Independence, assignment, and finding the mean

I have my advanced English students fill out a class survey every year.  It’s anonymous, so they don’t have to fear any reprisal for saying negative things (not that there would be reprisal, but let’s be honest about human nature here–if your name is on it, you might not be as honest because you fear getting in trouble), and I ask questions about their favorite assignments, least favorite assignments, favorite works of literature, what they really liked, what I could do better, etc.  It’s been very helpful over the last few years–I’ve gotten suggestions for books, short stories, and essays; I’ve gotten input on how to better the grammar and vocabulary part of the course; I’ve been told I have an attitude problem; and many other good pieces of feedback.

Two years ago, my students overwhelmingly didn’t like or didn’t read All Quiet on the Western Front.  One student, in the survey, went on an epic rant about how we were reading a story written by our enemy in the war and he didn’t see the point of that; another wanted something more recent; and still, another wanted a character that was more relatable.  With the exception of the first, these are all valid arguments, and after some consideration, I dropped it from the course last year in favor of an independent novel.

This didn’t turn out as well as one would think it would.  After all, allowing my students to choose their own books to read is supposed to be the English teacher equivalent of putting Kal-El in the rocket ship on Krypton.  But I discovered quickly that simply saying “Here, it’s your choice” doesn’t automatically make everything better; furthermore, I discovered that I really missed teaching All Quiet on the Western Front.

I have done an entire podcast episode on how great Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is, and the reason that I love teaching it is because it teaches so much about the First World War as well as the psychology of modern warfare.  Paul Baumer’s going off to war as a result of a flurry of pro-war propaganda and then encountering the conditions of the battlefield and the horrors of war as well as the mentality he acquires in order to survive as a soldier (others refer to this as the “thousand-yard stare”) is still so relevant nearly a century after the war and 75 years after its publication.  Plus, discussing the novel in class allows me to bring in examples of other culture and popular culture from the World War I era and provide a history and culture lesson that they might not get in history class because of the “breadth vs. depth” of our state social studies standards.

Of course, I can hear the criticisms as I type–“Why don’t you pick something more relevant to today?”  “Why don’t you pick something that is more recent?”  “Why not read something about the Iraq war because that’s their era?”–and they’re all valid.  Remarque’s novel is German and set a century ago; why not grab something more relevant in order to make their experience more authentic?

Well, I’ll put it this way:  having my students read about something that’s going on right now doesn’t broaden their minds.  I could very well pick something writing by an American soldier and about an American war; however, while that would help them emphasize with an American soldier, it would perpetuate this selfish notion that we have in our culture that things only happen to us and not the rest of the world.  One of the more important concepts for me to teach in my English class is that of universality; specifically, a universal theme.  Handing students All Quiet on the Western Front helps accomplish that because so much of what Paul goes through in that novel has happened to many soldiers in many wars in many countries.  My colleague teaches The Things They Carried in 11th grade AP English and whenever I reread that book (a personal favorite) I see so much of Remarque’s influence.  All Quiet on the Western Front is The Catcher in the Rye of war novels–you can trace just about every modern-day novel, movie, or television show about a soldier’s experience in a war back to Remarque.  So why wouldn’t we explore the archetype?

I’m putting the novel back in this year.  I’m not getting rid of the independent novel, though–there’s still value in that.  But somewhere between a free-for-all and being in lockstep is a mean where both my students and I are contributing to their enrichment.  School never killed my love of reading (as so many others claim it does) because I had a lot of respect for my teachers and wanted to explore what they thought was important when it came to literature.  There were times where I wholeheartedly agreed with them (Fahrenheit 451, which I read in English class, remains one of my all-time favorite books); and there were times I flat-out disagreed (Ethan Frome?  Gag).  But not having a teacher to hand me those books would mean that I would have never sought them out and would have continued on a steady diet of junk food and popcorn reading that, while fun, needs something more nutritious to go along with it.

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