Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Writing Lesson about Far More than Writing

My writing students are my favorite teachers. The other day, I led a lesson titled "An Exploration of Confronting Prejudice," prompted by a few choices of opening lines that I created to initiate dialogues between characters to illustrate various ways to confront prejudice. I told the students (13 and 14 year olds) to "create a character to utter the bigotry-laden line, and then have another character reacting to that line in a way that shows readers YOUR way of responding to such vile words." Their resulting pieces amazed me, not only in the quality of the short short stories they created, but mainly in the varied and valid responses they illustrated for dealing with blatant prejudice. Our discussion of each piece resonated with all of us, I believe, teaching them far more than writing skills. To my now almost famous "D.A.D. Technique for Vivid Word Pictures" (D=Description, A=Action, D=Dialogue), they added another D, for Depth!

The opening lines I gave them specifically targeted some of the nationalities, cultures, and races of the students themselves, who are Indian, Chinese, Italian, Jewish, and part-Irish. Here are a few samples:
  • Rahim sneezed in class. "God bless you, blurted Jacob automatically. "I mean, YOUR God, er, that is, if you people actually do believe in God, that is..."
  • "YOU made the basketball team? I didn't know Asians could play sports!"
  • "What's the matter with you? You're Asian! Why did YOU get a C?!"
  • As an African-American teenage boy walked toward their table to the coffee shop counter, Sandy whispered to Mary, "Maybe you should move your purse off the back of your chair and put it under the table."
  • "Look at that old Jewish-looking guy in front of us, the one with the big nose. He's keeping everyone waiting in this line so he can use his stupid coupons. What does a rich Jew need coupons for anyway?"
  • "Mom, can I go to a party at my friend Joe Flanagan's house tonight?" The mom comments on the last name being Irish, and then asks suspiciously whether there will be drinking at that party.
  • "I didn't invite you to my Christmas party because I know you people consider us infidels, so why would you want to come?"
  • "Darn! I got stuck with a bunch of Mexican kids for study partners. I guess I'll be doing all the work."
Well, each student selected a line, as I predicted, that pertained to their personal background, or to a display of prejudice they had witnessed before. The one who chose the line about the Asian basketball player created a scene in which the Asian player chooses the path of CONFRONTATION. The offended character refutes the bigot's assumptions about Asians by citing the successes of other Asian athletes, and by challenging the contender to a play-off. The author himself is an Asian basketball player.

Another student writer, who is Indian, picked the scenario in which a person blurts "God bless you" to a Hindu. His character shows no offense, and instead chooses the reaction of EDUCATION, by informing the ignorant person about his religion to dispel misconceptions.

The student who picked the Asian kid defending himself for getting a C in school wrote his character's response as one of SHARING EARNEST FEELINGS. The character reveals his pain at not living up to the stereotypes, and his wish for compassion, rather than castigation.

The young writer who chose the scene with the African-American teenager and the woman whose purse was hanging on the back of her chair wrote a scene that ended with the more enlightened, not prejudiced woman dumping the contents of her purse on the table. Her action, to spite her friend's biased comment, reflected a response of SIMPLE SILENT ACTION as a counterargument. The quiet action immediately silences the bigot without any fighting, violence, or lectures.

Yet another potential response to prejudice was illustrated by the student who chose the unfair comment about Irish people being drinkers. The writer showed the reaction of HUMOR and SELF-DEPRECATION as a response to meanness and ignorance. The Irish boy who finds himself insulted in the scenario replies in a Irish brogue, with every stereotypically Irish line imaginable, making the mother who insulted him feel embarrassed for her stupidity. In the end, however, the mother's daughter reveals that her Irish boy friend was actually drunk all along. Before the writing class students could protest that the writer had supported the prejudicial statement, instead of refuting it, the author read her "commentary" section. Her commentary revealed that the daughter's desire to go to a party hosted by her drunken friend was meant to imply that the non-Irish girl sought drunkenness herself, and since her interest in getting drunk had nothing to do with being Irish, the assumption about Irish people being more likely to drink appears false. Clever, huh?

Anyway, this lesson revealed a lot more than variation in writing techniques and stylistic competence. The student pieces could have comprised a presentation on the many ways of confronting prejudice. I love when my lessons do "double-duty" and my students learn more than they intended to.

Inspiring awe for words and awesome writing...that's my goal.