IV. Preparation

Quarter 1 – Guiding Questions
1. Why do hatred and violence exist in our community?
2. What can we do to improve our community?

We created a a day-by-day class schedule

Week 1 – The first week entailed laying the groundwork for Socratic Seminar (http://www.greece.k12.ny.us/instruction/ELA/SocraticSeminars/overview.htm) and setting up an environment for honest discussions and engaging dialogue around the intense topic of violence and war. We created class norms in which we could engage in serious, reflective conversations using Socratic Seminar guidelines for dialogue. This preliminary work would eventually culminate in a dynamic, engaged classroom of students.

Socratic Seminar Tools:
Elements of Socratic Seminar
Dialogue or Debate
Socratic Questioning
Blind Men and the Elephant

Week one culminated with the national MLK Day of Service at Atkinson Elementary School, which served to solidify the group.

Week 2 – Snow Week

Week 3 – During the following weeks students were engaged in readings around the topic of violence and war. We read Us and Them, by David Sedaris. Students used this reading in a Socratic Seminar around the themes of loneliness – connection; anger – discomfort; compassion – community (Seminar Prep 1, 2). We also hosted a guest speaker from the US Army who was on a two-week break from his deployment in Afghanistan. He presented a government video with images of Afghanistan as part of the presentation, and students had time to ask a few questions. They prepared preliminary questions and we posed several more to prompt discussion after the presentation.

Week 4 -Our second reading was an excerpt from the book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges. In small groups, students discussed the notion of “us and them” in war relationships in preparation for their first writing assignment around this difficult topic. Students were asked to prepare an essay referencing the story Us and Them, the speaker from the US Army, and the excerpt from Hedge’s book. Initially, we posed only one question: What attitudes, behaviors, ways of thinking, or social conditions create an environment that is a ‘breeding ground’ for hate and violence? The concept of a ‘breeding ground’ was introduced by our guest speaker and continued into our classroom discussions. However, as students began to brainstorm and prepare their individual outlines it became clear that this question was too complex and gray for some students. We then offered three essay options, each prompted by elements of our Socratic Seminar discussions, or student initiated questions.

  1. What attitudes, behaviors, ways of thinking, or social conditions create an environment that is a ‘breeding ground’ for hate and violence?
  2. Compare and contrast the three texts we’ve discussed. How is their language similar or different? What conclusions can you draw about how hate and violence begin?
  3. Where, in a community, does hatred and violence begin? How does it move through layers of community?

Week 5 – Students struggled more than we anticipated with the essay. In retrospect, our questions were very complex for the first writing assignment, and they had not previously done extensive writing in the class, aside from brief preparatory work. We had to build in mini lessons to develop some basic writing skills, and modify the schedule to accommodate student needs. To assist students in the complex thinking required to tackle the questions, we prepared several graphic organizers (Layers of Community, Ven Diagram), one was informally developed by a student with a learning disability. We typed it up and gave it to other students who were struggling.

Week 6 – After completing the essays, one student suggested we watch the film, “In the Shadow of Hate,” which outlines America’s history with intolerance and violence. This film and accompanying curriculum can be ordered for free from an online resource for teachers called Teaching Tolerance (http://www.tolerance.org/teach/resources/shadow_of_hate.jsp). Interestingly, the teaching kit is entitled “Us & Them” – the perfect follow-up and connection to the story by David Sedaris. Although this student had already watched the film in a Social Studies class she thought it related to our work and thought everyone should watch. The two classes would end up running a parallel course throughout both terms, and many students were in both. Using a Socratic Seminar and a Seminar Prep Sheet, students grappled with issues around intolerance throughout American history.

Week 7 – To support the work of the class we arranged for a Holocaust survivor to speak with the students about his experience during the war. In preparation for this event we watched the video, “Auschwitz – If you Cried You Died”, another request by a student who had watched the video in her Social Studies class. As word spread around the school about this event, other teachers requested that we open up the presentation for the whole student body. Regular classes were cancelled for half the day, and every student in the school listened to his moving presentation.

After our guest speaker, the pace of the class really picked up. He left the students with a sense of hope; they were amazed that after all he experienced he still believed in the goodness of humanity. This was a perfect segue to our second essential question: What can we do to improve our community? We began reading a compilation of brief stories of heroism. The book “Voices of Hope” was developed by the Giraffe Heroes Project, an organization that promotes the use of service-learning to increase youth involvement in social change. They have many tools for teachers available on their website. (http://www.giraffe.org/k12Voices.html) Students in our class were invited to choose a story from the book and then discuss why it touched them. This reflection also included a section asking students to write a brief story about someone who is a hero in their eyes. Most of the students selected parents and their brief explanations were so moving that we typed and presented the student words to the Family Involvement Committee – to both honor and remind parents of how important they are to their children. We also put a copy in staff boxes for the same reasons.

Week 8 – Poetry, Images and Music
Keeping to the theme of looking at war and violence from a variety of perspectives, we introduced poetry, images and music as a vehicle for exploring the topic. For the first assignment students read the poem, To the Little Polish Boy Standing with His Arms Up (http://isurvived.org/SmallBoyCaptured.html originally written in response to a photo of a young boy captured..) After discussing the photography and poem by Peter L. Fischl, students were then asked to write their own poem from the perspective of someone in the photo. Students then repeated the same assignment using a collage created by the teacher. Each student selected one image from the collage and wrote a poem from the perspective of the person in the photograph. Poems from both assignments were featured in the school newsletter and later in the published anthology.

Next we used popular music as text, including the following songs: Where is the Love, by the Black Eyed Peas; Not Ready to Make Nice, and Travelin’ Soldier by the Dixie Chicks. Students listened to the songs then did free-write reflections, followed by a class discussion. The next day several students accepted my challenge and brought a few more songs depicting war themes.

As we approached the end of the quarter it became important to transition the students into thinking about how to effectively interview community members. Now that we had done a significant amount of thinking, discussing and reading, it was time to focus on listening skills. As a segue into preparing students for interviewing we watched a 60 Minutes special entitled Dissention in the Ranks (http://60minutes.yahoo.com/segment/43/dissension_in_the_ranks?comment_offset=271 featuring current soldiers who were speaking out against the war in Iraq.

Although the documentary was interesting in and of itself, we were not interested in having the kids debate the Iraq war. Instead, we wanted them to focus on the people being interviewed, to notice how they spoke, what they spoke about, their demographics and their experiences. In order to do this effectively, we provided students with a viewing guide to direct their observations. The goal was for students to be impartial observers and to listen without judgment. A summary of their notes and observations indicated that they learned the first skill of interviewing – noticing and documenting.

Week 9 – Narrative writing based upon interviews and biographical information.
Their first biographical narrative (prep for the following quarter) was to write a brief profile of one of the people featured in the CBS special. Students then conducted peer interviews to practice the skills required to talk about sensitive, even traumatic issues. As a class, we prepared a list of potential questions they could ask each other. These interviews focused on the lasting impact of witnessing or experiencing violence – either firsthand or through the media.

Week 10 – Final Reflection
The last week was dedicated to an in-depth, final reflective writing assignment. The students were given three choices for this assignment. For those who wanted to improve and expand their initial thinking from earlier in the term, they could revise the first essay. To capitalize on the student interest and success with poetry, they could write a 2-3 page poem on the themes of the class. Finally, for those most moved by the interplay between music and social change, crafting an analytical essay on this topic was the third choice (Final Reflection, Example of Student Work).

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