Slice of Life March Challenge: March 19th., 2014 – Finishing our read aloud and thinking (still) of empathy

orange soltwt

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:

Berlin 1942

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.

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16 thoughts on “Slice of Life March Challenge: March 19th., 2014 – Finishing our read aloud and thinking (still) of empathy

  1. That us a very powerful book! I read “Numbeg the Stars” with my class a few years ago, and followed it with “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes”. Even though they were all younger than 10, we have some pretty important discussions too! I agree with you. Teaching literacy is the best!

  2. I have reflected often on ways to help my students see beyond their noses to see and feel the perspective of thers. I, too have had some successes using literature. Your slice will keep me going! Once we finish Wonder, I may try the book you read, too. Thanks for sharing! Your story inspires me to keep reading and discussing!

  3. I love re reading books with different groups too. Luckily I have two classes! I am so impressed with the thinking your students did. My fifth graders are naive like Bruno and I’ve wondered about using this book as a read aloud. They would really need support to get near the complexity of thought yours did. Which makes me wonder if it is too much of a stretch. Kevin’s post hit me too. Wonderful work and thinking for our students. By the way, have you read The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodsen? The idea of fences might connect… Thank you for a wonderful reflection.

  4. Wow – The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is such a powerful and sorrowful read. The fence is a great symbol to discuss. It makes me think of “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost. It would be interesting to pair the two. Such a different tone/meaning in Frost’s poem than in Boyne’s story, but it would still be an interesting pairing!

  5. Perhaps your students’ journey started with this read aloud, but it will continue. They will remember this and your conversations.

  6. The more discussions we can have with kids, the better for the world. I envy the rich conversations you have with your class. I have not witnessed this in a long time.

  7. I can feel the power and passion of the discussion in your classroom today. I think that literature allows us to see the world eyes wide open. We get to step in and out of stories as we connect with them. It’s sounds like your students did that today. literature is indeed 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.”

  8. Just tweeted this post, Tara. Everyone should read it! BITSP is a wonderful book–just saw devastatingly sad and ironic. Have you read the picture book, The Other Side? Your students might enjoy thinking across texts with the fence symbolism…I’m off to read Kevin’s post.

  9. Your Sunday post about empathy and compassion has had me thinking for the past few days. I, too, am grateful that I have the opportunity to share literature that cultivates “a culture of empathy” and helps my students “come to a better understanding of the world.”

  10. I’ve read that book more than once with a group, & it brings up such powerful discussion. Good for you for using it as a read aloud, for one important shared experience. I wonder how empathy can be taught, feel that modeling kindness is at least one of the best strategies. My daughter was informed yesterday that Ingrid’s pre-school (fours) have some ‘mean girl’ things going on. Ingrid is not part of it, but they said she was keeping herself by herself, aware & not wanting to be in, so choosing no friends. Alarming at four I think, and of course all the ages. Good for you for continuing to do something to help your students examine motives and power so intimately.

  11. Stories (oral and written) have the power to transform thinking, but I believe that reading isn’t always enough, quite often it is the discussion that shapes the thoughts, feelings and actions. I like how you composed this text with connections to Kevin’s slice and going back to one of your earlier posts.

  12. I loved that you literally told us about your journey as a writer when you connected to other texts. Each piece we write is not/ should not be done in isolation and we need to also share this “evolution” of our thinking with our students!

    Your stories are so powerful!

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