National Writing Project

Creating Empathetic Connections to Literature

By: Lesley Roessing
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2
Date: 2005

Summary: Taken aback by her eighth grade students' dry-eyed response to The Diary of Anne Frank, Roessing finds a way to help students convert the them they encounter in multicultural literature into us.

 

Untitled Document

My class had just finished studying the Holocaust and reading and performing the play The Diary of Anne Frank. The students sat there, sympathetic but dry-eyed, ready to move on to a new piece of literature, a new time period. I was taken aback. The whole process had been too much a sterile exercise. Where was the compassion, the empathy for the young girl who lived and died during Hitler’s regime? Could it be that my students—fifty years and five thousand miles distant from Anne’s life—did not feel any connection to her?

My eighth grade humanities curriculum focuses on the study, through literature, of intolerance issues and their effect on human rights. But when modern American students study literature of another time and place (multicultural literature, so to speak), I often note a detachment—recognition of, and even compassion for, the plight of them, but no sense that they are connected to us.

These students, and, indeed, our school district, are not significantly diverse. This particular class is virtually 100 percent suburban, middle-class, European-American, Christian teens from predominately blue-collar communities that reflect the experience of parents who are at least third-generation citizens. They have traveled little, if at all, and their ideas about other peoples and cultures are based on stereotypes from television and movies. Upon reflection, even they recognize that the friends they choose from the wider population are pretty much reflections of themselves. Therefore, multicultural experiences through literature are essential; however, for the literature to be meaningful, there must be a relationship between the readers and the characters—real or fictional.

“How do I get my students to feel connected?” I wondered. I had thought that the age correlation—my students were the same age as Anne when she went into hiding from the Nazis—was enough. In fact, that is why many school districts choose to read the play—or the book The Diary of a Young Girl—as part of their eighth grade language arts courses even when the social studies curriculum, like ours, focuses on a different time period.

Looking for inspiration, I thought back to the past summer. Throughout July I had been a participant in the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project’s Summer Literature Institute. During the institute, one of our assignments had been to read a multicultural text, and I had read When I Was Puerto Rican, a memoir written by Esmeralda Santiago (1994). After reading these novels, we were introduced by the institute leaders to Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman (1985). These poems compare the lives of insects. Similarities are read simultaneously, in two voices, while differences are read individually. Although we did not see much connection between these poems and the multicultural literature we had been reading, we dutifully partnered and dramatically presented such poems as “Honeybees,” in which the lives of the queen bee and a worker are compared. In this poem the queen bee explains why, to her, “Being a bee is a joy” while, at the same time, the worker complains, “Being a bee is a pain.” After delineating their respective days, the poem ends:

Queen Bee: Worker Bee:
Truly, a bee’s is Truly, a bee’s is

   the

   the
best worst
of all lives. of all lives.

In this work Fleischman has contrasted lives that, to humans, might appear to be more alike than dissimilar.

The institute participants were then given an assignment to write poetry for two voices based on the novels we had just read. I panicked. What had I in common with a sixteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl who had grown up in the Caribbean and, in her early teens, moved to New York City? I searched my family tree for a lone Latino relative among the Russian-Polish immigrants on both sides. I pretended that we had been poor, struggling in a new city—trying to ignore my middle-class rural Western Pennsylvanian roots. I stared at the novel, blaming myself for taking a risk in truly choosing a diverse culture, a novel about them, not us.

As I calmed down and started turning pages more slowly, I noticed dates in the text. With a shock, I realized that Esmeralda Santiago was sixteen years old the same year that I was sixteen! After discovering one commonality, it was not difficult to find another, and another. We had both faced prejudices in our communities—my small town, her new land. We both liked center-stage—she as an actress, I as a teacher. We both are writers. And the poem grew and grew. We were practically twins! I wrote my poem, and a classmate assisted me in performing it for the class. In fact, we all wrote our poems, some searching harder than others but all succeeding in finding common ground with the diverse authors or protagonists.

