Character Education + Young Adult Literature = Critical Thinking Skills
Mary Ann Tighe
"I already know what I will be researching this term." Katherine was attending the first meeting of her graduate course in research and evaluation. "All the English teachers in our district have to teach values for at least 10 minutes each day; it's a directive from our school board, and they are following a mandate from the State Board of Education." This was how I learned that all public schools in Alabama would be incorporating character education into their curricula. Katherine explained that in her district the school board had designated English teachers to carry out this task. The next week she brought me a copy of the State Board's guidelines:
The State Board of Education and all local boards shall develop and implement within ninety (90) days of the effective date of this act a comprehensive character education program for all grades to consist of not less than ten minutes of instruction per day focusing upon the students' development of the following character traits: courage, patriotism, citizenship, honesty, fairness, respect for others, kindness, cooperation, self-respect, self-control, courtesy, compassion, tolerance, diligence, generosity, punctuality, cleanliness, cheerfulness, school pride, respect for the environment, patience, creativity, sportsmanship, loyalty, and perseverance. Each plan shall include the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag.
Effective August 1, 1995
I soon learned that Katherine was not the only English teacher who was called upon to incorporate character education into her classes. When I went into a classroom to observe an intern, the 25 character traits were posted by the door. If I arrived in time for opening announcements, I would hear the value for the day, along with a definition. However, most English teachers wanted to do more than spend 10 minutes talking about the assigned value. They wanted to make it part of their lesson. Since I work with both pre-service and in-service teachers in their English education programs, I, too, wanted to investigate and find the most effective way of integrating character education into the English classroom.
Teaching Literature and Teaching Values
As I began reading and researching, I learned that, although the development of character traits through literary study is not a new concept, many issues remain unresolved. Teachers, students, authors, and the public or society in general have different and conflicting sets of values (Marshall; Forman). Censorship cases indicate that not everyone agrees upon the values represented in a particular work; therefore, some educators caution against using the moral qualities of literature when defending a literary text against censors (Bogdan; Bogdan and Yeomans). Others, however, advocate such an approach (Willinsky). Most educators agree that values cannot or should not be taught directly (Suhor and Suhor; Teplitsky; "The Round Table: Should English Teachers"; Thompson) and that, although values can be taught indirectly through literature, there is no guarantee of the outcomes when students begin to probe and explore the text (Bogdan; Bogdan and Yeoman; Albritton et al.; Johannessen; Nelms and Nelms; Suhor and Suhor; Thompson). Some educators have found a relationship between critical thinking and moral reasoning (Fasko), and others have investigated the use of literature to examine values (Thomas and Roberts).
Teachers and researchers have found that certain procedures make character education through literary study more effective. When analyzing characters' motives--when identifying those values which prompt their actions--students need to offer personal response as well as literary analysis (Bogdan; Bogdan and Yeoman; Suhor and Suhor). Teachers must deliberately broaden the curriculum to include many different perspectives and values, and be careful not to "stack the deck," according to their own point of view (Bogdan; Suhor and Suhor). Specific activities for effectively incorporating values into the English/language arts curriculum are available in professional journals and publications (Bontempo; Dodson; Johannessen; Kahn et al.; Monseau; Smagorinsky et al.; Suhor and Suhor; Teplitskey; and White). These texts focus on analysis of the values as represented by the characters in the work, not an indoctrination of a specific set of values.
A Research Question Emerges
As I completed the readings about teaching morals through literature, I was especially interested in the connection between the study of values and the development of critical thinking skills. I formulated the following research question: Since most educators recommend the discussion of values rather than the indoctrination of values through literature, and since research indicates a relationship between critical thinking and moral reasoning, could selected reading, writing, and discussion activities focusing on values help students to develop critical thinking skills? That is, while inferring values, would students be learning to analyze the literature and defend their interpretations? This question eventually led to a research project1, involving two groups of students: undergraduates enrolled in a young adult literature class2 that I was teaching at Troy State University (TSU), and Dr. Elaine Hill's eleventh grade English class at Ramsay High School (RHS) in Birmingham, Alabama.
