Archives For People in Conflict

 Anne Frank: The Diary of  Young Girl transcends the labels of genre. anne Frank book

Yes, as the title suggests, it is a diary, but it is also a memoir, a narrative, an argument, an expository journal, an informational text, and much more.

Yet, these genres listed are treated as separate and distinct in the reading and writing standards of the Common Core (CCSS). The standards emphasize the differences between the literary and informational genres. The standards also prescribe what percentages much students should read (by grade 12 30% literary texts/ 70% informational texts), what genres of writing they should practice (narrative, informative/explanatory, argumentative) and the percentages students should expect to communicate  in these genres by grade level.

Distribution of Communicative Purposes by Grade supported by the Common Core

Distribution of Communicative Purposes by Grade supported by the Common Core

In the real world, however, the differences between genres is not as clear and distinct as neatly outlined in the standards. The real world of Nazi occupied Holland was the setting that produced the defiant Diary of Anne Frank.

On June 12, 1942,  Anne Frank received a red and white check autograph book as a birthday gift. This small volume was soon filled by Anne as a diary, the first of three separate volumes, as she her family and friends hid in the secret annex.

A diary is a daily record, usually private, especially of the writer’s own experiences, observations, feelings, attitudes.

Anne’s narrative in these diaries provides a sequence of events and experiences during the two years she spent hiding with others behind the bookcase in the attic where her father had been employed.

A narrative is a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.

In June of 1947 Anne’s father Otto Frank published The Diary of Anne Frank, and it has become one of the world’s best-known memoirs of the Holocaust.

A memoir is a written account in which an individual describes  his or her experiences.

In one entry Anne explains she is aware of what was being done with Jews throughout Europe and those who resisted the Nazis. She refers to radio reports from England, official statements, and announcements in the local papers. There are expository style entries throughout the diary that help the reader understand how much she and others knew about the Holocaust:

“Our many Jewish friends and acquaintances are being taken away in droves. The Gestapo is treating them very roughly and transporting them in cattle cars to Westerbork, the big camp in Drenthe to which they’re sending all the Jews….If it’s that bad in Holland, what must it be like in those faraway and uncivilized places where the Germans are sending them? We assume that most of them are being murdered. The English radio says they’re being gassed.” October 9, 1942

“All college students are being asked to sign an official statement to the effect that they ‘sympathize with the Germans and approve of the New Order.” Eighty percent have decided to obey the dictates of their conscience, but the penalty will be severe. Any student refusing to sign will be sent to a German labor camp.”- May 18, 1943

Expository writing’s purpose is to explain, inform, or even describe.

Finally, there are excerpts taken from the diary where Anne makes a persuasive argument for the goodness of people, even in the most awful of circumstances:

“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.  If we were to start by adding to that goodness instead of stifling it, by giving poor people the feeling that they too are human beings, we wouldn’t necessarily have to give money or material things, since not everyone has them to give.” March 26, 1944

A persuasive argument is a writer’s attempt to convince readers of the validity of a particular opinion on a controversial issue.

Anne’s opinion about the goodness of people during the horrors of the Holocaust is a remarkable argument.

The Diary of Anne Frank gave rise to other genres. Anne’s diaries served as the source material for a play produced in 1955 and then as a film in 1959.

The genre of The Diary of Anne Frank, however, should not be the focus, or the reason for its selection into a curriculum or unit of study. Instead, it is the quality of the writing from a young girl that makes the diary a significant contribution to the literature of the 20th Century.Screenshot 2015-06-11 18.50.33

Novelist and former president of the PEN American Center, Francine Prose revisited the diary and was “struck by how beautiful and brilliant it is.” Prose’s research on Anne Frank as a writer culminated with her own retelling, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, in which she makes a strong case for the literary quality of Anne’s writing:

“And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how rarely people have really recognized what a conscious, incredible work of literature it is.”

