Archives For War and Conflict

“We are not used to live with such bewildering uncertainty,” wrote Jessica Stern in a New York Times editorial How Terror Hardens Us on Sunday (12/6/15) after the San Bernardino, California, shootings.

Stern, an adult, was writing about adults collectively when she used the pronoun”we.”

That same bewildering uncertainty also confronts our children, our students in schools. That bewildering uncertainty is happening at a vulnerable time, just when they are just learning to be citizens in our democracy. That same state of terror, a state of intense fear, has an impact on their state of mind as each terrorist attack, Stern notes, “evokes a powerful sense of dread.”

 Stern, a professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, co-authored ISIS: The State of Terror. She noted in her editorial:

“It [terrorism] is exactly that kind of psychological warfare that It is a form of psychological warfare whose goal is to bolster the morale of its supporters and demoralize and frighten its target audience — the victims and their communities. Terrorists aim to make us feel afraid, and to overreact in fear.”

Students in our classrooms today attend schools where terrorism or home-grown violence is a possibility; the term “lockdown” is part of their vocabulary. At every grade level, they have every reason to believe that they could be a target audience. while motives for violence have differed, many students are aware that high-profile incidents have happened in schools: Columbine (1999) and Sandy Hook (2012).

As educators in all disciplines at every grade level struggle to help students deal with recent events that are identified as terrorism, perhaps the discipline of social studies is the subject where educators can best counter a terrorist’s goal to have our students “afraid and overreact in fear.”

That academic responsibility to help students cope was claimed 14 years ago by the president of the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS) in 2001, months after the attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center.

Most frequent words in the speech given by Aiden Davis in 2011 to the National Council of Social Studies after 9/11 (

The most frequent words enlarged from the speech given by Aiden Davis, President of National Council of Social Studies after 9/11/2001 (



When Adrian Davis delivered his 2001 NCSS Presidential Address to the nation’s social studies teachers, he explained their role as educators included efforts to “to work to reconstruct schools to become laboratories for democratic life” by saying:

“Schools do not exist in a vacuum. They are not isolated from their neighborhoods and communities. Schools and teaching reflect society, and they participate in constructing the future society.”

When Davis gave this address, he was making the case that terrorism had made the discipline of social studies more relevant to future societies than ever before. He anticipated that there would be people who could “overreact in fear”; his address hoped to point out that students would need guidance so that democracy would survive the bewildering uncertainty after 9/11:

 As social studies educators, we need to reinforce the ideals of equality, equity, freedom, and justice against a backlash of antidemocratic sentiments and hostile divisions. As social studies educators, we need to teach our students not only how to understand and tolerate but also how to respect others who are different, how to cooperate with one another, and to work together for the common good.

Davis’s concerns about teaching respect and how to cooperate are even more important today when there is heated rhetoric conflating terrorism with religion. His reason to encourage social studies teachers to reinforce the ideals of equality, equity, freedom, and justice provides a solution to the concerns in Stern raised in her How Terror Hardens Us.

Stern’s editorial concludes, “If we are to prevail in the war on terrorism, we need to remember that the freedoms we aspire to come with great responsibilities.”

On behalf of all social studies educators, Davis accepted those responsibilities. As he concluded, he made clear the commitment he was making for teachers, “We have an opportunity to teach the coming generations to preserve and extend the United States as an experiment in building a democratic community….teaching is where we touch the future.”

The future is always uncertain, but educators, especially social studies educators, can provide students the skills of citizenship to deal with uncertainty so that they will not overreact in fear.

 Anne Frank: The Diary of  Young Girl transcends the labels of genre. anne Frank book

Yes, as the title suggests, it is a diary, but it is also a memoir, a narrative, an argument, an expository journal, an informational text, and much more.

Yet, these genres listed are treated as separate and distinct in the reading and writing standards of the Common Core (CCSS). The standards emphasize the differences between the literary and informational genres. The standards also prescribe what percentages much students should read (by grade 12 30% literary texts/ 70% informational texts), what genres of writing they should practice (narrative, informative/explanatory, argumentative) and the percentages students should expect to communicate  in these genres by grade level.

Distribution of Communicative Purposes by Grade supported by the Common Core

Distribution of Communicative Purposes by Grade supported by the Common Core

In the real world, however, the differences between genres is not as clear and distinct as neatly outlined in the standards. The real world of Nazi occupied Holland was the setting that produced the defiant Diary of Anne Frank.

On June 12, 1942,  Anne Frank received a red and white check autograph book as a birthday gift. This small volume was soon filled by Anne as a diary, the first of three separate volumes, as she her family and friends hid in the secret annex.

A diary is a daily record, usually private, especially of the writer’s own experiences, observations, feelings, attitudes.

Anne’s narrative in these diaries provides a sequence of events and experiences during the two years she spent hiding with others behind the bookcase in the attic where her father had been employed.

A narrative is a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.

In June of 1947 Anne’s father Otto Frank published The Diary of Anne Frank, and it has become one of the world’s best-known memoirs of the Holocaust.

A memoir is a written account in which an individual describes  his or her experiences.

