Friday, November 18, 2011

What are books for?

Even though I am exhausted, this has actually been, overall, a pretty good week. Some of the projects and activities my classes have done have really gotten my students engaged and interested, and that's always one of my big goals.

One such project is a fundraiser and awareness campaign that my seniors are doing. We recently finished reading In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez. It is based on the real-life Mirabal sisters, revolutionaries who fought against the Dominican dictator Trujillo. Trujillo had three of the sisters killed, but their story has lived on. In the author's note at the back of the book, Alvarez talks about how November 25th, the anniversary of their deaths, is widely observed as International Day Against Violence Towards Women, as the Mirabals have served as an inspiration to women fighting against all types of injustice. Since I am always looking for ways to make my students more aware of important issues in the world and to get them involved, I decided that I wanted to do something for this day. The problem was what that should be. I thought maybe I could have them make posters about various women's rights abuses both domestic and international and put them around the school to raise awareness, but I wasn't fully satisfied with this.

When I asked my students to brainstorm, they were at first reluctant. They agreed to go with the poster idea because it sounded like it would be the easiest option. One student even asked why he needed to do this, because he's "one of the good guys." A female classmate quickly shut him down, saying that she had been a victim of abuse, and that this is an important issue to many people. I also told him that because he is one of the good guys, he has a responsibility to encourage other men to follow his example. I kept on pushing them to think of other ideas, until one student suggested doing a fundraiser for a local women's shelter. Brilliant! The class made the decision to both do this fundraiser and to create the posters, so not only will we be increasing awareness, but we will also be taking action with our own increased awareness.

Because the Mirabals were known as "Las Mariposas" ("The Butterflies"), we will be selling butterfly stickers that, if put on hats, will allow students to wear their hats on a specific day. We'll also be selling butterfly cookies made in the shape of butterflies. I spoke to one of the culinary department teachers, and she loved the idea. She's going to make the cookies for us, and even invited my students to come decorate them themselves! It's not often that two departments that are so different get to collaborate on a project, so I am super excited about teaming up with culinary.

During the last couple of days, my students have been hard at work on their posters (even I made a few of my own), some of which advertise what we'll be selling, and others which have facts and figures about violence towards women in the U.S. as well as women's rights abuses in places such as Somalia and Afghanistan. Even a couple of students who don't usually work in my class have been taking this pretty seriously. A couple of times I have been asked, "Are we getting graded on this?" I have replied, "No." They'll earn themselves participation points, but nothing else. I strongly believe that they need to learn the value of helping others without expecting any type of reward in return. Instead of a grade, they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they have helped people in need. Interestingly, after I told them no, they didn't put up a fight about it. They just went back to working hard, and continued to be excited about this project. I only had one kid who was reluctant to give up eating lunch with his friends in order to spend a couple of days selling stickers and cookies in the cafeteria, but a couple of his classmates showed their disapproval of this attitude. And, because I only have 10 kids in that class, and two have to leave in the mornings for co-op, I asked a couple of my sophomore classes for volunteers to lend us a hand. A bunch of hands instantly shot into the air, each student willing to help out all four days if necessary, and suddenly I had enough people to help out for all four days of sales.

Some people might find this endeavor odd because it only has a loose connection to the text, and seems largely out of place in an English class. So I pose this question to you: what does it mean to be a good reader? I don't want to only teach my students comprehension and analytical abilities, though those are certainly important. But if they gain these skills and can do nothing with them but sit and read book after book, then what's the point? John Coetzee said, "What are books for if not to change our lives?" While I think that it's perfectly fine for some books to simply entertain, we also need to use books to challenge our ways of thinking. Books teach us about different perspectives and experiences, and if we approach them with an open mind we can learn empathy. Sometimes, if we're lucky, we can even find a book that inspires us to do something with our newfound knowledge and empathy. Last year, when a group of my seniors wrote letters to President Obama arguing why our country should change its position on the Darfur genocide and genocide in general (after reading Night along with material on other genocides), they saw that they could make their voices heard in a forum outside of school. With this project, these students have taken something that I had originally envisioned would extend outside of the classroom, and found a way to take it beyond the school. They are proving that knowledge really is power.

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Want to join my students in making a difference? Go to and make a donation to the Cape Cod Center for Women, which provides services for battered women and their children.

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