“There are those who tell me that I survived in order to write this text. I am not convinced. I don’t know how I survived; I was weak, rather shy; I did nothing to save myself. A miracle? Certainly not. If heaven could or would perform a miracle for me, why not for others more deserving than myself? It was nothing more than chance. However, having survived, I needed to give some meaning to my survival. Was it to protect the meaning that I set to paper an experience in which nothing made any sense?” ~Elie Wiesel, Preface to the new translation of Night
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon, and I’m running low on imagination… which reminds me of the inspiring speech by Julia Alvarez that I attended this week. I’ve been teaching Night at school, the Holocaust account written by Elie Wiesel. While these two events might seem unrelated, Julia Alvarez’s words helped to illuminate the task of making the Night unit meaningful and effective for my students.
Night has proven to be a challenging text for me because while I feel strongly about the issues of discrimination and the power of personal strength to rise up against oppression, I want studying the text to be more than exoticism of the Other and fascination with a story riddled with senseless cruelty and endless violence. The students love the text, but to a certain extent, they feel comfortable exploring the cruelty of the Nazi regime and the injustice of the Holocaust. They know it was wrong; they feel assured that they would have spoken out and taken action if they had been there. I want the reading of the text to go beyond them acknowledging the horrible atrocity (though there is certainly value in bearing witness to the suffering and deaths of so many millions). It is my hope that they will begin to realize the biases and intolerance in their own world and that they will take steps toward addressing those injustices.
As I'm struggling with this text, in steps serendipity in the form of a lovely and charismatic Dominican American woman. This week at Bridgewater College, Julia Alvarez spoke of the power of stories to change the world. It was a message I needed to hear. She spoke of the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic (a story she recounts in her historical fiction novel, In the Time of the Butterflies) and expressed the way that three sisters (and the story of their deaths as martyrs) brought about the destruction of Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship because of the power of their story. She also talked about the uplifting story that she tells in her most recent publication, the non-fiction book A Wedding in Haiti.
Alvarez stated, “Nothing human is alien to the storyteller.” As she explained what she meant by that statement, she illuminated the fact that the storyteller makes it possible for nothing human to be alien to the reader, either. She said that stories help us navigate through our lives and steer us toward remaining “humane”—that they enable the reader to become the Other. She commented that most problems in our world “come from a lack of imagination,” from people’s inability to imagine a perspective different from their own. I’ve been thinking about how to help students have a little more imagination when it comes to understanding others with compassion.
We watched the PBS frontline documentary called "A Class Divided" about a teacher, Jane Elliott, who wanted her students to experience discrimination firsthand, so she imposed a rule that “blue-eyed people are better than brown-eyed people.” She enforced the discriminatory system by making brown-eyed students wear collars and by continually proclaiming prejudicial statements that reinforced the paradigm. The third-grade students took to the new system instantly.
Two boys got into a fight on the playground, and the boy who did the punching explained that he hit his friend because the blue-eyed friend had called him “brown eyes.” This testimony showed how quickly harmless words can become vicious. We discussed the role of name-calling in discrimination and the damage that derogatory terms can cause.
The second day, the teacher flipped the system, explaining that she had lied to them and that brown-eyed people were superior to blue-eyed people. Again, the students instantly absorbed and reinforced the new paradigm. The students who were now on top were vicious and arrogant; those on the bottom were self-deprecating and despairing. The day ended with a debriefing, during which the students confessed how much the oppression had hurt them and how easy it had been to be merciless and cruel when they were the oppressors.
The documentary resonated with my students, many of whom wrote thoughtful reflections about the ways that they had treated others poorly because of personal prejudices or the way that they had experienced discrimination firsthand and the pain that it caused them. They made connections to Night and to our world today (especially in light of the media coverage of the Boston marathon bombing). However, when the time came for our Socratic discussion addressing tolerance and discrimination, many students, despite their preparations and all of the notes that they had taken to organize their ideas, were hesitant to speak. A few brave students spoke out, but they were often met with downcast eyes and long pauses before the student moderators found a way to transition to a new question. I hope that they were at least thinking deeply about these issues so that one day, when they witness injustice, they are able to speak.
What more can we do to help students discuss these vital issues of prejudice and discrimination? What are you doing in your classrooms to help your students learn tolerance and compassion? Please post your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section.
A quick pitch for the POETRY app by the Poetry Foundation: (1) It’s a phenomenal app, and a great way to get kids interested in poems if they have access to mobile devices or iPads. They can “spin” to find poems under various categories. I use it to let my students choose poems for their poetry research project and for other poetry analysis activities. When teaching AP Lit (and with any student who is looking for easy ways to read daily), I encourage them to use it daily to practice close reading and analysis. (2) It is in the running for a webby award. You can vote between now and April 26th, so there are only a few days left! If you like the app, please vote TODAY at the poetry foundation site: http://bit.ly/11rD63K.