In an interview on the PBS website, Prose was asked, “Do you think there is something about Anne Frank’s voice that continues to resonate with young people today?” Her response,

“I do. Because the diary was written by a kid, it is almost uniquely suited to be read by a kid. Salinger and Mark Twain certainly got certain things right about being a kid; but they weren’t kids when they wrote their books. The diary works on so many different levels.”

When selections from The Diary of Anne Frank were first published in the “Het Parool” on April 3, 1946, the historian Jan Romein also recognized how Anne’s young literary voice rose above the inhumanity that caused in her death at 15 years in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In his review, he writes:

“… this apparently inconsequential diary by a child… stammered out in a child’s voice, embodies all the hideousness of fascism, more so than all the evidence at Nuremberg put together.”

Romein’s review elevates the “apparently inconsequential diary” as testimony in making a legal case against the Nazi regime. It is that power in Anne’s voice that makes her diary a powerful text to offer students, whether it fits the percentages in a CCSS aligned unit of study for an informational text or not.

Her entry on July 15, 1944, written 20 days before she and her family are betrayed to the Nazis reveals yet another genre:

 “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

For there is poetry in that entry as well.

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Wikipedia photo -Elie Wiesel

By my calculations, at the mid-point of the school year, many World History classes are studying World War II. Should these classes want to increase their use of an informational text in English or Social Studies curriculum, I suggest Elie Wiesel’s noteworthy speech The Perils of Indifference.

Wiesel delivered this speech to Congress on April 12, 1999. The speech is 1818 words long and connects Wiesel’s experience at the concentration camp at Aushwitcz with the genocides of the late 20th Century using a single powerful word: indifference.

In his speech, Weisel states clearly:

Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment. And this is one of the most important lessons of this outgoing century’s wide-ranging experiments in good and evil.

Our English Department has used this speech in the past as a complement to Wiesel’s memoir Night which has been a used as a whole class read.  This year, we are giving Night to the Social Studies classes. They will adopt this memoir in order to increase the assigned informational text reading in their discipline mandated by the Literacy Common Core State Standards in History and Social Studies (CCSS). The English Department will still offer supplemental texts  that students can choose to read independently.

When he gave this speech, Wiesel had come before the US Congress to thank the American soldiers and the American people for liberating the camps at the end of World War II. Wiesel had spent nine months in the Buchewald/Aushwitcz complex. His mother and sisters had been separated from him when they first arrived: “Eight short, simple words… Men to the left, women to the right”; these family members were killed in the ovens. He and his father survived starvation, disease, and the deprivation of spirit. His father eventually succumbed, and Wiesel guiltily admits at the end of the memoir that at his father’s death he felt relieved.

Eventually, Wiesel felt compelled to testify against the Nazi regime, and he wrote the memoir Night to bear witness against the genocide which killed his family and six million Jews. His speech was delivered 54 years after he was liberated by American forces.

His gratitude to these American forces is what opens the speech, but after the opening paragraph, Wiesel seriously admonishes America to do more to halt genocides all over the world. By not intervening on behalf of those victims of genocide, he states clearly, we are indifferent to their suffering:

Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative.

My students have always been struck by Wiesel’s juxtaposition of anger and creativity. More than one has agreed pointing to making a “good” creation: an amazing song about an ex-boyfriend or a painting slapped together with passion. They also do not want to be treated indifferently. Yet, Wiesel makes them think beyond themselves:

Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.

I remember several years ago, one student in my English 10 class, Rick, was particularly bright, fun, and full of daring. He also had an exceptional understanding of math and statistics. That January, I introduced the memoir Night as I had in previous years by providing a little background information.

“Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust,” I recited off from my list of facts.

“What?” a startled Rick looked up. “Six million?” He was aghast. “That can’t be right.” He looked around at his classmates. “Six million?” They looked at him blankly. “Come on,” he was looking for some support, “That can’t be right.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Do you know how many six million things are?” He was indignant.

“Six million people,” I responded.

