We have finished reading Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Rushdie wrote this story while he was under a death threat (fatwa) from the Ayotollah Khomeni for writing the Satanic Verses. He was in hiding for ten years and wrote this book to communicate with his son about why he had disappeared. This is not an easy book, especially for eighth graders. The surface story is playful and seemingly childish. The message emanating from its undercurrents is a powerful and chilling one about what happens when freedom of speech is repressed and about how the power of story can effect change. Students don’t always get the story beneath the surface one. Sometimes it is difficult for eighth graders to get the inferences and allusions and symbols consistently and cohesively. In fact, abstract and conceptual thinking for many of my students in general is a big challenge.
We will be writing Salman Rushdie about our experience reading the book. My students will have an opportunity to share with him what aspects of the novel they found meaningful and which parts they did not.
But I wanted my students to experience something more with this book. They read Animal Farm last year so they are familiar with the notion of allegory. And because for so many of them, drawing inferences is difficult, I wanted to set up an opportunity for them to create a multi-level story, to give them experience at building meaning themselves.
Yesterday, I had the students brainstorm in small groups the characteristics of allegory, for which they actually did a very good job. When they got back into groups to discuss possible messages or historical events or issues they might use to build an allegory, however, they got silly. They got silly because this task was way too difficult. They’re not yet facile at looking at the world in an issue-oriented way. (Or perhaps I did not set up the exercise well enough.) I should mention that one group did do well and nailed down civil rights in the context of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Today, after discussing that a good allegory works when there is something oppositional going on, some polarization, some power struggle, we talked about Troy Davis and the death penalty in general. Many of the students had heard about his execution last night, but not all. They were pretty sober grappling with the “shadow of a doubt” that existed over his guilt. Some students had shared the disproportionate numbers of people of color who are executed. Some knew about the bullet casings that matched a gun Troy Davis had used in a crime he committed years before this alleged murder. TR shared that seven of the 9 witnesses had recanted their testimony after twenty years and could someone really remember what they did twenty years ago? They had never heard before about the actual “sharing” of responsibility of execution by having several people initiate the lethal drugs, only one sending the lethal doses. We talked a bit about the complicated legal path this case had taken. In my morning class, we also talked about whether capital punishment was moral or not. They read an account from CBS to gather some facts. I told them that this was what I wanted them to write an allegory about.
First they are to decide which side of the issue they are on. Are they in favor of the death penalty or not? They have to be clear what their message is, then they are to build their allegory, their surface story, over the river of this issue. They are to be deliberate in their choices for all the narrative aspects of their allegory.
We’ll see what happens. It’s a hard assignment, but I think doable. I’m going to try my hand at this too. (I do all the assignments I give my students—well, most of them anyway.) I’m thinking by just seriously attempting this assignment, they will be better poised to uncover the meaning behind words in other reading we will do this year as well.
And maybe they will be more inclined to grapple with issues in more nuanced, layered, and committed ways.
NB—This blog is being posted from the skies. I am presently on my way to Portland Oregon for a family event and am using internet up in the clouds. How cool is that?!