Asking students to write about violence could be a risky proposition. There are several ways in which such an assignment could go wrong. Students may see this as an opportunity to release their inner video game avatars, indulging in graphic descriptions of gory scenes. They may also choose to share very personal stories, to the chagrin of parents or even school officials. Luckily, several teachers and scholars have written about their own experience asking students to undertake such a task, and can provide a valuable guide for anyone interested in teaching this unit.
In her study "Talking back to the masters: girls' writing about experiences of violence," Relebohile Moletsane analyzed the discourse created when 100 South African girls in a diverse environment wrote about their experiences with violence. She also "examined the different ways in which emotions are complexly and powerfully present in teaching and learning, and how these can be utilized to address the needs of learners with diverse autobiographies."
While this study took place in South Africa, I find it relevant to my work, as Moletsane is interested in exploring how autobiographical writing might empower typically silent voices. In her case, she is looking at black girls in a society that prioritizes white male power. In my instance, I believe the experiences of urban youth can often be suppressed or even commodified by our public narrative.
Moletsane posits that "writing, as opposed to talking about one's experiences to teachers and fellow students, may provide distance and relative safety that reduce the discomfort they normally experience in face–to–face communication in classrooms" 2. She concludes that the opportunity to write about violence provides students with an invaluable outlet for the violence that may otherwise negatively impact teaching and learning. She suggests that the opportunity to communicate through writing may help build relationships with teachers and peers for students who may otherwise have been marginalized.
The relationship building that would occur as a result of this autobiographical writing is an important underpinning to my curriculum unit. Whereas many students find it difficult to talk about their own lives, the opportunity to write about their experiences can be an important community building activity. This can only work, however, if a teacher is prepared to respond to students who do reveal autobiographical information and has already created a classroom environment that prioritizes trust.
Teacher and college professor Douglas Fisher advocates a purposeful approach in responding to students who disclose violence. He humorously summarizes the five approaches teachers generally take when students write about violence. I believe I have taken each approach at a different point in my own career, and so they are worth reproducing here:
The "Ostrich Approach"–ignoring the dis–closure and not addressing it
The "Rush Limbaugh Approach"–focusing on grammar or spelling errors but ignoring the difficult content
The "Sally Jessy Rafael Approach"–asking for more information but not addressing the pain (e.g., writing, "Thank you for sharing this with me.")
The "Dr. Quinn Approach"–overreacting to the information when the writer was simply looking for a listener (e.g., writing, "Oh, my God, I'll call the social worker and get someone over to your house this afternoon.")
The "Professional Approach"–recognizing the disclosure (e.g., "This must have been a terrible experience.") while offering help and asking the writer what he or she would like the listener to do, if anything.
Fisher suggests the professional approach, and studied both middle and high school contexts in order to see how such a strategy would work. His work at the middle school level is particularly relevant to this unit, because he observed several teachers who were reading and writing biographies with their students. He concludes that trust is essential to doing this sort of writing. He encourages teachers to ensure their students know that they are mandated reporters, and that instructors explain what this means (if students reveal they are in danger in person OR in writing, teachers are mandated to act), but that they also avoid overreacting to recollections of past experiences. Most importantly, he stresses that teachers cannot expect students to disclose personal information if there is an unhealthy classroom environment or if there is not trust between a teacher and students. For this reason, it is critical that this unit take place in the second half of the school year, rather than early in September when students are just getting to know their instructors.
Middle school is an ideal age to have these conversations and begin such an exploration. Some administrators or parents may have reservations about asking 8
graders to write about the role of violence in their lives, and so it is important to ground this work in the reality of adolescent development. As students prepare to depart the middle grades, they are full of questions. They wonder who they truly are and what kind of person they'll become. They start to wonder what has made them into the student, friend, son or daughter that they are. They are looking for stability in what feels like a very unstable world.
Anyone who has ever taught middle school, or perhaps even interacted with a middle school age child knows that there is nothing more important to these students than fairness. For them, the greatest affront to their sensibility is to be unfair; to favor one student over another or even differ your treatment of similar situations. I have to think this is grounded in the adolescent's ultimate desire for some sort of understanding and inclusion. Every time a student is treated unfairly, he or she is made to feel more isolated than he or she already is. In a world where social groupings change from one day to another, and behavior is guided by impulse, children want to know that they're not alone; that someone understands what they are going through and perhaps has been through something similar.
If you add to this general description of middle school life the unending violence and instability that can accompany life in our modern inner cities, it's possible to imagine this feeling of injustice and isolation being magnified until a student starts to lose sense of who he or she is and what he or she believes. Sometimes, it's possible to watch this happen through the course of a year. A violent event or a disruption in family life will dislodge a student from his course. He will withdraw, or act out. He will skip school, or disengage from the work of the class. I can sympathize with that student, but I can never totally empathize. That is, I can't pretend to stand where he is standing and face the challenges he will face. So even as I give advice or consolation, it rings hollow knowing that my experiences will never mirror his.
The power I do have, though, is to introduce that student to other lives, especially real lives. I can show him that he is, indeed, not alone. I can hand him a text that says, "Look, here is a man who suffered greatly, who questioned his own identity and values, who struggled yet survived. Here is a man who understands you and wants to speak to you." And then I can ask that same student to question how violence has already shaped him, and more importantly, how will he let it shape him moving forward. Eighth graders are just starting to feel the power of autonomy, of making their own decisions and choosing their own course. It's a perfect moment to step in and ask them to do so critically, and with the advice and evidence of those who have come before.
So then the question remains, what about those students who come from warm families and stable communities? Is there value in asking those students to consider the role of violence in their lives? I believe there is, although the question may have to be reframed. I live in New Haven, and have never heard a gunshot on my block. I have never witnessed a crime. Yet, a body was once found not three blocks from my house. The truth is, we all live in communities that in one way or another border the kind of domestic and societal violence that some students encounter every day. And all of us will encounter colleagues and peers that will have endured an abusive home. This unit will help all students understand the forces that shape the people around them.