In one entry Anne explains she is aware of what was being done with Jews throughout Europe and those who resisted the Nazis. She refers to radio reports from England, official statements, and announcements in the local papers. There are expository style entries throughout the diary that help the reader understand how much she and others knew about the Holocaust:

“Our many Jewish friends and acquaintances are being taken away in droves. The Gestapo is treating them very roughly and transporting them in cattle cars to Westerbork, the big camp in Drenthe to which they’re sending all the Jews….If it’s that bad in Holland, what must it be like in those faraway and uncivilized places where the Germans are sending them? We assume that most of them are being murdered. The English radio says they’re being gassed.” October 9, 1942

“All college students are being asked to sign an official statement to the effect that they ‘sympathize with the Germans and approve of the New Order.” Eighty percent have decided to obey the dictates of their conscience, but the penalty will be severe. Any student refusing to sign will be sent to a German labor camp.”- May 18, 1943

Expository writing’s purpose is to explain, inform, or even describe.

Finally, there are excerpts taken from the diary where Anne makes a persuasive argument for the goodness of people, even in the most awful of circumstances:

“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.  If we were to start by adding to that goodness instead of stifling it, by giving poor people the feeling that they too are human beings, we wouldn’t necessarily have to give money or material things, since not everyone has them to give.” March 26, 1944

A persuasive argument is a writer’s attempt to convince readers of the validity of a particular opinion on a controversial issue.

Anne’s opinion about the goodness of people during the horrors of the Holocaust is a remarkable argument.

The Diary of Anne Frank gave rise to other genres. Anne’s diaries served as the source material for a play produced in 1955 and then as a film in 1959.

The genre of The Diary of Anne Frank, however, should not be the focus, or the reason for its selection into a curriculum or unit of study. Instead, it is the quality of the writing from a young girl that makes the diary a significant contribution to the literature of the 20th Century.Screenshot 2015-06-11 18.50.33

Novelist and former president of the PEN American Center, Francine Prose revisited the diary and was “struck by how beautiful and brilliant it is.” Prose’s research on Anne Frank as a writer culminated with her own retelling, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, in which she makes a strong case for the literary quality of Anne’s writing:

“And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how rarely people have really recognized what a conscious, incredible work of literature it is.”

In an interview on the PBS website, Prose was asked, “Do you think there is something about Anne Frank’s voice that continues to resonate with young people today?” Her response,

“I do. Because the diary was written by a kid, it is almost uniquely suited to be read by a kid. Salinger and Mark Twain certainly got certain things right about being a kid; but they weren’t kids when they wrote their books. The diary works on so many different levels.”

When selections from The Diary of Anne Frank were first published in the “Het Parool” on April 3, 1946, the historian Jan Romein also recognized how Anne’s young literary voice rose above the inhumanity that caused in her death at 15 years in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In his review, he writes:

“… this apparently inconsequential diary by a child… stammered out in a child’s voice, embodies all the hideousness of fascism, more so than all the evidence at Nuremberg put together.”

Romein’s review elevates the “apparently inconsequential diary” as testimony in making a legal case against the Nazi regime. It is that power in Anne’s voice that makes her diary a powerful text to offer students, whether it fits the percentages in a CCSS aligned unit of study for an informational text or not.

Her entry on July 15, 1944, written 20 days before she and her family are betrayed to the Nazis reveals yet another genre:

 “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

For there is poetry in that entry as well.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, a Civil War veteran and a future Supreme Court Justice, delivered a Memorial Day Speech on May 30, 1884, at Keene, New Hampshire, as a tribute to fallen soldiers from the War Between the States. Educators can take an opportunity to use this speech, a primary source document, with their students to study both the historical events that Holmes references as well as his rhetorical style.

First page of Holmes's speech published in book format

First page of Holmes’s speech published in book format

In the first part of the speech, Holmes lays out his belief that twenty years after the Civil War, reunification of the States was possible because of the respect each side had for the other’s convictions:

We believed that it was most desirable that the North should win; we believed in the principle that the Union is indissoluable; we, or many of us at least, also believed that the conflict was inevitable, and that slavery had lasted long enough. But we equally believed that those who stood against us held just as sacred conviction that were the opposite of ours, and we respected them as every men with a heart must respect those who give all for their belief.

Knowing that many in the audience where from the John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic and they had also served in the war, Holmes connected his battlefield memories to theirs, “But you all have known such; you, too, remember!

Holmes poetically recalled his fallen comrades who were killed on the battlefield: a 19-year-old 2nd lieutenant, a fair-haired lad, a surgeon, a captain:

I see them now, more than I can number, as once I saw them on this earth. They are the same bright figures, or their counterparts, that come also before your eyes; and when I speak of those who were my brothers, the same words describe yours.

Holmes then paid tribute to those women who suffered the loss of their husbands, fathers, and brothers; those “…whose sex forbade them to offer their lives, but who gave instead their happiness.” His rhetorical question about the women left behind because of the consequences of war is timeless:

Which of us has not been lifted above himself by the sight of one of those lovely, lonely women, around whom the wand of sorrow has traced its excluding circle–set apart, even when surrounded by loving friends who would fain bring back joy to their lives?

