We just finished reading All Quiet on the Western Front. In our last discussion of the book, my afternoon class spent nearly 45 minutes talking about the last page and a half of the novel. OK, this may not be surprising to any of you reading this, but I am talking about 8th graders, 13 and 14 year olds, talking about 4-6 paragraphs for 45 minutes. Actually our conversation was nearly an hour long but it took 15 minutes of discussion to get to the last few paragraphs. And the students were in complete control of the flow of the discourse.
TG did not interrupt once. Everyone, except for LB, spoke at least once; most spoke for two or three times. Even JH, who usually does not say a word, participated five times. BR did not monopolize the conversation. LF who doodles to maintain his focus, stopped drawing 20 minutes into the discussion. FD, who usually is loud and forceful, talked softly and carefully. The conversation was probing whether the main character, Paul, committed “suicide” at the end, who exactly was the narrator of the last two paragraphs, whether the ending “report” was truthful, what did “quiet” mean, how did the irony of the title of the book work, what was the difference in meaning between the English and the direct German translation of the title.
And they were parsing words, examining them, figuring out what they meant, what they inferred. They spent at least ten minutes discussing what “it” was in the third before last paragraph (last paragraph of Chapter 11). Let me repeat– 8th graders, a month before the end of the school year, discussing the word “it.” For ten minutes. Oh, did I mention that it was my afternoon class, the lively and distractible (but actually quite passionate) class? Did I also mention that this was the class that couldn’t maintain a civil conversation with each other two months ago? In fact, two months ago, I was despairing and feeling quite a failure around helping this class achieve any civility in communal discussion about ideas in, connections to, and meaning of text.
Ah, but wonders never cease. Change is indefatigable. Miracles happen.