Teachers Robby Griffin and Darcy Caldwell are using Boxers & Saints at The Peck School in Morristown, New Jersey!

Thank you so much, Robby and Darcy!

I asked them to write about their experience, and here’s what they had to say:

by Robby Griffin, The Peck School

My history course at the Peck School in Morristown, NJ focuses on China and the Middle East. Some of my greatest emphasis is on developing my 7th graders critical thinking skills through writing, discussion, and careful analysis of the reliability of sources (searching for bias in perspective). As I began to teach this year’s wonderful and intellectually superb 7th graders, my mother brought a new graphic novel to my attention called Boxers & Saints. She said that the reviews explain its focus on the Boxer Rebellion and understanding an event from different perspectives, and that it sounded perfect for my course. I read the reviews and immediately forwarded them to my colleague Darcy Caldwell who teaches 7th grade English. Immediately after reading the reviews we were already getting amped to potentially teach the novel, so we ordered copies for ourselves and the powers-that-be at Peck to read and discuss.

The administrators at Peck School were concerned about the language and imagery used by the character Lu Pai to refer to the practices of the “foreign devil” Christians. They wondered if our 7th graders were too immature to handle lines such as “Before going to war, their foot soliders smear mentrual blood across their foreheads” and “They fly flags woven from women’s pubic hair over their churches!” However, Darcy and I felt strongly that this textual moment offered a perfect opportunity to let the students interact with uncomfortable and ridiculous ideas and learn how to responsibly understand other cultures.

After continued discussion, we were granted permission to teach Boxers and Saints based on our logical and emphatic defenses. Thus began a whirlwind of preparation as we shortened our regular curricula to accommodate 2 and a half weeks of collaboration around Boxers & Saints. We spent countless hours discussing and emailing about what we would want to bring out most and how to do so. Already, those discussions were making this experiment one of the best teaching experiences we have had so far.

In preparation for our study of the novel, I made sure to emphasize certain key aspects of Chinese history even more than I would have normally such as extraterritoriality, the unwillingness of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi to modernize, Qin Shi Huangdi, filial piety, and ancestor worship. Additionally, Darcy coached the kids in how to read a graphic novel and analyze for meaning.

Ultimately, our study of Boxers & Saints has arisen out of a perfectly natural progression in our respective courses; we haven’t had to do anything truly different but just continue to develop our students abilities to critically analyze and then apply that understanding to a new form of literature. In the final weeks before we began teaching this wonderful piece of work, we settled on a few novel approaches to co-teaching this novel. Since there are three sections in the 7th grade, we each teach 1/3 of them during any given class. Thus, by combining, we would get 2/3rds of the grade at once, but the next period we would have a different 2/3rds, half of whom wouldn’t have been in class yet. So we have figured out a few different ways to split this up that involve various combinations of large group discussions (groups of 14 or 28 at a time), small group discussions (each student has a group of 3 or 4 that will continue to meet for the next few weeks; at the end they will evaluate each other on their collaboration), and individual work. In this way, we can ensure that all the students are constantly engaged in the work, but most periods we can also co-teach the class.

Co-teaching has been one of the two best elements of this experience along with discussing such amazing work with such bright and eager students (come to think of it, those have been the best two elements of the year at large).

Two days ago we gave the students the books and assigned the first 79 pages of reading as homework. This may sound like a lot, but it is amazing how fast one can read a graphic novel. In that light, this may sound like too little, but when properly examining each panel for meaning and trying to make sense of the interconnections throughout the text, the students need to slow down considerably to make their best observations and connections. So, we were able to begin discussing the novel yesterday, and we were just floored by what the students were getting out of it. We had carefully gone through the text to find the ideas and moments that seemed most important to grapple with, but, as we have come to expect through our consistent use of Harkness and various other discussion-based techniques this year, the students were bringing us not only to those important places we had identified but to so many more than we could have ever considered. What is going to follow are brief accounts of how the classes are going now that we have been through two days of discussion, and we will continue to post further blog entries until we have completed our journey.

Gene Luen Yang has written a truly masterful graphic novel in Boxers & Saints. He incorporates so much meticulously researched history while engaging the reader on a deep level by exploring the events of the Boxer Rebellion through the eyes of two children on differing sides of the conflict. In examining the lives of Lee Bao and Four-Girl/Vibiana, we are able to put ourselves into the hearts and minds of people embroiled in a conflict far greater than themselves who nonetheless have significant roles to play. The most impactful elements of this carefully-wrought masterpiece can only be understood after finishing both volumes (the novel is told in two volumes, one dedicated to Lee Bao and the Boxer perspective, and the other dedicated to Four-Girl/Vibiana and the Christian/Saint perspective). However, there are innumerable elements to take away from each portion of the volumes along the way, so our first week will be spent reading and carefully exploring each of those portions.

