Writing to Understand, Understanding to Write

One of the key questions that our curriculum asks students to think about over their years in Middle School, and beyond, is “Why do people write?” We talk about this question in various contexts, from the writing of the Declaration of Independence to writing out steps to a math problem. In English class, we ask this question and posit that people, throughout time and across cultures, write in order to understand the world around them. In particular, when the world around us seems to make the least amount of sense, that is when people turn to writing and to produce timeless, essential works of literature.

As has been our tradition in 8th Grade for many years, we ask students to grapple with this theme by tackling literature from a period of history, the Holocaust, that deeply challenges our students’ beliefs about rational or ethical behavior by humans. 

Learning By Doing

I asked our faculty members for this year’s course, Ms. Deborah Golden and Ms. Jessica Hecht, to capture some of how students learn this concept of writing to understand. Students begin by interpreting the works of other people by reading works like Night by Elie Wiesel and seeing The Diary of Anne Frank. They also learn by doing, and below are a few windows into what this process can look like.

First Reactions

We often begin by giving students context to respond to and letting them think and write. We often openly ask them to connect themselves with the content. In the case of reading Night, students think and write about why Jewish residents who were compelled to ghettos reacted the way they did. A few examples of what students write, as they begin the thinking process, are below.

[In the ghettos], the people were in denial when he came with the news. They said he’d gone crazy. These responses are very immature it seems. I cannot blame them though. I would prefer to stay ignorant and not believe this guy. But again, I know what is to come.

The people feel safe and secure and closer to their family. They feel as if this is for the better. I think that they are just thinking this so that they won’t freak themselves out. I can see why they would try to think of this as a good thing: they don’t want to accept the truth. Also, they would rather live in a lie than in complete chaos and fear.

I can truly understand the reaction of the Jews in this situation. Jews wanted to believe that the war was almost over and that the Germans were not going to kill them all. Coping with the situation they were in  gave them great courage, and allowed them to at least maintain a positive outlook.

Believing in a religion usually means that you have faith in yourself and others. This can be reflected back upon the story by relating it to their lives in concentration camps. They need faith in living to survive them. The community believes they’re in danger, but doesn’t want to believe it. They deny they are in danger and try to forget about it to make life easier.

The community was shaken at first because they did not expect it [the deportation of foreign Jews], but Elie writes that after a while had gone by, the community had forgotten about it and had gone on with their business. I can kind of but not fully  understand what they might have been going through. They might have been in so much grief if they had lost someone or a close friend and did not want to draw anymore attention to what happened and tried to deny the fact that it had ever happened.

Opening Up, Going Deeper

In order to go deeper, we give students specific prompts to answer. We often start with verbal discussions, but how do you “just start talking” about something as big as the Holocaust?

In a recent English 8 class, students faced this question to discuss: “Even though it was 1944, and Nazi extermination of Jews had begun years earlier, the Sighet Jews had very few facts about it. Do you think it is possible in today’s world for a community to know so little, to be so unprepared?”

Students initially responded with silence. Verbally sharing personal ideas and opinions with only a moment to process can be difficult, especially in front of peers and a teacher. In order to have time to organize and develop ideas but still engage with one another, the class turned to writing. They used a Google Doc and attempted to answer the question collaboratively by writing at the same time.

They saw each other’s ideas begin to flow in real time, and once they had written their own pieces, they naturally started to ask questions and comment on others’ work – in writing. That’s when they entered the “deep end” of the pool in terms of the discussion. In back-and-forth debates via “comments”, some agreed and offered supporting reasons, and others asked questions and for clarification. They did not take the opposite positions first, which is a key to quality discussions.

Without prompting, students were reading their peer’s comments, writing back, and fixing their own pieces of writing to clarify and strengthen their arguments. When they were done having the typing conversation, they came back as a class and the conversation flowed more comfortably and easily, plus the thinking sparked the discussion was archived in the Google Doc for students to refer to later. In the video overview below, you can see how the student ideas start flowing in the online document – look for the moving cursors and the highighted text, which means someone else has commented on another person’s ideas. Below are also a few excerpts to give you a flavor of how this “writing to understand” process looks in words.

Question: “Even though it was 1944, and Nazi extermination of Jews had begun years earlier, the Sighet Jews had very few facts about it. Do you think it is possible in today’s world for a community to know so little, to be so unprepared?”

I do not think that this unpreparedness is possible in today’s society. The reason I think this is because of the technology that people possess. Society and communication today is heavily based on technology. Things like the internet, calling, texting, facetime and many other ways to communicate make it very unlikely for a town not to be prepared for something so important. Although, if the town has very little technology, which though it is very unlikely, is possible, might make it so that information travels much slower. But most likely, the information would have gotten to the town through some form of social media.

 I do not think that a small community would be so unprepared in today’s world. Today, we have cellphones and smartphones, televisions with better signals, and better technology to be prepared, even if this happened today. In just three taps you can find the latest news, or even talk to their phone to know what is happening.  On the other hand, if the village did not have this technology, or didn’t want it, it might be possible to an extent to know so little and be unprepared. Even though we have such great technology today, it doesn’t mean everybody will have it, or will be able to pay for it.

I think that that it would possible because the people of that time thought that all of the technology they had would allow them to be aware of what was going on around them, but yet even after many years of it, they were still unaware. In today’s world, there are many ways to hear news but the media can cover up or dismiss news that people don’t want to hear or shouldn’t hear. There are probably many issues in the world today that we don’t know about even now.

Yes, because the media has a tendency to “cover up” some things in order to retain civilian morale in times of war.  I myself don’t know much about what’s going on in the Middle East and with ISIS.  We have all this technology today and we are still stuck knowing very little about real-world events.  And even if people do know, they sometimes don’t really care either.  Through the internet, anything can be twisted or mangled into something entirely different, and even whittled down to a mere joke or plot point of a comedy movie.

If I know and care that a group is being killed I will try and keep up with the news on that particular topic. I would try to help them in small ways, because even though I would want to make a big difference, I would be reasonable and know that I could only make a small difference, if any at all. If the community needed any thing that I could help with I would help. If they had been thrown out of their homes and on to the streets with no belongings I would maybe send some old clothes, or try and send some money or anything that could help.