Harry Potter, Hunger in America, and This Year’s Teaching Dilemma

“We rightly worry that many youngsters’ lives are circumscribed by poverty, discrimination, low expectations, cultural insularity, and other conditions that may render them unable to see beyond the limits of their immediate horizons.” -Tim Gillespie, “Why Literature Matters,” English Journal

This year, my fourth teaching language arts in fifth grade, continues the challenge of creating and sustaining a writing community, of turning ‘tweens on to the power and magic of words, both read and written–on demand, as a project, or just for fun.  The real delight, as I discovered my first year in this grade level, enters as students (and their teachers) take on the Modern Woodmen of America oration contest at the classroom level, or beyond.    This year’s topic, “Hunger in America,” could render the expected:  speeches about causes and effects of hunger, investigations into the problem and solutions, etc.  These are certainly worthwhile and worthy of significant amounts of instructional and workshop time.  In my mind, the topic is a call for social justice, the fair and just relation between an individual and their society, but then, again, I possess an adult’s experience and knowledge.  Nonetheless, it is an exciting and truly transformative period in the classroom where the teacher learns as much as she hopes her students will.

Before the assignment was introduced, I wrote a lovely letter outlining expectations and due dates, as well as staying in step with my grade level and school.  I spend a lot of time conferring one-on-one with students, and I am flexible with due dates, as writing, truly writing, is a process not a product in my classroom.  Teachers all know students differ in their developmental age, academic abilities, and self-concept in a fifth grade classroom.  We all know we must differentiate, scaffold, cajole, and structure the instruction; we know that there will be capable students who procrastinate and students who do not have resources outside of the classroom.  I celebrate the challenge of the oration contest, as a teacher.  I knew there will be the 5-paragraph essay, the “Hello, my name is…let me tell you about hunger in America,” and “Mrs. Altensee, I don’t know how to start.”

Rewind to earlier this year.  Hello-My-Name-Is sits academically idly at his desk, flicking spit balls at Mrs.-Altensee-I-Don’t-Know-How-To-Start.   The two are separated by five feet of floor space to accommodate their growing bodies and urge to rock in their chairs. Hello doesn’t have his book during IR and I-Don’t-Know-How-To-Start doesn’t want to stop reading as we move into a writing mini-lesson with a mentor text.  On this day, I am reading a portion of Little House in the Big Woods (“The Sugar Snow“).  We had just recently come across a reference in our basal about sugaring.  Hello has been to Connecticut and starts to talk about maple sugar, while the rest of the class’s eyes glaze over. None of the students can remember the sugaring reference in our basal; none of the students knew who Laura Ingalls Wilder was, and none of the students (except Hello) could relate maple syrup to the descriptions in both the basal and in “The Sugar Snow.”  My reading heart was broken.  How could 5th graders not know Laura Ingalls Wilder?  How could 5th graders not comprehend a descriptive passage?  How could I teach them to write descriptive passages in the 5 days allotted to this learning target?

Over the course of a few weeks, we are asked to do some writing assessments involving informational texts–compare and contrast or problem and solution.  We read about endangered animals, and we read about rain forest deforestation in equatorial countries, and we read about segregation in America.   We read about food (maple syrup)!   Students had very little to write about, and I began to notice that this went way beyond the Hello and I-Don’t-Know-What-To-Write, and even the 5-paragraph essay problems so normal to 5th grade.

Aside from the usual and expected writing problems (easily fixed across the course of a year), the major problem continues to be that writing is flat, lifeless, formulaic, and incoherent. Students lack interest in compelling and provocative problems facing our world–their world–today.  In years past, reading turned into posters to save the rain forest, and cultural learning days with guest speakers–all student generated.  Students were curious and interested in dystopian YA literature and historical fiction.  They were easily turned on to multiple perspectives, and they were quickly developing their own, unique moral claim and opinions about just about everything.  Discussions and writing responses were rich and thought-provoking, and still age-appropriate.

