Children at Play; Insights into WWI

Each year as we get towards the end of teaching World War I, I spend a few days having our students study some of the poetry written by soldiers from the trenches. (Sassoon, Brooke, Harvey, and Nichols are among my favorites.)  Drawing on the lessons of “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Johnny Got His Gun”, we try to compare how the promise of fighting in WWI met the reality of that war.   In the end, I ask students to try their hand on writing a poem from the perspective of a soldier, a priest, a doctor, a nurse, a family member, etc.

Role-playing is such an effective tool in education.  As Vygotsky said “In play, the child is always behaving beyond his age, above his usual everyday behaviour; in play he is, as it were, a head above himself. Play contains in a concentrated form, as in the focus of a magnifying glass, all developmental tendencies; it is as if the child tries to jump above his usual level.”

It’s not a required assignment, and like most things that students do because they want to as opposed to because they have to, it’s easily my most enriching “grading” exercise of the year.   So with their permission, I offer some of my students’ work.  There’s a lot more that I can include here, so maybe I’ll take another day later into our forced break to share some more.

(If you’re interested, you can find most of the great poems from the war here.  You also watch stunning videos of actors reading some poems produced by the BBC for the 100 year anniversary of WWI.)


What Do the People Say?
By Elena Forman

People say,
Look for the light
At the end of the tunnel.
People say,
Save your country.
People say,
Love your neighbor.
People say,
People say,
People Say,
But, I ask,
What about when there is no light?
What about when it is so dark, you cannot see the end of the tunnel.
It is too dark even to see the walls of the tunnel,
Or the beginning,
Or even to know that you are in a tunnel at all.
What about, I ask,
When your country stands,
Turns red in the face,
Kicks you out of your home,
Away from your family,
And leaves you in the dust?
What about
When you must take from your neighbor?
When you are told, you must steal from your neighbor.
What about when you are told,
They aren’t your neighbor anyways.
What about when the people who yell stand,
What about when the people who say go!
What about when the people who say fight,
I ask then,
What do people say?
Do they say,
Do they say,
Do they say,
Come home, child,
Come back to us.
Or do they turn their backs?
Pour lies from their lips.
Stutter and splutter out senseless sympathy,
Then forget and forget and forget.
How can the people say Stay?
How can they say wait?
As we watch our neighbors die around us.
As we wait for the next bomb.
As we sit, six feet from another,
Waiting for our time to go.
The people say now.
The people say here.
The people don’t open their eyes,
And ears,
And lips,
To taste the sorrow we sit in,
Day by day.
Turn a shoulder.
Shut out sound.
Paint an idea in your head,
Label it truth,
Then say Go.
What are we fighting for
Where do we stay?
Where do we go?
Can we return to painting pretty pictures
Inside our heads?
Can we escape these horrors
And love instead?
But the people say
So we stay in the trenches,
And watch our neighbors,
Die through the night.


by Caitlyn Shaw

ww1 poem


By Musabbiha Zaheer

It was the color on his comic books
That Johnny read more earnestly than his textbooks
With big, bold letters on the cover
Swooping in his gullible eyes like a seagull
Zealously luring him to soar like Union Jack and Phantom Eagle
It covered the plastic windows at the grocer’s
Asking us to fill up the factory quotas
With ourselves and our sisters
Swooping in our gullible eyes like a seagull
Pleading with us to pay the incumbent price of freedom
It was the color of the sun the day he became a Tommy
And the color of the California poppies
It was the color of the TNT in the factories
That we put into bombs to hopefully lessen our boys’ calvary
It turned us all into canaries
But it wasn’t at all like the King Midas stories
And after the explosion at Silvertown
There were only random bones thrown around
And cut-off heads with expressionless frowns
Even dolls had more lively scowls
But even that wasn’t enough for Wilhelm’s howls
It was the color of the mustard gas
That the Germans shamelessly used en masse
And after one such attack
A brown envelope was sent from France
Wounded and gassed
His body was a wasteland
Hastily cleaned flesh and pus complemented with blood and a frail hand
The world became a series of photographs
Spotted with dismal field poppies in brown grass
Felt like scribbling with a pen on polished ash
Who knew such a minuscule notion could cause so much pain
And cause the sun to never rise again


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One Comment on “Children at Play; Insights into WWI”

  1. dick scott March 19, 2020 at 9:02 am #

    No grumbling in this. What a meaningful way to study for your students.

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