I was going to title this post “It’s the End of the World as We Know It…” – however, I second guessed myself and figured that with the political climate what it is and the obsession with Apocalypse in which our culture is currently immersed, my meaning would be misconstrued. Also, maybe people are not as familiar with this song as I assume? In any case, the lyrics keep flitting through my mind as I grade opinion based mini-essay-introductions written by my 7th graders.
…..Perhaps this requires explanation (unless, perhaps you work with 7th graders)
Here is the backstory:
We began this week, our first week back from winter break, by reading Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” (and watching a short narrated cartoon version of it to help with comprehension). I know this is a rough place to start for 7th graders just because of the style of the writing, and for my students the language is difficult as well. However, I have been wanting to read this with them since the beginning of the year when I read a teacher’s back to school blog post about how she begins each year by reading the allegory out loud with her class and then discussing what the classroom will look like (I loved many things about this post, and even printed her thoughtful pledge…). I loved this idea, but felt that at the beginning of this year, with brand new middle school students, I needed to get to know the students and their abilities a little before throwing Plato into their lives.
While planning this week, I stumbled upon a TED.Ed which also covered the Allegory, and re-purposed this writing prompt for my class:
Using 2 examples, at least one of which should come from Allegory of the Cave, write a mini-Essay which answers this question:
“If people have developed a way of understanding the world that makes them comfortable, does it matter if it’s false? Is there some higher moral duty to expose them to the truth regardless of their own preferences?”
I did not just throw this at them and ask them to write, but gave examples of what this could look like in their own lives, how it related to the allegory and then after a 10 minute quick write/brainstorm, we began to write out an introductory paragraph as a class.
I also created a graphic organizer on which the first box gives room for a “Quick Yes/No, because… ‘ answer, and all of this backstory leads up to the moment that I am reading through these quick answers.
Now, I had expected varied responses from my students: I had expected that some would not feel that it was their moral duty* to correct false understandings, and I had expected some would feel it was. I had expected that some students would say yes and no and have varied ideas about situations in which they would feel responsible, and others in which they would not. I did not expect that the majority of my students would not focus so much on the False vs. True understandings, but instead focus upon the comfort of the people in question. The majority of my students said they would not feel morally obligated to correct false understandings of the world with a truth known to themselves because the people preferred to believe false ideas and were comfortable and why would they want to make someone uncomfortable? surely they would want no one to make them uncomfortable so these 7th graders have decided that they will not mess with anyone else’s understandings. Cue R.E.M here….
These scholar’s complete lack of thought about moral obligations surrounding true or false or even varied understandings of the world, scares me. Part of the reason I teach is to help these students begins to see beyond themselves – to experience a classroom space which allows people from diverse backgrounds to come together, share their stories – listen to other stories and to begin thinking about their place in this large world which requires so much analysis of thought and expression. I want to help them to become willing listeners who participate in grand discussions about the meaning of life and friendship and school – to engage in politics and community building – to care about others and respect opinions which they do not share. I forgot how young they are and I often forget how VERY different their 7th grade year is than was my own. Their understanding of the world is jaded by pictures available to them in little screens. They focus their goals on individual successes which require little to no effort and can be completed in short time frames.
I understand that part of my student’s ability to feel that it is their job to be truth tellers or not stems from the fact that they are only 12 and 13 and in reality do not feel that they hold much authority over any given people. They are not yet ready to rock the boat and change anyone’s mind, but I hope by the end of this year they will begin to question their own comfort…
Today I challenged them to think a little deeper. I returned their introductory paragraphs with some side questions and before going through my general comments about their writing (don’t forget to introduce where your examples come from…..only summarize the part of the story that relates to your opinion, no need to tell the entire Allegory….please please please check your homophones…… and for the 500th time cuz is not an acceptable word in an essay…..), I introduced a poem. It is poetry Thursday after all and during our WWD time on Thursdays, we discuss/write about poetry. I introduced a poem written in 1945 by a man who had once supported Hitler, and when he opposed him was placed in a concentration camp:
First They Came For The Jews / Martin Niemöller
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
Before asking them to write about the poem, we discussed what it meant to be a bystander and whether that required any thought about false vs. true understandings of the world. I challenged them to rewrite the poem using people groups that might apply to their own lives – at home, in the community, or out on the blacktop and to write about how bystanders are still in existence and what that might mean to each of them individually. There were a few light bulbs, and if nothing else, they had another example to include in their writing today.
Teaching is exhausting, but I think maybe it’s weeks like this that will end up my favorite. Challenging unwilling students to become curious scholars – to approach the world from an interested and open-minded perspective and to slowly see them expand their understanding (and I mean s…l….o…w…l…y) of at very least the vastness of culture and thought – is pretty neat.
Maybe it is the end of the world as we know it…..and maybe it’s not quite true that I feel fine, but I’ll keep holding out hope. All of us had to start somewhere.
* (side note: never use the word duty in a writing prompt, I should know better)