The March Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by Two Writing Teachers .
We came, at last, to the devastating conclusion of our historical fiction read aloud, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas today. I love this book, and even though there are so many others to choose from, I return to Bruno and Shmuel and “Outwith” every year, as our launching point for historical fiction. It is, of course, a different experience each year – my students lend their new noticings, new wonderings, and ask new questions. And I find new shades of meaning each time, too.
Today’s discussion centered around the fence that divides Bruno’s world from Shmuel’s – the Nazi officer’s home on one side, Auschwitz on the other. For those of you who haven’t read this book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas here is the jacket blurb:
When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move from their home to a new house far far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence running alongside stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance.
But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.
The story is told almost entirely from Bruno’s perspective, and my students find his naiveté and innocence both beautiful as well as frustrating. How could Bruno not know where he is? How could he be unaware of what a concentration camp is? How could he not know what his father, a Nazi officer, is all about? But, part of the power in this story lies in just this disconnect – how can children even imagine the horrors of the holocaust? What happens when innocence confronts evil? These are some of our discussion threads – rich and thought provoking, always.
Today, our final discussions centered around the fence: Bruno crosses over to the other side, at last. I was so struck by the depth at which my kids thought about and analyzed the symbolic importance and function of this fence. We talked about abstract and concrete fences, the ones that are real and the ones we imagine, the ones we invent to “protect” ourselves, and the ones that are invented in order to exclude or divide. And then our discussion came to rest on the final lines of the story:
And that’s the end of the story about Bruno and his family. Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again.
Not in this day and age.
That led us down the road of deeper talk – and how sad it is that terrible things are still happening all over the world, in this day and age. I was surprised at how aware my kids are of some of these events, and how engaged they wished to be. This made me think of Kevin’s slice this morning, in which he shared his own class’ thinking about human rights, especially children’s rights. A line from that post came to mind as I listened to my kids and responded to their wonderings, ideas, and queries:
Empathy begins with understanding, and action in the world begins with young people understanding the world through the experiences of others.
So, I circle back to a post I’d written earlier, about whether it was possible at all to teach our kids empathy…and what we can do as teachers to inspire our kids towards cultivating a culture of empathy. And, again, I am grateful for the opportunity to teach through literature, to use it as a doorway to experiences we can inhabit, for a short time, and thus come to a better understanding of the world…and our place in it.