“People, yes. People, six million is a lot of people….” Rick was clearly operating with a different level of understanding from his more placid classmates. He understood six million as quantity; he did understand what six million things would look like if stacked up. Other students stirred in their seats.  “No way….six million,” he repeated growing more agitated. “How? How did anyone let this happen?” he asked; he was half-rising out of his seat. “Did we know?”

“Yes,” I remember saying. I do remember explaining that, yes, America did know that Hitler had concentration camps, and that more documentation collected after the war indicated that many of our military and political leaders knew about these camps. That is one of the points from Wiesel’s speech.

I pointed out to the class that the Holocaust was only one example of genocide; that there were others. In fact, that there was recently a genocide in Darfur. Rick sat down; he was overwhelmed. He was capable of understanding numerically the devastation of the Holocaust, and he was clearly upset. “Why do we let this happen?” he asked. I remember his voice was so sad, so full of disbelief.

In The Perils of Indifference, Wiesel asks

Does it mean that we have learned from the past? Does it mean that society has changed? Has the human being become less indifferent and more human? Have we really learned from our experiences? Are we less insensitive to the plight of victims of ethnic cleansing and other forms of injustices in places near and far?

Wiesel’s rhetorical questions echo Rick’s “Did we know?” In trying to respond, Wiesel makes the reader uncomfortable the way Rick was uncomfortable. Creating this kind of emotional impact on a reader is the reason Wiesel’s speech should be taught.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) demand that students read informational texts but does not require specific texts. Wiesel’s The Perils of Indifference contains the information and rhetorical devices that meet the text complexity criteria of the CCSS. More specifically, Wiesel’s message is necessary if we want our students to confront the conflicts in this new 21st Century. Our students must be prepared to question why “deportation, the terrorization of children and their parents be allowed anywhere in the world?“

Our humanity should demand nothing less.

The Wamogo classroom libraries have many new titles, so perhaps an explanation as to how these titles are allowed into the classrooms at Wamogo for independent reading is in order.  Most of the books in the classroom libraries are books already available in the school library’s main collection. Unfortunately, like most schools, there have been, on occasion, challenges to titles taught or made available in classrooms in grades 7-12. Book challenges are made when a parent or guardian objects to content in a book, and there are some titles that receive challenges more frequently than others.

There are two steps that our English Department members employ in order to meet the requirements of a reading curriculum with the requests of parents or guardians. The first step is to offer students a choice in selecting independent reading or to offer an alternate core text. Because of our extensive used book collection, (see our book flood!), our English teachers are often able to offer another title instead.

The second step employed is the focus on lessons that develop skills rather then then lessons that dwell on content. Our curriculum incorporates activities and prompts that address similar themes or topics, so that the difference in titles does not impact a lesson. Prompts such as, “What is the role of the main character in his or her family? Does that role change?” are designed so that students do not always need to be reading the same text in order to participate.  For example, the Contemporary Native American unit in Grade 11 is centered on Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees as the core text. Titles offered as alternates or for independent reading include Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or  Reservation Blues, Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heat at Wounded Knee, and Codetalkers by Joseph Bruchac. Students can choose a different book in this unit and still answer the prompts and participate in activities individually or in literature circle groups. One topic that connects these titles is how Native Americans view others and how they are viewed by others in society.

Unfortunately, book challenges are often in schools made against many of the books that are in the classical canon of literature.

A YouTube compilation quickly lists the top 100 banned books:

In fact, it would be impossible to teach a survey of American literature without incorporating at least one challenged title; most are on the Advanced Placement Literature recommendation’s list. The American Library Association (ALA) keeps a record of book challenges throughout the United States.  There are lists of books that have been banned; one such  web page  is titled The Top Ten Banned or Challenged Classics.

The reasons for challenging a book are as varied as the books themselves. The entire Harry Potter series has been challenged for a number of reasons dealing with witchcraft; one challenge called the series “evil” attempt to indoctrinate children in the Wicca religion. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has been repeatedly challenged for containing profanity. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn was recently challenged in Connecticut for the repeated use of a derogatory term. These challengesdiffer from the specific objections leveled against Nabokov’s Lolita which has been banned for the obsessive relationship of the middle-aged Humbert Humbert’s with the 12 year old “Lolita”. These examples illustrate the breadth of topics than can result in book challenges or having the book banned entirely.

