From Europe to the classroom – how a local teacher makes school fascinating


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

Imagine having the opportunity to go abroad and document your travels so you can bring firsthand knowledge and artifacts back to the states to improve student education. Sounds amazing doesn’t it? That’s what a local teacher is about The Altamont School Did. Read on to find out more about his travels and the positive impact it has had on students in Birmingham.

Meet Chris Thomas

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

Chris is a native of Birmingham with a long history with The Altamont School. After visiting and graduating Altamont in his youth, he later became part of the staff. He is currently teaching at the school for the 25th year.

“I really enjoy being in a high school class with motivated and interested students and very supportive families. A school like Altamont also offers an opportunity to teach some decent history electives – the kind of things students typically come across at 300-400 level in college. ”

Chris Thomas, history teacher, The Altamont School

A grant for trips 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 first-hand knowledge to his history class at the Alamont School. The information would reveal key points that played a prominent role during the First World War.

To help Chris turn his idea into reality, he applied for the Zohar Grant, the Altamont School’s professional development fund. The scholarship allows teachers 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 trip along the British section of the Western Front. Here he suggested that he would be able to shoot plenty of footage for use in his class on various World War I topics.

“I was thrilled when the application was approved. I am very fortunate to be at a school where something like this is 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 has explored during his travels. Here are just a few of the notable places he visited:

1. Albert, France

Altamont School
Live clam found in France by Chris Thomas. 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 on a one-day ‘relic hunt’ around Orvillers and La Boiselle.”

Chris Thomas, history teacher, The Altamont School

It was in these locations that Chris discovered firsthand debris from the Somme Battles during World War I.

Some things he found are:

  • Parts of the hoist for a trench mortar
  • Live shell and a piece of bone
  • Dozens of shrapnel lumps, including a shopping bag full of shrapnel balls

He also found a broken and empty 18 pound British shell to carry home. It’s now in his classroom at Altamont School.

“It is estimated that it will take another 500 years to clear all debris. I can believe it when you consider that the British fired over a million shells in the 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 the site of heavy fighting during the war between 1914 and 1918. One of the most memorable places Chris experienced during his travels was the Menin Gate – a massive memorial arch erected on the moat at the eastern entrance to the city of Ypres.

“Its walls are engraved with the names of over 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the fighting for Ypres and who have no known grave.”

Chris Thomas, history teacher, The Altamont School

During his time in Ypres, Chris also came across a World Rally Championship race. The race featured souped-up Honda Civics cruising the city lanes at top speed. Something Chris says is a very dangerous feat because of the many twists and turns in the road.

3. Cambrai, France

Chris spent an afternoon with Philippe Gorczynski, who a few years ago unearthed an abandoned British Mark IV tank called “Matilda” and is now the curator of the museum in Cambrai where the tank is now.

Here Chris was able to film informative presentations about Matilda and other artifacts in the museum for his students.

What is the reaction of the Altamont students?

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

Chris says it was positive.

“How I use my time abroad for my apprenticeship at Altamont is still a work in progress. But being able to speak to my students firsthand about specific locations is an asset to the classroom. The children also really enjoy watching the videos that I have put together. “

Chris Thomas, history teacher, The Altamont School

During his time abroad, Chris created video diaries for his WWI classes at The Altamont School. The video functions:

  • comment
  • Archival material
  • Interviews with local historians and museum curators at important sites from the First World War

“In general, I could complete a small three- to four-minute presentation in a couple of takes. Including all the b-roll stuff, I shot a total of around 800 videos. “

Chris Thomas, history teacher, The Altamont School

Take part in the Autumn Open House on October 24th

Altamont School
Visit the Altamont School for their Fall Festival on October 24th. Photo via Jacob Blankenship for Bham Now

If you’re looking for a Grades 5-12 school that can provide your child with extensive education, prepare them for college by providing them with unique teachers who know the world firsthand. The Altamont School is it.

To learn more about the school, attend a personal open house on Sunday October 24th from 2pm to 3:30 pm.

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

Register here take part.

For more information, contact Thomas Goldsmith at [email protected] or 205.445.1232.

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

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