Learning to Listen

A row of tanks rolled by in the distance, and two planes flew in the sky above her, although she didn't see any bombs falling from them. Parvana didn't pay them any attention. Tanks were normal. Bombs were normal. Why couldn't eating be normal? They had salvaged what they could after the house was bombed. There was a bit of rice spilled on the ground. They picked it out of the dirt grain by grain. There wasn't enough water to cook the rice, and no cook-pot, so the children had to chew the rice kernels raw.

The above passage comes from Parvana's Journey by Deborah Ellis, a novel that I decided to read with my grade seven students this term. It was not an easy decision to make. The novel is about about a 12-year-old girl who sets off to search for her missing mother and siblings in Taliban-era Afghanistan. Needless to say, Parvana's Journey is a grim story. The cruelty of war is always in the background and it often violently encroaches upon the innocent lives of the young protagonists. Even at the very end, when some of the challenges are overcome, Deborah Ellis insists on an ending that is provisional at best. She suggests that children cannot easily escape the grasp of violence, hopelessness, and suffering that surrounds them.

Why did I decide to have my students read this novel?

  • Children today hear about war and violence all the time and yet, when we take the time to listen to how much they know, it turns out that their knowledge is fragmented. I'm hoping to give them opportunities to change that.
  • I believe that it's important to help raise awareness of what is happening right now around the world. Those of us who live in the affluent and sheltered North American suburbia need to be aware of what life is like elsewhere.
  • The media coverage of military conflicts around the world that my students are most likely to watch (the six o'clock newscast, for example) is often superficial. It reduces complex situations to laughably simplistic accounts. Children need to know that there is complexity behind these seemingly straightforward reports. I want to give my students opportunities to discover the human dimensions of these stories.
  • I also want to give them opportunities to learn how media texts are constructed, especially texts about controversial issues.

A couple of weeks ago, when I first decided to use this novel, I found myself thinking "How do I structure this unit? How do I present these difficult topics to my students?" Seemingly, they are very innocent questions. I soon realized, however, that they weren't really that innocent.

Do they not suggest that I want to present my students with a pre-defined unit? Do they not suggest that I see myself as the only architect of what we are about to study? Do they not show that I perceive myself as a content expert looking for the best way to peddle that content? I think they do.

It's fascinating to me that after three years of blogging with my students, my first instinct quite often is still to pre-package the content for them, especially if the content is new. As soon as I finished reading this novel a couple of months ago, my first instinct was to structure, organize, and plan. I also caught myself using the word "unit" as if the experience of reading and discussing literature could ever be that neatly packaged. What's worse, I attempted to carefully pre-package it for my students. For some mysterious reason, this kind of practice is deeply ingrained and I often find it difficult to abandon it. Is it because I hear these terms everyday from many of my colleagues? Is it because teaching is often reduced to neatly organized subjects and schedules?

Whatever the reason, I have decided to adopt a different strategy. After years of teaching and learning within a class blogosphere, I have learned to observe myself as a teacher, I have learned to reflect on my practice. So, when I realized that my first instinct was to pre-package learning for my students, I knew that I needed to stop and re-think my initial ideas. Instead of trying to figure out how to structure this term, I have decided to open it up to my students. I am not going to plan expectations and outcomes. I am not going to carefully organize all the learning that is about to take place. If I do, chances are there won't be too much learning in my classroom this spring. Instead of planning every activity and structuring every lesson, I want to focus on ensuring that my classroom is filled with opportunities for engagement. I want us to have conversations. I want my students to use this novel as a springboard that can lead to topics that they can truly engage with.

On my desk right now is a large pad of paper. In the centre, I wrote: "How Do I Begin?" The most important part of this process, it seems to me, is learning how to pique their interest, how to motivate them to keep reading and learning, and how to ensure that our discussions of Parvana's Journey emerge from student interactions with and about this text, and are not given to them as a pre-packaged set of handouts.

I don't know yet exactly how to begin, but I know that I will use the first couple of lessons to listen.

  • I want to listen to them as they discuss the cover

Parvana's Journey - Cover
  • I want to listen to their first reactions when they come into the classroom having read the first few chapters.
  • I want to listen as they talk about their views on war, violence, and suffering - concepts that they are fortunate enough not to have experienced.
  • I want to listen as they talk about burqas or chadors, for example, ... and how they relate them to the familiar world of their everyday lives.
  • I want to see what happens when I point out to them one tiny sentence on the back cover - "All royalties from the sale of this book will go to Women for Women, an organization that helps women in Afghanistan."

Then, we'll talk ... about whatever emerges, about what we need to learn, and about how to start. And then, we'll see, we'll see where these conversations take us.