For National Poetry Month, we’ve been starting class with a different entry activity (which I will call bell ringers). I learned it from someone who works with the Northwestern Virginia Writing project (whose name I will try to locate next week at school). She called it Borrow-a-Line and it goes like this: the students read a poem (I project it onto the screen) and then choose a line or phrase from the poem to begin their writing. They then write for three minutes straight. They should keep their writing utensil moving that whole time, even if they run out of things to say. They might write something amazing and then get stuck and write something random such as I have no idea what else to say. I’m hungry. I wonder what’s for lunch, etc.
In my class, I chose the first poem, but I’ve let students choose the poems for every day after the first one. They’ve chosen some amazing poems that I’d never seen before. Several of them have actually printed out the poem and brought it in to class; one student brought in a poem hand-written by his father.
Here are some of the poems they’ve selected:
“Defending My Insanity” by Nicolas Kokonas
“Fast Break” by Edward Hirsch
“The Law of the Jungle” by Rudyard Kipling
“Little or Nothing” by Ken Mikolowski
“I Looked Out at Life with Holocaust Eyes” by Alan Freshman
Some of them selected poems from the poets that they researched, but others chose poems that were completely new. For their research project, they use the poetry foundation app (and other resources) to find a poet that they like--each student chooses a different poet. Then they select and analyze two poems by the poet. Finally, they research that poet’s life and write a research essay exploring how knowledge of the biographical information illuminates the two poems they are analyzing.
During the bell ringer, the students and I all write for three minutes. Then they share their work with their group. Next week, they will turn in one piece that they like and that they’ve revised. I’m excited about seeing their products. At the end of this month, I will let them choose whether to continue with this bell ringer or go back to the ones we previously used. I’m curious to see what they decide.
In honor of National Poetry Month, here’s one I wrote during the three minutes, building off of Nicolas Kokonas’s poem:
I’ve had conversations with the rain--
It talks to me
Whispering the secrets of the world
In waves of water
Washing down the streets
And gutters and drains.
I’ve had conversations with the rain
As it echoes through the air
Often loud and angry—then
Quiet and hushed
And gentle on my face
Like the brush of a butterfly wing.
I’ve had conversations with the rain
And yet it will not answer me—not
What I most need to know.
It hides its secrets
Deep within its sky’s domain.
I’ve had conversations with the rain
And I’ve also heard
I’m waiting for it
To speak to me again.
So here’s to using poetry in class, and here’s to celebrating poetry! It’s beautiful, powerful, and useful, and there are so many ways that we can make it an authentic part of students’ learning. If you’re interested in trying the bell ringers, you can use Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day (and you can even listen to the audio!) to get started.
A quick synopsis for people who have not yet read The Road (2006): A father and son (who remain unnamed throughout) travel on a road that was once an American interstate, moving toward the south and the ocean in an attempt to find a warmer place and potentially other people like them. The father remembers all too well the world that once was; the young boy, who was born at the time of the apocalyptic event, cannot imagine what that world was like. The man often ponders the ghost of the world that once was: “Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was?”
I should begin by saying that I love Cormac McCarthy so passionately that this post will undoubtedly be more biased than usual. That said, until The Road came along, I never imagined that I would find myself using one of McCarthy’s texts in class.
What I love the most about The Road (as far as classroom use) is its accessibility, its honesty, and its hopefulness. While many students and readers of The Road would argue that it is fatalistic or hopeless, I maintain that while it is bleak (traveling alone to an unknown destination long after the almost complete annihilation of humanity is a bit grim), it is a story full of hope. As the father says to the boy, “You have to carry the fire…It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”
To carry on as the man and the boy do in a world where nothing is left is both exquisitely human and excruciatingly beautiful. “Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
One of the great aspects of this novel for teachers is that it functions on many levels. It is relatively easy to read and moves quickly, but its profundity enables meaningful explorations and discussions.
Another aspect I love about teaching this novel is the research project I have had the students do with it. Focusing on the following question, they research and present their arguments to the class: What happened prior to the beginning of the novel, and what would drive humans to make the choices that they do in the text?
This project encompasses several goals at once. The research is authentic and driven by a clear purpose, but it caters to students’ beliefs about the world and their unique interests rather than focusing narrowly on literary analysis. It also forces them to grapple with the more gruesome aspects of humanity such as cannibalism. The groups must persuade their classmates that they have the most convincing argument. McCarthy provides hints of aftermath within the novel (which they must utilize and incorporate into their presentations), but he leaves the issue ultimately undisclosed.
To be fair, to the characters in the novel, it doesn’t make any difference at all what happened. No knowledge of the previous events would alter the devastating reality of their present world, and I doubt McCarthy cares much what readers believe about what happened. However, like any good open-ended question, it is worthy of pursuit, and it gives students a chance to demonstrate how creativity, thorough research, and the power of persuasion can all fit together to serve their purpose.
Have you had success with other activities for The Road or similar texts? Do you have other research project ideas? Please post them in the comments section! If you’d like the materials that go with the research project for The Road, please email me and I will send them directly to you.
“Listen to me, he said, when your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that never will be, and you’re happy again, then you’ll have given up. Do you understand? And you can’t give up, I won’t let you.”
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.