Thanks to a grant from the ALAN Foundation, I was able to purchase two sets of novels for Elaine's classes, The Giver by Lois Lowry and A Yellow Raft on Blue Water by Michael Dorris. My class at TSU would read these two novels, and both classes would participate in the same series of discussion and writing activities. While they were talking, reading, and writing, they would exchange six messages per student via Email. It was in these messages that I hoped to find the answer to my question.
Phase One: A Questionnaire
We began with Lowry's book, and the plan for both classes was the same: before reading The Giver, students were to complete and discuss an opinionnaire.
Students were asked to respond to the following questions in their first Email messages:
When you completed the questionnaire, with which statements did you agree most strongly? Why? With which did you disagree most strongly? Why? Did any of your opinions change after hearing the class discussion?
The messages written by the high school readers indicate that many of the RHS students focused on two statements when their class discusses the questionnaire. In response to number 3 ("In certain situations it may be justified for a political leader to bend or break the law for the good of the country"), only a few indicated faith in political leaders to make the right decisions. While they discussed number 4 ("'My country right or wrong' is not just a slogan; it is every citizen's patriotic duty") those who claimed to be patriotic tried unsuccessfully to convince others to agree with this statement. A few students indicated that the discussion caused them to change their minds. One student said she was swayed to change her opinion, and that she came to a final conclusion that it is not unpatriotic to disagree with, or question, the actions of her government. Several students decided that the correct answers depend upon one's definition of patriotism. Most of the Email messages written by RHS students indicated that the discussion does not really change the RHS students' opinions; however, they do note that it is good to become aware of others' points of view, and that such discussion helps to clarify the statements on the opinionnaire.
In the TSU Email messages, only two students acknowledged changing their opinions after the discussion of the questionnaire. Students offered good arguments for and against statements number 1 ("It is never right to kill another person"), number 4 ("my country right or wrong") and number 7 during class discussion. All disagreed with number 5 ("No cause, political or otherwise, is worth dying for"), citing the Civil Rights Movement and their religion as two causes for which they would willingly die. One student, after listening to various opinions, decided that she disagreed with statement number 7 ("People should never compromise their ideals or beliefs"); she realized that sometimes it might be good to change your opinions. I, too, recall their class discussion. Several students claimed that we should never forsake our beliefs and ideals, while others argued just as persuasively that as we grow and mature we see things from new perspectives and it is right that we change our beliefs. Their opponents offered the logical rebuttal that change and compromise are not the same. The discussion ended there, and only one student changed her mind. Nevertheless, although the discussion of ideas did not change their opinions, the TSU students indicated that they found it is helpful to see both sides of an issue and that their classmates made many good points.
The discussions in both classrooms seem to follow parallel courses. A few students changed their opinions based upon their class discussion of the eight statements, but most were not swayed. However, they did emphasize the importance of hearing and expressing different points of view.
Phase Two: Reading The Giver
Next, students in both classrooms read The Giver. Jonas, the main character, lives a seemingly utopian society. Everyone is part of a nuclear family, two parents and two children. There are no homeless, there is no unemployment (the elders of the community determine the appropriate career for each member of the society), no pollution (they use bicycles, not cars), no violent weather (it is climate controlled), no pain (they may simply call for immediate pain relief), no problems for the elderly (they are tenderly cared for in the home for the Old). But it soon becomes obvious that something is wrong; there are no choices. At the Ceremony of Twelve, each young person is assigned a career and begins preparation for it; Jonas is assigned as the Receiver of Memory. There are no memories in the community; all knowledge of the past is held by one person, the Receiver of Memory, and Jonas will eventually take on this role. The current Receiver becomes the Giver for he passes the memories on to Jonas, the new Receiver, who discovers love, compassion, the real meaning of families, animals, snow, and Christmas lights as well as pain, war, and cruelty. And he learns the true meaning of Release. He knows that anyone who breaks the rules of the Community will be Released, that all the elderly will be eventually released, and even babies who do not adapt to the regimented life of the society will be released. Then, via a TV screen, he sees his own father release one of a pair of twins by injecting a deadly serum into his head. He knows then that he must try to escape to Elsewhere, the name for the world outside the Community. He takes Gabriel with him, for Gabe is the next child scheduled for release. The book comes to a dramatic climax as they travel by bicycle to unknown lands, hiding from the planes which are seeking them, existing on their scant supply of food and water, and finally traveling through a snowstorm until it seems Jonas can go on no longer. But then he sees the colored lights of Christmas shining through a window and hears people singing. Has he escaped to a new world, is he hallucinating as he and the child die in the snow, or has he made a circular journey back to the Community? Lowry allows the reader to decide.