Certainly, the testing culture has entrenched the idea of objectivity, text-based meaning making. Shared reads become close reads and writing becomes a reading response, an analysis without heart; in such, there is no room to question the author, the test-maker, the teacher, the reader him or herself.  The lack of questioning as a reader is heightened by the idea that students must all write with objectivity, that their opinion must be supported by the text, rather than by what we know and feel outside of the text or have learned through exploration of the subject.  How can we explore and learn themes of literature if we do not begin to look past the dominate narrative found in our basal?  If even our independent reading is driven by testing (Accelerated Reader, assigned reading responses, etc.), how can my students possibly grapple with anything outside of their own heads?  If it doesn’t apply to me, why does it really matter.  If what I think about it differs from the text, why does it matter?

The oration contest/assignment really opens up a proverbial can of worms.  This is the reason I look forward to the challenge.  With 14% of the population living in food-insecure households (which, incidentally, mirrors my classroom’s demographics), it’s kind of hard to be totally objective (once we did the 5th grade math to see that correlates to 1:7 people in our classroom).  As Zinn cautioned:  “It is impossible to be neutral…neutrality means accepting the way things are now.”

In a recent journal, Teaching Tolerance, the author, Jonathon Gold, suggests [history] educators shift out of neutrality, writing: “If we only talk about ‘multiple perspectives’ and locate the various stories of the past on a ‘continuum of perspective’–without assigning any normative judgments to them–we forestall attempts at determining historical responsibility and causation.”  Indeed! Hunger in America is a huge problem, for which are future generation could offer many solutions, but not if they lack empathy.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings others, is much-needed skill, which cannot adequately be taught over the course of an oration assignment.  Reading and writing become enriched and alive with the empathetic reader and author.  In the past, literature was the teacher’s helper; now, with testing, we shift merely to literary technique. Developing authors and readers get a rare attempt in assigned reading to get inside the skin of another person or travel and experience landscapes foreign and beautiful and unknown.  The ever-growing dependency on and use of  digital and social networking amplifies this phenomena.   Our children, my students, and our world are growing increasingly disconnected to real and complicated heart-breaking problems that exist right next door.   Harry Potter, the movie, is more compelling than the book; I am rerearding the series, a teacher’s playground!  The books delve into larger themes than the movie–themes pertinent and alive in the world of today’s 5th graders:  the value of humility, class struggle, slavery, good versus bad, greed, etc.  So to did the Laura Ingalls Wilder books of my childhood offer, as Gillespie wrote, an invitation to engage in complicated problems with tough choices, and to “imagine living out life’s vexing dilemmas along with the characters that we meet” along the way.

It shouldn’t surprise me, therefore, that the oration has not built a great deal of empathy (we haven’t actually read any literature about food-insecure households or even poverty, aside from Richard Wright and the Library Card), but I learned a lot in the process of reflecting upon flat, lifeless writing.  Learning to write, even if it is flat and lifeless, is just as difficult and tiring a process as pieces imbued with insight, audacity, and rich metaphor.  And, it is the thing of value right now in education.  Teachers tend to use rubrics that remove all subjectivity when grading anyway (another blog, perhaps?).

What is important is that each student produced a unique and potential oration speech. We, as a class and community of writers and speakers, will share an understanding through the writing and speech.  It is my job, as teacher, to draw out that commonality, to empathize with the Hello, the 5-paragraph essayer, and the I-Don’t-Know-What-To-Write, knowing that I, as Gold puts it, “wield tremendous power to control the narrative and flow of information” because I choose the texts, ask the questions, and ultimately, assess my students’ knowledge and learning.  Moreover, we will use self- and peer-evaluation to assess our products (including the unit and instructional components).  I will allow this to guide me in selecting the next unit, and possibly nurturing that past tradition of student-generated products in response to our reading.   Perhaps, like Harry Potter and my favorite blog, P.L. Thomas’s “The Becoming Radical” I learned “the pursuits of writing and teaching writing are greatly enhanced by equal parts passion and humility,” tempered with a whole lot of empathy.