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When did we stop giving our kids credit for being able to handle the tough stuff?
This past couple of months, my eighth grade Pre-AP students have been studying the Holocaust.They have researched, read Night, watched Schindler’s List, and read poems written by the children of Terezin. They were apprehensive about starting this unit. The class is predominantly girls, and many of them had expressed to me that they were afraid to see Schindler’s List, worried about the images in documentaries and primary sources used for their research project, and concerned about the vivid descriptions in Night.
I have to admit, there were a couple of times when I almost cancelled the viewing of Schindler’s List, thought about not showing the documentary I use to introduce the unit, and giving them the less inflammatory choices for the research project. However, in the end, I knew this content was too important, so we walked this difficult path together.
Now that we are coming to the end, they are expressing their appreciation for the time we spent studying this period in history through literature and film. They have written some amazing responses, we have had some intense discussions, and I know that they have learned some things about their capacity for empathy and their ability to handle the tough stuff.
At the same time, I was helping my teachers in grades four and five select new whole-class novels for next year. Fourth grade wanted The One and Only Ivan; fifth grade wanted Wonder. I had read Wonder, and was concerned about some of the content from the perspectives of Auggie’s sister and her boyfriend as it might relate to fifth graders.
Turned out I was worried about the wrong book. It was The One and Only Ivan that parents were not in favor of. The death of Stella and the treatment of Ruby were of great cause for concern, despite assurances that the teachers would be handling this sensitive material carefully with the students and focusing on the positive messages in the novel. In the end, both books were approved, but it wasn't an easy win for Ivan.
From these two experiences, my take-away is that we need to give our students credit for being able to handle anything with the right support. Literature helps students understand the world through the safety net of the pages of a book, before they have to confront those situations in real life. The kids can handle the tough stuff, we just need to give them a chance to show us what they are made of.