After more reading, writing, and talking, following basically the same sequence of activities in both classrooms, students send their last Email message on this text, responding to the following questions:
Some individuals and groups object to The Giver and do not want it to be required reading or even to be made available in the classroom. For what reasons might they object? Are any of these objections valid? Unreasonable?
What is your opinion? Should this book be required reading in a secondary English classroom? Keep the following writing situation in mind as you prepare your response to this assignment:
Persona: High school student who has read and thought carefully about The Giver. Audience: Faculty, student body, and parents Format: Article in school newsletter Purpose: To inform and persuade
When the RHS students responded to this assignment, 21 out of 24 wrote "yes," The Giver should be required reading. Most began by acknowledging that they understood why people might object to the book. The three reasons cited most often were (1) the concept of release, (2) the repression of free speech and free choice, and (3) the opposition to change. The students suggested other reasons, too, why people might oppose the book, including the following: they want to get rid of nonconformity; morality and social control are emotional issues that should be taught at home; the beliefs go against many people's beliefs; the book is inappropriate or too complicated; and they oppose the concept of complete control by the government and the presentation of communistic ideas.
After acknowledging the opposition, they moved on to cite reasons why the book should be read in the classroom. The four arguments cited most often were these: (1) it makes you appreciate what you have when living in America, (2) readers will recognize their own prejudices, (3) it's a warning; it shows what society might become, and (4) we should be free to read all books because reading opens minds. And they discovered many other reasons to defend the book, such as these: it makes you view society in a different light; once censorship starts, it does not stop; you learn where other students stand; it helps you understand your own beliefs and how they are formed; you learn that everyone deserves a chance to live; you don't ban a book just because it presents a different idea; you have to accept other people's situations and cultures; it shows that murder is wrong, it shows that people don't realize what is going on around them. However, one student offered the very general comment that there is nothing wrong with the book, and several cautioned that it needs to be read in the classroom where the teacher can explain it.
Only one RHS student said that the book should not be required reading, arguing that students are not mature enough to understand it and that the book has little value. Two students claimed it should be an optional choice but not required, explaining that it is not important enough to require and it has nothing to do with high school students' lives.
Fifteen TSU students responded to the assignment; thirteen argued that The Giver should be required in the classroom. They too recognized reasons why people might object, citing the issue of euthanasia or the concept of release most frequently. Other objections they cited focused on atheism, degradation of motherhood, abortion, infanticide, genocide and sexuality. When they defended the book, the TSU students cited three reasons most often: (1) it serves as a warning as to what can happen; (2) it makes us appreciate what we have, making us more aware of the importance of family love, beauty, music, colors, and Christmas; (3) Jonas exemplifies goodness, compassion, kindness, generosity, courage and perseverance. Other arguments offered for reading the book include the following: it warns us about conformity; it teaches us to be faithful to freedom of choice; we learn authority figures do not always make the best decisions for individuals; it forces readers to think and take a stand; high school students need to confront these issues and separate truth from fiction. One student asked why this novel should be banned, when it is so unrealistic that no one would want to live there. Several students emphasized that the book should be offered in a class that included teacher-led or supervised discussion. Two students thought the book should be optional because of the sensitive issues it introduces.
