The following paragraph comes from a high school sophomore girl’s reflection on a poem she recently wrote. Below her paragraph is my comment.
When I started writing [the poem], I wanted to write about the same type of refugee and what their refuge would be for all lines, but as I wrote I discovered that it was hard to know what their refuge would be. As I have never been a refugee or needed refuge, I do not know their struggles. I can’t assume what it’s like to flee religious oppression or natural disaster or receiving pain from someone who loves me. So as I wrote I thought of all the types of pain a person could go through and what would help them. It was extraordinarily hard and made me upset but it made me think about how I could help these people.
After reading the girl’s entire reflection, I shared this paragraph with all of my sophomore classes because I wanted them to see her problem and solution. I pointed out that by generalizing, she opened the door for empathy. Her adept conceptual adjustment is impressive, and I was excited to explain it to her classmates.
The poem assignment grew out of our study of Nadine Gordimer’s short story, “The Ultimate Safari.” Afterwards, each student was asked to write a reflection, which I call a PDF. (Click here to see the instructions.) The above excerpt comes from the student’s PDF–the Discovery section.
A short while later, after we had studied several more short stories, they each wrote an essay ranking three of the stories according to how effectively they evoke empathy. Their analysis was expected to include one or more of these basic fictional elements: setting, character, plot, and teller’s position. The student excerpt below comes from a boy’s essay draft that shows at least one case where a student applies an idea learned from a classmate. Personally, I think the lesson he learned is valuable not just for the study of imaginative literature.
“The Ultimate Safari” evokes the most empathy of these three stories in readers because of the lengthy journey the characters endure, dangerous setting, and the ending to the plot that leaves us with more questions than answers. The characters in “The Ultimate Safari” are forced to go on a long and treacherous journey to reach safety: “I don’t know which day it was- because we were walking, walking, any time, all the time” (Gordimer 15). Though we may not all know what it is like to be starving in the jungle, everybody has had a task before in their life that seemed impossible and never-ending. It is easy to empathize with what the characters were forced to go through. [edited for clarity; emphasis added]
The underlined sentence strongly suggests that this boy had heard, absorbed, and applied my explanation of his classmate’s solution.
Therefore, giving high school sophomores meaningful and manageable challenges produces insights phrased in their own language, which makes the dissemination of those insights more likely. When I first read that girl’s paragraph, it was a wonderful day. The wonder grew, when I showed it to her classmates, and as some of them used the insight in their own writing. Naturally, I wanted to share this whole story outside the classroom walls.
In closing, let me ask what value such skills have for US citizens, as we hear stories about walls between people. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost.