After the teacher had placed his class of eighth grade students at their computers to work on their electronic reading program, a cluster of five sat inactive on stools at high slate lab tables to the side. I approached the group, introduced myself, and fell into conversation with a despondent girl named Alicia (not her real name).
“Why aren’t you reading at the computer?”
“I don’t feel like it today.”
“Do you like to read?”
“A little. Sometimes.”
“When you like to read, what makes you like it?”
“If the book has something that grabs me at the beginning.”
“Can you tell me about a book that grabbed you like that?”
“The Diary of Anne Frank.”
I said I thought that could be a tough book to read by yourself. She said she had read it in a literature circle the year before.“What was it about the book that drew you in?”
“The way she wrote about the Jews.”
“What do you mean?”
“I felt sorry for the way they were treated.”
This was an Hispanic youngster from one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, in a school with few if any Jews among her fellow students. Where did this empathy come from? I asked why she thought the Jews were treated that way.
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out, why the Nazis hurt them.”
“Have you looked into this?”
“Yes. I rented movies about it. I saw The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I made my mother watch it with me so she would learn something about history. I want to go to the Jewish Museum. I’m going to take her with me so she can learn some more. I want to buy some books on World War II.”
If it had been a seemly thing to do, I would have hauled her immediately to the library to check out the books she wanted. I happened to have with me copies of a poem called “Maps” by Wislawa Symborska. (It was “Poem in Your Pocket Day”.) I handed her one of the copies. “This is not an easy poem to read, but I bet you would like it, since you’re so interested in history. Have a look.”
Alicia read the poem top to bottom.
“What’s it mostly about?” I asked.
“How she likes maps.”
As I probed into her understanding, it turned out she wasn’t getting the meaning of the many images, so I helped her visualize them. Then I asked, “What lines in the poem tell you her feelings about maps?” Alicia smiled as she pointed to the lines “I like maps because they lie. / Because they give no access to the vicious truth.”
We discussed the poem a bit more, then I explained who Szymborska was, and rehearsed her in saying the name, so she could say it to others who might ask her for a poem from her pocket. Would she like to write a poem like Szymborska’s, where she could talk about her own views of history. She said she would. I pointed out that Szymborska used a sequence of images, and maybe that would be a good strategy.
“When you think of history, what do you see, Alicia?” She told me. I wrote down what she said, then typed it up later:
When I think of history…
I see black and white movies:
Bonnie and Clyde driving in their old-fashioned car.
They are laughing at the cops chasing them
as they escape with the money.
I see Hitler, bald with his moustache,
saluting people saying, “Heil Hitler”,
the gray uniforms with red swastikas
attached to their shoulders.
I see Abraham Lincoln trying to free the slaves.
He’s sitting in a red chair
on stage in an auditorium,
speaking to a crowd of politicians.
After the class was over, her teacher agreed that I could work on it with her some more next time I visited his class, which I did a few days later, but I didn’t see her. Afterwards, I told him I was disappointed Alicia had been absent. He said, “Oh, she was here. She was the one with her head on the desk, covered by her jacket.” I vowed to find her next time, and did. While the other students worked on a “Do Now” I was able to get a couple more stanzas out of her. They flowed easily:
I see Gandhi giving advice to the people
that he helped, making their lives
and their living environment better,
their houses and huts in India.
I see fighting, houses and cars blowing up
during World War One. People begging for help.
The men shooting at men, army tanks riding around,
the nurses helping injured children who got hurt.
In the meantime, I had alerted the librarian that I wanted to connect her with Alicia, and she was game, but it was a practical impossibility. There were no structures in place for visits to the library, or independent student research. I put it in the back of my head to see if I could instigate an I-Search unit, so that not only Alicia, but other students could research what they found personally interesting in the context of a solid curriculum.
I also showed Alicia’s poem to her 7th Grade teacher, who had set up the literature circle that supported Alicia’s understanding. The teacher complimented her in the hall one day, and Alicia smiled, proud to be recognized.
At this point I haven’t had a chance to confer with Alicia again. It’s been a couple of weeks. I want to have her continue her list poem, with new stems: “I think…I feel…I wonder….” And, because of the success I had using the poem with her, I have developed a structured “performance task” to support others in reading the poem and emulating the amazing Nobel Prize-winning Wislawa Szymborska, who in her life found a way to look hard at human suffering through the lens of art.
I have seen Alicia in the hallways, walking with a boy who has been held back from getting into high school, and who does no work in his 7th Grade ELA class. He is defiant and uncooperative. Two years behind…this doesn’t bode well for a shot at graduation.
I think: Alicia needs a chance, some structures that will help her show what she can really do. I feel: A sense of dread that her potential will be lost. I wonder: What the future holds for this intelligent, sensitive young lady.