Featured Image Credit: Vincent Vazquez
One thing I have always struggled with as a teacher is getting families involved. The students themselves you can generally get involved if the lesson at some point involves glue. Glitter glue works especially well, but any glue is good and even tape is fine. It’s the putting of things together that matters.
This year, for example, we have glued together the banquet hall Grendel attacks in Beowulf; paper-bag puppets of the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner and their friends the other pilgrims in Canterbury Tales; and Huck and Jim’s raft, the assembly and subsequent destruction of which turned out to be a key step in getting the busy families of my students at our public high school in downtown Los Angeles involved in caring about people caught up in the Syrian Civil War.
We built our rafts out of craft sticks labelled in forbidden Sharpie, which I smuggled in because using the graffiti artist’s best pen gives a dangerous edge to writing vocab words from Huck Finn on craft sticks, an activity which might otherwise be misconstrued as babyish. The combination of glue and Sharpie convinced these decidedly grown-up teens that it would be okay to pinpoint essential themes by inscribing on craft sticks such words as sivilize, runaway, and me-yow. That was the easy part, especially after showing them some images of rafts.
The hard part was getting students to build a steamship to collide with and destroy our rafts, bringing an end to the Great American idyll and also marking the spot where Mark Twain himself ran out of narrative. Until raft and steamship collide, it’s all bucolic and arguably homoerotic, certainly alive with dialect and stamped with the twin terrors of child abuse and slavery. Post-collision, it would Twain another seven years of fitful composition to come up with the extremely dissatisfying ending of Huck and Tom Sawyer re-enslaving Jim. My whole impetus in teaching the book this year was for the students to come up with their own, different endings, because:
a) remember, the opening of this 2017-18 school year coincided with the president taking the Klan’s side;
b) just because Reconstruction did in fact end with Emancipation engulfed by Jim Crow, that doesn’t mean we have to like it; and
c) a lot of these POC students who live in poverty might feel like their stories are already written and I wanted to invite them to feel and believe and act: oh, HELL no, not this again. This time is going to be different.
The key was going to be getting somebody to make a steamship, also out of construction sticks, powered by a rubber band. Kids kept saying they were gonna do it and then not doing it. This was all right so long as we were reading primary documents from freedmen and Toni Morrison’s oracular Huck Finn essay, “This Amazing, Troubling Book.” But once a kid came in at lunch to ask if we were ever going to read anything that wasn’t about slavery, it was clearly time to move on. So, what I had to do was way up the extra credit ante from 100 to 500 points. Then the steamships started rolling in.
I just felt like it was really essential to fill up an inflatable blue plastic kiddie pool and get the rafts in the water and overturned by a homemade steamship, in order for the students to own that turning point and make it their own. In other words, they needed to get wet. Not soaked, but splashed, or sprayed, or at least have the possibility of being finely misted. And so, we dragged the kiddie pool and all our rafts and the 500 extra credit point, rubber band powered steamships out by the powerful nozzle behind the swimming pool that my guess is students aren’t even supposed to know exists, but it does — and we turned it way up to have ourselves a turning point.
After that it was a relatively straightforward process to get the students and their families talking about Freedom and Not Freedom in Huck Finn and Syria. First, we re-wrote the endings. One girl had Huck and Jim both turn into mermaids. A boyfriend and girlfriend recast them as Frog and Toad, with Huck Toad realizing he could never live in Frog Jim’s peaceable village. I wept reading that retelling and invited our principal to come in and read it. He wept, too. Amid all the weeping there were umpteen re-makings of where Huck Finn might go after the raft and steamship collide. There were books and paintings and cartoon panels and podcasts. Huck dies, Jim dies, they both die, they both live happily ever after, they both suffer from PTSD, and sometimes Jim does get re-enslaved: but not every time.
Maybe it’s not actually that straightforward, but I saw a path from un-ending Huck Finn to grappling with the Syrian Civil War. Maybe we could conjure a viable perspective in which everything is not completely hopeless. The truth is, students in AP English Language are supposed to be up on current events, and they’re supposed to be able to synthesize information from multiple sources in order to write an argument, so I figured it was worth a try to apply our experience of un-ending Huck Finn to connecting constructively with Syria, especially since, how can you not at least try?
