How to Silence 8th Graders

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I love Brandon Stanton’s work.  I find it mesmerizing, inspiring, thought-provoking and countless other adjectives.  As I’ve delved into my own work around equity, I also find it a great place for me to further and challenge my own perspectives about the world.  I’ve wanted to use the site in my classroom for some time but couldn’t think about how I could without feeling like I was forcing it down my students throats. This past weekend, I finally figured it out.

We have been reading Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, and I have been using this masterpiece of a novel to have my students examine the following essential questions (some for the year, others just for the unit):

  • What is the power of story?
  • How does an individual influence a community? How does a community influence an individual?
  • What do we risk by being apathetic? Where do responsibilities lie?
  • Why tell the story of World War II?
  • Are there elements of the Holocaust still alive in our world today?

We have been spending a great amount of time discussing how the book connects to our current world, specifically around ideas of poverty, privilege, and inequity.  Our discussions have been intense and memorable.  They are why I teach.

As I worked to produce seminar questions for students to wrestle with as they work through the novel, I knew I wanted them to think about our school motto “Achieve the Honorable” through the eyes of the book and considering our world today.

Liesel, the main character, and her friend, the beloved Rudy, are suffering through the Holocaust, are poor and desperately hungry. They steal food to survive but never, as the reader, do you feel like it is wrong for them to do so.  Liesel’s family, like many brave throughout Germany, also harbors a Jew, risking their own life to save another’s, something that people now consider an unbelievable act of courage.

My seminar question quickly became: Is crime and dishonesty ever okay?  An extension resulted in: What does it really mean to “Achieve the Honorable?”  I want my students not only to think about these tough choices that the characters had to make but to think about how examining these characters could help them better understand the choices millions around the world and in our own backyards have to face daily.

As I thought about resources I wanted to share with my students to help them grapple with these questions and to consider various perspectives, I finally realized that this is how I could use Humans of New York.  I happened to luck out as Brandon is currently interviewing prisoners at several New York City jails.  It couldn’t have worked out better if I had planned it.

A very few of my students had knowledge about the site or spent significant time visiting it. All it took for them to quiet down and become engrossed was for me to share the website.  I’ve NEVER seen my eighth graders, or any eighth graders for that matter, so quiet and engaged for a significant time period.  They did not talk.  They did not ask to get a drink of water.  They didn’t even realize when I needed to leave the room for a moment. In fact, they barely moved.  And when given the opportunity, they discussed and only stopped because I stopped them.

This week, they will try to become storytellers themselves and will harness their inner Brandon Stanton.  I cannot wait to see their results, and I cannot wait for them to answer our seminar questions.

It’s amazing what happens when people are given the opportunity to share their stories. It’s amazing what happens when people take time to read those stories.  It’s amazing what Brandon Stanton has done.

So thank you, Brandon, for not only inspiring millions around the world, but for helping my students think.  Thank you for quieting my 8th graders in the best way possible.

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