This is the last in a series of four blog posts in which I show how a journal article or book has inspired me to improve my teaching practice. Each post ends with a practical resource or activity. Today I show how my reading of Doerr’s bestselling novel All The Light We Cannot See, and my reflection on the work of Counsell in the book History and Literacy in Year 7, helped me to improve my Year 10 pupils’ sense of period about life in Nazi Germany.
My Year 10 pupils study a unit, like many other Year 10 pupils in many other (probably much tidier) classrooms, on ‘Life in Nazi Germany’. At this point, Year 10 have just finished an enquiry on women in Nazi Germany and are about to move onto the Hitler Youth. We move at speed, with too-much-content-to-cover-in-too-little-time forever pushing us on, much like a PE teacher on a rainy day. With such limited time to gallop through GCSE content, why use historical fiction?
Counsell, in her fantastic book History and Literacy in Year 7, tells us why:
“A strong explicit focus on language and literature can improve historical understanding…text is such a good tool to think with [because of] its effect upon the imagination…fiction takes some beating as a tool for historical thinking.”
In the summer of 2017 I read the brilliant All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I lived inside Saint Malo, with a blind French girl during the German occupation. I lived inside Zollverein Castle with Hitler’s Jungmänner, gulping down fried eggs and Goethe with a gifted boy called Werner. My experience of reading this extraordinary book led me to decide that Year 10 must live inside this castle too. I wanted to give my pupils characters, a plot, a memorable setting. I wanted to hook them in. I wanted them to read more. I wanted them to want to turn pages.
The vast majority of children never read books. So I wanted to help my pupils to make the choice to do so: to develop a ‘reading life’. Counsell, in her book History and Literacy in Year 7, encourages us to experiment, to have fun, to discover new texts and new stories for our pupils to live inside. I decided that this was a special text, that deserved time and space in our crowded curriculum. Yet I didn’t want to treat it just as a bucket that contains information. Instead, I wanted to hunt for argument, mood, meaning, richness and colour.
So this is what I did. I took three whole pages from All the Light We Cannot See (All the Light Extract 137-139) and together my Year 10 class and I entered Zollverein castle. We shot rifles, saluted the colours, ran, crawled and swam with the Hitler Youth in a fairy-tale castle with spires and turrets. I wanted to use the novel to introduce period detail, complexity and mystery, helping pupils to puzzle out the meaning of complex ideas such as nationalism.
We read the pages together as a class. Then I asked four questions:
- Where is Werner? Why is he here?
- What can we learn about the Hitler Youth from this extract?
- How does Werner feel about being in an elite Hitler Youth group?
- How and where does the author show us Werner’s attitude to the Hitler Youth? (Use a quotation)
I wanted to use a large chunk from the novel, rather than a paragraph, because I wanted my pupils to explore the message and mood of the whole text. I wanted to make the text sing. I didn’t worry about whether the pupils understood each and every word; I wanted to avoid long glossary exercises and stick to the history.
Together, my pupils and I settled on the following quotation to show Werner’s attitude to the Hitler Youth (Q4):
“The star-flooded nights, the dew-soaked dawns, the hushed ambulatories… never has Werner felt part of something so single-minded. Never has he felt such a hunger to belong.”
Counsell tells us to choose the words we want to make a fuss of wisely. She advises us to choose one or two interesting words and play with them. By doing this we can use the word as a window into the text, and the whole text as a window into the word. So we played around with the word ‘belong‘. I asked Year 10:
How many synonyms for the word ‘belong’ can you come up with?
Together, we came up with quite a few, including:
- Part of
- Associate with
- Connected to
- Member of
- Have a place
- Fit in
We then linked these words to pupils’ knowledge of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. This is what we came up with:
We therefore connected the text with the sense of period that pupils had been building since the beginning of their study. I judged that the use of All the Light We Cannot See helped to enrich pupils’ understanding of the suffering experienced by Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, and helped them to understand how the Hitler Youth had emerged from this context.
We then looked at Doerr’s use of rhythm and structure in the extract. I asked: how does Doerr create the idea of ‘belonging’ in his text, beyond using the word ‘belong’?
We decided that Doerr’s use of repetition of the word ‘boys’ made it seem like Werner was becoming one of them. Becoming part of the Hitler Youth. I asked pupils to get rid of the word ‘boys’: how does this affect the mood of the text?
Through these exercises, I hoped that my pupils became more interested in words – words they thought they knew. Had I gone in ‘cold’, by simply asking: ‘how did Hitler and the Nazis gain support through the idea of belonging?’, I do not think that pupils would have gained such a rich sense of why it was important for boys like Werner to belong.
And I stopped there. I stopped while it felt (at least to me) still exciting and illuminating. I stopped at the point where I hoped that my pupils would want me to go on.
To go on living inside the story.
Download my resources:
Extract: All the Light Extract 137-139
Counsell, C. (2004) History and Literacy in Year 7: Building the Lesson Around the Text, London: Hodder Murray. You can download this for free HERE
Doerr, A. (2015). All the Light We Cannot See, London: Fourth Estate.