The Email messages reflected a wide range of writing abilities, but most of the students had moved beyond comprehension, and they were beginning to think critically about the book, asking themselves about the author's intention, the overall meaning of the work. At this point, most were not offering much evidence from the text to support what they said they believed. Instead, they were focusing on the themes which they found evident in the work.
Phase Three: A Question of Trust
Before reading A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, both groups respond to an activity which asks them to consider the reliability of a narrator when a story is told from the first person point of view.
After 28 students from RHS completed and discussed the questionnaire, they sent an Email message identifying the two most trustworthy narrators. All 28 students identified number 5 as one of their two choices. In this scenario Margaret asks Mr. Smith, the English teacher, to reconsider the grade on Jane's paper. When students offer explanations as to why Margaret is trustworthy, their answers fall into four categories. First, they claim that Mr. Smith is unfair. As evidence they explain the following: he could have reread the paper; he was probably in a bad mood; he just became defensive; he was trying to show he is in control; some teachers are really like that. Their second category of evidence was simply that Margaret is trustworthy because she can be trusted. For evidence they claimed that her actions came from the heart; they were not out of self-interest; she had no ulterior motive; she felt sorry for Jane; she jeopardized her own grade; she was sincere when she said her own paper was not as good. The third reason they believed Margaret is trustworthy is that she supplies many facts and details, such as telling why Jane's paper was good; explaining how she worked on it; recreating their conversation; explaining their emotions and describing how the teacher blows up. The last reason she is trustworthy is that she is a good writer herself and, therefore, knows what she is talking about.
The second most trustworthy narrator, according to the RHS students, is the speaker in scenario number 2, who claims that Milwaukee is the most beautiful city in the world. Most of the students, however, did acknowledge that he is not an experienced or knowledgeable narrator. He is probably from the country or a poor area, and, therefore, has nothing to which he can compare Milwaukee. Other students offered as evidence the details he supplies, the awe in his voice, and the fact that he is approaching the situation with his heart.
The third most reliable narrator chosen by the RHS students is the speaker in number 3, who is breaking up with his girl friend because of peer pressure. Students found him reliable for these reasons: his story is not unusual; they know people like him; he likes the girl, but he is more concerned about his friends and his image. Other students cited as evidence the fact that he is telling the whole situation; others stated simply that he is obviously telling the truth.
When asked to identify the least trustworthy narrator, the students' choices were fairly evenly distributed among three narrators. In scenario number 1, the narrator claims that the teachers have conspired against him, and that is why he has been sent to the office. The students did not find him trustworthy for three reasons. First, four different teachers have sent him to the office, so he must be doing something wrong. Second, he offers no support for his accusations, and we hear only one side of the story. And last, he believes that everyone is out to get him. He tries to blame others, but he has the attitude of a troublemaker and liar. In scenario number 6 the narrator is a lawyer who plans to win his case by bribing the opposing lawyer. Basically, they did not believe him because he sounds so greedy and evil. He is guilty of age discrimination; he has a sexist attitude; he is looking out only for himself. Because he has low standards, he assumes everyone has a price. The student readers did not believe the speaker in scenario number 4, a parent who claims her daughter's English teacher is too hard. They were unanimous in deciding that, because the narrator cannot write proper English, she cannot judge the English teacher.
When the TSU students identified the most trustworthy narrator, their first choice was Margaret, the speaker in number 5, who asks the English teacher to reconsider Jane's grade. First, they believed her because she seems sincere. Her tone is not harsh; she speaks rationally not emotionally; her feelings seem genuine. Second, she gives many details (yet as one student pointed out, she could have left out some important information). Third, she is believable because she is trying to help a friend, doing what is right and fair. And fourth, Mr. Smith is unfair. The TSU students claim, as evidence, that teachers can be unfair, and infer that Margaret is honest because the teacher is a jerk.