In concluding the speech, Holmes recalls the passion of those young men who entered the Civil War when their “hearts were touched with fire” only to learn that life is “a profound and passionate thing.”

For Social Studies teachers, the speech references different locations where battles took place: Petersburg, Antietam, Port Hudson, and the White Oak Swamp. Holmes also mentions the men killed at those battles: Col. Paul Revere, Jr.; Lt. James. J. Lowell; William L. Putnam; and the suicidal charge of the 20th Massachusetts Regiment. Each location, each name provides students an opportunity for research.

For English Language Arts teachers, the speech is filled with rhetorical devices that students can identify, and then evaluate each devices’s effectiveness in supporting Holmes’s message:

  • Comrades, some of the associations of this day are not only triumphant, but joyful. (direct address)
  • Such hearts–ah me, how many!–were stilled twenty years ago. (caesura-any interruption or break.)
  • Not all of those with whom we once stood shoulder to shoulder–not all of those whom we once loved and revered–are gone.(Anaphora – repeats a word or phrase in successive phrases)
  • Who does not remember the leader of the assault of the mine at Petersburg? (rhetorical question)

In the final lines of the speech, Holmes leans heavily on a literary conceit (elaborate metaphor) of life as music:

Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death–of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen , the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.

Of the 3600 words in Holmes’s speech, the most frequently used words are man, life, and day. By repeating these words, his tribute on Memorial Day in 1884 calls attention to the sacrifices of fallen soldiers in his century, and in ours.

Since the end of the Civil War, the last Monday in May has been set aside as Memorial Day, a day to honor all Americans who have died in military service for their country. There will be opportunities to celebrate by singing patriotic songs, wave flags in time with bands in parades, and eat barbecue.

There is, however, little to celebrate in the details of a death that occurs in military combat.  The specifics in a soldier’s death are painful to hear or to read, but our discomfort should not prevent us from acknowledging the depth and breadth of each soldier’s sacrifice. Many of the returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are writing about their personal experiences and noting the sacrifices made by their fellow soldiers.  These veterans write memoirs and include stories about friends who were killed. They recall their intimate thoughts when they themselves confronted death. They write about the grisly horrors they witnessed in war. Some write about people they killed in conflict. Some fictionalize accounts of their military experiences.  Brian Turner writes poetry.

Brian Turner was an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division from November 2003 where he served in Iraq. He already had an MFA from the University of Oregon before he joined to serve seven years in the U.S. Army. His first book of poetry, Here, Bullet, chronicles his time in Iraq. In the video below, he reads the title poem at Bowdoin College (November 29, 2005) in a film by documentary filmmaker Eric Herter, sponsored by From the Fishouse, an online audio archive of emerging poets,

Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood.

(continue on his site…)

Our 11th graders review this poem and several other Turner poems when they read Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, another piece of literature that is dedicated to the sacrifices made by soldiers during war. O’Brien’s connected short stories about an Army platoon during the Vietnam War also comes from his personal experience. In both works, images are painfully raw; some of the language in each is vulgar. Our students appreciate the authenticity and the authority of these voices in capturing the images of war. In O’Brien’s stories and in Turner’s poetry, war does not provide reasons for celebration other than the celebration of war’s end and the return of soldiers to their homes.

Consequently, Turner’s poetry does not give the reader the parade, picnic, or flag waving poetry that people recall in images about Memorial Day. His poetry is a painful tribute; an agonizing truth that people must remember. His poetry reminds us that our freedom has been purchased at a cost, and that cost may be through another’s suffering. His voice reminds us why we should never forget that cost, why there is a Memorial Day.

Screen Shot 2013-01-09 at 4.41.58 PM

Wikipedia photo -Elie Wiesel

By my calculations, at the mid-point of the school year, many World History classes are studying World War II. Should these classes want to increase their use of an informational text in English or Social Studies curriculum, I suggest Elie Wiesel’s noteworthy speech The Perils of Indifference.

Wiesel delivered this speech to Congress on April 12, 1999. The speech is 1818 words long and connects Wiesel’s experience at the concentration camp at Aushwitcz with the genocides of the late 20th Century using a single powerful word: indifference.

In his speech, Weisel states clearly:

Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment. And this is one of the most important lessons of this outgoing century’s wide-ranging experiments in good and evil.

Our English Department has used this speech in the past as a complement to Wiesel’s memoir Night which has been a used as a whole class read.  This year, we are giving Night to the Social Studies classes. They will adopt this memoir in order to increase the assigned informational text reading in their discipline mandated by the Literacy Common Core State Standards in History and Social Studies (CCSS). The English Department will still offer supplemental texts  that students can choose to read independently.

When he gave this speech, Wiesel had come before the US Congress to thank the American soldiers and the American people for liberating the camps at the end of World War II. Wiesel had spent nine months in the Buchewald/Aushwitcz complex. His mother and sisters had been separated from him when they first arrived: “Eight short, simple words… Men to the left, women to the right”; these family members were killed in the ovens. He and his father survived starvation, disease, and the deprivation of spirit. His father eventually succumbed, and Wiesel guiltily admits at the end of the memoir that at his father’s death he felt relieved.

