Teaching Anne Frank in 8th Grade: Silence & Speaking Out

Originally published 11 June 2011

A couple of weeks ago I had a feeling of incompleteness with regards to the upcoming Anne Frank unit in my English classes (we’re reading the play). How could I get students to connect with Anne Frank, and see her story as a meaningful text to study in today’s world? This summer I read Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys by Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm, which contains a some relevant ideas about boys and reading and English class (but of course you can always substitute “boys” for students in general; good teaching practices are good for everyone).   “The boys in our study wanted to understand the value of the work they were asked to do–and all too often they did not . . . Many students perceived the readings they were asked to do and the assignments associated with them as purposeless and contrived. ‘Busywork’ was a term or concept used by twenty-four of the boys to describe school assignments, particularly in English.” (118-119).

How often do teachers give out cutesy little assignments that go along with the book they are reading in class? What is the purpose of those assignments, exactly? And do the students know it? “The reading the boys enjoyed–most of it outside of school though some inside it–always had a purpose. the boys talked about a variety of purposes or goals that informed the literate activity they enjoyed” (p. 120). —One of those purposes that I want to mention specifically for my purpose is what Smith & Wilhelm call The Reality Principle.   About this they say, “Figuring things out, fixing things, and making things all connected to the boys’ desire for realism, a theme expressed by every one of the boys in the study. One major subtheme of realism was the importance of ‘getting information’ about real events or situations the boys wanted to understand. Bambino, for example, insisted that he wanted to read about things that were ‘connected to the here and now.’ Pablo wanted emotional engagement when he read and maintained that ‘the real has more emotional punch’ . . . the boys . . . all privileged what they considered to be real and discounted what was not” (p. 122).   So they want something REAL. Or at least things “connected to the here and now.” If they get this, then they tend to be more invested and interested in what I’m teaching in class.

Since reading this and coming to understand the importance of The Reality Principle, I have made it a point of telling students WHY we are doing what we are doing in class. WHY do you need to be able to summarize? What real world situation might you be in where you need to summarize? WHY do we need to build our reading fluency? Does that skill help you in real life? How? By discussing these things with them I find myself not only being more purposeful in what and how I teach, but I also find that the students are more willing to do their best work (or work at all, in some cases) when they know the WHY: the real world connection, the purpose. Now, back to Anne Frank. With a little inspiration, I came up with THIS:  

Anne Frank had to deal with the evils in her life, particularly the effects of the Holocaust, and she had to remain silent about it: partly because she was in hiding, partly because she was so young. The only way that she was heard was through her diary, which later was published.
· What evils are there in our lives that we have to deal with? (Drugs, gangs, terrorism, war, recession, issues with media/popular culture, demoralization of role models and society).
· Do we have the option of remaining silent?
· Do we remain silent about these things or not?
· How do we choose to speak out if we choose to be heard?
· What things do I choose to speak out on?
· What effect does speaking out have on the world today?
How can I speak out?

  I’m still coming up with how this is going to look in class. Probably in the form of some small group and then class discussions, and also maybe a short essay.  

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