(In all poems the bold-faced lines are to be read in unison. Those that are not bold faced should be read independently.)

Being a teenager was hard
in the Sixties.

I was
a European-American
girl.

I grew up in
western Pennsylvania
in a small town.

We never moved


We were the hicks.

Same thing.

But my father made a very good living;
Although he was an artist.

In school I never felt
the same as everybody else.

“Jew.”

But in high school I did well.
Academics were important to me.

I liked attention and to perform,
which caused me to become

a teacher.

We are both storytellers,
telling the stories of ourselves and others.

Being a teenager was hard
in the Sixties.

I was
a Puerto-Rican
girl.

I grew up in
Puerto Rico
in a small village.

We moved back and forth many times;
We finally came to New York

We were jibaro.

Same thing.

My father could barely support us;
Although he was a poet.

In school I never felt
the same as everybody else.

“Spic”

But in high school I did well.
Academics were important to me.

I liked attention and to perform,
which caused me to become

a writer.

We are both storytellers,
telling the stories of ourselves and others.

As I remembered not only my success but also my feelings of connection with another human being, one whom I had not even met except through the pages of her book, I decided to replicate the challenge for my students. They also read “Honeybees,” and I clarified the concept of poetry for two voices. I shared my story and my poem “Teenagers.” Then I explained the assignment; each student was to write a two-voice poem entitled “Anne and Me.”

On the day the assignment was due, I found that everyone had completed the task. The students selected partners, read through their two poems, and chose one to practice and present to the class. I felt that, this way, those who were less successful with or more shy about their writings would not be embarrassed. They practiced and then read the poetry aloud. The readings were incredible, powerful beyond my expectations. These modern, suburban, relatively secure, American teens, both females and males, had found commonalities, beyond age, with Anne Frank.

One student, Mary, wrote of her links to Anne.

ME

A teenage girl,
I live in

Freedom.

I am
Roman Catholic.

I am optimistic.
Easy-going.

I love attention!
I am

Obedient.

And I am going to think
What I want to think.

European-American
Summer Camp

Alive today
For a long time.
Reading a diary
About Anne Frank.

ANNE

A teenage girl,
I live in

Hiding.

I am
Jewish.

I am optimistic.
Out-going.

I love attention!
I am

Rebellious.

And I am going to think
What I want to think.

European
Concentration Camp

Alive today
Not for long.
Writing a diary
About Anne Frank.

Comparing similar experiences, Debbie noted in her poem

[Anne] I saw World War Two
[Debbie] I saw 9/11

but Amber summed up the relative exposures to war of an American girl in the late twentieth century and a European child of the 1940s:

[Amber] I watch war on television
[Anne] I watch war out my window

These associations were not limited to the girls of the class. In Luke’s poem, he also discovered resemblances between Anne and himself.

I am
Luke.

I am a
Christian
Which is
Not significant

In my time and place.
This is because
I live in a

Peace
Zone.
And I am

Never
Persecuted for my religion.

Because
Of this, I am
Happy.


I have
Many
Freedoms here in
The U.S.

I can do
Anything
That I want—
All because of

A few men.

I am
Anne.

I am a
Jew
Which is
Significant

In my time and place.
This is because
I live in a

War
Zone.
And I am

Always
Persecuted for my religion.

In spite
Of this, I am
Trying to be
Happy.

I have
No
Freedoms here in
Holland.

I can do
Nothing
That I want—
All because of

One man.

After the presentations I asked students to reflect and comment on the experience. Mary wrote, “Despite differences in time or appearance, people can be similar to each other. We may be different in many ways, but we are similar too. We all have emotions and personalities and, despite color and creed, we all connect in different ways. Sometimes prejudice gets in the way of that.” Debbie commented, “Writing and reading this poem aloud really gave me the feeling that she [Anne Frank] was a living, breathing person and not just a character in a book.” Bridget made an interesting observation: “Writing this [poem] made me look deeper into, not only Anne’s personality, but my own.” Another sentiment, echoed by many—both female and male—was that “it may seem, with such different lives, there would be no similarities, but I found quite a few. The comparison let me see how good my life is.” Martin credited the power of the comparison to “the form . . . the two voices.”

