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Families Amidst a Sea of Change - A Grade 8 English Unit

An old watch, a matchbook from 1952, lapel pins, old pendants, and trinkets are scattered over a wooden desk

When we read history, we often focus on major declarations, devastating battles, and how leaders shape and reshape the world. But this view of history often eschews how regular people feel and react to these enormous events. How did people feel about the past? I personally think about the uncertainty my grandfather must’ve felt when he graduated high school during World War II. He struggled in school, and he must’ve felt immense achievement in graduating high school. At the same time, he must’ve felt enormous apprehension reading a newspaper, recognizing that the next conflict could involve him. Our current Gr. 8 Language and Literature unit explores how the past might’ve felt to our ancestors. Students explore their familial or, if they prefer, cultural histories through research and using this information to create history-infused poetry. By examining these works, we learn more about what it felt like to live in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Students have been spending the last couple of days exploring cultural documents and talking to their parents about their family’s cultural history. They can either take a micro angle, talk to their parents and grandparents about their experiences growing up, or a macro angle, discuss how history changed their people’s experiences within the twentieth century. For example, one student might explore how their parents and grandparents might have had different experiences growing up in Korea. At the same time, another might talk about the changes in the world that made it possible for their European and Japanese parents to meet. Meanwhile, we’re studying how poetic forms and techniques illuminate and articulate their family’s experiences in ways that allow the audience to connect with those specific world views. They’ll ultimately use these skills to create a short portfolio of poems depicting their growth as a poet and student of history.

So… how does this look in practice? My grandfather has several pins from his Alma Mater, Nobles and Greenough (see above). I don’t actually know what this pin was used for, but for the purpose of this assignment, I assumed he got it upon graduating high school. To that end, I wrote the following poem:

The Nobles Pin

The principal pressed
The Nobles Pin
Into the blue lapel
Of his jacket.

“You’ve graduated, son. You finally did it.”

He smelled scents across the ocean:
The acrid smoke, the stench of dead bodies,
And the promise of an uncertain future.

Here we contrast the joy of graduation with the promise of violence awaiting people like my grandfather all over the world. Students have been writing poems in this vein before gathering them into a poetry portfolio (some of their work is already very good!). In writing this sort of poetry, our students will garner a better understanding of not only our common history but our common humanity. Check one out below and follow @NIS_English on Twitter for examples of student writing over the course of this unit where they will share their work for others to contemplate and enjoy. Let us know your thoughts or how you would explore this unit in the comments.