Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Letter from Mr. Elie Wiesel

Teacher's Note: Upon finishing Night, I assigned my students to write a letter thanking a local Holocaust survivor for his visit to us. Two young men asked me if they could instead write to Elie Wiesel. I said of course! Below is Mr. Wiesel's letter back to them.

Dear (student names):

Thank you for your kind letter. I always enjoy hearing from young people, and your letter was no exception.

I am moved to learn of the effect that my memoir, Night, had on you. As a writer, nothing is more important. From your words, it is obvious that you are very sensitive to the darkness of which I wrote.

If Night has helped you better understand the tragedies of the past, I am grateful. It is my belief that one who hears a witness becomes a witness in turn. May you use your knowledge and understanding to educate those who are unaware.

Keep learning and reading, more and more.

With best wishes to you,

Elie Wiesel

Friday, April 24, 2009

Curiosity and Imagination

Einstein is quoted on bookmarks, coffee mugs and t-shirts as saying that imagination is more important than knowledge. I'd refine that (are you allowed to refine Einstein?) to say that the two reinforce each other. Rather unexpectedly, one of the most powerful writing prompts I've given yet this year simply began, "I've always been curious about...." Students were invited to continue the sentence from there. What responses! They wrote about wondering how big the universe really was, how different races emerged, the origins of different languages, why the continents are the size and shape they are, and how viruses survive. Some of them also took a more personal track, wondering about what would happen on an upcoming court date or why a loved one left. When possible, I found articles on subjects the students had expressed curiosity about. I had had another activity planned that day, after the writing prompt, but we didn't even get to it with some classes! Almost every student wanted to share, and the debate about their writings extended into the rest of the class period. It was a powerful reminder that our minds are, in fact, hard wired to learn. This should be natural (which is not the same as saying it's also not work).

I tried a similar activity to inspire some curiosity about a favorite short story of mine, Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergernon". I invited students to imagine what life might be like in the year 2081, the year in which Vonnegut sets his story. They imagined that we'd have cell phones implanted in our brains and have the ability to travel to a place just by thinking of it. They imagined that we'd have a female president by then, though I was most interested to hear that they didn't think we'd have a Muslim or Hispanic president. Such a simple little exercise, but even with my older students here, say seventeen or eighteen, every hand was in the air to imagine.

The question becomes, does this result in actual learning? That is, does the quality of curiosity and the ability to imagine result in a set of knowledge, skills or values which will serve them in their out-of-school lives? I must argue that yes, it certainly does and is a necessary skill in some very practical, concrete ways. Every leap forward in medicine, technology, education or other fields started in someone's imagination. Elise Boulding, in The Hidden Side of History, has even argued that the ability to imagine creatively actually protects democracy! Asar Nafisi has argued something similar in her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Business leaders often talk about the need for creative thinkers as well. Especially with students for whom our educational system has failed, beginning with curiosity, a natural human trait for most of us, is an essential step for engaging students who too often don't see any connection between the classroom and their lives. The curriculum development and educational leadership question then becomes, how can we design learning experiences that begin with being curious about something.