Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Savage Inequalities

With admiration and love for Kozol, of course.

So an interesting conversation happened in class the other day as we finished Anne Frank in preparation for our visitor from the Holocaust Memorial Museum, a woman who is herself a Holocaust Survivor. I've always believe that literature is one of the most wonderful ways to learn history, and that history is a lot of what brings literature to life, so I've emphasized some of the WWII history surrounding Anne's circumstances. As always, there are kids who have not heard the word "Holocaust" or "Hitler". I've created a bulletin board with pictures from the Museum's website with pictures from the Concentration Camps and of Nazi propaganda to engage kids in what the scale of the Holocaust really was as we read about this fourteen year old who chronicled both the horrors of genocide as well as the more ordinary struggles of growing up. During one of these conversations, a couple of students protested that "we all know this already". This was a teachable moment, and I used it to reinforce that schools in our country are of staggeringly varied quality and that not 30 minutes before, I had had to explain in full who Hitler was, and that Germany and Holland are countries. The boys who had assumed all of their classmates would of course know were, I think it's fair to say, surprised to learn otherwise. No kid in my classroom here has had it easy; none of them are privileged. But perhaps a little more awareness of the "savage inequalities" their own peers face is the most valuable lesson I can offer.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Writer's Power

A major theme throughout my language arts class is the power of telling your story. Maria, Sharoud and the other Freedom Writers did exactly that. As we finish Anne Frank, we're discovering that she did the exact same thing. I've asked questions to prompt this observation, such as asking who it is that has the power in the Secret Annex where the Franks and the Van Danns hid. Some of their answers included Anne's parents or Hitler, all valid suggestions, but I went on to suggest that the most powerful person in that hidden attic is Anne herself. This is because it's her voice that, generations later, we still hear.

At one point, Anne says that she is determined to "go on living" after she has died. I asked my students if this was really possible. The strong opinion was that yes, it is possible, and that this is exactly what Anne accomplished through her writing. She is immortal now.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Relating to Anne Frank

So we're heading towards the middle of Anne Frank's Diary now. I'm impressed by how much many of my students know about WWII--though at the same time, it's also important to say that I've had students how hadn't heard of the Holocaust. Seeing them respond to The Freedom Writer's Diary was rewarding, but I'm even more impressed to see some of the connections they are making to Anne. The connections to this young German/Dutch girl from the 1940s hiding for her life in a little attic in Amsterdam are not as obvious as some of the themes of gang violence, addition and broken families in the Freedom Writers. But they are making those connections.

When one student asked why the Freedom Writers had loved this book so much, other students jumped in to answer before I could. "She's locked up." "She's hated for her race." The fear Anne and her family faced is the same fear of a kid who hears bullets outside his or her window at night. Some students are also related to the frustrations Anne writes about with her family, whom she doesn't think are really capable of understanding her. (Is there a fourteen year old alive who feels differently?) As with any book worth the time, its themes are universal. I can't wait for the local Holocaust survivor who is coming to visit; what a powerful experience that will be to hear her experiences first hand!

On a bit of a more humorous note, referring the the Franks' constant efforts to be silent so they won't be caught, one student said, "Imagine being on quiet time for three years!"

Thursday, January 3, 2008


I find myself often emphasizing ideas that I want my students to unlearn.

In my Language Arts classroom, one of the things I want students to immediately begin unlearning that the crazy idea that writing must be perfect on the first try. There simply is no such thing. Revision does not make you a bad writer; it makes you a good one. Nor do we expect this perfection on the first try outside the classroom. No coach only puts her players on the field during game time. There are drills, scrimmages, and practice. There must be a "safe" space to practice writing, make mistakes, fix them, and try again without penalty. Freewriting, for me, is that space. It's also a wonder way to let kids tell their own story, which to me is the most meaningful kind of writing possible. I know kids are "learning" that it must be perfect from somewhere. They constantly want dictionaries for spelling and exhibit a focus on, for example, handwriting. I tell them those things are important, but not yet. Eventually, most of them relax and simply begin writing.

Does it count as "data" that some of my students have asked to take their journals with them when they left the Detention Center? I think so.

This is why I philosophically stand behind the practice of "freewriting", though some argue that it is too unstructured and informal to "do any good". In freewriting, the topic is wide open, and the only rule is you must keep your pen moving. If you get stuck, write that. As I say to my kids nearly every day, it's not that you get an idea and then start writing. You start writing and then get an idea. This is the second misconception that I want kids to "unlearn"--that you must know exactly what you're going to say before you put pencil to paper. Writing is a process of discovery of one's self and the world. There's no way possible to know where you may end up once you start.