Academic journal article English Journal

Using Memorials to Build Critical Thinking Skills and Empathy

Academic journal article English Journal

Using Memorials to Build Critical Thinking Skills and Empathy

Article excerpt

Cultural objects tell stories. As an American studies major, I learned how to read objects as stories, a strategy I use when teaching American literature.1 This unit starts our year, and over several years I have refined it, often returning to the discussion in May to help students integrate all they have learned. Because our units are based on essential questions about what it means to be American, the American Dream, justice and injustice, and individuality vs. conformity, this unit fits in throughout the year. It helps define American values through both fiction and nonfiction. When we consider that nonfiction texts go beyond print to include images, videos, and artifacts, teaching students to read the stories around them serves multiple purposes. Students learn not only to be more critical consumers of their world but also to see other viewpoints and, perhaps, to build empathy for others.

Monuments and memorials appear in almost every town in some form, and they frequently become part of the landscape of students' lives, overlooked or not considered. Erika Doss, a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in memorials and cultural democracy, argues in her article "Remembering 9/11: Memorials and Cultural Memory" that the abundance of memorials to examine makes them perfect for looking at how the United States wrestles with the diversity of voices on public art and remembrance (27). While September 11 can be politically complicated to teach from the point of view of terrorism and US policies, it becomes part of teaching about culture and public memory when discussed as a memorial in the context of other memorials. Although this could be adapted to a world curriculum looking at a variety of other memorials around the world, I use this unit in the context of a tenthgrade American literature class at a grades 9-12 comprehensive high school in a New Jersey shore community.

The idea of teaching the controversy of memorials and monuments, using nonfiction texts in multiple modalities to build students' critical thinking, empathy, and understanding of civic engagement, appeals to me as a way into other conversations. Many students expect conversations about September 11 to be about loss, according to their responses to this lesson. However, because today's high school students were, at most, in preschool in 2001, the occasion demands students explore the larger questions of the memorial. Placing this event in the larger context of American memorials gives students some emotional distance. Essential questions provide through lines for the unit: Who owns public memory? How do memorials function? What can memorials tell us about the culture that created them?

The goals of this unit are layered: students negotiate authentic nonfiction texts, including government brochures, images, and documentaries, analyzing key ideas and how these memorials reflect competing ideas, viewpoints, and purposes.2 Students learn how democratic decision making functions, embedding history in current conversations. Further, students read poetry and first-person narratives and documents in response to memorials and then adopt a persona, imagining themselves as stakeholders responding to the memorial of their choosing.

As standardized testing pushes students to determine a "right" answer, this unit encourages students to come to terms with the plurality of voices in our culture, honoring multiple interpretations rather than forcing a "best." Perhaps most important, this unit seeks to build student empathy and see events from these different points of view, honing critical thinking skills that are vital to raising engaged, thoughtful citizens. Local newspapers document the varied responses of people to the memorial services, and I seek to help students understand that these are all valid (Kleinfield).

early engagement

To get students thinking, I ask them to jot down their thoughts to some opening questions in the first column of a three-column chart, which we will return to throughout the unit (see Figure 1). …

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