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Upper Schoolers Debate the Ethics of War with Steinbeck

In American Literature of War, upper schoolers examine the American wartime experience throughout our nation's history. Through novels, short stories, plays, and films inspired by historical events, this class investigates every aspect of human warfare — history, strategy, politics, economics, ethics, opposition and more. As Americans, these are the stories we tell about our place in the world. Recently, the class staged a mock war crimes trial to debate the moral dilemmas of occupation presented in John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down.

Specialized Topics in Literature

Our junior seminar program allows students to study literature through unique and carefully curated classes. Rather than study American Literature as a whole, they can choose a particular focus with classes like African American Voices in Literature and The Immigrant Experience in America. As part of that program, American Literature of War is designed to help students explore the connection between literature and history through warfare. Overall goals include:
  • To determine the extent to which historical fiction represents truth
  • To read literature for its intrinsic historical value
  • And further one’s understanding of American history and its connection to world history
Severn School high school students debating in class.
Concentrated curriculum with the element of choice encourages our students to take ownership of their learning.

Guilty or Innocent?

John Steinbeck wrote The Moon is Down as an allegory for the German occupation of Norway during WWII. The book's opening pages depict a town that has just been conquered by invaders. Although the townspeople aren’t strong enough to fight against the invading troops, they hold tight to their democratic ideals, form an underground resistance, and block the army from its primary goal of taking coal from the town. The story unfolds to demonstrate the psychological effects of occupation on both the townspeople and the invaders.

The highest-ranking official in the invading army, Colonel Lanser, is accused of war crimes for his actions throughout the story. Although many of his actions are appalling, he acts under orders and is otherwise characterized as a good person with high moral values. Our juniors form two groups — prosecution and defense — and debate if Colonel Lanser is guilty of these crimes, thus examining the complications of morality and military law in wartime.
Severn School high school students debating in class.
Mr. Salinas posts relevant elements from the International Criminal Court’s definition of war crimes to provide structure for his students' arguments.

Complex Learning for Complex Issues

As the two groups go head to head, the debate reaches beyond a simple examination of the author’s work. The class seems to place themselves inside the lives of the characters to examine the conflict as if it were happening outside our doors. As they pull from their academic understanding of history and literature, they also invoke empathy and compassion for the humans involved. They learn that war can’t be defined by absolute right or absolute wrong on one side or the other. It is complex and requires nuanced understanding. Their investment in the debate and the outcome becomes evident, as does their mastery of the text.
“Every year the kids ask how I grade this...I don’t. Their competitive instincts kick in and they get so much more out of it because it becomes a live issue rather than just an academic issue. It engages their actual values and forces them to think about all of the complexities at play. They do such a great job with it.” — English teacher Mr. Jason Salinas
Severn School high school students debating in class.
The defense discussing their counterpoints before taking the podium to deliver.

About the Upper School English Curriculum

Severn's English program emphasizes the development of comprehension, critical thinking, coherence, cogency, and fluency as our students learn to express their ideas and communicate in both written and oral compositions. Our program also seeks to enrich our students' lives and promote social and emotional maturity as they examine qualities like courage, cowardice, vulnerability, and integrity in an array of complex and diverse characters. We select literature for its richness of texture, excellence of content and style, and representation of the human experience in all its forms.

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Lower School

Preschool-Grade 5
Chesapeake Campus
1185 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd
Arnold, MD 21012

Middle/Upper School

Grade 6-12
Teel Campus
Severna Park, MD 21146