Nicole did not stop with Anne Frank; she took the exercise, both writing and connecting, a step further. I posted on the wall photographs and biographies of Holocaust victims from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Students were asked to change the genre of the writing. Nicole chose Ivo Herzer, a sixteen-year-old Yugoslavian boy, as her "adoptee." After the experience of her "Anne and Me" poetry, she decided to turn Ivo's story into a chronicle of the two of them by writing another poem for two voices:

I'm just a
boy.

I was born in February into a
Jewish
family.

I was brought up in
a city.

I
went to
a public school, and
learned
three languages.

I did
well and
enjoyed
studying.

When I was in my teens,
I was liberated from

being a victim of war.

Through
the war
I survived
although I would have rather
been doing chores.

Still I know I am blessed.
I'm just your

average
blessed boy.

I'm just a
girl.

I was born in February into a
Catholic
family.

I was brought up in
the suburbs.

I
go to
a public school, and
am learning
three languages.

I do
well and
would rather pass up
studying.

When I was in my teens,
I was liberated from

having to do my chores.

Through
my chores
I survived
although it felt like war.
 

Still I know I am blessed.
I'm just your

ordinary
blessed girl.

When Nicole selected Ivo's picture on my wall, who would have guessed that the eastern Pennsylvanian and the Eastern European would have so much in common.

In A History of Intolerance in America, Jim Carnes (1995) points out that

[The] narrow view of American-ness [in our original Constitution] reveals a common truth about the way most of us view ourselves and others. We derive a large portion of our identity from the groups we belong to. Our family, our school, our team, our side of town, our party, our country, our religion, our race, our language—all of these are different ways of saying “us.” And for every “us” and “ours,” there are “them” and “theirs.” . . . Public opinion polls and daily headlines make it plain: Around the country, many Americans—and, increasingly, young Americans—are drawing bolder lines between “us” and “them.”

I found that this exercise, and the students’ reflections, proved that this not need be the case. Writing the poems compelled my students to look beyond the obvious differences to discover the similarities between themselves and another teenager and realize that many disparities, such as gender or differences of time and place, were superficial. Reading the poems aloud caused students to experience the resemblances, and, as they discovered similarities, they developed a more compassionate understanding of their differences. I heard echoes of empathy, not sympathy, from the readers.

An additional writing bonus occurred after the initial performances. I find that I am repeatedly asking students to revise their writings and explaining the difference between revising for meaning and effect and editing for mechanics. After hearing the “Anne and Me” poetry read in class, some students asked to rewrite their poems. It wasn’t to “plagiarize” from the examples, as I feared; it was to make their poems “perform” better. In most cases, in revising, they expanded their ideas and made deeper, more meaningful associations.

A few months after reading The Diary of Anne Frank and completing the poetry activity, the humanities class read another novel of intolerance, Waiting for the Rain, by Sheila Gordon. This book depicts the lives of two boys, one white and the other black, growing up in South Africa under apartheid. In this piece of historical fiction, which takes place from 1978 to 1986, Frikkie and Tengo have been friends for a number of years. Tengo is the son of the “boss-boy” of the farm belonging to Frikkie’s Afrikaner uncle. When Tengo acquires an education and learns about the effects of apartheid, their relationship is significantly altered. Frikkie, however, doesn’t understand why things need to change.

