Variation of Interpretation

I haven't given a "test" all year, besides a short-answer thing on our Edgar Allen Poe unit; for culminating assessments I've created a range of multi-options individual and group projects. So I decided to put together a quasi-test for The Boy In the Striped Pajamas. The students participated in a Socratic Seminar one day, which accounted for 30 points of their test grade, and a written test the next day. The written 70-point test avoided, of course, any trappings of the traditional (i.e., multiple choice, t/f, matching). Instead, I asked students to choose and respond to a few quotes that highlighted multiple issues and layers in the story. They were asked to indicate why the quotes were significant by discussing what the quotes showed about the characters or how these quotes were important to events that occurred. In addition, I asked them to respond to two open-ended questions.

Needless to say, lots of writing to read through. But very worth it, as the students truly had the opportunity to show me what they each learned and how they each uniquely interpreted the characters and events in the novel. I believe this was an effective assessment. The range of responses I received convinced me that the students all took away important ideas and enduring understandings from the novel. They did marvelously.

In particular, their ability to discuss structures of power has greatly improved. We built on many of the ideas we started thinking and talking about during The Outsiders. Further, I was super impressed by how many now not only understand the concept of dehumanization but can spontaneously (meaning with zero mention or reference to on my part) and successfully use it to interpret ideas in writing and in conversation. And not only did it come up quite often in a test that did not include the word once, it has also been included on a few Weekly Word Study lists!

As I read through their open-ended responses, I discovered that only a few students chose to respond to an open-ended question I had debated including: "Choose the essential question you saw as most important to our reading. Give your own version of a response to it; explain how this question helps you better understand at least two different characters or situations."

I knew this would be a question that challenged them and that only some students would take it on. I almost didn't keep it, but decided it was worth seeing what direction they could take it in. I was surprised to discover that one of my struggling readers chose to give it a go. Let us call her Terri. Terri struggles a great deal with basic conventions of writing and with comprehension. She is usually rather quiet in class, save for the uncharacteristically talkative role she played in Socratic Seminar the day before the test (see below for more on this). As I read her response, I couldn't have been happier about my choice to include this question as one of our E.Q.'s and as part of the test.

Here's her response, word-for-word:

I think the most inportant essential question from this unit is "what roles do our family and our social background play in shaping our values, beliefs and perceptions"? This question is like what the hole book is about Bruno has a germon back round so he is hier [higher] up the [than] Shmuel that has a Jewish background. This question helped me understand because Bruno doesent cair he just sees a little boy his age he doesent mind his back ground or aney of that stuff. But father is a Natzy so Bruno is adumedicly [automatically] soposte hate th Jewish people.

So, did she answer each part of the question exactly? No. Let's put that aside, though, because there are a few brilliantly clear understandings going on here. First, Terri knows that Bruno "is hier up," or has more power than Shmuel. Yeah, yeah, you're saying in your head, duh, he's German and Shmuel's Jewish. But you're not 13, ok? And this is a really important fact to acknowledge if one is going to analyze the world from Bruno's perspective. Then she says something that really impresses me. She knows what Bruno's background is, and thus, according to it, how he's supposed to act towards Shmuel (automatically supposed to hate him, or at least think he is far better than him), but she flips the essential question right on its head and says that--which is absolutely the truth--Bruno just sees Shmuel as a friend, another boy, not one ounce different from himself. Bruno "doesent mind his back ground," even after Father tells Bruno that the people on the other side of the fence aren't people at all. This declaration on Father's part makes it clear to Bruno that his visiting Shmuel would be considered very wrong indeed if discovered. Again, this may seem like a really obvious interpretation to you. But Terri took the idea that our backgrounds shape our perceptions and decided that yeah, while they do, this also helps me understand that Bruno decided to operate on his own set of values, which inherently assumes that people are equal regardless of what Father seems to think. Ok, ok, and my heart smiled when Terri wrote, "this question is like what the hole book is about." Because, well, it kind of is.

Another beautifully perceptive response--this time to a quote where Gretel tries to explain to Bruno what they are, and decides that they're definitely the "Opposite" of the Jews, anyhow--from one of my most struggling readers in another class: "the significance is that religion of race didn't mean anything to [Gretel and Bruno] they just knew that they were on the better side of the fence." Yeah, that's basically it. The kids, for sure Gretel, understood their superiority without having to be told that it existed.

Students prepared for our Socratic Seminar by crafting three discussion questions the day before it commenced. They came in and were solely responsible for facilitating their own conversations--absolutely no input or direction from me. There is an inner circle which discusses and an outer circle that listens and takes notes on interesting conversation, then they switch. The outer circle is not permitted to jump in with comments at any time, much to their chagrin. Here are some highlights (ok, and a few that could be termed low points--but funny, pretty funny. Funny is their saving grace sometimes, no?) from the Socratic Seminar:

Possibly the best, most concise description of who Father is an what he's about:
Student 1: "So what was Father? A good soldier? A good father?"
Student 2: "Neither. Just a man. Doing a job."

A question that prompted a great discussion of the question of Mother's complicity: "If you were a woman of that time, would you stand up for your opinion?"

A student says this while the principal was in the room, I wanted to hug her: "Well, I think it really relates to the essential question we have about power and how it makes you see the world."

A question that caused much heated debate, believe it or not: "Is Bruno a round character or a flat one?"

On why Father didn't notice Mother's questionable relationship with another soldier: "Well, he was busy with the whole Nazi thing."

On why Father becomes ill-tempered and vicious after Bruno's death: "He lost somebody. He could be an alcoholic now." Deceptively simple, yeah?

On why Father is a Nazi at all, a comment that shows how far we have to learn yet (:::cringe:::): "Maybe he just really likes Jesus."

And, of course, the Seminar would not have been complete without: "YOU'RE NOT IN THE CIRCLE, RYAN!"


Mary Lee said...

Great insights! I have some 4th graders I'd like to have grow up to be in your class!

Ms. X said...

We really really need you in District X.

teach people not books said...

mary lee--thanks! it was a successful unit and i'm glad to have taught it. as much as i LOVE and thoroughly embrace reading workshop model, i too find joy in a community of readers sharing one story.

x--don't think for a minute that i'm dismissing the issue.

Anonymous said...

I somehow missed this. Pretty cool to prompt such discussion among the kiddies. My fave is still from the kid on the Global 9 exam when he suggested a cure for overpopulation : They need to get a bigger house.