Eventually, Wiesel felt compelled to testify against the Nazi regime, and he wrote the memoir Night to bear witness against the genocide which killed his family and six million Jews. His speech was delivered 54 years after he was liberated by American forces.

His gratitude to these American forces is what opens the speech, but after the opening paragraph, Wiesel seriously admonishes America to do more to halt genocides all over the world. By not intervening on behalf of those victims of genocide, he states clearly, we are indifferent to their suffering:

Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative.

My students have always been struck by Wiesel’s juxtaposition of anger and creativity. More than one has agreed pointing to making a “good” creation: an amazing song about an ex-boyfriend or a painting slapped together with passion. They also do not want to be treated indifferently. Yet, Wiesel makes them think beyond themselves:

Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.

I remember several years ago, one student in my English 10 class, Rick, was particularly bright, fun, and full of daring. He also had an exceptional understanding of math and statistics. That January, I introduced the memoir Night as I had in previous years by providing a little background information.

“Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust,” I recited off from my list of facts.

“What?” a startled Rick looked up. “Six million?” He was aghast. “That can’t be right.” He looked around at his classmates. “Six million?” They looked at him blankly. “Come on,” he was looking for some support, “That can’t be right.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Do you know how many six million things are?” He was indignant.

“Six million people,” I responded.

“People, yes. People, six million is a lot of people….” Rick was clearly operating with a different level of understanding from his more placid classmates. He understood six million as quantity; he did understand what six million things would look like if stacked up. Other students stirred in their seats.  “No way….six million,” he repeated growing more agitated. “How? How did anyone let this happen?” he asked; he was half-rising out of his seat. “Did we know?”

“Yes,” I remember saying. I do remember explaining that, yes, America did know that Hitler had concentration camps, and that more documentation collected after the war indicated that many of our military and political leaders knew about these camps. That is one of the points from Wiesel’s speech.

I pointed out to the class that the Holocaust was only one example of genocide; that there were others. In fact, that there was recently a genocide in Darfur. Rick sat down; he was overwhelmed. He was capable of understanding numerically the devastation of the Holocaust, and he was clearly upset. “Why do we let this happen?” he asked. I remember his voice was so sad, so full of disbelief.

In The Perils of Indifference, Wiesel asks

Does it mean that we have learned from the past? Does it mean that society has changed? Has the human being become less indifferent and more human? Have we really learned from our experiences? Are we less insensitive to the plight of victims of ethnic cleansing and other forms of injustices in places near and far?

Wiesel’s rhetorical questions echo Rick’s “Did we know?” In trying to respond, Wiesel makes the reader uncomfortable the way Rick was uncomfortable. Creating this kind of emotional impact on a reader is the reason Wiesel’s speech should be taught.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) demand that students read informational texts but does not require specific texts. Wiesel’s The Perils of Indifference contains the information and rhetorical devices that meet the text complexity criteria of the CCSS. More specifically, Wiesel’s message is necessary if we want our students to confront the conflicts in this new 21st Century. Our students must be prepared to question why “deportation, the terrorization of children and their parents be allowed anywhere in the world?“

Our humanity should demand nothing less.

A series of miscommunications left the eight members of the local Burnham Library Book Club wondering which book they should prepare to read for the next meeting. The month before, a decision was made to read a novel that shared the name of the next meeting; we would read a book titled  The March by E.L Doctorow for our March meeting date. How clever! Unfortunately, our plans went awry when the librarian posted the selection as March by Geraldine Brooks. Members arrived with copies of one or the other novel.

No matter. As it turned out, we could discuss both books easily, not only because of the similarity of each fictional story arc but because of the numerous historical references to people and the events in the Civil War.  What struck all members of the book club during the discussion was the amount of research that had gone into creating these works of historical fiction, since both contained a notable fidelity to events, customs, and manners of the Civil War era.

March-Geraldine Brooks

In March, Geraldine Brooks borrows her title character, Peter March, from Louisa May Alcott’s story Little Women. Her narrative is told from the alternating point of views of Marmee and the father of the March girls: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. In her explanation for his prolonged absence, the idealistic March enlists as a Union clergyman in 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War.

E. L. Doctorow’s The March is centered on real-life Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in his infamous “march to the sea”, as he burns Atlanta before pivoting north into the Carolinas. Multiple narrators are employed in this novel including a Union regimental surgeon, Colonel Sartorius; Emily Thompson, a daughter of a Southern judge; and Arly and Will, two soldiers who care little about loyalty and more about staying alive.  The scope of  this novel is epic as Sherman’s sixty thousand troops burn, pillage, and choke to death the final throes of the Civil War in 1864.

