My 10th graders and I just finished Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night. To say that we loved the experience of working through it together is not only minimizing, it doesn’t capture the heartache and heaviness that we shared as we grappled with the reality of human suffering. We were moved by it.
When designing the unit we would use together, my goals echoed what I understand Wiesel’s to be, which is to push everyone, students included, to understand the critical weight their voices hold in the age-old battle against those who would oppress, consume, and destroy humanity. Following the publication of Wiesel’s memoir, his countless books, speeches, and essays all seem to focus on one central theme: what can we do to stand with and for those who suffer? In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wiesel states clearly,
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
For me, the design of this unit had to strengthen critical thinking and composition skills while also honoring Wiesel’s legacy by asking students to engage personally and practically with issues of human suffering in the world around them. As it turns out, these two goals complement each other in beautiful ways.
The unit itself was a truly meaningful one to share together; however, where my students blew me away most was in the final assignment. The assignment, based on this one which I found from a fellow teacher’s blog, asked students to choose a current instance of human suffering and pain and then to use their composition skills to create artifacts that enacted change in the world around them to benefit those in pain as a result of the issue they had chosen. See the assignment statement below for what I gave them to work from.
As you can see from the assignment, the constraints were few. They had no rubrics. They had a high degree of choice. They had total control over how they implemented and pursued the choices they made. I was nervous that they would go rogue or use this as an opportunity to avoid work. They were nervous that I wouldn’t like what they did or that they wouldn’t get a good grade. We pushed through it, and, per usual, they stunned me into silence.
My beautiful, kind, clever, empathetic, and motivated students made this project their own. They chose a wide array of issues ranging from the faraway, like the drought in Somalia and the Syrian refugee crisis, to the local, diving into homelessness and sex trafficking in Boston. They built blogs, pamphlets, videos, sculptures, audio pieces, children’s books, and maps that informed, implored, and supported. Their creations traveled extensively within their communities, with letters being sent to local government officials, funds being raised within churches, information being shared with friend groups, and resources being distributed in all of these. Students created complex, strategic compositions with specific rhetorical goals that we then set loose into the real world to see how they performed.
Returning to my two initial goals, which were to build composition skills while making an impact on human suffering, I can see in retrospect that they are meant to walk hand in hand. When you give students a real reason to compose, and then you assure them that their compositions can make an impact, they rise to the circumstances. Using real-world activism to teach and explore composition not only gives students real-world experience with how their compositions can work, it shows them why good composition matters and how it can change the world around them.
I’ve compiled some shots of samples from different projects so you can see the smart and creative things students ran with. The gallery below has a variety of the visual pieces.
The digital creations were no less impressive.
Some students made informational sites like…
– this one on South Sudan
–this one on the persecuted Yazidis in Iraq
–this one about the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar (complete with a Storify outlining the background of the conflict if you’re interested!).
Students made incredible use of social media, using Instagram to share artwork along with facts and links to organizations that can support those suffering OR using Twitter and Facebook to gather first hand accounts to compile into profiles. One student wanted to gauge the impact Planned Parenthood had had on those she was connected to, so she placed an open call for firsthand stories of experiences with and care received at Planned Parenthood. She received a wide variety of responses and was able to synthesize those into an audio/video presentation to her class.
I could go on, but I know I have gone on too long already. All I will say in conclusion is that correcting these projects has been one of the most wonderful and inspiring things I have ever done. Students used their developing composition skills to chip away at injustice, both in the world at large and in their own lives. In reflecting on this project, I take heart that the future of our world will be placed in pretty good hands.
All student work shared with permission.