My students and I are enjoying the wonderful short story collection “Lunch With Lenin” by Deborah Ellis. For those who have not read it, “Lunch With Lenin” is a collection of short stories in which the young protagonists find themselves cast into frightening and difficult positions based on the impact of poverty, drugs, abuse, and other social ills. It is a challenging read, and can be quite dark. As you can imagine (if you know grade 7s) my students love it. They are curious about this dark place and realize that it is all too real for many.
You can imagine my surprise then, when I found that they were having an extremely hard time relating to two of the more compelling charcters in the book. We had read the story “Pretty Flowers” which takes place in rural Afghanistan after the initial wave of the most recent war in that country. Without spoiling it for you, that story ends in a particularly heart-rending way that they certainly seemed able to relate to while we were reading it. Indeed, more than a few students were wiping away tears at the conclusion. It seemed to me that it would be fairly easy for the majority of them to write a journal entry from the perspective of one character (Zameer) detailing his anxiety and anguish over the fate of his sister (Tahmina). I couldn’t have been farther off.
My students had little trouble recognizing that the story presented to them was a troubling one and their factual knowledge was quite impressive. They had certainly been listening! But their journal entries read like purely factual accounts and had all the passion and emotion of a form letter from the cable company.
What happened!?! They got the story. They understood what was going on and what was at stake. They understood the basic premise of a journal entry (though I did note that only one child had admitted to keeping one outside of class – note to self: go with blogging from now on). What they didn’t understand clearly was that I wanted not only to see what a brother might write in that situation – I wanted them to show how a brother might FEEL.
Not wanting to waste such a great story (or such a chance for learning) I gave them some feedback and we sat down today and discussed what our next steps would be. Even while discussing it with a bit of humour (my go-to teaching tool in these sort of situations) students started to see where WE (both they in their writing and I in my instructions) had gone wrong. I asked them to go back to their writing, read my suggestions, and write again – this time from the perspective of a devastated brother rather than an academic observer. As an aid in the process I
stole a great activity borrowed a best practice from a talented colleague, Mr. C. Litonjua. We created a separate Twitter account for each of the main characters we had examined so far. I asked to students to tweet in the role of these characters from now until the completion of the book. My hope is that the brief nature of tweeting will allow students to practice thinking in perspective, and then help them carry that skill into their longer writing pieces.
Here are some of the early entries: