A Human Humanities Course

When I first began as a teacher, the advice I was given was to not let the students see me smile until Christmas and to not divulge any personal information.  Now in my fifteenth year of teaching, I realize how true it is to say only a Sith deals in absolutes.  (I always wonders who reads my blog – pop culture nerds or educators?  lol).  I have allowed myself to be more flexible and to see my students as individuals and humans – I also try to have them see me in the same way.  Don’t get me wrong, we can also go too far the other way by obliterating the line between teacher and student.  There is a lot of my personal life that will never be discussed with my students and, likewise, I would never ask from my students.  That being said…

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Facebook is great for reminding us of what we did on a certain day throughout the years – it is often wonderful to see memories that have been posted.  However, it can also remind us of a painful time and today was one of those days.  My son suffers from a rare form of Meningitis – so rare, that we often need to explain it to medical professionals.  We are lucky enough to live in the Philadelphia area with so many wonderful hospitals, doctors, nurses, etc (we have been frequent customers at CHOP and St. Christopher’s — have also traveled a bit south to visit the amazing Johns Hopkins), and to have solid health insurance (don’t even get me started on the the healthcare debate in our country).  My son continues to suffer from migraines, body pain, extreme fatigue, and can even be hospitalized for days on end.  He has undergone so many tests and evaluations, but the best prognosis we have been given is that he will hopefully grow out of it – maybe by age nine.  This year, my little man turned nine and it just hit my wife and I – perhaps this is just something he will have to deal with for the rest of his life.  Facebook often shows me pictures of him in different hospitals over the years, and this morning was one of those memories in my timeline.  He often has to miss out on so much with friends and it can translate into struggles at school as well.  As an example, we were at Camden Comic Con yesterday – it was a smaller convention on the campus of Rutgers University.  We had taken a break and were sitting in a lobby (we always need to schedule breaks for my son on any trip so that he does not get too fatigued – this is what will lead to hospitalization), when he asked if he could sit in my lap.  My first response was to tell him no – he is too big to be sitting in my lap.  But then I saw THAT look on his face – where I could tell he was in pain but wouldn’t tell me.  I quickly pulled him into my lap as I honestly just didn’t care what any passing adult might think.

My father, (my hero – a Philadelphia Cop) suffered through ALS for about two years and died five years ago this August.  I had to watch this proud man suffer the wrath of a disease that continually shut down his body while keeping his mind 100% sharp and intact until the bitter end.  He was the type of man who never wanted to rely on anyone or to ever ask for help – but he also had the most amazing sense of humor.  It was so hard to watch him have to rely on me as our roles switched and I took care of him.  I won’t get into much more detail here, I’ll get to my point soon.  My Dad died on the first day back to school and I decided to not take any time off and just dedicated myself to my students and the all important beginning of the year.

Here’s my point, and one I make to my students.  We are are human.  We all struggle.  We all need help and are often afraid to ask for it.  There might be a reason why a teacher, or student, was snippy or short with someone.  You never know what someone is going through as they come to school each day.  I know so many teachers who are suffering through horrendous circumstances, yet they come to school every day with a smile and nothing but encouragement for their students.  I also know that students come to school also dealing with serious issues.  I have shared some of my experiences with my students and they have with me as well.  I see heroic deeds in front of me every day.  I try to keep this in mind when a student has a “bad” day – I force myself to take a breath and think about what is happening that has nothing to do with me.  I am also a firm believer in restorative practices with my students – I truly believe that 99% of what happens in the day is never personal.

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Oddly enough, perhaps, when President Trump ordered 59 missiles to be fired into Syria, all of these thoughts came to mind and I decided to scrap what I was doing on 4/7 and to teach about the events in Syria. (I am a firm believer that teachers, especially social studies teachers, need to make connections to the real world, even if it is outside of the proscribed curriculum).  I knew that my high school students would have questions and that many would have heard different things – some true and some not.  I also knew that some would fear a coming war, attack, etc and would just increase their anxiety.  However, as we are heading into the Jewish Holocaust, I also thought this to be the perfect vehicle to discuss the false concept of “never again” and today’s modern atrocities.  I had a comic book in mind to use at some point, and this was the perfect time.

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Madaya Mom was put together by ABC News and Marvel Comics – it is available for free and even has a teacher discussion guide – http://abcnews.go.com/International/deepdive/madaya-mom-mother-struggle-survival-syria-civil-war-42362213 .  Xana O’Neill, Rym Momtaz, and Dalibor Talajic have put together this amazing resource and have made it easy to access.  The videos that accompany the comic are very insightful – take a look for yourself.  This was put together after they came across a mother in Syria who was putting out information on social media about the struggles of her and her family.

When I looked through the teacher discussion guide, I came across the idea of asking students to reflect on a time in their lives when they felt powerless.  This is the moment when my lesson plan completely came together.  My Do Now was exactly that – think of a time in your life when you felt powerless and what steps you took to overcome it.  The students then shared with their partners (we sit in collaborative tables of four) and I asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to the larger group.  This was one of the only times that I did not walk around the room and interact with students as they worked on the Do Now – I did not want them to feel uncomfortable with my presence.  I was astonished with what my students were willing to share and how much of a need for expression I had tapped into.  I will not share their responses here to respect their privacy.  I reacted to each volunteer, even taking the time to thank students for their bravery and to put my hand on their shoulder.  I think I took them a bit by surprise when I shared my own times of feeling powerless – both as a father and a son.  After speaking of my son, I related a particular time of powerlessness for me.  He was given a spinal tap (one of several through the years) and was too young to be given a sedative.  Four adults had to hold him down in the fetal position (I must admit a bit of pride there – strong lad!), and my job was to maintain eye contact with him and to talk with him so that he cold be as relaxed as possible.  I then told my students that I love them – that I do call them my kids and that I feel the same way when I see them struggle.

After this discussion, the students were all wondering why I had brought this all up – they know that I am notorious for making everything tie into academia, and this was no different.  I told them that, when I began teaching at 25, I thought I understood the Holocaust.  I “knew” that all the Germans were evil and that I would have stood up and protected my Jewish students.  But then I had kids.  I now have a better understanding, an understanding that I will never by able to fully comprehending these times.  No longer was life a simply choice – I now had to protect my own children.  I would like to think that I would still be the outspoken fighter for justice – I just now understand that, to say the least, life is more complicated.

We then related all of this to a mother in Syria. A mother who had used social media in an attempt to get the world to help.  To get the world to care.  For me, 18 million dead in the African Holocaust, some 4 million in Holodomor, 6 million Jews, etc – is just impossible to comprehend.  I am a visual person, but photos of ghastly images cause the brain to shut down.  But if I read about one person or one family – this personalization of  history gets through to me in a profound way.  Madaya Mom is a way to get this type of story and to make the events more accessible.  I want my students to be able to relate to people in these events as, well, people.  I want them to see them as normal people caught up in extraordinary events.  I believe Madaya Mom, again, is an amazing way to make this happen.

My students were chomping at the bit during this entire introductory phase to talk about the missile launches into Syria – I had heard some asking each other why we weren’t talking about it and were instead talking about our own lives in the Do Now.

I finally explained what we were doing and turned them loose on the internet (we are a one to one school) with some guided questions to find out about the civil war in Syria and why we were involved.  The final question was one that pulled it all together – I asked the students to write down whether or not the US should send in more ground troops and to defend their answers.  These types of culminating questions are so important – students should not only know how to research, they should also understand the impact of world events on their own lives.  They need to think for themselves and be able to defend their ways of thinking.  This research was done on their own – I wanted to see what resources they used to find information.  We had just spent several lessons researching fake news and source credibility – this was the perfect way to put this teaching to the test.

In 30 minutes, students were able to pair-share their responses and sources – I was impressed with their ability to gather a solid understanding of the history and current events in Syria.  Some even made the Jewish Holocaust connection on their own and began to discuss.  We then talked as a large group, looked at some maps, and discussed the impact of geo-politics on the region.  We discussed Obama and Trump’s choices in the region, the roles of the US and Russia and other players, etc.

For the next class, we will be reading the Madaya Mom comic and watching a video (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/teachers-guide-discussing-madaya-mom-students/story?id=42419439) Students will be asked to create a document with the one panel in the comic that stood out the most to them.  They will then have to explain the meaning of the image and why they chose it – using specific textual (visual) evidence.  Students don’t just read comics in my class as a “neat” thing to do – there are real analytical reading and writing skills involved – more so than in traditional text and writing.  We will then share them as a class and I will share my choices.  The next step is to Skype with a member of the Madaya Mom team – my students will come up with questions ahead of time.  My hope is that this becomes a call to action for my students – and not just for Syria.

I will update my blog when we do this next step on the week of 4/17 – currently on Spring Break!!!!!  I am truly thankful for the ABC News and Marvel team for not only creating this resource, but also for making it accessible to us all.  I was able to show the comic and lesson plan to educators at the Camden Comic Con at Rutgers University on 4/8.  The lesson was well received and I believe others will now be using it as well.

 

Big picture – we are all human.  We all have scary times of vulnerability – if we could internalize this, I truly believe our shared humanity would be the better for it.  I would love to hear your thoughts or suggestions in the comments below.

 

Update – 4/17

Since we were off of school for a week, students came in and were asked to summarize what has been happening in Syria – and what had just happened over the week-end.  I was impressed with the ability of my students to remember what we had talked about a week ago and many were drawn to the news when they heard about the recent bus bombing in Syria.  There were a lot of questions – what will the US do, what is Russia doing, I heard there were talks being set up, who was behind the bombing, etc – students were now personally involved in the ongoing events in Syria and it showed.

We then watched this video about the making of Madaya Mom http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/teachers-guide-discussing-madaya-mom-students/story?id=42419439 and students were asked to reflect on the video.  Rym Momtaz does a wonderful job of making this difficult topic easy to access and more human and personal.  We focused on why this was made into a comic book – how we are a visual society, how it might help readers to connect, etc.  Students were impressed that social media and text messaging were able to help get the word out of a struggling mother and her family.  Again – the students were now emotionally and personally involved.  It was also noted how text messages were being sent in Arabic – students had assumed that texts were just sent in English. We were also able to discuss the breaking up of Yugoslavia and why Dalibor Talajic was chosen to draw the comic. (over and over, the students remarked about the powerful illustrations and how they were able to connect to Madaya Mom through them.  In their reflections, students wrote about tearing up and becoming emotional due to Talajic’s work).   We will be discussing these events later in the year during the Cold War, so we will be coming back to this comic again.  The students also thought it was powerful that ABC News and Marvel comics took the time to get out this message when it seems like many in the world don’t care.  When Axel Alonso (editor-in-chief at Marvel) came on the video to discuss making the comic and why Marvel was quick to jump on was a great moment for many students – comics are not just capes and tights – we all know how comics are societal artifacts and can cause real change.  This really brought together the core of my teaching and why comics are so important.  Many comics tackle tough topics about our world today and are written on a deep and analytical level.  As educators, we need to reinforce the power of this medium as another way to engage students in a meaningful and intelligent way. Superheroes truly are all around us and Madaya Mom is certainly of them.

Students were then able to quietly read the comic and answer the following:

Read the comic.  When done, go back and choose one panel.

Write –

  1. Why did you choose this panel? (The power of Talajic’s images is such that students had a tough time choosing only one panel to discuss and analyze).
  2. How did it make you feel? Use specific textual evidence.
  3. What connections did you make to history/current events?
  4. Explain the meaning of the panel – describe it using specific textual evidence
  5. What questions do you have for the creative team?

This is the power of comics – we are able to focus on skills – close reading, textual evidence, etc while reading a powerfully visual text.  I will then collect the responses and send the student questions off to ABS News to prepare for our Skype session next week.

I did share my own thoughts on panels that I had chosen and why – such as

The use of angles and loneliness in this image are just so powerful.  In one image, I am able to garner an entire story about this woman and how she must be feeling.  The bare cupboards, the cracking walls, the look on her face – all powerfully resonated with me as a father.

Student reflections –

#1 –

#2 –

“This image made me feel some sort of responsibility for how helpless they are depicted. In the comic, most of the people’s mouths are not even drawn. I take this to depict how they feel like they don’t have and say/their words mean nothing. It makes me feel responsible for this because how I feel that I have to spread the awareness so the people in this picture, hopefully, will know that they are heard.”

“It made me truly realize how much I love my family and that I would make any decision to save them from experiencing this kind of pain”

The use of black creates a sense of darkness, isolation, and the scariness of the unknown. Splattered paint makes me imagine the mental/emotional state of the characters… “They had to step in their friend’s blood” – wow.

This comic made me feel grateful for what I have in my life… one time, during a snowstorm, we lost all power – it was very cold at night even under all the blankets… my power was out only for a few days makes me feel horrible for this family.

Panel #32 – throughout the comic, I felt teary-eyed and tried not to cry, but once I reached this panel, I hit a breaking point… it just shows Madaya Mom’s hope deteriorating. Her goal is to keep her kids alive no matter what it takes, but at this moment, she says that “death is more merciful than what they are going through now”

Seeing them sleep together pulls at the heart strings as we connect with them as a family.

