Sunday, March 20, 2011

Trivializing "walk in your shoes" moments...

A hard lesson that I learned is that sometimes experiential exercises such as the ones advocated by TCI (Teachers Curriculum Institute - the people behind History Alive) are not the best types of lessons for events and eras that involve great suffering and tragedy, such as in this case slavery. These are lessons that my coworker and friend, Mr. Hayes calls "walk in your shoes" moments...

When I was in EDUC 542 - Teaching Secondary Social Studies at USC last quarter, I thought I had an effective way to portray the shameful chapter of Japanese-American internment in the form of a simulation and experiential exercise. First of all, I would have had announced that another teacher had dumped crumpled-up paper balls on my desk and that now I would declare war with that teacher. I would read my version of Executive Order No. 9066 that Any students of that teacher past or present would be told to leave the room, but they would have to leave most of their belongings around, with the exception of a few things they could carry in their hands. It was my hope that the students would protest and I would end the experiential exercise before they actually had to.

I was like oh my gosh, I think this might be a good lesson...that Guinness commercial ("Brilliant!) ran in my mind (kidding!)

Writing this lesson plan was a learning experience as I was looking into the term project. I had found an interactive, hands-on approach that would simulate slaves picking cotton. This lesson plan would brief students about the differences between the simulation and slavery in the Antebellum period pick cotton and clean them, while reading a primary source document from Solomon Northup about the process.  At first, I was like with the controversy with the usage of cotton picker as an epithet or a slur, I was taken aback and decided to replace the simulation with stuffing envelopes. However, I realized that would dangerously trivialize the suffering and the experiences the slaves went through. Therefore, the simulation could not be used, and would be ditched immediately in favor of a “What if” reflection piece that would serve as a warmup. I later replaced the simulation with a reflection on comparing two sets of images: one an image of Japanese children at Manzanar, taken by Ansel Adams, and the other, a political cartoon that portrayed the Japanese as stereotypically-alike with buck-teeth and slanted eyes receiving TNT from a stand labeled, "Honorable 5th Column..."

It's like moments like these that make me realize how dangerous experiential exercises can be. We do not know how our students will take them. Trivializing the experiences of slavery will not get our students to understand the tragedy that those who suffered through experienced. Often, experiential exercises might be viewed as a game and we might fail to establish the connections between the exercise and the content that we are studying. Do we really want to reduce Japanese-American internment, the Chinese-Exclusion Act of 1882, slavery, and other instances of discrimination to a game? Not to mention informing parents of the type of activity especially when the feelings and emotional well-being of students are concerned. How far is going too far in the name of eliciting empathy for the sufferings of the other? How far do we go in putting ourselves in the shoes of others?

I understand role-playing when it comes to the dramas we read such as Romeo and Juliet. I understand it when it comes to stories we might read that do not involve suffering or tragedy, but that is exactly that...they do not involve content that should not be reduced down to a theatrical activity...

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