Their second choice of trustworthy speakers was the one who loves the city of Milwaukee. The recognized, however, that he is telling the truth only as he knows it, since he has probably never been anywhere to make a valid comparison. But he is not lying; he is ignorant but not dishonest.
When they identified untrustworthy narrators, the TSU students' first choice was the speaker in number 1, the boy who claims teachers are conspiring against him. First, they pointed out that four different teachers have sent him to the office, and teachers are too busy to form a conspiracy. They also recognize that he is simply trying to save himself and that we have all made excuses like this--we try to blame others so that we do not get in trouble. And finally, he offers no facts to support his theory.
Their second choice for an untrustworthy narrator was the parent in number 4. They explained that with her poor English, the parent cannot critique the English teacher. One student points out that she is limited in knowing only what her daughter said.
Students in both classrooms agreed that the narrators in scenarios 5 and 2 were trustworthy. When the RHS students offered evidence for their choice, it tended, occasionally, to be circular; Margaret is trustworthy because she can be trusted and Mr. Smith is unfair because some teachers are really like this. When they offered evidence from the text, they sometimes gave a vague generality; they believed Margaret because her actions come from the heart. They were also influenced by the amount of information, the facts and details which the narrator provided. They did not take the next step and evaluate the information to determine if it was accurate and unbiased. Like the high school students, the TSU students believed the narrator who sounded pleasant and genuine, or the one who supplied many details. And they, too, occasionally used circular reasoning: Mr. Smith is unfair because teachers can be unfair.
However, not all of the evidence provided for students, in support of their judgments, was weak. They realized that Mr. Smith is defensive, and is therefore probably trying too show his control, and that Margaret is putting herself in jeopardy by defending Jane; in other words, they were analyzing motives. They recognized the need for facts and details and pointed out that Margaret's tone was rational, not emotional. They were thoughtful in their appraisal of the narrator from Milwaukee: he is honest as far as he understands the situation, but his knowledge is limited. They did not believe the narrator who claims a conspiracy against him, because the evidence comes from four different sources while he offers nothing to support his claim, and we are presented only one point of view. They pointed out that this techniqueÑblaming someone else to get yourself out of trouble--is something most people try. They looked at the motive of the lawyer in number 6 and analyzed his behavior: because he has low standards he assumes everyone else does. They made a logical judgment in regard to the narrator in number 4. Someone who does not speak proper English cannot judge an English teacher.
In these messages students were beginning to offer evidence or explanation for their opinions. Some students offered stronger, or more logical, support than others, but, after spending much class time in discussing and interpreting the literature and explaining or defending their points of view, their writing was showing a pattern: they were interpreting and providing logical support from the text.
Phase Four: Reading A Yellow Raft in Blue Water
After discussing the questionnaire, students read A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, the story of three Native American women from different generations, each one telling her own story and providing the reader with three different points of view. The first and youngest narrator is Rayona. She is of mixed heritage, African American and Native American. Since her parents have separated, she lives with her mother, Christine. They are very close, but very different. Rayona is serious and reserved, while Christine is pretty and flirtatious and likes to party and drink. Her lifestyle results in several trips to the hospital where she eventually learns that she has only a short time to live. Part 2 is Christine's story, as she tells it to Rayona. As a young girl growing up on reservation, she was very discontent and moved to Seattle where she married, then separated from her husband after the birth of their child. When she learns she is dying, she takes Rayona to Aunt Ida, who tells her story in Part 3 of the novel. Aunt Ida was never married, but everyone assumes she is Christine's mother for she raised her. In Parts 1 and 2 she has never shown much love or affection, and through her own story we learn why. An interesting aspect of the novel is that several of the same incidents are retold from different points of view with subtle shifts in words and actions as the narrator changes and retells the story from a new perspective.