The similarity of major characters from each novel was uncanny: the mixed-race beautiful protagonist Pearl in The March and the strikingly attractive, educated slave Grace who captivates the title character in March. There were historical figures to people each novel: John Brown, the famous abolitionist; Henry David Thoreau; and Ralph Waldo Emerson make appearances in March. General Sherman, General Joseph E. Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln are present in The March. Both novels also extensively featured field hospitals as settings. March is a a Union chaplain who is wounded and ends up in a Civil War hospital; The March features a Union regimental surgeon, Colonel Sartorius  who curiously employs a number gruesome surgical procedures.

The novels reflected the tumult of a civil war, the hair-raising escapes from danger and the chaos and brutality that ensued from bitter and divided rivalries. Both novels highlighted the technological advancements that made each side more efficient killing machines, and Doctorow in particular noted the historical progress of mechanized warfare:

 “This in America was to be seen with one’s own eye’s. And as bloody and brutal were the contests of the Lancasters and York, they were hand to hand- battle-aves, pikes, maces. These chaps were industrial age killers: they had repeating rifles that could kill at a thousand yards, grape that could decimate an advancing line, cannon, field-pieces, munitions that could bring down entire cities. Their war was so impersonally murderous as to make quaint anything that had gone on before. (214)

Another element of comparison was the reflection in both novels on ancient wars that had preceded the Civil War. Brooks has her narrator, the cerebral Peter March, contemplate the historical continuum, from the Ancient World to the present, noting the how painful is the loss of loved one due to war:

“The waste of it. I sit here, and I look at him, and it is as if a hundred women sit beside me: the revolutionary farm wife, the English peasant woman, the Spartan mother-‘Come back with your shield or on it,’ she cried, because that was what she was expected to cry. And then she leaned across the broken body of her son and the words turned to dust in her throat.” (211)

In contrast, Doctorow uses a visiting English journalist in order to comment on how the echoes of  ancient conflicts are heard in the progression of battles he sees:

“Yet some of the ancient military culture endured. The brutal romance of war was still possible in the taking of spoils. Each town the army overran was a prize. In this village was an amazing store of wine, in that granary brimming to the rafters, a herd of beef here, an armory there, homes to loot, slaves to incorporate. There was something undeniably classic about it, for how else did the armies of Greece and Rome supply themselves? How else had Alexander’s soldiers made an empire? The invading army, when it camped, sat on the land as its owners, with all the elements of domesticity, including women, enlarging the purely martial function of their social order” (215)

The reasons for the Civil War are addressed more clearly in Brook’s tale. She incorporates the arguments offered by the real-life American Transcendentalist Branson Alcott in her creation of the  character of the naive March who is just beginning to doubt his involvement with the conflict he little understands:

“If war can ever be said to be just, then this war is so; it is action for a moral cause, with the most rigorous of intellectual underpinnings. And yet everywhere I turn, I see injustice done in the waging of it…”(65).

In contrast , Doctorow’s characterization of the West Point educated General Sherman suggests his weary recognition that while the physical act of war will run to its exhausted conclusion, the battlefield will move to another plane where the dispute will continue:

“And so the war had come down to words. It was fought now in terminology across a table. It was contested in sentences. Entrenchments and assaults, drum taps and bugle calls, marches, ambushes, burnings and pitched battles were transmogrified into nouns and verbs.  It is all turned very quiet, Sherman said to Johnson, who, not understanding, lifted his head to listen.

No cannonball or canister but has becomes the language here spoke, the words written down, Sherman thought. Language is war by other means” (348).

Ultimately, the members of book group determined that both books provided a fascinating blend of historical fact with fiction. As an educator, I was impressed about how much more effective both novels were in communicating the experiences of living through the Civil War from its beginning (1861) to its inevitable end concluding with Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. A textbook would have covered the information, but not provided the visceral quality a reader gains through a story….both novels succeeded in recreating history using a “his story” model. Both novels complement the study of the Civil War by blending each author’s thematic development and literary technique with historical fact. As a result, both novels will be placed on the 11th grade classroom shelves along with two other wonderful Civil War novels The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (Gettysburg) and Cold Mountain by Charle Frazier.

All these books appeal to the imagination in recreating the  particulars in the  time and places of the Civil War. As a bonus,  how serendipitous that despite the near duplication of titles, both novels were so similar in subject matter as to allow for a great discussion? How surprising that the story of two “Marches” would ultimately be so similar?

Next week, English II students will begin reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque in tandem with the World War I unit on taught in social studies classes. This collaboration is a great opportunity to have the context of a WWI novel explained from another point of view. The social studies classes cover the causes of WWI, many of the battles, and the results of WWI on Europe and American foreign policy while the English classes follow the lives of a few soldiers engaged in the conflict. Social studies can cover the macrocosm setting, the geography of WWI, while we can cover the microcosms of the novel-the intimate settings   of Paul and Kat feasting on a goose they caught or Paul visiting the bedside of Franz Kemmerich, his mortally wounded companion.

