Category Archives: world war two

The importance of reading historical narrative, whether you are an 8th grader or not.

I recently started a graduate program and have been reminded of just how much I enjoy nerding out.  My class is on Tuesday nights and for the past three weeks since it started I have spent my Wednesday and Friday nights reading and writing for it–and enjoying it.  I was last in graduate school for English education nine years ago, and I have to say that reading professional books while being an active, experienced teacher is so much more engaging.  Before I was reading all of these theories and philosophies but without a real way into the conversation.  This time around I have 95 current students and 700 previous ones to think about as well as structures I’ve put into place to grow them as readers and writers–and reading the books is making me think and dream a bit bigger about what a gift it is to teach reading and writing and reminding me that I haven’t figured it all out yet.  

{cover of Maus II}

I am currently in the middle of a Holocaust Literature book club with students–I have a group of 5-8 in each class reading Maus by Art Spiegelman and Night by Elie Wiesel over the course of 5 weeks.  (I’ve written previously about book club experiences with students here: Maus and Night and Harry Potter.) It never ceases to amaze me how 8th graders approach and handle such serious texts.  What I’ve come to realize while reading great books with small groups of students is that 13 and 14 year old students are aching to talk about and be trusted with serious topics.  Instead of nervous about handing titles like Maus and Night to them, I frame it with the context that learning about difficult times in the past is best done in community and that reading, reflecting, talking, and writing about them is one of the best ways to process through the stories that have come before us and to equip us in becoming educated, sensitive people when we walk out into our own lives.

This is where my reading for graduate school comes in.  One evening after our first Maus book club meeting I read: “History is about people who were products of their time and their own intricately woven value systems.  Literature study enhances our appreciation of history’s complexity, which in turn expands our appreciation of present political complexities and better equips us to predict and prepare for the future.  History gives us statistics; literature lets us experience the human tragedy.” (Teaching Children’s Literature: It’s Critical, Leland, Lewison, Harste)

This is especially fitting for our reading of Maus because it is Spiegelman telling not only the story of his father’s survival of the Holocaust, but it is also the story of Spiegelman himself grappling with his family’s history and how it shaped his present while writing the book.  In turn, the reader is able to contextualize multiple lines of history, feel pain over the fact that this is a true story, and ask questions about their present time and life.  I cannot more strongly believe that historical study must be paired with narrative if students today are to grow into educated citizens who can see nuance and complexity rather, who can ask questions and dialogue, who can be people who understand statistics but also tap into the real people represented by those numbers.

Spiegelman ends the World War Two storyline of Maus with a scene we as readers know from the beginning happens–the reunion of his parents post-Auschwitz.  We ended our conversation by asking why he would end the story in this way and if we were to have any hope as we move forward as people.  What we came up with is that love can still win–and despite the fact that most were not as lucky as Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, and despite the fact that human history still remains quite ugly, that perhaps the threads of goodness can restore and heal the human spirit.  And, perhaps, that by remembering both that and the historical details, readers can imagine a different kind of future.

Best nonfiction read, ever.

When I finished reading Maus and Night it was impossible to not feel the cruelty that is possible in humanity deep in my gut. While reading In the Garden of Beasts, I only became more disengaged with politics and their inability to create the kind of change that the world desperately needs.  I’m a micro-thinker by nature, meaning that I’m a believer and participant in small change on a small nature when it comes to making a difference.  I’m thankful for people who have the brains and enthusiasm for policy and law, but am generally overwhelmed when looking at the world’s brokenness at such a vast level.  And so, I sit in my classroom and teach my students to be critical thinkers and to hopefully see some magic through reading and writing.  I knew that I needed to read something that would reveal hope to me on a micro level–to remember that amidst the ugly there were people who loved and people who fought for what was right.  Then I remembered a friend had recommended Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to me over a year ago and realized there would never be a better time to read it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Christian who was a part of the German resistance to Hitler and became involved with multiple assassination attempts, ultimately hanged at a concentration camp two weeks before the end of the war.  It’s just over 600 pages and it overtook my reading and thinking life, which partially explains my month long absence from writing about reading on here.  I’ve never been more engaged in nonfiction and I have never been so captured by the integrity of a single person.  There isn’t a way that I can begin to describe all that I took away from reading it, except to say that I can only hope to strive for justice and love the way that he did.  His life is a story of doing what is right, period, and not hiding under the illusion of safety in rules and regulations and inaction.

silence and fear.