Yesterday was our first day of discussion, so the kids were just starting to get into the groove of having potentially double-sized classes in a different space and also how to read a graphic novel. They immediately displayed a passion for the reading and made connections with various elements we had seen throughout the year in history class. Additionally, they were able to notice similarities in certain themes with the novel they just finished in English, To Kill a Mockingbird.

At first the kids brought up themes which were most personally identifiable such as how Little Bao is a typical younger brother who feels excluded by his older brothers. They noticed how Bao admires Red Lantern Chu much more than his own brothers since Red Lantern treats him well and is such an impressive fighter and provider. This discussion of Red Lantern’s role in Little Bao’s life began a recurring discussion of who Bao’s role model was until they decided he was moving through various role models, starting with the opera gods, moving to his father when he punched the bully (as shown by Bao’s vision of his father in an opera costume, thus supplanting the opera gods), and then Red Lantern Chu when his father proved too weak to be a match for the foreigners, and finally Master Big Belly. That was as far as we could go since we hadn’t read past page 79 at the time. The idea of role models was at the top of our minds as we prepared for that discussion, but the kids naturally took it to those points in a coherent fashion on their own, a testament to their progress in class over the course of the year, the brilliance of the text as a window into much deeper subjects than are normally accessible, and the brilliance of our kids. Among the other ideas they explored were the breaking of Bao’s vow to obey his father (and many commented on the implicit aspect of filial piety in his original vow), Bao’s emotional reaction to the smashing of the Tu Di Gong idol by Father Bey, Bao’s changing feelings toward life as a new spring appears with a new Tu Di Gong statues and yet “Thing just aren’t the same,” Yang’s clues to Little Bao’s maturation as he moves from playing games with teeth to learning kung fu, and how Bao begins to take on a new confidence after watching Red Lantern and saying that he would learn to fight with or without a sword. Already in this first discussion the kids demonstrated a strong understanding of the source material, but more importantly they demonstrated the ability to ask discerning questions and learn from each other.

Later in the day, the students returned to discuss p. 79 to 120. Darcy typically asks her students to identify a “rupture moment” in the text, so we began this discussion by exploring moments where Bao’s world is disrupted. Discerningly, the students quickly jumped to Little Bao seeing Red Lantern’s head on a pike. Yang conveys the importance and emotion of this moment by using an upright oriented panel for the gruesome head and a wonderfully drawn horizontal panel of Little Bao’s face. However, one of the students pointed out how there are two panels in between those that show the imperial troops smiling, and he suggested that it isn’t until Little Bao sees their faces that he fully cements his hatred for the foreign and secondary devils and thus his resolve to do something about it. At this point, I was able to remind the students of one my favorite sayings from my old conductor, “He didn’t have to do that;” Yang could have jumped straight from the severed head to Bao’s reaction, but he chose to show the smiling imperial guards. This was one of many impressive insights from the kids. Another was noticing that when Little Bao dreams of taking the food from Master Big Belly, he sees himself in the opera costume he had imagined for his own father. Also, his second-oldest brother doesn’t kowtow to him at first, but eventually they all do after Bao kills the imperial guards. One student suggested that Little Bao will never lose his innocence, which is an interesting thought that had some support (not an overwhelming amount, but some) in the early chapters. A day later, he revised his thought after seeing how much innocence Bao lost. This realization helped cement the importance of our approach to the book where we are breaking it down into sections and discussing what we have seen so far before moving on (and no students are allowed to read ahead despite their desires to do so). One of the biggest challenges of these types of discussions is that not every class can be on the same page at every moment, so when one student makes a wonderful observation about, for instance, Qin Shi Huang’s vacant, green eyes before possessing Little Bao and gaining pupils, we just have to hope that the other class will either notice it or be able to manage without. It is impossible to look at every single detail in such a dense piece of work, so we just have to view each of these moments as one of great progress and insight that will be manifested through a different moment for other students and classes.