The older edition cover; copies are always found in the YA section of a book sale

Our copies of the book are fairly old, so I am always looking for additional books to replace those who have become too worn for use in class. The e-book (through Questia) is only available as a free trial. There are always copies of the novel in used book sales including the more recent edition, and the book is almost always located in the young adult section rather than on a table or section dedicated to military history or adult fiction. This placement could be attributed  to the popularity of this novel in curriculum around the country; obviously, the person placing the book on the YA table read the book in high school.  The popularity of the book in schools defies many conventions. First, the novel is a translation from German, which distinguishes it from the multitude of British and American titles that crowd middle school and high school reading lists. Second, the point of view is from an enemy combatant; the French, English and American troops are the enemy. Including this novel acknowledges Remarque’s universal message that the consequence of war is devastation, a message that may be even more important for a nation that has been at war for over 10 years.

The new edition cover

Many technological advances made WWI a brutal war: aerial combat, machine guns, mustard gas. Last year, we were reading one of the passages that described a mustard gas attack,  looking for language that described how lethal this weapon was for the foot soldiers.  Suddenly a startled look came across the face of a  student. His hand shot up as he blurted,  “Ms. P told us that the more technology that’s used in war, the further a soldier gets away from the enemy in combat.”  There was a pause-other students had heard the same in class, and the consequence of increasingly sophisticated weaponry used against Paul and his companions was suddenly very real. His point hung there until another student chimed in, “And now we use drones.”  Suddenly, the WWI novel was not dated. The students understood that military drones currently used in combat would certainly have targeted Paul and his companions if they had been available to Allied forces in 1917.

There are several activities that we pair with reading the text, but the most powerful for students is the NY Times Magazine photo essay (Ashley Gilbertson)  of soldier’s bedrooms titled “The Shrine Down the Hall” (there is a video clip as well) In the novel, Paul returns for a visit home. Instead of being a sanctuary, however, the bedroom is a painful reminder of the innocence he has lost after months of combat of the Western Front. Our assignment is to compare the elements of Paul’s bedroom (items, his feelings, his memories) to the elements in the photos of the bedrooms of American soldiers who had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. This photo essay brings the impact of war’s devastation to an intense personal level. Many of the students have bedrooms with the same posters, layouts, or furniture, and they note these similarities in their responses.

A photo from Ashley Gilbertson's "The Shrine Down the Hall" photo essay in the NY Times Magazine section

Students are instructed to choose one of the soldier’s bedrooms from the photo essay, and make a connection with text from Chapter 7 (Paul’s visit home) by answering the following questions:

  • How are the text of the novel and the photo alike?
  • How do the text and the photo differ?
  • What is the photographer’s message? What is Remarque’s message? How are they the same? How do they differ?

The students’ responses included:

I chose picture 15, of Matthew J. Emerson’s bedroom. His room is just waiting for him to come home but it never happens. The room also has pictures cut out on the wall, from what appears high school sports, as well as trophies on the shelf. Paul gets to return home one last time, unlike the soldier who was killed in Iraq who returned in a casket with an American Flag on it. Paul feels like a stranger in his own room. War changes people; you can’t go blasting heads off for 2 years and come home and live the normal everyday life again.They come home, changed, forever.

I choose photo 17. The man who died was Sergeant Gilbert who was killed in 2006.  The photographers message is saying that an ordinary young person, even a teenager, can go to war and be killed. The photographer expresses the loneliness, silence, and emptiness that the room has. Remarque’s message is saying that the average soldier has a very hard time coming back because he or she has to make decisions that don’t involve killing, that don’t involve defusing a bomb. These two messages are the same because they both describe the difficulty of coming back home, but they are different because these two messages are set in different times with different technology of warfare.

When I see picture #3 I think of Paul the most. Here are a bunch of pictures everywhere on the walls of all different kinds of things, like “Then below are periodicals, papers, and letters all jammed together with drawings and rough sketches.” When I read this it makes me think of a cluster of a bunch of different things, also when I look at room #3 I see a cutter of a bunch of posters, hats, books, and many other things. I think the picture and Remarque’s  are both saying that life is not the same when you get home and many of the soldiers cannot come home and have everything be the same as when they left.

I chose photo 14 because it is surprisingly similar to the book. The text talks about Paul’s book shelf and his school books all thumbed through. the room has a book shelf and other references to school. What looks like a degree is hanging on his desk. This room however has a poster of the marines in the background which shows that this boy was obviously thinking of joining the military before hand. Paul has no mention to wanting to join the army before Kantorek takes them down to the recruiting office. I think the photographer’s message is to show how innocent the soldier was before.

He was on a sports team and appeared to be quite good, he won a trophy. Remarque’s message is very similar. The soldier is changed after war, he cannot go home and just drink some beers and pretend everything is all right. It’s not.

I chose picture 14. This room was occupied by Nathanial D. Windsor who died on March 11, 2007. He was only 20 years old (about the same age as Paul). T. The photographer said was trying to portray a lonely room that is not occupied anymore. Remarque’s trying to portray that Paul’s room is lonely too. They are both alike because they are lonely.

Christopher Scherer’s room reminded me of when Paul went home. Paul had a nice life before the war he felt at home, when he returned from the war he felt like he was looking through a veil. He tried on his clothes, his civilian clothes, that made him feel like he had nothing. After the two years of war he cannot have that connection to his home, he relates everything back to the war. The war has given him the thought of death and destruction, Paul is no longer himself, he cannot connect to his home, where he is supposed to be.

In the picture a bookshelf was not full which could mean that the soldier was as Paul was did, collecting them gradually.  The solider also has a clear view of the outside that he can sit and watch, just as Paul has in the story. Remarque and the photographer have different views. Remarque tries to display that after the soldiers return home they are never the same people and their rooms do not represent them. While the photographer’s message is that all the pieces of  soldiers’ lives are preserved in their rooms and are now gone forever because they have died.

Remarque’s novel transcends time perhaps because of the intensity the reader feels for one soldier caught up in a conflict beyond his control.  While the social studies classes are required to cover the history of World War I, the English classes are free to cover Paul and “his”-story.

Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night is taught in coordination with a social studies unit on the Holocaust.  The 10th grade English curriculum attempts to capitalize on teaching world literature through historical contexts; Night is one text that bridges the educational objectives of English and social studies.

The new translation by Marion Wiesel made popular by Oprah's Book Club

The memoir begins as the Jews of the little town of Sighet, Hungary, are rounded up and taken in cattle cars to the camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945. Wiesel remembers how the prison guard called out and separated the incoming Jews:

“Eight short, simple words… Men to the left, women to the right.”
To the left meant assignment in the prison labor camp; to the right meant extermination in the gas chambers and ovens.
Wiesel continues:
“For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held Mother’s hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister’s fair hair … and I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever.”

At 15 years old, Wiesel endured starvation, injury, and disease, conflicted by his need to protect his father and his frustration with his father’s deteriorating condition.  He was tormented by the relief he felt when his father passed away. The final image of Wiesel’s ghostly reflection in a mirror shortly after liberation is haunting.

Students living in rural Connecticut have a difficult time comprehending the horrors of the Holocaust; they are safely separated by time, circumstance, and geography from this event. Night helps to personalize the experience of genocide; while the book itself is slender, the impact on our students is tremendous.

Last year, students were given the chance to select an independent book to read with Night. These books varied in reading level and genre. They chose from the following list:
Soldier Boys by Dean Hughes
The Boy in Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
Briar Rose by Jane Yolan
Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman (graphic novel)
I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson

All of the books offered were added through used book sales except for Maus and The Boy in Striped Pajamas, which we borrowed from the Connecticut Library Council, and The Book Thief which we purchased new (30 copies).

There are two best selling books related to the Holocaust that have begun to show up in used book sales. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows; and Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay have been popular with book clubs. I also have several copies of Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi for Advanced Placement students.  I have picked up a few copies of each and could also offer these  books to the more experienced readers.

During the Holocaust unit, students had four weeks to complete their independent book and Night. We offered silent sustained reading twice weekly, and there was a showing of the film Schindler’s List (parental permission required). When students completed both the independent reading and Night, they wrote essays that compared a section of the independent reading to a section from Night.

The older edition of Night; we have switched over to the newer edition pictured above

We are moving from the older Bantam paperback edition to the recent translation by Marion Wiesel which was made popular when Oprah chose Night for her book club. Oprah also filmed a visit to Auschwitz with Wiesel; his narration is so quiet I need to put the audio setting on close captioned.

This summer I have located about 20 copies of the recent translation of  Night, many of which were brand new, in the CT book sales in Westport, New Milford, Newtown and in Boise, Idaho. In addition, I recently placed an order with Better World Books for 46 “gently used” copies of Night.  Combining the 20 copies I have located at summer book sales and used book stores with the 46 used copies, the department library now has 66 copies of the latest edition of the text for a total of  $311.53 which is roughly $4.72/text.

Night is an important book in our curriculum, at any price. Elie Wiesel makes that important connection beyond geography, beyond time, and beyond circumstances for my students; his voice against genocide is eloquent and memorable.

Southington Goodwill Store book haul....16 quality texts for $33.33!

Traveling back from an afternoon in Massachusetts, I stopped for quick break at exit 32 on I-84 (Queen Street) in Connecticut. Lucky for me, I noticed the Southington Goodwill Store store. In ten minutes, I collected a bagful of titles worth bringing back to school.

This Easter Seals Goodwill Industries store opened in January 2006 with 8100 square feet of space. According to the website, the mission of the store is to “to enhance employment, educational, social and recreational opportunities for people with disabilities and other challenges in the greater New Haven area.”

The prices for the books at this location were a little more expensive than the $1.00 or $2.00  books at the Goodwill Stores in Danbury, Brookfield, and New Milford. Maybe the Easter Seals affiliation has a different pricing criteria? Books here were marked $2.99, $1.99 or .99. These prices are still far below retail, and there were many bargains I left on the shelves for others to find. The organization of the books was excellent at this location.  Titles were correctly placed in genres (non-fiction, fiction, children’s literature, cookbooks, etc) and the quality of the books was very good.

I located five core texts: The Giver by Lois Lowery, No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman (Grade 7), Nothing but the Truth by Avi (grade 8), Night by Elie Wiesel and an edition of Brave New World (grade 10) by Aldous Huxley that matches our collection.

