Flowers for Algernon: Literature and Character Education

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My seventh graders are starting to be mean to each other. It’s not a secret. In fact, it’s practically expected at this age. Our study of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon came not a moment too soon.

We’re working up to NaNoWriMo, which starts this Thursday. I had originally planned for our discussion of Flowers for Algernon to focus on style, character development, and unreliable narrators. Instead, we had a few throw downs in the lunch room and I changed the focus to “how we talk to each other”. In particular, what words we use when we talk to each other.

I’ve always felt that English teachers have a special responsibility for the moral development of their students. Long after we’ve forgotten the rules of grammar, we remember the stories we read and the examples our teachers provided. Given that I teach in a Christian school, I couldn’t help feeling that Flowers provided an unprecedented opportunity to talk about loving our neighbors. In light of recent events, (and a few inappropriate short stories) it became important to look at the power of words- how we use them, how they change, how they change us.

We began with a discussion of how the meaning of words changes over time- how we can change a word by imbuing with emotional content. “Pulling a Charlie Gordon”, for example, changes drastically depending on the context in which it’s used. Calling someone with intellectual disabilities “mentally retarded” was perfectly acceptable thirty years ago. We discussed that word, and how the meaning has shifted. We talked about personal responsibility, and whether public figures have more or less for what they say. Then we read this letter.

Ann Coulter provided me with half a lesson plan when she chose to call President Obama the r-word on twitter after the debate. John Franklin Stephens did a beautiful job responding to Coulter. Hearing from someone with Down’s Syndrome shed new light on the event, the word, and the short story we’ve been reading- especially since the novel is written in  letter/journal form. Although I can’t claim that it was a life changing discussion, the class left with a lot to chew on.

I can’t, in fact, claim that anything we do in my class is life changing. All I can do is go in armed with the best of literature and intentions and pray. You pray too, please.

 

 

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