Saturday, April 4, 2015

April 4 Reflections: Be More, In This Life

Most English teachers I know really appreciate a good story: plot that wraps you up like a tight blanket and doesn't let you go all night. Characters that feel like your best friend or your most hated enemy. Cliffhangers that make you glad it's not your life, really.

As it turns out, I like these stories as much as the next guy, but I don't love teaching about them. I find myself much more inspired by nonfiction.

A favorite lesson revolves around this verse in "Pride" by U2 and the accompanying photo:

Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

We investigate the way art, or popular culture, reflects historical and contemporary events, bringing to life the events of that tragic day.

Another favorite activity of mine is to show students the film Malcolm X and discuss personal choices and redemption. I love the way the film chronicles Malcolm's transformations, his initial embodiment of his troubled youth and eventual rejection of his destructive habits and beliefs. Every time I watch the assassination scene I weep along with Angela Bassett. At the end, I get the opportunity to teach a little about Nelson Mandela, as he appears in the final scene of the film.

How about this story of commitment and redemption? My online students in Native American Studies spend the whole semester learning about various tribes and the resilience they've shown in the face of federal policies and individual acts aimed at assimilation and cultural erasure. Then I ask them to watch Dakota 38, a 78-minute film about men and women who make a horseback journey every year to remember the Dakotas hanged at Mankato, Minnesota. This gives an incredible opportunity to reflect on the implications of history, resilience, and the significance of cultural continuity.

So on this April 4, I'd like to celebrate my non-fiction heroes: real people inspiring us to be more, in this life.


  1. I love non-fiction in the classroom. My fav NF writers are Mary Roach, Erick Larson, and Malcolm Gladwell.

  2. I was raised on the stories of labor leaders like Joe Hill and Mother Jones, and these stories surely shaped me. But I also remember being distraught because I wanted to make a difference without sacrificing my life to the movement--and the role models presented to me seemed to be all or nothing. That's why I'd advocate for also presenting stories of the extraordinary, ordinary people around us--like Salish voting rights activist Lucille Otter. That was part of the motivation behind creating, including the lesson plan "Ordinary People Do Extraordinary Things."