BY: LIZ KEIPER
“Why are we reading this?”
“This doesn’t affect my life.”
“That happened so long ago. That could never happen now.”
“I wish we could learn about stuff that actually matters.”
We’ve all heard these sentiments from students from time to time. Sometimes it’s just the fact that we teach teenagers, and teenagers by definition think that they are too cool for school. (Literally.)
But sometimes they legitimately don’t see the connection between the literature we read or the writing with which we engage and their lives. Shakespeare, Homer, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, and other classic texts were written well before they were a twinkle in their parents’ eyes; therefore those texts are inaccessibly “old” and, in their minds, wholly separate from their lives.
I have repeatedly encountered this problem when teaching the Holocaust memoir Night. Last year, in a class discussion, I essentially heard students say that reading Holocaust stories is a waste of time because they’ve learned about the Holocaust before, it was an isolated incident that happened a long time ago in a country far, far away, and we know better now, so why don’t we just move on? Why do we have to keep rehashing this one event?
Of course, what they didn’t know is that genocides have happened for basically as long as humans have been around and have continued to happen since the Holocaust and in fact are happening as we speak. Yes, children, as you sit safe and sound in this 9th grade English classroom in West Virginia, other people around the world are being shot at, bombed, raped, and executed. It’s real. It matters. Now. Still.
This year, I have taken an entirely different approach to teaching the Holocaust, and I’ve expanded my Holocaust unit into a Genocide Literature unit. And, one of the methods I’ve used to make the literature real for the students is engaging in a Story with Legs, the term which I heard for the first time a few years ago in a seminar with English teacher and writer Kelly Gallagher.
A Story with Legs, in a journalistic sense, is a developing story. The story has “legs” because it is going somewhere, and no one quite knows where it will end up.
This year, I decided to start off my Genocide Literature unit by introducing my students to a current genocide, and I chose the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. After spending two days exploring the conflict, its history, and various perspectives on the conflict, we moved on to our first novel of the unit, First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. However, every Friday for four weeks, I’ve had my students pause in our exploration of the Cambodian genocide and check in on the status of the Rohingya people to see how the story develops.
If you are unfamiliar with this conflict, I highly suggest that you check out materials by The Choices Program by Brown University. For a short, clear synopsis of the crisis, check out this video by Vox. I showed this video to my students, gave them definitions of genocide and ethnic cleansing, showed them various photos of the refugee camps in Bangladesh that the Rohingya are currently living in, and had them analyze the feature articles published in Al Jazeera that are linked on The Choices Program website.
Every Friday since, my students have been working together with their tablemates to find one news article published within the past week about the conflict. They write down the headline and the source of the article, and I have then been categorizing them based on international vs. domestic sources on butcher paper in my classroom as we find them.
After the Week 4 article, I plan to have them answer some analysis questions, such as, What have you learned by following this conflict for four weeks? Have any countries (including Myanmar) done anything about this crisis? What do you think should be done moving forward? How could this all have been prevented?
This project made me nervous at first for several reasons; first, what if nothing happens with the Rohingya crisis? What if after four weeks, they are still just living their refugee lives in Bangladesh? Then, I realized that this would show my students that a refugee crisis is not solved in a day. They would be able to see that those people are still living in squalid conditions with no end in sight.
It also made me nervous because my students tend to hate anything that we do repeatedly simply because they get bored easily. Would this become the next weekly task that they dreaded and groaned about?
The outcome has been the opposite of that. They have been excited every week to see how the crisis develops. And, they have already been remarking on their views on the crisis. As I walk around the room on Fridays, I hear comments like, “Wow, at first there were an estimated 250,000 refugees. Now the estimates are around 600,000!” and “Aung San Suu Kyi finally visited the Rakhine state! I wonder why she’s not doing more to stop this,” and “Bangladesh is saying that the Rohingya can’t stay there permanently, but, honestly, where else can they go?” and even, “This editorial says that Trump should stand up for the Rohingya. I think he should too.”
I believe that the Story with Legs concept can be used to connect any piece of literature with current news. Teaching Romeo and Juliet? Find news on modern gang warfare and how our government today is dealing with it. Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird? Unfortunately, there is a plethora of racial violence events to choose from in our society today. Teaching 1984? What about monitoring events in North Korea or any dictatorial regime?
Following this Story with Legs gives my students a front row seat to history in the making. When this goes down in the books as one of this century’s ethnic cleansings, they will be able to tell their children, “I remember when that happened. I learned about it in school when it was happening, and we all wondered what was going to happen to them.”
And this year, my students certainly won’t tell me that the Holocaust will never happen again; they’re watching it unfold before their eyes.