I also located a copy of Soldier Boys by Dean Hughes for our War and Conflict unit and two copies of A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson for our junior year Adventure unit or Transcendentalism study and a copy of Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom for Coming of Age. Soul Surfer by Bethany Hamilton, Peak by Roland Smith and two texts by Mike Lupica, Miracle on 49th Street and Heat, can be placed in literature circles for grade 7.  Mirror, Mirror by Gregory Maguire, and Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin (we now have four copies) will go into 9th grade independent choice. Finally, I am looking to include a historical fiction unit in middle school; Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi is a possible choice.

While I was on the webite for the Southington, CT store, I noted that Goodwill sells books on Amazon under the heading of Ivy League Books. The proceeds from sales on this site “help Easter Seals Goodwill Industries to enhance employment, educational, social and recreational opportunities for people with disabilities and other challenges.” Visit to see a list of  available titles.

The Easter Seals branch of Goodwill Industries also “owns and operates 11 secondhand retail stores and 1 outlet throughout south-central and eastern Connecticut. All proceeds from store sales directly support the mission of Easter Seals Goodwill Industries. The stores also provide employment to Easter Seals Goodwill Industries’ clients with disabilities and other special needs.”

I am always pleased to shop at Goodwill. The budget for my department is stretched even farther with great bargains, and all proceeds help a worthy organization. I will make sure that Queen Street in a regular place for me to take a break on 1-84 because shopping at the Southington Goodwill location was a win-win!


Book Sale flier 2011

New Milford Public Library  in New Milford, CT, stages its annual sale run by the Friends of the New Milford Library in the cafeteria of the New Milford High School, usually the middle of July. This library has a very dedicated set of volunteers who make this sale a very easy sale to attend. 

There is an “early bird” charge of $5.00 for buyers before 10:00 am, but the crowds were still very manageable even after there was no admission charge to enter. This summer, there were a  fair number of used book dealers, but everyone had plenty of room to negotiate through the aisles-even those buyers carrying large, overflowing bags or boxes. Book genres were clearly marked with signs on the tables: non-fiction mixed with paperbacks and hardcovers; fiction divided onto mass-market, trade and hardcover tables. There was a much needed holding area based on the honor system. Several cashiers tables allowed volunteers to check out large and express orders easily.

Last year, I found many biographies and books about animals on the non-fiction tables. Cultural anthropologists could have decided in 2010 that New Milford was a town concerned about the lives of people and their interactions with animals. This year, however, the table labelled Parent/Child Books was overflowing, which could lead one to determine that there must have been a recent baby boom and that animals are of little current interest.

The trade fiction book section was divided into boxes set on low platforms. The made the books easy to see, but required constant bending to pick out a text. The books were not organized by author or title, which slows me down as I try to quickly scan for familiar covers. Standing next to a used book dealer plopping books quickly into a box only heightens my anxiety. “Was that a copy of The Road he just put in his case?” I’ll wonder. “Well, there goes a copy of Girl, Interrupted!” I’ll sigh and move away to the next box. Such pressure resulted in my almost overlooking three copies of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye on my first pass!

Found six nearly new copies!

The section of mass market fiction; romance, mystery, and science fiction, was more organized with author names clearly marked on boxes. There were also tables of hardcover which also were generally alphabetized-or grouped. Again, I wonder who buys all these James Patterson books?

This year, the section for older children (YA), which was also on low floor pallets,  yielded six new or gently used copies of Dean Hughes’s Soldier Boys which is $6.99 at Amazon  that can be added to my War Units in Grades 10 or 11. The book follows two young soldiers an American and a German at the Battle of the Bulge. The reading level is grade 8, but there are always some low-level readers who like this book. To complement these, I found three copies of Sebastian Junger’s Fire, $8.15 at Amazon  on the non-fiction table; Fire is the more grade 11 appropriate text.Found two copies-this is an "untested" book

Other “finds” included two copies of Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell at Amazon for $10.95 for the Coming of Age Unit. This harrowing adventure follows 16 year-old Ree Dolly through the Ozark Mountain territory of meth-labs and family land disputes. The book was recently made into a successful indie film centering on a very powerful female character. I have not “tested” this book with student groups, and I am interested in seeing how they like the book.

Will use in People in Conflict Unit for Grade 10

I also was happy to find three copies of The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad at Amazon for $13.97 for my People in Conflict Unit in Grade 10, and three copies of Julia Alverez How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents at Amazon for $8.93  for an Immigration Unit we are planning for next year.

Total cost of all the 17 copies books mentioned? $157.03 retail at Amazon or $14.00 used.

All told, I spent $193.00 for seven very full bags of books.

I am familiar with the many of book titles taught at area high schools and New Milford is a neighboring school. I was happy to pick up replacements for some of the same texts that we teach(Frankenstein, Animal Farm, etc). The woman who checked out my order was an English teacher who has taken time off for a family. She was excited about the selection and the number of titles I was able to get, “These are so interesting, and so much better than some classics in high school,” she claimed, “I would love to see how they [students] like them!” I am hoping the students will share her enthusiasm, but I do recognize that we English teachers get very excited about all books! A kindred soul.