Chris Thomas, History Teacher, The Altamont School

From France to Belgium

The most interesting part of my interview with Chris was learning about the many places he explored during his travels. Here are just some of the notable places he visited:

1. Albert, France

Altamont School
Live shell found by Chris Thomas in France. Photo via Chris Thomas

In Albert, France, Chris stayed at the Hotel de la Prix and met an Anglo-Dutch family, the Van Grondells. 

“They more or less adopted me and took me out on a day long ‘relic hunt’ around Orvillers and La Boiselle.”

Chris Thomas, History Teacher, The Altamont School

At these sites, Chris discovered battle debris first hand from the Somme battles during WWI. 

Some things he found include:

  • Pieces of elevation gear for a trench mortar
  • Live shell and a piece of bone
  • Dozens of chunks of shrapnel, including a grocery sack full of shrapnel balls

He also found a busted and empty British 18-pound shell, which he managed to tote home. It now resides in his classroom at The Altamont School. 

“It’s estimated that it will take another 500 years to clean up all the debris. I can believe it, considering the British fired over a million shells in a week before the battle and millions more in the weeks and months that followed.”

Chris Thomas, History Teacher, The Altamont School

2. Ypres, Belgium

Chris Thomas, Altamont School
Tyne Cot Cemetery Ypres, Belgium. Photo via Chris Thomas

Ypres, Belgium was a scene of heavy fighting throughout the war between 1914 and 1918. One of the most memorable places Chris said he experienced during his travels was to the Menin Gate—a massive memorial arch built atop the moat at the Eastern entrance to the city of Ypres.

“Etched in its walls are the names of over 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the fighting around Ypres who have no known grave.”

Chris Thomas, History Teacher, The Altamont School

During his time in Ypres, Chris also happened upon a World Rally Championship race. The race involved souped up Honda Civics zipping at top speed around the town’s farm roads. Something Chris says is a very dangerous feat due to the roads’ many twists and turns.

3. Cambrai, France

Chris spent an afternoon with Philippe Gorczynski who excavated an abandoned British Mark IV tank named “Matilda” several years ago and now curates the museum in Cambrai where the tank now resides. 

Here, Chris was able to film informative presentations for his students on Matilda and other artifacts at the museum. 

What is the response from Altamont’s students? 

Altamont School
WWI students at The Altamont School. Photo via Jacob Blankenship for Bham Now

Chris says it’s been positive. 

“How I am using my time abroad in my teachings at Altamont will remain a work in progress. But being able to talk to my students from first-hand knowledge about specific places is an asset in class. The kids also really like watching the videos I put together.”

Chris Thomas, History Teacher, The Altamont School

During his time abroad, Chris created video journals for his WWI classes at The Altamont School. The videos feature:

  • Commentary
  • Archival footage
  • Interviews with local historians and museum curators at notable WWI sites

“I could generally get a little three- to four-minute presentation done in a couple of takes. Including all the B-roll stuff, I shot around 800 videos total.”

Chris Thomas, History Teacher, The Altamont School

Attend the Fall Open House, Oct. 24

Altamont School
Visit The Altamont School during their Fall Open House, Oct. 24. Photo via Jacob Blankenship for Bham Now

If you’re seeking a school for grades 5-12 that will provide your child with a well-rounded education, get them college ready and provide them with unique teachers filled with first-hand knowledge of the world, The Altamont School is it. 

To learn more about the school, attend an in-person Open House on Sunday, October 24 from 2-3:30PM.

During the Open House, you’ll be guided through the school’s gorgeous campus, meet faculty and staff and find out why it’s the perfect fit for your student and family. 

Register here to attend.

For more information, contact Thomas Goldsmith at tgoldsmith@altamontschool.org or 205.445.1232.

Find out what’s new at The Altmont School—visit their website and follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

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