In their last Email message based upon this novel, students answered the following questions:
Which of the three narrators is the most admirable? Why? What values does she hold? As you locate evidence to support your thesis, consider the source of the information? Is the narrator trustworthy when she is talking about herself? When she is talking about others?
Persona: Careful reader Audience: Classmates who have also read the novel Purpose: To inform and to convince
When 24 RHS students identified the character they admired most, 11 selected Rayona, mainly because of her independence and determination to survive despite all the problems she encounters--problems with her mother, father, Aunt Ida, Father Tom, and Foxy. They decided that she is trustworthy because she acknowledges her own faults as well as those of others, and she has nothing to hide--no past, no lies, no secrets--so she has nothing to gain by lying. But most of all, they trusted her because she is a teen-ager, and they can identify with her. One student responded to Rayona's version of the hospital scene with the claim, "I would have acted like that." They understood, trusted, and respected Rayona because she is frank and open. Others claimed that she speaks from the heart, that she makes the "reader feel happy or sad when she was."
Nine RHS students selected Aunt Ida as the most admirable character, because she gives up everything for her family. She takes on their shame, raising Christine and taking in Rayona when she is abandoned. They also admired her for sending Willard away when he denigrates her intelligence and appearance. They believed she is trustworthy because she is the one who has lived the longest and knows the whole story, the one who can put all the pieces together. They believed her because she tells the truth about herself even when it is not pleasant, and she is straightforward when speaking of others.
Only four students selected Christine as the most admirable character. They claimed that she is strong, and, although there are many negative aspects to her character, she is always herself. They argued that she is a trustworthy narrator because she is completely open and without shame; she hides nothing.
Eight of eleven TSU students chose Ida as the most admirable character because of family loyalty. She has a hard life, but accepts responsibility and does not blame others. They found her to be trustworthy because she is honest about her own weaknesses and flaws, and she is the one who knows the whole story. Two students selected Rayona as most admirable because of her strength and respect for self and others. She is trustworthy because she is the youngest with nothing in her past to hide or cover up. One student selected Christine as most admirable, but offered no explanation other than she speaks sincerely and is easy to believe.
Although Ida was the second choice of the RHS students, she was a close second, and she was the first choice of the TSU students. Both groups admired her for her family loyalty and her willingness to take on responsibilities. They trusted her because she is the oldest and, therefore, the most knowledgeable. Rayona, a weak second choice for the TSU students, was the first choice of the RHS students, mainly because they could identify with her and, therefore, they trusted her.
In both classes, much of the evidence which the students offer is sketchy, only a brief reference to an event in the text, but their writing does reflect an awareness that they must do more than simply state an opinion. They were beginning to take the next stepÑto clarify with a specific reference to the novel. When they identified Rayona as admirable and trustworthy, they were able to cite various examples of the problems she faces with strength and a spirit of independence. When they that claimed Aunt Ida is trustworthy, they described the sacrifices she made for her family. The few who selected Christine as trustworthy identified her dishonorable acts, which she describes with complete honesty, as evidence of her inclination to tell the truth. However, a few students were still not able to move back into the text. Some cited understanding of, or identifying with, Rayona as their main argument for trusting her; others made only vague references to her admirable qualities.
During the study of the two novels, many of the traits identified by the State Department of Education emerged naturally through the discussion. It would have been impossible to talk about The Giver without analyzing and debating aspects of courage, patriotism, citizenship, fairness, respect for others, compassion, tolerance, loyalty, and perseverance. A discussion of the "Whom Do You Trust?" survey and a comparison of the three narrators in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water involved honesty, fairness, respect for others, kindness, self-respect, self-control, compassion, tolerance, generosity, and perseverance.
In regard to my research question, I believe critical thinking skills were being developed in conjunction with this study of values in literature. While reading and discussing the texts, students began to support their opinions by interpreting the novel, specifically looking for character motivation and themes. Their Email messages, although spontaneous and unrevised writings that they knew would not be graded, do suggest that they are becoming more effective writers of literary analysis. By drawing conclusions and offering accurate and logical evidence, their writing offers support for the connection research has found between critical thinking and moral reasoning.