Some context: I love learning about history when it isn’t connected to memorizing names and dates, but rather when it encompasses understanding culture and incorporates what was going on in the world of the arts simultaneously.  There are so many complexities and nuances in our collective history as humans that I love digging into. I finished UnbrokenMaus I and II and Night earlier this year and then spent the last week reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larsen (who wrote Devil in the White City), and ordered the biography Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas before I was even finished, which is about the Christian theologian who was a part of a plot to assassinate Hitler.  I’m enmeshed in World War Two and non-fiction (albeit mostly narrative), which is rare for me, but I am loving it.

In the Garden of Beasts is the story of the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family in Berlin in the mid 1930s, when Hitler is rising to power.  Dodd was an unconventional choice for this position, and far from top of the list in potential candidates.  He was a history professor and a self professed “true Jeffersonian” in his manner and politics.  Larsen does an incredible job documenting Dodd’s ambassadorship and the politics of the time.  Though I was familiar with the U.S. isolationist stance before World War Two, it was fascinating and frightening to learn about the politics surrounding the way we interacted with Germany during this time.

In 1934, the American Jewish Congress with support from the American Federation of Labor planned a mock trial of Hitler at Madison Square Garden.  When Germany caught wind of this, Hitler ordered Foreign Minister Neurath to demand that it be stopped.  The American government communicated that because of our belief in free speech, there was nothing they could do to cancel the event, though they did not make, at that time, any kind of statement against Hitler.  Larsen makes an excellent point about this:

“One result was a sequence of official protests, replies and memoranda that revealed both Germany’s sensitivity to outside opinion and the lengths U.S. officials felt compelled to go to avoid direct criticism of Hitler and his party.  The degree of restraint would have been comincal if the stakes had not been so high and raised a question: why were the State Department and President Roosevelt so hesitant to express in frank terms how they really felt about Hitler at a time when such expressions clearly could have had a powerful effect on his prestige in the world?” (231).

It was easier to hide behind the guise of politics? It was easier to turn a head than to get involved with what seemed to be someone else’s mess? People pleasing seems like a good temporary answer?

A few pages later Larsen asks, “What was everyone afraid of?” (241).  This is one of the overriding questions of the entire book, and one that speaks into not just politics at the international or governmental level, but a personal level.  Quietly ignoring things that are wrong offers temporary safety only.

The title of this book is a reference to the Tiergarten, a park in Berlin that was one of the only places in the city where people felt safe to have private conversations.  As I think about its symbolism, I can see two sides: hiding one’s true thoughts in a garden, rather than bringing them out into the open, or the concept that we all need to have spaces in which we can be alone and be heard away from whatever metaphorical beasts are in our lives: that maybe we need space in order to stop listening to the fear and actually consider what is right?

It is uncomfortable to think about this because speaking out at this time in history could mean death of oneself or family, and when there are people to protect all of a sudden everything becomes gray.  So, on that note, all I can say is that I cannot wait to finish reading Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the length that he went for what he believed to be true. More on that later.

Ambassador Dodd was asked to resign in 1938 because he seemed to be taking too bold a stance against the Nazis, even though his actions could be described as silent protest.  He spent the remainder of his career traveling and speaking against the regime until his death in 1940.  Gah. 

Maus and Night: think through WWII and literature with my 8th graders.

The next student book club in my year long line up is Holocaust Literature with graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman and the memoir Night by Elie Wiesel.  I’ve spent the last month or so reading and trying to figure out how to approach these topics with 8th grade students, wondering if I should have picked an “easier” period of history, (but is there one that isn’t filled with darkness?).  While I was rereading Night for the first time since 2004, I kept stopping and wondering if 13-14 year old students were emotionally ready to visualize and process the Holocaust.  I ended up writing a letter to parents making sure that they were ok with the human depravity depicted in the book as well as Wiesel’s spiritual struggles.  Every parent agreed and I still fall confidently in that literature is one of the best ways to study history, and where better to learn how to process humanity than in a book club?

We started today with a general overview of World War Two.  Just reading a page brought up some incredible discussions questions:

What happens when a country is focused solely on itself? When is isolationism or distance a healthy choice? Unhealthy? Do the same principles relate to an individual’s life?

How do leaders like Hitler and Mussolini gain power? What kinds of situations cause people to look to leaders like them?

Winston Churchill said before the war: “Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor.  They will have war.”  We asked questions like: What does this mean? What kind of dishonor is he talking about? Then my students started making connections with this and Terrible Things, the picture book by Eve Bunting that we read during our Social Action unit: that stopping wrong things only when they begin to affect you personally is ethically wrong and made the connection that Churchill believed that looking the other way was dishonorable.