So, all the while in talking about Huck Finn, we had been talking about Freedom and Not Freedom, a binary opposition that seemed to stick in Teen Mind, sort of like glue. We took that connection and applied it to Wendy Pearlman’s you-are-there oral history of the Syrian Civil War, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled (HarperCollins, 2017). I had been reading that book alongside Huck Finn, as part of my personal doing-what-you-can about the refugee crisis, and it struck me that Freedom and Not Freedom are everywhere in Pearlman’s book; both in positive assertion and brutal negation. The word itself – “Freedom!” — is the call to street protests, shouted at demonstrations, scrawled on walls.
“You didn’t have to do anything but say, ‘Freedom,’ recalls one Arab Spring protestor, now a refugee, “and that was enough to rattle the entire regime and make them panic.” I wanted our classes to have a chance to respond to the echoing cries for Freedom from a country that epitomizes Not Freedom, where boot-in-the-face-forever totalitarianism was the norm before the crackdown.
Right away the teens made connections. One LA student read the testimony of Shafiq, a graduate student from Daraya, who said about the arrival of the Arab Spring to Damascus, “I felt sadness for the young guys, how they were chanting for the benefit of the entire nation and were beaten.” The LA student’s analysis:
This illuminates the cruel reality of a corrupt regime. Syrians are brave for continually fighting for their freedom; however, the cost is heavy. Their voice doesn’t matter to the government, nor their consent: only submission.
That is a person feeling the oppression of another person. My students did that a lot while reading We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled as well as Max Fisher’s classic Washington Post explainer, “9 Questions about Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask.” We also Skyped with a local Syrian refugee dentist who told us it’s not a Civil War.
Image Credit: Ella Bandouveris
We also made a timeline of the Syrian War, from the first Assad regime through the refugee crisis, and then updated it with the resurgence of fighting in Eastern Ghouta, so that we would be up-to-the-moment when we showed the ‘zines we made about Syria to our families.
I made a sample ‘zine – and explained that it’s pronounced “zeen” as in Elton John’s leaning on the last syllable of “magaziiiiiiiiiiiiiiine” in “Bennie and The Jets.” The teens almost universally love that song, yet some kids persisted in pronouncing it “zine” as in “sign,” and that’s okay because everyone learns differently. The main thing is, they got into making ‘zines to inform people about Syria.
This proved effective for many kids in terms of having a meaningful conversation with family members. For example, here’s a report from a student who brought Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad into his kitchen at home.
I talked to my mom as she cooked my family’s dinner, some buttery mashed ‘taters and rotisserie chicken. As she finished reading the whole thing, she said, “Wow, how could one person have so much power and hatred in their hearts?” She said how disheartening the information was and how she wanted to talk to each and every person who has been affected and give them a hug to tell them to have faith and that she’s sorry. She kept talking about how she’d help by telling her co-workers about this information.
In their reports on sharing their zines with family or friends (you have to give teens the options to share with friends or else they won’t share with anyone), students said most parents were surprised and glad they were learning about current events in English class. One mom said, “Topics like these I don’t know how to talk to you about. I know you’re grown up and you may see these things on TV or social media but I’ve never known how to have a discussion.” This caused her daughter to reflect, “Wow, I really need to share this zine more!”
They were also up for explaining the Freedom/Not Freedom connection. “My Mom was confused about the connections to Huck Finn,” one student wrote, “so I explained to her that we had been discussing Freedom vs. Not Freedom in class and how this is portrayed in classic novels as well as factual articles about a foreign war.” That sounds like a good example of synthesis, which is the cognitive grail of AP Eng Lang.
The home conversations sparked occasional criticism of handwriting, mostly from younger siblings. More frequent was the observation that it was uncommon and excellent to have serious conversations about world events with the people who matter most to you.
There was also a lot of hugging, and also crying and praying. Of course, we are in prayer-plus mode nowadays, so most of the zines ended like this:
Image Credit: Vincent Vazquez
The main thing to do is show you care. You’d be surprised how much caring matters to people. We found this out last year, when we did a cultural exchange with students who lived in a semi-rural part of Ohio that went big-time for Trump. They said it really mattered to them that Los Angeles teens took the time and had the heart to care about Buckeyes. So, this year for our next step we are applying that lesson and doing a ‘zine swap with Syrian kids at a refugee camp in Jordan. We’ll probably tell them what freedom and not freedom means to us and ask what it means to them. We might also talk about rapping. We could teach them to rap in English and they could teach us to rap in Arabic. It’s good to give the young people options.