Although students discussed and analyzed the values at work in the lives of the characters, there is no evidence that they will now incorporate the 25 traits identified by the State Department of Education into their own lives. However, the activities, such as those described in this study, should provide them with the critical thinking skills to analyze their own personal decisions and to evaluate the possible consequences of such actions.
1. Funds for this research were graciously provided by a grant from the ALAN Research Foundation and by Troy State University.
2. The writer wishes to acknowledge and thank the pre-service teachers in the Literature for Young Adults class at Troy State University in Troy, Alabama, for their participation in this project.
3. The writer wishes to acknowledge and thank Dr. Elaine Hill and her eleventh grade students at Ramsay High School in Birmingham, Alabama, for their participation in this project.
Bontempo, Barbara T. "Exploring Prejudice in Young Adult Literature through Drama and Role Play." The ALAN Review 22.3 (1995).
Forman, Carol Decker. "Twelfth Graders Making Meaning: A Sociological Approach to Death of a Salesman." Literature in the Classroom: Readers, Texts, and Contexts. Ben F. Nelms. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1988.
Nelms, Elizabeth D., and Ben F. Nelms. "From Response to Responsibility: Recent Adolescent Novels in the Classroom." Literature in the Classroom: Readers, Texts, and Contexts. Ed. Ben F. Nelms. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1988.
Thompson, Julian F. "An Under-utilized Resource: Values Education and the Older YA Novel." The ALAN Review 23.3 (1996).
White, Sylvia L., and Ruie Jane Pritchard. "Students Examining Values in the Study of Huckleberry Finn." Literature in the Classroom: Readers, Texts, and Contexts. Ed. Ben F. Nelms. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1988.
Politics, Patriotism, and Protest Opinionnaire
Read each statement; then indicate whether you Agree or Disagree. Below each statement, jot down a few notes explaining your response.
_____1. It is never right to kill another person.
_____2. Political leaders usually act in the best interest of their countries.
_____3. In certain situations it may be justified for a political leader to bend or break the law for the good of the country.
_____4. "My country right or wrong" is not just a slogan; it is every citizen's' patriotic duty.
_____5. No cause, political or otherwise, is worth dying for.
_____6. The values held by the majority of citizens are the values the government should enforce.
_____7. People should never compromise their ideals or beliefs.
_____8. If individual citizens are acting under the direction of their government, they should not be held accountable for their actions.
Source: Adapted from Writing about Literature by Elizabeth A. Kahn, Carolyn Calhoun Walter, and Larry R. Johannessen. NCTE, 1984. (Copyright each article by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission)
Whom Do You Trust?
Decide whether you trust the judgment of the narrators of the following little stories. Explain what it is about the narrator that makes him or her trustworthy or untrustworthy. If the narrator is unreliable, decide what you think is the truth of the situation. Remember, go through the three-step process to reconstruct the meaning.
1. Oh, man, these teachers. I mean, they got it in for me. Four different teachers send me to the dean in the same month. It must be a conspiracy. And, I tell you, I don't deserve it. Nope. This is just another classic case of discrimination.
a. Is this a case of discrimination? b. What makes the narrator believable/not believable? c. What do you think is the truth of the situation?
2. The buildings -- they are so beautiful. We have nothing like them in my country. And the sun, when it shines on the windows, it is golden. Even the -- what are they called -- sidewalks. They glisten. Perhaps they have diamonds in them. I am so lucky to be here in Milwaukee. It is surely the most beautiful city in all the world.
a. Is Milwaukee the most beautiful city in all the world? b. What makes the narrator believable/not believable? c. What do you think is the truth of the situation?
