Context: My 10th grade Modern World History class is studying WWI for 3-4 weeks. It is part of a longer unit (a quarter long) studying war and global conflict and centered on the question, ‘Can war be justified?’. My students have just returned from a 6 week mid-year break about two weeks ago; we’ve discussed war in the abstract, examined causes of WWI; and for the past few days, I’ve provided primary sources for the class to examine and hopefully get a little lost in with the purpose of understanding the experience of the war: letters home written by WWI soldiers, a giant catalog of photographs of all aspects of the war, audio and written transcripts of interviews with veterans.
Yesterday, we were looking at photographs that students and their partners had chosen to share with the class. One photo portrayed soldiers smiling and laughing, and the caption mentioned it was taken on Christmas. The rest of the class is surprised:
“How can they be celebrating Christmas if they’re in the middle of a war?”
Why do you think?
A range of responses; and then a student asks,
“Wasn’t there a truce? I heard about it… didn’t they play soccer with the opposite side?”
I nod and tell them what I know of the story of the ‘Christmas truce’, one night in 1914 when the Allied and Central Powers’ soldiers came out from their trenches, sang Christmas songs, and indeed, played football out on No Man’s Land between the opposing lines. It sounds like a myth, but it is true. One student seems shocked.
“How could they have done that? How could they play soccer with the people they’ve just been shooting at?”
I reflect the question back at them. How do you think?
Students are discussing, and an Argentine girl who I sometimes am not sure is fully engaged in class quietly offers an idea: “The war means nothing to the soldiers who are actually fighting.” She explains, “They aren’t fighting because they want to. They don’t have a personal reason to fight. They weren’t the ones to declare war.”
I have her repeat her idea and amplify it to the class. Individual French soldiers and individual German soldiers were not that different. Both were usually young men, maybe conscripted, maybe who volunteered; both in a bizarre and harrowing situation that they can’t control, both dealing with the stress and trauma of the war. These men, they’re not that different. Even in December 1914, they recognize that. They’re just part of the bigger machine of war.
I’m so proud to be able to have these conversations with students. I’m happy that I am becoming a better teacher who can reflect questions back at the class instead of trying to offer a correct answer to all of them. I’m proud of quieter moments when a whole class is thinking, and louder moments when they are all sharing their ideas. I hope I can foster confusion- even though that seems like the opposite of what a teacher should intend- because confusion is closely connected to curiosity. I want to make questions more primary in my classroom.
I’m happy it was the quieter girl who offered such an insightful comment.
This is why I teach.