Teaching War through Literature

Over the years, I have worked with English teachers and students to explore the First World War. One book that seems to be used in a number of Victorian High Schools at year 7 and 8 is The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett.

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The appeal of the story is in the careful selection of the characters and the provoking techniques of the author. Two school aged students come across an AWOL First World War soldier whilst playing in a paddock one day. The inclusion of these age appropriate characters is crucial in making the setting relatable to the students. As they continue to learn more about the soldier, he is no long a fact, figure or just another enlistee, but a human with emotion, fear, aspirations and, most of all, a family. This heightens empathy for the protagonist and forces students to form an opinion on the morality of the soldiers action in the face of a brutal war and the horrific impacts on everyday humans.

Until recently, I have been somewhat critical of historical fiction and Hollywood style adaptions of historic events. However, some, such as The Silver Donkey, have excellent historical access and go along way to understanding the challenges and realities of war. Whilst there are some incredible true stories from the First World War, historic fiction provides an interdisciplinary and familiar foundation or centrepiece from which to explore the historic context of the novel. This book would be a perfect fit for a Middle Schooling HSIE/SOSE/English class.

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