Every teacher has his or her perfect lesson. You know the one they do year after year, not because they lack innovation, but because that lesson always works to illustrate that concept you are trying to get across. That perfect lesson recharges us and reminds us why teaching is the best profession in the world. And my perfect lesson is the “Day in the Life of the Trenches.”
The Set Up
This is a simulation activity that seeks to place kids in the middle of the Western Front in World War I. Students file into class, they are told to find their dagger (pencil/pen), grab their gas mask (surgical mask), and get into a trench (space between rows of desks). Some students are given role cards. For example, they might be asked to scream in pain when they hear me say a specific phrase. Then others are given a role card to react, like comfort the soldier screaming in pain.
The lesson unfolds by my students sitting in their trenches looking at slides of black and white photos from the war. For each slide I read a selection of “All’s Quiet on the Western Front.” At the end of each reading I ask questions like “What do you fear most at this moment?” Or I ask the students to do a specific action. I might say “You hear something outside your trench. Get in a position that will help you protect or defend yourself.”
The students at first will complain about being uncomfortable on the floor. They will complain when you ask them to wear their mask. “I’m suffocating Mrs. Ralf!” But eventually they settle in and begin to realize that their momentary discomfort is nothing like the discomfort felt by the men who fought in the real trenches.
After a short debriefing discussion at the end, students then write a letter home to a family member or loved one.
Here are some excerpts from my student’s letters:
“I have been practically bathing in mud and water. I am, a lot of the time, soaking wet.”
“The rations of ham and bread satisfy my hunger, but don’t compare to your home cooking.”
“I feel more like a man now. Hopefully one who is making you proud.”
“At night times I miss home the most. The smell of mom’s homemade cakes and cookies, and the music we used to hear every morning at the breakfast table.”
“The coldness in my body rises with every minute. I wish I would have taken the sweater dad told me to take, but I didn’t.”
“Sometimes the commander asks us to dig new trenches, that is when everyone perks up, happy to be out of the current one.”
“Fear takes over when the first enemy bullet flies. That fear soon turns into adrenaline, which in some cases means death.”
“We are under constant shelling by the enemy. My temples feel swollen and the gas masks only make it worse.”
“Gun shots are heard the entire day without pause…Perhaps I am the only one left from Bristol.”
“It is an honor to fight for my country, but I’m scared. What if I don’t make it out alive? What if I never come home? These questions haunt my dreams and influence my decisions. Am I a coward for not feeling brave? I came here to fight, to make my family proud. But what good is making my family proud if I am dead.”
“Every day I am either totally bored, or completely terrified. I don’t know which feeling I fear most. Constantly, I dread the sound of whistling shells coming toward the trenches.”
“Jeffrey always reminds us of why we are fighting, and it gives me courage. I am fighting for my country. I just expected a different kind of war.”
“War is nothing like what everyone was talking about. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. My friends have died one by one, leaving me alone to face the enemy. I see people die and suffer every day. Both sides have lost countless numbers of men, but the war rages on.”
“Most of us are starving and our matches are wet, but it’s not like we would have time for a puff anyway. The constant pitter-patter of rain on my helmet is enough to drive me insane.”
And that is why I love what I do. It is hard. It makes me take risks all the time. I don’t always have perfect respectful and loving students. But on a day like today, they show me their greatness.
What are your favorite lessons to teach? Or what were your favorite lessons from school?
Want to read some real letters from World War I? Look hear at a recent article from BBC News.