By: Anna Ziemniak
This week in English II, we begin our unit focused on Chinua Achebe’s renowned novel Things Fall Apart. The story is centered on Okonkwo, a traditional male figure in his African village who struggles with the fear of losing control and tradition as foreign missionaries attempt to assimilate his people. While the novel’s content may feel culturally and ethnically distant at times, it’s message rings true in a global context: how can conflicting perspectives exist in a world that strives for power?
As an introduction to our unit, we spent time in class discussing our personal opinions and views on several issues and topics that we will face in our unit. Students began class by reading a quote by Rudyard Kipling, who stated that “Everyone like us is a ‘we’ and everyone else is a ‘they.’” Students discussed the implicit meanings of the words “we” and “they”—most agreed that “we” implied togetherness, while “they” implied otherness. Many shared personal experiences of having been (or currently being) a “have” and “have-not,” from sports teams to clubs, to even popularity and cliques at school. This quote kick-started students into their inquiry about how we categorize people and ideas that are different from us.
In a world dominated by social media and the web, students have a ton of exposure to interacting remotely with people in their communities and world. To create a familiar atmosphere, students mimicked the online experience in an activity called “Silent Conversations” in which they created a thread conversation with their classmates about issues in our novel. Students were presented with a statement or idea at the top of a sheet of paper that thematically related to our unit of study. Some of these statements and questions were:
- Change is usually for the better.
- When a man cries, it shows that he is weak.
- An effective way to deal with your problems is to ignore them.
- New and innovative ways of doing things are better than old traditions.
- Who decides what it means to be “civilized” or “barbaric”?
- What holds a culture together?
- What destroys a culture?
Students, in a written response to the statement presented, had the choice to agree, disagree, or present an entirely new idea. After two minutes, students rotated and received a new statement with which they needed to agree/disagree with their classmate who previously wrote, and build on their ideas. Many of the Sophomores demonstrated a wide variety of reactions to the ideas presented, from passion to skepticism. The debates about many topics were heated at times, yet students were able to show off their argumentative skills in a productive and fun way.
As an extension to the assignment, students furthered their discussion on a topic that provoked curiosity during the silent conversations activity. Students were asked to cite a personal experience as their evidence when responding to the statement or question they chose. This exercise helped students to engage with content on a personal level in order to best build on what they already knew before jumping into our unit and our novel.
Students have such a wealth of personal experience and opinions that we oftentimes overlook how meaningful those ideas can be in the classroom. While students were certainly close to “silent” during our activity that day, their meaning, purpose, and intent were heard loud and clear.