As a result, most teachers “self-censor”, choosing materials that they consider not objectionable, harmful, or insensitive for students.  However, there are instances where a teacher may not anticipate a challenge; what one group of parents deems inappropriate may not concern another group of parents.

Our solution is to offer a student choice in reading materials which necessitates that more titles representing a wide variety of reading levels are made available to students. Book choices for students are often advertised on websites such as Livebinders  or on a class wiki which is public.  Concerns about the merits of a book should be weighed by all stakeholders- parents, students and teachers- if there should be a question about a student selecting a text. Having a title available may not be enough of a reason to incorporate the book into a lesson plan or unit. Confronting concerns immediately in the teaching of any text is a priority.

In order to draw attention to book challenges in schools and public libraries, the American Library Association publicizes a Banned Books Week. This year, banned book week will run from September 24- October 1, 2011.They organize activities and materials in order “to highlight the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings.” Educators are often the first to encounter challenges for book removal. Offering choice may be the most successful way to accommodate the parent and still engage the reader.

Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night is taught in coordination with a social studies unit on the Holocaust.  The 10th grade English curriculum attempts to capitalize on teaching world literature through historical contexts; Night is one text that bridges the educational objectives of English and social studies.

The new translation by Marion Wiesel made popular by Oprah's Book Club

The memoir begins as the Jews of the little town of Sighet, Hungary, are rounded up and taken in cattle cars to the camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945. Wiesel remembers how the prison guard called out and separated the incoming Jews:

“Eight short, simple words… Men to the left, women to the right.”
To the left meant assignment in the prison labor camp; to the right meant extermination in the gas chambers and ovens.
Wiesel continues:
“For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held Mother’s hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister’s fair hair … and I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever.”

At 15 years old, Wiesel endured starvation, injury, and disease, conflicted by his need to protect his father and his frustration with his father’s deteriorating condition.  He was tormented by the relief he felt when his father passed away. The final image of Wiesel’s ghostly reflection in a mirror shortly after liberation is haunting.

Students living in rural Connecticut have a difficult time comprehending the horrors of the Holocaust; they are safely separated by time, circumstance, and geography from this event. Night helps to personalize the experience of genocide; while the book itself is slender, the impact on our students is tremendous.

Last year, students were given the chance to select an independent book to read with Night. These books varied in reading level and genre. They chose from the following list:
Soldier Boys by Dean Hughes
The Boy in Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
Briar Rose by Jane Yolan
Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman (graphic novel)
I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson

All of the books offered were added through used book sales except for Maus and The Boy in Striped Pajamas, which we borrowed from the Connecticut Library Council, and The Book Thief which we purchased new (30 copies).

There are two best selling books related to the Holocaust that have begun to show up in used book sales. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows; and Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay have been popular with book clubs. I also have several copies of Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi for Advanced Placement students.  I have picked up a few copies of each and could also offer these  books to the more experienced readers.

During the Holocaust unit, students had four weeks to complete their independent book and Night. We offered silent sustained reading twice weekly, and there was a showing of the film Schindler’s List (parental permission required). When students completed both the independent reading and Night, they wrote essays that compared a section of the independent reading to a section from Night.

The older edition of Night; we have switched over to the newer edition pictured above

We are moving from the older Bantam paperback edition to the recent translation by Marion Wiesel which was made popular when Oprah chose Night for her book club. Oprah also filmed a visit to Auschwitz with Wiesel; his narration is so quiet I need to put the audio setting on close captioned.

This summer I have located about 20 copies of the recent translation of  Night, many of which were brand new, in the CT book sales in Westport, New Milford, Newtown and in Boise, Idaho. In addition, I recently placed an order with Better World Books for 46 “gently used” copies of Night.  Combining the 20 copies I have located at summer book sales and used book stores with the 46 used copies, the department library now has 66 copies of the latest edition of the text for a total of  $311.53 which is roughly $4.72/text.

