Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Skipping chapters

I made a confession that horrified a couple of English teachers today. When one teacher asked in a workshop how to get her class through a long novel, I suggested some creative editing. Right now my tenth graders are reading All Quiet on the Western Front. If you've ever read the novel, you may have noticed the preaching.

There's a lot of preaching.

"War sucks. It really sucks. People die. Did I mention how much war sucks?"

Now here's the thing. I think it's a great novel. The scene where he's stuck in the foxhole with the dying Frenchman is probably one of the best all time moments in literature, and the kids always remember the scene where the horses run around with their intestines falling out after a shelling. There are a ton of great scenes to discuss in a classroom setting.

Know what we don't like discussing? All that preaching. "War is bad, okay? All my friends are dead. Here some Russian guys. They think war sucks too."

That's why we skipped chapter eight in its entirety.

I get that Remarque was a soldier, and he's definitely right. War sucks. And as someone who's never fought in a war I can appreciate his desire to make me understand. The problem is, he doesn't trust his own story. He is so passionate about telling the world how much war sucks that he is afraid to let his story tell me how much war sucks. He crams in so much preaching the story loses momentum. You and I might not notice it because we like to read, but let me tell you how quickly a class full of teenagers who hate to read will turn on you when they're bored.

So as a defense mechanism I developed my own edit of All Quiet, where we stick to minimal preaching and just focus on the action. Then we discuss what we learned from the action.

Maybe that's just a screenwriting thing. Maybe I'm just the worst English teacher ever, but I actually think the kids are onto something.


  1. Nah, you have a different and unique teaching method. Your explaination is quite understandable.

    I've never read that book, so I really can't argue or agree with you. But I've got the 1930 classic film waiting on my Netflix queue...

  2. Honestly, the film sums up that feeling from the book just nicely... and takes a heck of a lot less time.


Please leave a name, even if it's a fake name. And try not to be an asshole.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.