What do the following have in common: seals, rats, pigeons, orcas and pigs. Any ideas?
How about if I tell you that seals and orcas also share something else - and it's nothing to do with being mammals that live in the ocean?
Still no? They are all animals that have been used in wars. Furthermore, seals and orcas are still used by the military today.
The fact that these animals have all done military service makes for a great introductory lesson to War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, which I teach to my mixed-ability group of 11- and 12-year-olds.
We begin with the question above, then discuss the roles of animals traditionally used in warfare and try to work out what roles other animals could play. Once we have exhausted that line of enquiry, we move to a pre-prepared worksheet. This does not make for pleasant viewing: it is a list of shocking statistics about horses in the First World War, such as the fact that 256,000 died on the Western Front.
In groups of four, the students read the worksheets. They then discuss the facts and figures and I add in the curve ball that many horses died while saving human lives by pulling ambulance carts. This gives them something to ponder: is it fair to sacrifice animals for humans?
Once they have had a chance to digest and discuss the facts with each other, I ask them to stand in a line from the window to the door, according to how they would answer the statement "animals should be used in human wars". The window is strongly agree and the door strongly disagree. With the use of a talking prop such as a beanbag, we then debate the issue. Whether they speak or not they have demonstrated their answer just by moving.
By the time I hand out the well-thumbed copies of War Horse, the pupils are full of ideas and opinions and are raring to begin reading.
Katie White is an English teacher at Kingsbridge Community College in Devon
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