As Emily and Aubrey look back over the week they use their razor sharp wit to discuss student empathy and the role of war literature
1. What do you find the most challenging about teaching war texts?
Emily: I never really know how to remove my own opinions to the point that it doesn’t influence their own interpretation. Every supplement we give students represents an undercurrent or an idea. It influences their interpretation. I find it so difficult to present every perspective or view of the particular war in a manner that truly allows them to form their own opinion not as a product of my own. Even though I don’t think I have very definitive and domineering views of war it is such a challenge to not embed my views.
Aubrey: I agree. Although it’s interesting. Often I find that students are incredibly sensitive to these types of discussions and we all ultimately feel the same empathy regardless of viewpoint. I think this happens rarely when I teach other texts.
2. What types of supplemental texts have been helpful?
Emily: I think images are the best. Even though images, like text, can convey a clear argument, I think it is easier to find a variety of images that can be interpreted from a variety of lenses to alleviate some of the inherent biases present in our lessons.
Aubrey: Images do make a difference. I have had some of the best classroom discussions by using Matthew Brady images from the library of congress. The students are always struck by how young the soldiers look and how Brady chooses to “photograph.”
3. What are some of the most rewarding aspects of teaching a war text?
Emily: Depending on the year, I think it speaks to something they can all understand. They most likely know someone who served, or could have served, or they can relate to their own fears of having to serve. When Obama was first elected and was speaking frequently about mandatory service (whether it is through battle or volunteering for organizations like the Peace Corp), I think a lot of students were able to respond readily to The Things They Carried. My fear about this is that it moves away from an analytical study about a text and moves too much into feelings and reactions/reader response, but I do think there is still a place for those.
Aubrey: It’s always interesting the first person “narratives” they bring to texts like Catch 22 or The Things They Carried. Students who rarely speak feel moved by these texts because they are so personal. While they can be difficult to teachbecause of content, some of my best teaching experiences are a result of these texts.
Constructing assignments that don’t diminish the importance of war-focused texts is key in engaging students and creating meaningful learning. Today’s posts will include two different types of activities to use as you cap off the end of a unit about war in the English classroom.
Single Sentence Animation
Electric Literature has a series of what they call “single sentence” animations on their website. The catch? They are constructed to represent one sentence in a text. The following exercise is meant to play off of the same idea but exemplify the big picture argument of war. Consider using this final assignment with All Quiet on the Western Front, The Things They Carried, Catch 22, or Slaughterhouse Five.
Have students view one or two examples to give themselves an idea of what can be done. Some favorites:
“Three” by Marc Basch animation by Jason Mitcham
“Hibachi” by J. Robert Lennon animation by Benk
Ask that students follow these directions:
Choose the best sentence from the text. It must be something that is both moving and exemplifies a big picture argument about the effect of war.
Using iMovie or Moviemaker, create your own animation highlight the meaning of the sentence itself.
You must include appropriate instrumental music.
Consider using Stop Motion or Automatoon as a way to create your own animations.
Your job is to convey the meaning of the sentence. Consider the emotional impact as well as the rhetoric/language.
Your video can not be longer than one minute in length.
Innovation and creativity will be rewarded. Violence for the sake of violence will not.
As with any unit of study, war units lend themselves to multiple skill building exercises that help stretch student understanding of more than just the story. Today’s texts not only help to supplement war literature, they also teach two different types of skills: argument analysis and rhetorical analysis.
Have students read Bush’s speech and annotate for rhetoric and style. They should be paying attention to war references throughout. The Weekly Standard’s response to the speech professionally parses Bush’s rhetoric. Have them read the response afterwards. Then, have them create their own rhetorical exercise. They should use previous rhetorical exercise like the one linked above for “The Gettysburg Address“ as an example.
Some of the most invaluable technology resources available to teachers today come in the form of online image and video collections. Teach students that these “texts” are simply one way in which we read war “stories.”
The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is a fantastic resource and expansive. Their Matthew Brady Civil War Photography is a good bet if you’re teaching The Red Badge of Courage. Have students use our image analysis assignment. The Gettysburg & Antietam Collections are especially moving. Below are the links to those pages. Each page holds at least twenty images. Some of the most moving are titled: Gettysburg-Dead Confederate Soldier in Devil’s Den and Antietam-Confederate Dead by a Fence near Hagerstown. Click on the images when you arrive at the page to make them larger.
TED Talks are a wonderful supplement for any unit of study. Below are some useful TED Talks about war, technology, and the individual as well as some areas of focus. Have students treat each video as if it were a text. Have them SOAPSTone the videos as well as respond to the questions.
PW Singer on Military Robots and the Future of War
Singer discusses the changing role of technology/robotics within the realm of war. This pairs perfectly with All Quiet on the Western Front in respect to the technological advancements of WWI. Have students consider the questions below as they view the video.
Deborah Scranton The War Tapes
Scranton, a war documentarian, put hand held video cameras in the hands of soldiers in Iraq. This is a perfect supplement for The Things They Carried. You will want to pay attention to language and content. Some elements are graphic. Check the transcript (available in the right hand column on the webpage) to determine how much you will show.
Scranton argues that, “a lot of us are very uncomfortable with having conversations about war because we’re worried that we disagree. “ What is she implying about the effect of war on the American public?
Why would Scranton use handheld footage from active military?
Identify two of Scranton’s implicit arguments about war.
Emanuel Jal; The Music of a War Child
If you teach Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, you can’t find a better TED Talk to use. Trained as a child soldier, Jal now uses music as a means towards peace for himself and the world. Have students consider the questions below as they view the video.
Why is music both an apt and odd choice?
Emmanuel Jal argues that he performs music because of the “voices” of the dead. What does he implicit argue about his music and performance?
What is necessary to overcome the effects of being a “War Child?”
It’s hard to teach the literature of war, but it’s not due to a scarcity of resources. There are so many. So, very, very many. Ultimately that’s part of the problem. Teaching about war means making choices, and often I worry that those choices diminish the purpose of these texts. It can be difficult to engage students in war texts without turning them into caricatures or a series of “cute” activities.
And while teaching The Things They Carried is never difficult in terms of getting students to read, I worry that they don’t always fully engage in the more difficult aspects of truth, memory, and storytelling.
The act of discussing war can be difficult, too. Do we teach background and time period? Writing style? Character development? The vocabulary of war? How do we handle the violence of war juxtaposed with your audience of teens?
One of the ways to assuage these doubts is to offer students a range of “texts” that engage their interest in both the story and reality of war. Images, political cartoons, videos, and editorials are a great place to start. This week whether you teach Catch 22, The Red Badge of Courage, or All Quiet on the Western Front we’ll offer you resources that allow you to enrich the classroom teaching you already do.