Last year I wrote an YNHTI curriculum unit for my 8
grade classes centering on an account of the murder of Emmett Till. This text was a lens for looking at narrative non–fiction and the Civil Rights movement. One of the activities I mentioned briefly in the curriculum unit was to follow up this whole class text with a focus on human rights. Over winter break, students read one of several book–length accounts of a modern day human rights injustice (including
A Long Walk to Water
Prisoner of Tehran
A Long Way Gone
Words in the Dust, and I am Nujood
Age 10 and Divorced
). Most of these texts would be considered memoir, although two are fictionalized. Students then wrote an essay arguing for societal action/change.
After teaching the unit this year, I believe we have had some significant successes (students are more aware of ongoing human rights abuses around the world), but their essay writing has left me dissatisfied. Perhaps I am asking too much of 8
graders when I require them to translate one account of a difficult life half a world away into a meaningful and persuasive essay on a broader issue. Or perhaps, as is often the case in teaching, my own thinking is a bit muddy, which is translating into muddy work for my students.
Some of the most successful essays have come from those students who ignored my assignment entirely and wrote about gun violence in New Haven and the impact it has had on them personally (many of my students were close to a 13 year old boy who died violently in October). I spent a great deal of time with a student who was intuitively employing the skills of a biographer; she was writing down her account of her friend's murder, then watching News Channel 8 clips online to cross check her facts and add more details.
This made me think that I had missed a real opportunity for the rest of the class to utilize their own experiences, in addition to outside resources, to craft more meaningful essays. For while it is important for students to be aware of human rights abuses around the world, many of my own students have experienced violence in their own lives here in New Haven. Some have seen shootings in their neighborhood, while others are victims of domestic and family violence. Those who haven't come into direct conflict with these situations are attending school every day with students whose lives are filled with difficult circumstances. Whether they know it or not, each and every one of my students is living with the consequences of the violence that pervades our society. There isn't always the opportunity to have a conversation about what this means, and how witnessing distress can change our lives.
One of the major effects that I often see is that students will resort to violence themselves to solve their conflicts. They do this almost casually, with very little reflection upon their actions. Part of this is their age, and is a well–known part of adolescence. But there is also a real acceptance of violence as a necessary, rather than last, resort. It might be beneficial to begin a class dialogue about the connection between what we experience and how it influences our behavior, as well as why this behavior is problematic, especially in a classroom setting. But rather than address this topic directly, which may be uncomfortable for some students and may, in fact, shut down conversation, I propose to use biography and memoir as an entryway to such a discussion.