The first day went extremely well, and both Darcy and I were amazed by the level of conversation in which our students were already engaging. That night the students had to read a lengthier segment and write some short journal entries on their experience so far, a rupture moment in the text, and Bao’s edicts. So today they came prepared to discuss all the way to page 250. Some of the hardest workers felt a little stressed under the workload, but they did well getting through it, and they all showed up prepared to engage in absolutely fantastic discourse. The first period was devoted solely to discussion, and the second period started with small group discussion, quick writing of thoughts, and then ended with large group discussion again. The final discussion in particular went amazingly well, and we just struggled to cut off the conversation (we may have gone 4 minute over time into Academic Support). As part of my class, I videotape every day and post it on our class website so that absent students can stay with the class, I can review my own teaching, and I can discuss my teaching with colleagues. So for this whole experience with Boxers & Saints we are recording every minute of larger discussion (small group discussion can be hard to capture as they disperse to various areas). The first day went fine in this regard, but today was one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had at Peck when I discovered that the audio had failed to record because the conference call system was left on mute after a board meeting last night. Thus, the entire system appeared to be working, but no audio actually came in through it, a fact of which I was unaware until after three phenomenal classes. Thus, we have lost an entire day of footage that we would have used. It is a lesson in redundancies (setting up a second camera) and perseverance. Nonetheless, we couldn’t have been happier with how most of the discussion went.

The kids had to grapple with a number of issues in their pursuit of understanding the novel, but the discussion continued to develop in a positive and increasingly revelatory direction. One student pointed out the lack of understanding and respect Little Bao shows for Christianity when he kills the men at the train to “free” the Chinese people. Bao could not grasp why people would willingly go with these foreign devils. This was an important observation in and of itself, but Darcy prompted the girl to search for whether the Christians had shown the same misunderstanding of the Chinese folk religion which connected their thoughts of Bao’s misunderstandings with Father Bey’s misunderstandings when he came to town at the beginning and smashed the statue of Tu Di Gong.

After not too long, the conversation made its way to page 179, which our administration had balked at when first considering the novel. In order to provide some context for these vicious lies, Darcy read from Yang’s source for those ideas, Diana Preston’s The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China’s War on Foreigners That Shook the World in the Summer of 1900. The students quickly understood the historical context that necessitates dealing with such slander, and they dealt with it all very maturely. However, they were also able to identify why those moments were so important to the story itself. Many historians will leave in copious amounts of details because that just seems to be the way of historians, but Yang approaches this as both a historian and a writer, which is one of the aspects that makes this novel ideal for a collaborative English and history study (some students have suggested Engstory and Hinglish as names for this combined subject in addition to the classic and appropriate humanities). Rather than merely including this slander because it happened, Yang weaves the ideas into the plot of the story. A student identified how Little Bao required Lu Pai to come over and repeat the slander to him in order to psyche himself up before burning down a building in Peking with women and children inside. After some discussion of this, it provided a perfect opportunity to show and discuss a clip Darcy had connected a couple days prior – the one where Richard Sherman has an epic rant after winning a game for the Seahawks. The kids seemed to quickly connect with this idea, especially the boys, and they further understood the mentality of someone who is going into battle, whether literally in war or figuratively on the grid-iron.

The discussion found its way through a myriad of other plot points and issues, but some notable points include how Bao does what he thinks is right for China, the cost of Little Bao’s “mistake” in letting the women and children survive the train attack, and the connection between the fires on page 100 and page 250. Some of the observations could be more obvious than others, and some could be less founded than others, but every student displayed an earnest desire to participate and understand the text. There were even some larger discussions that Darcy and I had been considering for later classes (after having read much more or all of the text) that were brought up by the students such as whether Qin Shi Huang is a figment of Bao’s imagination or an actual spirit and how Bao is constantly struggling between his fighting self and compassionate self as he tries to decide when is the right time to kill. Another student brought up how Qin Shi Huang was acting out of self-interest, not out of the best interests of others or even China – an idea which is brought up in a teacher’s guide on Yang’s website (a wonderful resource), but an idea which is likely to be considered much further into the text and by 11th or 12th graders.

Darcy and I couldn’t be more pleased with how the first two days of Boxers & Saints have turned out (with the exception of the audio being lost for all of today). We are in awe of our students’ thoughts and abilities, and we are more excited than ever to see where the next days will take us. I will reserve full judgement on the success and replicability of this experiment until we are done, but at this juncture, I’m happy to report that it seems to be a resounding success. Visit again for future blog posts on our experiment with Boxers & Saints by the astoundingly talented Gene Luen Yang. I will leave you with the final, profound question one of our student’s raised today in relation to the text and especially whether Qin Shi Huang really exists or is in Little Bao’s head: what is reality?