The OF Blog: Using a fantasy book in the classroom

Friday, September 26, 2008

Using a fantasy book in the classroom

Ever since I read Shaun Tan's The Arrival, I have thought it'd make for a perfect illustration of how immigration impacted families as well as demonstrating the strangeness of the new country for the immigrants themselves. So I decided to incorporate it into a lesson on the immigration experience, a lesson that incidentally was being observed by my principal as the first of three scheduled evaluations this school year. So for those of you curious about how a fantastical tale can be woven into a social studies course, read on, or else be forewarned that there's some history stuff intertwined with this.

I began the lesson by having a simple question on the LCD projector: What is your ancestry? After a brief discussion in which the students discussed their ethnic origins (from virtually every continent on this planet, which was cool to learn in and of itself), I then had them in small groups for 5 minutes, working on coming up with at least three reasons why they thought people would immigrate. After they came up with answers such as "better life," "religious freedom," "political freedom," and "opportunity to get rich," there then was a short 15 minute Powerpoint presentation on the problems immigrants faced from the time they boarded the ships to the time they arrived - sleeping in bunks where they had to sleep on their side, no showers for hygiene, lack of sanitation, diseases like trench mouth - after 4-12 weeks of travel. So far, OK but nothing "Wow!" about it.

Enter the handout I made from the first chapter of The Arrival (with proper attribution, lest any worry about me violating Fair Use). Focusing solely on the images of the family home and the husband packing away and his wife and daughter crying as he boarded the station, I had the students describe what they saw in each and every frame. By the time I finished, just before the bell rang to dismiss class, I had several people saying, "Man, that's so sad!" or "Wow! This is moving!" I had a few requests for having more of the story presented to them next week when I continue the unit on immigration. The principal told me she really liked what I did with this part and that it really engaged the students and helped them realize just how human the story was.

And to think that this book technically is a "fantasy," because it is set in an imagined land and has some fantastical creatures in it. I guess it just goes to show that when presented properly, fantasy tales can hit a raw spot, one that helps us to better understand others and their experiences. Just thought a few of you might be curious to see how I incorporate this blogging element of my life with my paid profession.


Jason Erik Lundberg said...

Very cool, Larry. I love when something like that sparks genuine reactions from students. What level do you teach?

I've been putting off snagging The Arrival, but I'm convinced more than ever that I need to read it.

Lsrry said...

I teach high school juniors who are in regular ed classes. What's also cool is how many of my students are immigrants themselves, as they seemed to feel more a part of the discussion then. And yes, you really do need to read Tan's book as soon as possible. The illustrations are so moving, especially when seen as being still shots from a silent movie film strip.

Anonymous said...

Why would you assume fantasy can't have that effect on a regular basis?

Lsrry said...

In a social studies/history class? It's very difficult to work that into the curriculum, to say the least ;) But more generally, the difficulty a teacher would run into in utilizing a fantasy text in a "real world" setting is that much fantasy revolves around a sense of strangeness or estrangement, not as much on connecting directly with elements of the human condition, as expressed in historical or cultural developments. It takes quite a bit of setup and planning for any of that to "connect" with the students. Sadly, it takes almost as much to connect "real" historical events with the present in a way that the majority of students can grasp and take to heart.

Si said...

wow, what a great idea. I thin the graphic novel form has so much power to communicate, especially with lower reading levels these days in school students. And Shaun Tan is a master of depth and communication in his drawings. I love all his work. Have you checked out his latest 'tales from outer suburbia'? It is a fantastic collection of short stories written and illustrated by Tan, and is beautifully executed, and really seems to leap into new areas of interaction of image and text in my opinion. All the stories focous on life in suburbia, and though very playful and lighthearted, touch on some serious topics in quite a deep way. You should definitely check it out :)

Brian Lindenmuth said...

I love the usage of non traditional material in the classroom. Great job.

When I was in...middle school I think...a teacher used the immigration portions of The Godfather II to illustrate the harsh realities of Ellis island at the turn of last century.

At that age we were much more riveted to the material then if it had been a straight textbook lesson.

Lsrry said...

Simon, I have that book on pre-order from Amazon, since it won't be released in the U.S. until late February 2009, but I do agree that Tan is an excellent storyteller/illustrator.


I toyed with the idea of showing some of the early scenes from The Gangs of New York in class to illustrate immigrant life after arriving in the U.S., but that movie is also excellent. Only problem I have is that I have to send out parental notes, etc. just to show anything from an R-rated movie. When I get to World War II/the Holocaust, I'm debating how to incorporate Art Spiegelman's Maus into it, since that story is so powerful, as it focuses also on the aftermath as well as on the actual events.

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