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Confront and question

A man decapitates someone and then hangs himself.
A young man learns to return hate with hate.
A powerful leader is assassinated via stabbing.
An entire people group is nearly annihilated.
A girl’s parents and two sisters die because of a corrupt government.
A boy is raped in an alleyway, and his friend does nothing to help him.

Welcome to my tenth grade literature class.*

Things Fall ApartObviously, this is not a feel-good reading list. The characters in these books are either suffering as a result of someone else’s decisions or making the questionable decisions themselves. Either way, it’s pretty depressing.

It’s also a list that is — for the most part — not morally instructive. But should it be? Is it my job as a teacher to select “moral” texts? I’ve given this question a lot of thought since listening to Walter and Christopher Myers’ interview on “Here & Now,” in which they discuss the lack of diversity in children’s literature. The younger Myers states, “These books are used as tools of fantasy, these books are used as ways that kids can make road maps for their own lives.” He goes on to say, “One of the tools we can use to try to bring them back into the mainstream is transmitting values in books.”

But I disagree — not on the point that we need more diverse children’s literature but on the point of why it’s important.

Maybe I’m oversimplifying or misunderstanding his ideas, but I do not believe books need to transmit values or give anyone a “road map” for how to live life. Beyond the question of whose values should be transmitted, I’d even argue that such an approach makes for bad literature.

In my opinion, the best story is less a map and more an alarm. It wakes us up to look at the world around us and it forces us to move. It allows us to confront ourselves, our friends, our family, our community, our human nature as these things really are. It might do this through nonfiction or fiction, through realism or fantasy. It does not do this just so we can declare, “Hey, there I am!” and it does not command, “Act like this.”

A good story provides readers with opportunities to confront and question. This process can be transformational because it empowers people to think independently by thinking deeply and critically.

As a teacher, I try to create a space where students have the opportunity to do exactly that. Here’s a list of ways I attempt to engage my students in such a way with that horribly depressing literature I mentioned earlier (some I’ve learned from others, some I’ve invented, and some are a combination of the two):

  • Responsive class discussion — I pose a question raised by the story and call on somebody for an opening response. Students who want to respond to that first comment hold up a number indicating what they intend to do (1 = agree and add something, 2 = disagree, 3 = question), and the student who just spoke calls on the next person.

  • Small group discussions, featuring the DA — Students discuss a series of questions related to the story in groups of 4-5. I assign one person in each group to be a “Devil’s Advocate.” It is that person’s job to question and disagree with the others in order to make them think more deeply.

  • Four Corners — I post a statement inspired by the story, students move to a corner of the room that describes how they feel about it (Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree), and then we have a discussion. Students are free to move corners during the discussion if someone’s ideas sway them.

  • Soapbox Debates — I divide the class into two sides; one side must always argue YES, the other side must always argue NO. I then pose a question inspired the text, give the teams a couple minutes to plan their arguments, and then ask one student from each side to go to the front of the room (usually I have them stand on milk crates). They then have three minutes to engage in an open debate, during which time they can call on a teammate to take over as they see fit.

(I’d like to point out that the questions or statements I use in these activities do not have objectively correct answers. If one does, the discussion will fall flat on its face. The questions must be controversial to invite discussion.)

A lack of diverse literature is not dangerous simply because it skews representation or leaves people map-less. The real danger is that it limits what we confront, and because of that, it limits who we can become.

* Here are the books referenced in the opening, respectively:
   Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
   The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley
   Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
   Night by Elie Wiesel
   First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung
  The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Randy Ribay
Randy Ribay
Randy Ribay teaches high school English at an all-boys charter school in Philadelphia and is a regular reviewer for The Horn Book Guide. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Colorado and an Ed.M. in Language & Literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the author of An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes (Merit Press, Oct 2015).
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Randy Ribay

Thanks, Thom. Let me know if you have any additional suggestions on how to engage students in discussions about difficult themes!

Posted : Jun 06, 2014 07:39

Thom Barthelmess

Thanks so much for this. I'm really taken with your engagement activities and look forward to adapting them for my own teaching. And your final paragraph is such a beautifully articulated response to those who would challenge the place of difficult and ugly subject matter in books for young people.

Posted : Jun 06, 2014 02:45



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