Active Learning and books: The Nazi Occupation

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For our students, active learning is a reality most days on The Village.  Sometimes this is because we hold classes on a terrace right next to the historic events we are discussing, and sometimes it’s because our language students are out using in real time the lessons they’re working on for their French or Spanish classes.  But even when we build the syllabi for our courses and choose books, we try to assemble materials that will not only teach our students what we want them to learn but also impact them emotionally. So that what they learn becomes associated with how they felt about where they were when they did their reading and their learning.

An example of this selection criteria at play is the novel Suite Française, a novel by Irène Némirovsky, about the early period of the Nazi occupation of France.  There are many books that might be used to teach this era. (And films, too.) But for our students, who are living in small-town France and can find without even looking examples of setting and character that suggested in this novel, there’s a special power to the book and its tragic story that resonates because of where they are when they read it.  The power is magnified, even, when they learn about the tragic personal story that was the author’s life and death as well as about how the literal artifact of the book itself had its own story or death and life as it lay ignored for decades in a pile of the late author’s memoirs and papers, only to be found, finally, and published as one of the greatest literary events in French letters of the post-war period.

Here, in a brief review written by one of our alumni, is one student’s account of this book and how it was for her to meet it for the first time in France:

“Suite Francaise depicts an aspect of World War II that is not often explored in the classroom: the effects of Germany’s occupation of France starting on June 14, 1940. The first section of the book,Tempête en juin, describes the flight of different families from their homes during the German invasion. Surprisingly, many people, despite having lived through a war already, were incredibly ill-prepared for what leaving their home behind would mean. The wealthy in particular were ignorant of the urgency of the situation, and could be seen piling furniture, toys and candy for their children, and embroidered sheets in several cars.

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The second section, Dolce, contains a rather more shocking concept: the fact that many French women fell in love with the German soldiers occupying their towns. While this may seem preposterous, it is not unrealistic. After all, despite the atrocious acts committed during World War II, many soldiers were simply young men, excited to serve their country and participate in battles. It is young men such as these who were occupying French towns, and so it should come as no surprise that the widowed or abandoned women there took an interest in them. Dolce is the surprisingly tender and lonely story of a young French woman named Lucile who is married off by her father to a man she does not love. While her husband is away at war, she is left to stay in an empty house with her cold, disapproving mother-in-law. During the occupation, a handsome young German soldier comes to live in their house, and slowly, the two begin to fall for each other. However, distrust and the gruesome reality of the war stand in the way of their future together.

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This book has taught me that the truth of Germany’s occupation of France is far more complicated than it had seemed, and I hope to learn even more about it in my history class this week. And the special poignancy I’ve felt in reading and discussing this novel while here in France is remarkable.  Just as the incredibly sad history of its marvelous author is at once tragic and unforgettable.  And I know I’m not going to be a history or literature major or anything, but I can say for sure that I won’t ever forget this book and what it taught me.”

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Learning on the Streets of Paris: The Village during ParisWEEK

My view from atop the Eiffel Tower: how better to learn the geography of the City of Light than to see it all at once?
 
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Learning on the streets of Paris

For a history major, or really anybody interested in studying history or art, there is no better way to truly learn what happened (or understand the social, historical, or economical impacts of an event) than standing right where the history in question happened. Because when sitting in a classroom, historical events can seem distant and unimaginable, almost as if they’d never really happened. However, when one stands in the exact place where Louis XIV held court, or Napoleon led his troops off to battle, or Hitler gave speeches against the Jews, the past comes alive. What might have seemed unimaginable or mysterious on a Power Point slide is instead something that’s very real.

 

A hidden gem in Paris where I studied history and the history of science: the Lutece Arena, almost invisible though located right in the heart of the Latin Quarter

The Feeling of Being where History happened

Our week spent in Paris on The Village Program — learning on the streets, seeing the places where Roman gladiatorial contests were held, the palaces that Louis XIV built, the square where Dreyfus was stripped of his rank — all brought the history we had just learned in the classrooms to life in a way I never imagined was possible. I could feel the energy of such places, understand the importance, and better see the why, the where, and the how of such events just because I stood in the same place.

Better yet, spending the week walking around Paris with our professors constantly using the important sights and monuments surrounding us us as teaching tools–while simultaneously explaining their significance–was an amazing experience for us all.  So often when seeing a new place, I miss so much because I simply don’t know the background stories and legacies that have been its “backstory.” On The Village, we get to feel as students like we are getting the “inside story” that nobody who comes as a tourist could ever get. Because it’s always the hidden places as much as the important monuments  and touristic landmarks that create the real context of any location

 

Of course our English class brought us to this famed bookstore to learn about the inter-war writers.
 

Language learning in café

Practicing my French in a small café in the center of Paris was also an experience I’ll never forget. Was I sometimes nervous to use my French and ask for what I wanted? Oui! But I eventually pushed past that reticence and ordered. And over a week of popping into the same little cafe and ordering un petit espresso not only did I gain the confidence to roll my order off my tongue but by the end I stared to get the “local treatment,” which means that the patron would get my order without either of us saying anything beyond Bonjour!  There are big things that feel great about learning to navigate a great city like Paris.  I loved those things. But the smaller things–like being recognized in my favorite cafe by the hostel where we stayed–are the ones that make me miss Paris most when I think about it right now.

Maybe our time in the Loire Valley in our tiny town helped me to appreciate these small things or at least to watch more closely what happens “behind the scenes” in the settings of life in any city. From Paris, I better understand the hard work a small café owner puts into his shop and so many other tiny things that are about how people live there. I saw the same young man working at our favorite café from open to close, just as I learned about the organization of a French post office because that’s where I went to mail my post cards. I luxuriated in the beauty of the Parisian park system not as a tourist but as a tired student — living in Paris — who needed a great place to relax after class.

I better understand all of these important aspects of French society and life in Paris because I was able, through my Village Program life, to live a week in Paris and feel like a local there. And it was a week I will never forget.

 

Nobody who is a History major can miss what it’s like to learn at Versailles