Tuesday, September 4, 2007

This I Believe

I scrapped the generic getting-to-know-you games this year. I’ll talk about the syllabus and classroom rules in a few days. Instead, I started my first day of classes prepping students for their first essay. Yes, I’m that English teacher that assigns students homework on the first day.

It dawned on me not long ago that so much of what I teach in the World Literatures curriculum revolves around belief – what do others believe and why, what do I believe and why, what do my students believe and why. It is our beliefs that often separate us. Pick up any newspaper or scroll through the headlines on the BBC News site and you will find it riddled with international strife, civil wars, and conflict. Whether it is over land rights, religious convictions, or attitudes about women, children, marriage, what have you – our world seems to be unraveling over differences between various belief systems. Unfortunately, if this is all students learn from a World Literatures class, they walk out of the classroom as global observers not participants, their us versus them attitude intact. Isn’t it interesting what people in India believe, but what does that have to do with me? So this year, I wanted to find a way to start out my classes by presenting students with an idea we come back to throughout the course - although our beliefs may be different, we are all connected regardless of culture by the same basic desires, fears, and needs. It’s all a matter of perspective. I wanted students to begin to question what it is that makes us human. Yes, a tall order for the first day of class. Luckily, National Public Radio came to my rescue.

I look forward to the Monday broadcasts of All Things Considered because that’s when I hear the weekly essay segment “This I Believe,” a portion of the program where listeners both famous and not are invited to share their essays on a core belief. I find myself in tears most Monday afternoons, either because the essays are so clearly from the heart or because the essayist has me laughing a bit too hard for my Monday afternoon drive home. I’ve been listening to the essays since they began broadcasting them a few years ago, so I’m not really sure why it took me so long to make the connection. To help students explore the beliefs of others, they must first explore their own beliefs! And that’s where I started today.

As the students came in, I had a line of yellow tape dividing the room in half, a seeming separation mark. I handed out a questionnaire asking students to consider a whether they agreed or disagreed with 15 statements. People can change. Life is fair. It is always better to tell the truth. And then I clicked on my overhead projector to show a copy of Martha Collins’ poem “Lines,” at first only showing the title and asked the students –what do lines do? They separate. They divide. They box us in and segregate us. And then I read them the poem…
"Lines" By Martha Collins
Draw a line. Write a line. There.
Stay in line, hold the line, a glance
between the lines is fine but don't
turn corners, cross, cut in, go over
or out, between two points of no
return's a line of flight, between
two points of view's a line of vision.
But a line of thought is rarely
straight, an open line's no party
line, however fine your point.
A line of fire communicates, but drop
your weapons and drop your line,
consider the shortest distance from x
to y, let x be me, let y be you.

What else do lines do? They connect us. Although our beliefs may be different, they come from a similar place. Beliefs are like lines. If we take just our first impression of the line, it divides us. But when we take the time to examine the line, our beliefs and the beliefs of those around us, we will see that they also connect us.

Each student took a place on that taped line on my classroom floor. If they disagreed with the statement, they took a step back. If they agreed, they took a step forward. We spent the first day of class talking about our beliefs. Tomorrow, they will begin writing their own essays for the “This I Believe” program.


Anonymous said...

Wow, that's good stuff!

I do an activity, well used to and will again someday, where I separate my students according to their birthdays. I said something like, "If your birthday is Jan through March, stand in that corner. April through June (a different corner) and finally July through September. This leaves the last three months, they go stand in the last corner. I then tell the last group that whatever we do for the rest of this exercise, they will do nothing but stand there. This perplexes them greatly. I then have all the class stand in a circle, except the "nothing" group. I pass a bag of candy around and become very easy going. I say things like, "Yummm, candy. Get one, heck take two" etc etc. Eventually, after kids are eating their candies and wondering what I'm up to, usually someone will say, "But Miss, what about that group?". I then say, "Huh? They are the nothing group. They don't get to participate. They get nothing". Some kids think nothing of it but usually one kid will try to share the candy. I get "upset" at them (but not really). I restress that they are nothing.

Then I stop the game. I have everyone silently go to their desks and think about what they just experienced. I have them write a few thoughts on paper and then we have a class discussion. I ask what it is called that I just did and they understand the segregation and prejudice point to the game at this point. I of course then give the "nothings" a bunch of candy. We talk about what it felt like. How their experiences were at each step.

I hope I explained this clearly but it's a great activity and can be quite powerful. It's a great "into" lesson when a class is going to study racism, Apartheid, or even the Holocaust. I used to use it when I taught "To Kill a Mockingbird".

Anyway, thought I'd share for others and because your line activity is great and reminded me of it.

Jennifer Ward said...

This is a cool idea! I wonder if you have ever seen the the video "A Class Divided." In response to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, teacher Jane Elliot wanted to find a way to help her elementary school students understand the effects of prejudice. She divided her class into those with brown eyes versus those with blue, one group labeled as superior, the other inferior. It sounds very similar to what you do. The video might help support your activity.

Cool stuff. I hope you don't mind if I "steal" it from you! =)

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