This made me feel bad for the daughters because they look traumatized. The one girl on the left is clamping her fists together to show how angry she is. The other, however, looks as if she can’t even hold herself together because she is leaning on her mother who is trying to calm the girls down.

…Her sprawled position on the floor shows how helpless and weak she feels.

#3. We discussed the connection to the Battle of Stalingrad, Holodomor, German Hyperinflation from the 1920s, etc – all through the power of visualizations and how our minds connect to make meaning.  The most obvious connection was to the Jewish Holocaust – this even led us to make a parallel to Anne Frank – what if she had a cell phone and social media?  Could she have gotten out her story?  Would anyone have cared?  Would anything have been different?

This made me think of things that happen in the US – school shootings. I instantly thought of this because the panel has to do with girls watching their friends suffer from an event at school.

9/11 and the helplessness felt by the people in the buildings when they knew they were going to die.

I can connect as a lot of my family lives in Venezuela – not as bad as Syria, but – is currently going through a severe economic recession. There are protests that have been going on since 2014.  Violence is at an all-time high. People can’t earn enough money because of inflation to buy groceries ro medeicine.

#5. Why isn’t the Syrian government letting these people get aid?

Why is the mom called a superhero when the dad is there as well?  Did he have any role?

Why is the comic in black and white/muted colors?  Was this a conscious choice?

Is the family still alive and in contact?

Do you think Marvel has a future in other current event journalism type pieces?

In the comic, the characters are not making eye contact with the reader – why?

Has this comic made a difference?  Had the US or Syrian government responded?

Has the Syrian government tried to find her and silence her?

What was the most challenging part of this process?

What feedback have you gotten from the comic?

How do YOU feel when reading her texts? Do you feel powerless or empowered?  What goes through your mind on a personal level? (to the creative team)

Why don’t more people know/care about what is happening?

How did you initially find Madaya Mom?

How do you know what Madaya Mom is saying is true?

Did she tell you other things that you decided not to publish?  If so, why?

Will there be a Madaya Mom #2?

How much artistic license was used in drawing the panels?  How did you know what to draw with no pictures?

How does Madaya Mom feel about her story being published?

Will you create comics for other struggling people around the world?

What do you want the reader to take away from the comic?

What is your opinion about the USA stance on taking in refugees?

WHAT CAN WE DO?

 

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Next step – Skyping with members of the team who made this resource available for all of us.  I will have students ask questions as we discuss what we have learned about in class.  Stay tuned for the next update on 4/24!

4/18 – As we are currently learning about WWII and the Jewish Holocaust, the students are also researching other genocides throughout history – Cambodia, Holodomor, Armenia, etc — the students asked to form a team to research the events during the break-up of Yugoslavia because of Talajic’s emotional testimony in the video we watched and what he witnessed!  Wow – the students have amazed me their genuine interest and ability to personally connect to the events in Syria through this comic.  They see what the power of journalism, and yes, comics can accomplish in the world.  Talajic’s artwork had a strong impact on the students as well.

And Now – an update from ABC – http://abcnews.go.com/International/thousands-bused-mass-evacuation-besieged-syrian-towns/story?id=46788854 — my students will be reading about this as well before the Skype session next week. Heartbreaking.

 

4/24/17 – Update.

Wow – Today was one of the most memorable days I have had in 15 years of education.  We had the honor of Skyping with Rym Momtaz and Xana O’Neill today for 30 minutes.  The experience was funny, human, sad, empowering, and inspiring all at the same time.  After the session ended, my students immediately began to brainstorm ideas on how we can help – we decided to present Madaya Mom to our clubs and to get as many students involved as possible.  I am going to take a backseat on this – I want the students to lead the charge.  Students no longer felt helpless when learning about depressing news – they knew that they were part of a larger world – the walls of the classroom had been successfully broken down.  Xana and Rym shared their personal feelings with my students and how they sometimes questioned themselves if they were doing enough.  We told them that they should feel empowered, as now three classes of students felt a personal connection to a far away place and people – something not easily done with all the distractions in today’s world.

I have never Skyped before and was so nervous to make this happen – but it was simply amazing.  The buzz from the students continued when the bell rang an I cannot wait to begin planning the next steps with them.  I will update this again after I have had more time to digest and to come back down to earth a bit.  I will go through my notes from today and share specific responses in the upcoming days.

 

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