Noticeable Shifts in the Big Questions on Students' Minds
In my 8th grade English classes, we've been reading and writing poetry for a couple of weeks. This unit always gives me a unique window into my students' imaginations. One recent activity let me learn something I had never thought about before—what my students really wonder about the future. That activity was "bibliomancy," the ancient practice of predicting the future with books. Ever heard of it?
I've often used a variety of poetry writing stations to free my students up from their own expectations of writing poetry and get them to try new things in a low risk situation. I make minor changes to the stations each year.
This year, I revived a station a former co-teacher introduced me to several years ago, and which I haven't used in three years: bibliomancy. In it, students follow these directions to write a poem prophesying the future:
Step 1: Think of a good a question about the future. Write down your question. (I direct students to ask something that "seems important," rather than something mundane, like "what will I wear tomorrow?")
Step 2: Open a book to a random page, close your eyes, and place your finger on the page. Whatever word is closest to your finger, write it down.
Step 3: Repeat this process with five more books, until you have a total of six words.
Step 4: Use these six words to make up a prophecy. Write a poem that uses these six words to communicate the prophecy. You can add as many other words as you like. Don't worry if others may not fully understand the meaning of the prophecy. They often take a lifetime to decipher.
For the students who really take on this challenge, the results can be very cool. But this year, I found myself more focused on the questions students were asking.
There were the usual categories of questions that students are always asking.
- Who will I become?
- What will I be when I grow up?
- Will I have a good life?
- Will I ever find true love?
- Will my fears still exist?
Reading these questions always gives me pangs of compassion for my students, who are in the throes of adolescence. What caught my attention, though, was a new category of questions I had not seen before—questions about humankind in general, and its future.
First, I noticed that more students asked questions that were less about themselves as individuals and more concerned about humanity.
- Will there ever be true happiness in the world?
- What does the future have in store for us?
I noticed an awareness of our rapidly changing living conditions, also not something I noticed the last time I did this.
- Will there be life on Mars?
- Will there be robots?
- Will our old customs still be alive?
Finally, there were genuine worries about what will happen to us.
- Will the world end?
- Will mankind still be alive?
The number of students who asked questions along these lines stunned me. Students are markedly more worried about the future of us all than they were just a few years ago. Maybe it's all the dystopian fiction; maybe it's the growing reality climate change; maybe it's the impending threat of nuclear warfare. I shouldn't be surprised. I am more worried too, but somehow seeing these concerns reflected in—and shouldered by—the next generation makes it more real and troubling.
I should be thinking about how to support students to handle their anxiety, solve problems, and think through difficult decisions. But what I really want to do is fix this world for them... what they are inheriting is not okay.
Another response to a seemingly unsolvable situation is to make poetry.
Here are a few of the students' poems (or beginnings of poems—this was just an exercise) in response to their heavy questions.
Will there ever be true happiness in the world?
Six words: trouble years flowing seen stone what
How many years have we suffered,
The blood flowing down the streets
The horrible things we've seen
For the world is cold as stone.
And trouble lurks at every corner.
What more can we endure
You haven't seen it yet
You haven't seen it yet
For it can take years...
Will our old customs still be alive?
Six words: wand, save, pride, shadow, hidden, kiss
A girl who was hidden from all
Will at last meet her call
With a wand it will all
A battle of the shadows she must win
She must save her land with pride or shame
Alone she must do it, but not for fame
She'll pass a lion with a roar and snake with a hiss
Her biggest challenge will end with a kiss.
[Artwork by an 8th grade student]