When I first decided to revisit the two-voice poetry format, I considered requiring the students to compare Tengo and Anne Frank, but, upon reflection, I felt that the comparisons were too obvious. Except for time and place and the fact that Tengo lived and Anne died, the effects of racism were virtually identical; they were both victims of racial discrimination. Although the students would come to the conclusion that history was repeating itself, I think that point was already made in our discussions of the National Party’s “Colour Policy” and apartheid. What new insights could my students learn from this activity? I decided to ask my students to compare Tengo and Frikkie. This would allow, or even force, them to look at both sides of the issues, the conflicting points of view of two boys who were raised under this system of separateness—a system of us and them. Even though they were white European-Americans, my students tended to sympathize with Tengo, not Frikkie. Rather than stereotyping their roles, my students needed to look at them both as individuals and to understand that Frikkie, as well as Tengo, was a victim of apartheid. Due to the bias of apartheid, each, to his friend, had become the Other. Through this assignment, I invited my students to truly examine the characters, their backgrounds, their experiences, their educations, their hopes and dreams, to ascertain how it might be possible for the two boys—and, with the fall of apartheid, the two races—to work together. Again, students rose to the occasion.

FRIKKIE

I am growing up in South Africa…
My family owns a farm.
I live in a house;
I am the “kleinbaas.”

I get an education
because I have to.
I want to work.
I wish I could stay on the farm.
I am in the army.
I fight for my country.

I wish things would not change.
          Apartheid
          Protesters
          Violence

My friend Tengo is Black.
He says that I am not being fair.

There is nothing I can do.

One person cannot change things alone.

I am fighting for my country.
I am just obeying the law.

The land really belongs to my people,
They cannot have it.
My people will grow up to be
Doctors and lawyers.

Our people were here first.

I am defending my country.

We must agree and work together
If we are to live equally.

TENGO

I am growing up in South Africa…
My family works on the farm.
A hut;
I, just a servant.

I get an education
because I want to.
I want to learn.
I wish I could get away.
I fear the army.
I fight for my freedom.

I wish things would change.
          Apartheid
          Protesters
          Violence

My friend Frikkie is White.
He says that I am not being fair.

I am doing what I can, but

One person cannot change things alone.


The law is wrong.

The land really belongs to my people.
But we will share it.
And my people will be
Servants and laborers.

Our people were here first.

I am defending my people

We must agree and work together
If we are to live equally.

Reflecting on the two-voice poetry assignments, I feel that the students were able to complete the tasks successfully because, after reading “Honeybees” and discussing the format, I shared the story of my own search for comparisons and displayed my poem as an example. While Fleischman’s poem concentrates on differences, mine focuses on similarities. I wanted students in a single poem to consider similarities and differences.

Some students also decided, after trial and error, that the poems were easier to read aloud when written in three columns, rather than “when both readers have lines at the same horizontal level” as is the case in Joyful Noises. Others liked the two-column format but typed the lines that were to be read simultaneously in boldface to make them stand out for the reader. I have noticed that, when learning has purpose, students will find the way to solve any problems.

Since this experience, I have led other classes through these assignments. If students had trouble finding areas of comparison, I used a Venn diagram or other appropriate graphic organizer to help them through the process. With one class, I also related the account of a colleague who could find nothing in common with the protagonist of her novel but found resemblances between their fathers and their own relationships with their fathers. I have also, as an interactive model of the process, led classes in a sample brainstorming session with a character in a literary work we have previously read and discussed. With help such as this, all classes have achieved success.

As I have continued to work with these assignments, I have come to understand that while it is true that the more students read, the more they learn about others, it is not until they write that they hear their voices. My students learned a new form of poetry; they learned about Anne Frank, they learned about two South African boys, and they learned about themselves. However, through their writings, what they actually learned is that there is seldom them; it is more commonly us.

References

Carnes, J. 1995. A History of Intolerance in America. Montgomery, Alabama: Southern Poverty Law Center.

Fleischman, P. 1985. Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Frank, A. 1995 ed. The Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Doubleday.

Gordon, S. 1987. Waiting for the Rain. New York: Bantam Books.

Santiago, E. 1994. When I Was Puerto Rican. New York: Vintage Books.

Lesley Roessing teaches eighth grade arts and humanities at Ridley Middle School in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania. She is a teacher-consultant with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project.

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