Sophomores at Corona del Mar High School tossed aside their textbooks Thursday and welcomed a new way of learning about history: through the eyes of a veteran.
More than 80 military men and women, some dressed in full uniform adorned with medals and other accolades, and countless teenagers filed into the gym for the annual Living History Program luncheon.
The lunch is the culmination of the program, which has sophomore world history and European history students work together in small groups to interview a veteran about his or her experiences in the military.
As part of the assignment, the groups of students videotaped their interviews, created documentary DVDs and researched the conflict in which their particular veteran served.
After the interviews, they transcribed the conversations and wrote thank you letters describing what they took away from the experience, said Portia Fischer, a CdM parent whose daughter interviewed a 95-year-old World War II veteran.
"They can present them with information that isn't found in books," she said about the veterans. "Our children are so wrapped up in their busy lives. It's important to go out of their comfort zone and speak to veterans who have done so much for their freedom."
Some students were paired up with a veteran from the Freedom Committee of Orange County, an organization of veterans who gather once a month to share their stories with each other and visit schools to teach the next generation. Others selected their own veteran — grandparents or great-grandparents who served.
Veterans from World War II and the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq were all represented in the gym.
Zavie Konjoyan, a 92-year-old World War II veteran, emphasized the importance of sharing knowledge with the next generation, because it is these people who will someday lead the country and perhaps serve in the military.
"I remember what it was like to be this age," he said, looking around the room filled with teenagers. "I was one of these kids once upon a time. It's special to talk to them and share my stories."
Cole Sudeck,15, interviewed Victor Bakilla, who served in Iraq, about his time in the Middle East.
Bakilla described meeting poverty-stricken children on the streets and taking photos of them with a digital camera, Cole said.
"The kids were amazed because they had never seen a picture before," he said.
Bakilla's story stuck in Cole's mind because it is unlike anything he's ever experienced living in Orange County.
"We take pictures all the time and it's nothing," he said. "Those types of stories aren't in textbooks."
Denise Weiland, parent of a former CdM student, started the Living History Program on campus in 2000. Since then, it has expanded to include every high school in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
Her father, a World War II veteran who recently died, gave her the idea to start the program.
"He inspired me to take our program to the next level ... and now we have hundreds of veterans participate," she said. "I am so honored to carry on this worthwhile program as his legacy."