We are reading All Quiet on the Western Front now. I have given different chapters to groups of students for them to create and grade a reading quiz (they love playing teacher), to define some vocabulary, but most importantly, to lead the discussion at our “Around Table.” This kind of discussion students have experienced since the 6th grade in our school. The students learn the etiquette of conversation and work to sustain discussion of a book grounded in text. They manage the entire conversation without an adult intervening. Though there are occasional “train wrecks,” the students are usually able to talk about text on their own, ferreting out insight and inference of importance to them. I have written about this method before.
At our discussion today, it happened again. It happens every year. Students who have been somewhat reticent earlier in the year to share fully in these conversations were vociferous, passionate, outspoken, interrupting each other (not necessarily a bad thing, as it’s a real sign of engagement). It’s all about this book and what it brings up for kids, even for those who are usually more reserved in these conversations.
Talking about war and survival and courage and death somehow brings out the best in all of them, especially the boys. I am not being sexist here, but this is something I can count on every year when we get to this book in our curriculum. Maybe because it is the spring of the 8th grade year and the boys have made a tangible cognitive leap in their development. But maybe it’s just that the content matters more to all of them. I am thrilled to hear their passionate, committed, and serious voices. I watch some of the quieter voices take the lead and move the discussion in ways I am never able to predict. I see them speak with great authority and integrity, making connections to the world and to their own lives. They are earnest and sincere. This is a book whose ideas they care deeply about.
Maybe it’s because this book feels so adult to all of them. They are being handed issues and ideas that are real and poignant and viscerally gripping, told to them by someone who really experienced this war. They rise to the respect afforded them by the author, his feelings of terror, his confessions of emptiness, his observations of blood and guts, his nostalgia for home, his connections to his comrades, his realization of the impossibility of keeping one’s emotions suppressed, his experiences of killing.
Things in this classroom are definitely not “All Quiet.”