3. Well, today's the day. I have to break up with her. I'm getting kidded all the time by the guys. They say she's not cool enough for me. Just because she dresses a little differently and is so involved in school. And I like her. A lot. But I can't stand the kidding. I'm afraid everyone will start to think I'm not cool enough for them. So I'll just have to tell her I can't see her anymore.
a. Does the narrator like the girl a lot? b. What makes the narrator believable/not believable? c. What do you think is the truth of the situation?
4. I am worried because my daughter Joan's english teacher is way to hard. Joan brang home her homework yesterday and I cant even understand it and Im an adult! I think that teacher, he should be fired.
a. Should the teacher be fired? b. What makes the narrator believable/not believable? c. What do you think is the truth of the situation?
5. Sometimes teachers can be unfair. Take what happened to Jane this afternoon in English. Jane worked so hard on her paper. I was there in the library with her. She finished it last week and asked me to read it. It was, quite frankly, better than mine. Jane had always done solid work, but this was exceptional. She told me that she wanted her final high school project to be a memorable one. It certainly was. When I told her that I thought her work was better than mine, she blushed. She said, "You always get the highest mark in the class, though. And you're the editor of the paper. And you won that writing contest last year. You're just saying that." I reminded her that this was the only time I had ever said it, even though I had read many of her papers over the years. To tell you the truth, it bothered me a little that her paper was better. I was certainly happy for Jane, but I've enjoyed getting praised for doing the best work. This afternoon we got the papers back -- two days ahead of schedule. I received my usual A, but I couldn't be happy about it. Jane received her usual B. I saw a tear fall down on the title page. It smeared the grade and the brief sentence beneath it, the only marks on the paper. After class I went up to Mr. Smith's desk. "Something wrong, Margaret?" he asked. I asked whether he would consider rereading Jane's paper. I told him that I had read it and that I thought it was an exceptional work. He seemed to come unhinged at my request. He started shouting that it wasn't my place to accuse him of being careless. I tried to tell him that I had no such thought, that I realized with so many papers to grade, teachers cannot spend too long with any one paper. I seem to have offended him deeply. He shouted again that he had taken exceptional care with everyone's paper and that I had no right to question his dedication. Now I have a week of detention for my "insubordination." I feel so sorry for Jane. She deserved a better mark. She really did.
a. Was Mr. Smith unfair? b. What makes the narrator believable/unbelievable? c. What do you think is the truth of the situation?
6. I owe it to the shareholders of this company to make as big a profit as possible. And if that involves forcing aging and expensive employees into quitting, well, that's just the way of the world. Can you believe that one of them sued me. And hired a female lawyer to boot! Age discrimination! What a joke. Just like lady lawyers. Of course, my time is much too valuable to waste it in court. Maybe a bribe. A little cash will certainly make that lady lawyer handle this case, shall we say, a little less aggressively. One thing you can count on: everyone has a price, and for most that price isn't very high.
a. Is it certain that the opposing lawyer will handle the case less aggressively? b. What makes the narrator believable/not believable? c. What do you think is the truth of the situation?
7. Of course, I'm upset. Anyone would be. She leaves me for no reason. To take up with that slime. I break into a sweat whenever I think about it. And I think about it. Always. I was so good to her. Three, four, five phone calls a day. Flowers twice a week. And all this after only one date. What more could any woman ask? Now I sit in my car outside her door, watching, waiting, hoping to catch even a glimpse of her. But she's with him. I know that she is. It makes me sweat just to think about it.
a. Was the narrator "so good" to the woman? b. What makes the narrator believable/unbelievable? c. What do you think is the truth of the situation?
Source: Smith, Michael W. Understanding Unreliable Narrators: Reading between the Lines in the Literature Classroom. NCTE, 1991. (Copyright each article by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission)
Mary Ann Tighe is an Associate Professor of English at Troy State University, in Troy, Alabama. This article is the product of a university-classroom collaborative research project that was supported by the ALAN Research Foundation Award, which Tighe received in 1996.
Reference Citation: Tighe, Mary Ann . (1998). " Character Education + Young Adult Literature = Critical Thinking Skills." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 1.