Night is an important book in our curriculum, at any price. Elie Wiesel makes that important connection beyond geography, beyond time, and beyond circumstances for my students; his voice against genocide is eloquent and memorable.


Book Sale flier 2011

New Milford Public Library  in New Milford, CT, stages its annual sale run by the Friends of the New Milford Library in the cafeteria of the New Milford High School, usually the middle of July. This library has a very dedicated set of volunteers who make this sale a very easy sale to attend. 

There is an “early bird” charge of $5.00 for buyers before 10:00 am, but the crowds were still very manageable even after there was no admission charge to enter. This summer, there were a  fair number of used book dealers, but everyone had plenty of room to negotiate through the aisles-even those buyers carrying large, overflowing bags or boxes. Book genres were clearly marked with signs on the tables: non-fiction mixed with paperbacks and hardcovers; fiction divided onto mass-market, trade and hardcover tables. There was a much needed holding area based on the honor system. Several cashiers tables allowed volunteers to check out large and express orders easily.

Last year, I found many biographies and books about animals on the non-fiction tables. Cultural anthropologists could have decided in 2010 that New Milford was a town concerned about the lives of people and their interactions with animals. This year, however, the table labelled Parent/Child Books was overflowing, which could lead one to determine that there must have been a recent baby boom and that animals are of little current interest.

The trade fiction book section was divided into boxes set on low platforms. The made the books easy to see, but required constant bending to pick out a text. The books were not organized by author or title, which slows me down as I try to quickly scan for familiar covers. Standing next to a used book dealer plopping books quickly into a box only heightens my anxiety. “Was that a copy of The Road he just put in his case?” I’ll wonder. “Well, there goes a copy of Girl, Interrupted!” I’ll sigh and move away to the next box. Such pressure resulted in my almost overlooking three copies of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye on my first pass!

Found six nearly new copies!

The section of mass market fiction; romance, mystery, and science fiction, was more organized with author names clearly marked on boxes. There were also tables of hardcover which also were generally alphabetized-or grouped. Again, I wonder who buys all these James Patterson books?

This year, the section for older children (YA), which was also on low floor pallets,  yielded six new or gently used copies of Dean Hughes’s Soldier Boys which is $6.99 at Amazon  that can be added to my War Units in Grades 10 or 11. The book follows two young soldiers an American and a German at the Battle of the Bulge. The reading level is grade 8, but there are always some low-level readers who like this book. To complement these, I found three copies of Sebastian Junger’s Fire, $8.15 at Amazon  on the non-fiction table; Fire is the more grade 11 appropriate text.Found two copies-this is an "untested" book

Other “finds” included two copies of Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell at Amazon for $10.95 for the Coming of Age Unit. This harrowing adventure follows 16 year-old Ree Dolly through the Ozark Mountain territory of meth-labs and family land disputes. The book was recently made into a successful indie film centering on a very powerful female character. I have not “tested” this book with student groups, and I am interested in seeing how they like the book.

Will use in People in Conflict Unit for Grade 10

I also was happy to find three copies of The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad at Amazon for $13.97 for my People in Conflict Unit in Grade 10, and three copies of Julia Alverez How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents at Amazon for $8.93  for an Immigration Unit we are planning for next year.

Total cost of all the 17 copies books mentioned? $157.03 retail at Amazon or $14.00 used.

All told, I spent $193.00 for seven very full bags of books.

I am familiar with the many of book titles taught at area high schools and New Milford is a neighboring school. I was happy to pick up replacements for some of the same texts that we teach(Frankenstein, Animal Farm, etc). The woman who checked out my order was an English teacher who has taken time off for a family. She was excited about the selection and the number of titles I was able to get, “These are so interesting, and so much better than some classics in high school,” she claimed, “I would love to see how they [students] like them!” I am hoping the students will share her enthusiasm, but I do recognize that we English teachers get very excited about all books! A kindred soul.