I was so inspired by the energy emitted from my students today and I cannot believe that for a while I doubted whether they would be ready to face such ugliness.  Their insight was incredible and they have not yet even begun to read the books.

The article we read ended with a quote from Franklin Roosevelt, written for a speech that he never got to deliver: “Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships–the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace.” Our conversation wandered to my classroom value, posted on the wall, that everyone has a story–and once we get to know that story, we can begin to relate to, empathize with, and care for and understand that person.  All I can say is that studying history well makes us better people.

Miss your old English class?  Read (or reread) Night and/or Maus.  I really believe it is one of the most important works of literature I have ever encountered.  Think through the questions we will be thinking about in our book club:

What is the value of difference? Of human life?

Do the hard truths of human history still impact us? On a corporate level? On an individual level? How? Do you let them impact you?

Why create literature and art in response to history? Why study history through literature and art?

How do we emotionally [and spiritually] process through our history as a people?

Unbroken.

So many people have recommended Unbroken, the life story of Louie Zamperini–Olympic runner and Air Force bomber and POW in the Pacific during World War Two, by Laura Hillenbrand to me over the past few months.  It worked out perfectly that my mom had recently read it, so I curled up for many hours of my visit home for Christmas in front of the fireplace with it .  I love history, but realized that my knowledge of the Pacific front of the war was incredibly small, which is sad to me because my grandfather was on the Underwater Demolition Team, the precursor to the Navy SEALS, in Japan. Hillenbrand’s book provided a well researched overview of what went on and some of the facts I learned in the book shocked me.  The narrative arch in the book, though, took my breath away.

I wrote my last post about my struggle in thinking about the lost in war, and this one I realized is one about the survivors. It still leaves me thinking: at what cost will humans ever stop?  I cannot imagine surviving through what these men faced as prisoners.  It was impossible for me to read this story without feeling sick to my stomach about the complaints that arise about my own life circumstances.  What stood out to me the most in reading this book is the incredible fortitude of the human spirit. It saddens me that this phrase might sound cliched, because if I look at the hardships people have faced faced throughout history and the fact that they have survived–be it a global war or a personal one–is truly miraculous.  And in the case of surviving the war, making it home was only half of the battle:

The Pacific POWs who went home in 1945 were a torn-down men.  They had an intimate understanding of man’s vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness, to inflict it.  They carried unspeakable memories of torture and humiliation, and an acute sense of vulnerability that attended the knowledge of how readily they could be disarmed and dehumanized.  Many felt lonely and isolated, having endured abuses that ordinary people couldn’t understand…Coming home was an experience of profound, perilous aloneness.  For these men, the central struggle of postwar life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness.  There was no one right way to peace; every man had to find his own path, according to his own history.  Some succeeded.  For others, the war would never really end,” (349).


In my city there are times that it feels like a superficial quest for outward beauty: to maintain the posture that every aspect of one’s life is meticulously curated.  But, as most New Yorkers know, there is beauty in the broken and in the faces that no fashion magazine would ever run.  There is beauty to be found in the mess and in the trying.

In my last post, I wrote about how wars are often fought for freedom of some sort, and that for the opposing forces there seems nothing left to do but to obliterate the other side.  It seems to me as though this can stand for a metaphor for living–for those who can’t escape the messiness of being human, anyway.  It feels as though my reading life is bleeding one book into the next, because I am about to finish Lit by Mary Karr, which is the story of her battle with alcoholism–finding freedom and everyday fighting against the blackness.  I can’t help but think about how she needed to find her way to peace.  I just saw Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (one of my favorite books) and was broken watching Oskar, the 11 year old main character who lost his father on 9/11, struggle and fight through his pain, in a way different from everyone else around him.

My students often complain about why they have to learn something that they think they will never have to use.  I have set answers for every subject area, but my one for social studies is always that I think that the best president, and any kind of leader for that matter, will always be the one who not only looks anxiously into the future, but one who is able to look back into the past–understanding both the macro and micro horrors and hardships.  For it is understanding–and experiencing–struggle that enables us to live and lead in a just, compassionate way.  Louie Zamperini’s story was a reminder to me of many things, but the most heavy one to me was to know the stories that make up our collective past: to learn what others have been through and to let that lead me into a life of greater compassion and understanding–as well as hope for the moments when I find myself fighting a battle that seems greater than myself.  The incredible part about it, to me, was that this was not a work of fiction–but rather, a demonstration of the patterns that great works of fiction try to portray.