At the end of our reading of All Quiet on the Western Front, I ask my students to do a creative response to the book. This can take any form: a play, a poem, an image.
Friday morning five kids put on a play about trench warfare. I don’t think I have ever laughed as hard at any piece of work my students have done. It was like watching Monty Python or Mel Brooks. Wearing helmets and binoculars, they played all the countries, working hard at English, French, German, and American accents. Of course, they were killed several times in the play, including my favorite part where they were all gunned down, and the narrator holding his script said, “Ooops,” quickly standing up amidst his collapsed peers, looked at his script and said, “Oh,” and then he died one more time, falling on the pile of his friends. And the kids felt really smart watching this play because it was filled with all sorts of puns and jokes that were not funny at all unless you knew the details about World War I and the specifics of Paul’s experience from the novel.
PD made a paper mache boot (pictured above), one of Kemmerich’s pair of boots, the boots before they passed on to the next soldier after the owner of them died. She even researched the average size of a German soldier’s foot during the First World War to make it authentic and actual size. She stuffed the boot with the names of the dead previous owners– a poignant reminder that it is the only thing that survives the war in the novel.
BT created a song which started out with the sound of loud explosions. He played all the instrumental parts himself (except for the drum)– guitar and bass. It was moving and so very sad sounding. The students were riveted.
BG wrote a haiku for each of the chapters of the book. He was nervous reading them aloud to his peers, but the shakiness in his voice made his sensitive words even more powerful. The students nodded as they recognized some of the words and scenes from the book.
SR made an image of a soldier out of a kind of modeling clay material. She painted it in camouflage, even the face. The modeled person was holding his heart and in his chest was a dark hole.
DR presented his powerful poster of soldier silhouettes in various stages of proud stances next to a flag. In the earth beneath their feet were the words, “War is Glory” in dripping red paint. Beneath the words were coffins lined up with a mangled soldier, surrounded by a dripping black earth much like the red blood above.
CG made a skull with a butterfly perched as the skull’s mouth. Through the eye sockets and nose hole, like a snake, ran the words from a Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
She had memorized the words and slowly spoke them, staring at all of us, with the skull in her hand.
Some students told me that they cried while reading this book. FG came up to me before each reading assignment to find out how gory the reading would be. She wanted to prepare herself. Students shared that they felt adult reading this book, not talked down to. They felt the reading relevant, our conversations real, not like a school assignment.
We didn’t have the time to see or hear all the presentations and will have to finish on Monday. I am glad to be able to stretch the glow of my students’ gifts through the weekend and into next.