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What do ordinary people do during war?

This is one of the questions from a student that gave me pause a long time ago.  It was a sort of typical survey humanities course, and I vividly remember her interesting and important question. My own history education was often centered on primary sources or key events summarized neatly in a textbook, and I don’t think we really learned too much about wars beyond key government players, important military folk, and the occasional bit of rationing for Americans back home.

I told that student I would try to figure out more, but my time in that room ended. And I never got to finish that conversation.

Symphony for the City of the DeadBut when I read the book Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson, about Dmitri Shostakovich composing music in Leningrad in 1941, that question came back to me. (Now perhaps Shostakovich is not the most ordinary person ever, but he was not a government or military player in the war — he was trying to go about his life despite a war all around him.) As I read, I thought about the complex lives that people lead, even in the midst of traumatic and terrible circumstances. I thought about how important it is to see humanness in the midst of history happening, and I hope we remember what life is like for all sorts of people, famous and not.

A topic of much controversy when I work with teachers these days is the role of nonfiction in the humanities (English/language arts and/or social studies) classroom. New standards feature informational text in a much more prominent role, and often this means I get requests for nonfiction titles that could work well in classrooms. As I think about the wide array of information books being published nowadays for children and adolescents, I believe nonfiction has the potential to answer questions like this one about regular people and wars. When writers present unusual and previously little-known stories, we as teachers have new opportunities to humanize all sorts of people throughout history.

Christina Dobbs
Christina Dobbs
Christina Dobbs is an assistant professor of English Education at Boston University. She is a former high school teacher, literacy coach, and reading specialist, and she studied adolescent literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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