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

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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?

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