BLOG NOTES ON BOXERS & SAINTS LESSON #3
by Darcy Caldwell, The Peck School
Today a fellow teacher and I concluded our study of Boxers & Saints.
As a thirty-year veteran English teacher, I can say that co-teaching this book to 7th graders with young history teacher Robby Griffin (Harvard ‘09) has been one of the most exciting collaborative teaching experiences of my career.
This fall I moved from teaching high school English to teaching middle school English, and I learned that if you treat 7th graders like sophisticated thinkers, they will be sophisticated thinkers. The capacity of middle school students was fully demonstrated in our conversations about Boxers & Saints.
This text was a wonderful way to confirm that 7th graders know how to embrace shades of meaning and opposing ideas. They know how to recognize dualities in characters. They know that even the most minor characters in Boxers & Saints demand to be seen as having more than one story, more than one identifier or label. Minor characters (as well as major characters) force the reader to look beyond nationality or religion. The 7th graders could see that even Cousin Chung– who appears only briefly at the beginning of Boxers and the end of Saints– is enormously problematic and divided by different loyalties, and these characters make Boxers & Saints a treasure-trove of teaching moments and conversation topics. It is a text that lends itself to teaching students about stereotypes and assumptions, about xenophobia and myth-making, about identity, community, and family.
With this end-of-the-year unit, Boxers & Saints allowed our 41 7th graders to bring together their year of study. Early in the year in English, they were introduced to theories of narrative structure, and this spring they applied this understanding of narrative structure to explore the trajectories of Bao and Vibiana’s character development. We had intense conversations about the main characters’ rupture moments, moments that evoked change and new perspectives on the world.
Mr. Griffin and I also noticed that more than any other time during the year, the students “went to the text.” That is, they were –more often than ever before—using evidence to back their claims, an exercise they sometimes needed to be reminded of earlier in the year. Their attention to detail, their recognition of moments when the words and graphics seemed to be in conflict, allowed them to grow as readers as they were worked to make sense of the contradiction. Their ability to connect moments that are separated by hundreds of pages—even separated by volumes—showed that they were able to bring together disparate bits of evidence into a cohesive theory about meaning in Yang’s text.
For their final project, students were asked to explore Yang’s point by writing Boxers & Saints in two volumes. In this essay, they were required to explore the connections and disparities between 282 Boxers and 158 Saints as well as 2-4 pairs of other panels that capture the importance of perspective. We required our students to conclude their papers by exploring how Yang’s purpose moves beyond Boxers & Saints. To prepare them for this, we briefly mentioned conflicts: Muslims vs. Hindus in Bengal 1930 (followed by their joining in cultural pride through language, art and music in 1939). We discussed ongoing conflicts Hutu vs. Tutsi in Rwanda, Sunni vs. Shi’a in Iraq, and Dinka vs. Nuer in Sudan. We also showed Chimamanda Adichie’s amazing Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”
Today in our final discussion we pulled together ideas even as we recognized some questions can never be answered. We spent a long time on the final panel in the epilogue. We know some of the things that happened in China following the Boxer Rebellion, but unless Gene Luen Yang writes a third volume (which many of the students yearn for), our questions about Bao in China and Vibiana in heaven can never be answered. It is this richness of ideas that are so relevant to our lives combined with the uncertainty of the future that makes Boxers & Saints so meaningful.