Review, inference, empathy, creative writing, and prediction all rolled into one 10-minute exercise that gives students choice, two different sized groups to work in, and a chance to process in both written and oral language. Wow--I didn’t even know the exercise was that good! It was an idea I came across a couple of years ago (in Teaching for Joy and Justice by Linda Christiansen), never got around to using somehow, and pulled it out of the bag on Monday. Thursday and Friday Dr. Virginia Rojas ran a workshop for my school’s faculty on supporting English language learners, and that’s what enabled me to articulate why Monday’s exercise worked so well!
Here’s how it went: I listed on the board four characters from the novel we are in the midst of right now, Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton. Each student in a group of four was to pick one character and quick write either a diary entry or a letter in the persona of that character. Students had to consider what they knew about the character, infer what that means about what the character is thinking or feeling, put themselves into that point of view, and include some plan or prediction or considered choice for the future. Students worked furiously and were eager to share with their groups. I heard conversations about why a character would pick that format, that addressee, that form of address; conversations about voice and style; and some misunderstandings uncovered and cleared up.
I had modeled out loud a sample diary entry from Gertrude: “I’m so relieved Stephen showed up rescued me from that awful situation. It’s peaceful and orderly living here with Mrs. Lithebe. But what will it be like going back to Ndotsheni? And everyone will know me and know what I’ve done. They’ll talk, I know it. They’ll look sideways at me. Everyone. How long will it take them to get over it and act normal with me? a year? five years? ten? a lifetime? oh, dear, I don’t know if I can take it.” Just that off-the-top-of-my-head speech gave me a new insight into the character: She’s not just weak-willed, but really facing the possibility of an insurmountable wall of small village gossip. Made me cold in the pit of my stomach.
If the students got a fraction of that, it was worth it.
Meanwhile, in addition to helping me understand why this exercise worked so well, the Thursday-Friday workshop also gave me so many other amazing strategies that I’m feeling (1) I’ve been failing students terribly by not knowing and doing more of them and (2) too paralyzed by the sheer number of possibilities that I’m incapable of picking which tool is the best one to use on Monday. With that, I’m going to quit thinking about school and go play volleyball for a while, but tune in next weekend to see what I ended up picking.