Responsible Citizens: Considering the Power of Words

By Karen Matis with Charlene Klassen Endrizzi

the power of words
“I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race.”
from The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, 2012

Death, an unconventional narrator, contemplates this final thought in Marcus Zusak’s historical fiction novel The Book Thief. In the context of World War II, these words offer a blunt description of a citizen who stands up for what is right and the possible unfortunate consequences of becoming an advocate for others. This week we continue our investigation of Responsible Citizens alongside a different seventh grade class studying The Book Thief. I offered this rhetorical question to help students contemplate Zusak’s thoughts related to their lives: “With which group do you want to be associated? the overestimated, popular opinion, or the underestimated, who labor against the grain to enact positive change?”

Over the past several years, I have replaced pencil and paper journaling with blogging using the Kidblog website. Utilizing an online platform offers various advantages. First, my seventh graders compose longer responses because they enjoy the technology. Second, their writing becomes more authentic since the audience has broadened to include students reading each other’s comments and offering feedback. Lastly, critical thinking skills are more evident as I find numerous comparisons, critiques, and questions in both students’ blogs and comments to classmates.

In our inquiry of Responsible Citizens, I asked my seventh graders to respond to this question: “How do you think you would act if the law dictated that you treat others unfairly?” Last year students often reacted by stating that they would not obey the law, opting instead to be sneaky about siding with what is ethically and morally responsible. Case’s thoughts reflected this when he pointed out how family safety might trump ethics: “With the law and citizens’ conscience colliding, choosing a side beneficial to me and my family is important.” But other seventh graders’ insights tended to blur as we delved into the WWII era when characters’ choices proved fatal at times. As seen in the Kidblog screenshot below, Mia’s straightforward response showed her to be a risk taker. She made her decision while acknowledging the consequences and the likelihood of legal ramifications.

the power of words

Marcus Zusak makes several references to Mein Kampf throughout his novel. We investigated several short passages of Adolf Hitler’s text by annotating our thoughts while reading. Even as seventh graders struggled to comprehend this challenging text, they quickly drew conclusions based on context. Middle school classrooms are inherently social; small group sharing gave way to whole class discussions with “the power of words” emerging as a theme. Not wanting to lose momentum, I posted a blog prompt the following day, hoping to extend the rich conversation.

I asked readers to list three adjectives that described their passage from Mein Kampf and then explain their word choices. I also invited them to discuss our emerging theme — “the power of words.” Andrew chose “dark” and “disturbing” while Ariana selected “shameful” and “racist.” Angelle perhaps captured the essence of the power of words in her response, “Just a few words could brighten someone’s day or destroy it completely… but only you can decide how you’re going to use them.” This reflects the depth of her understanding of Zusak’s quote, “The injury of words. Yes, the brutality of words.”

Our analysis of “the power of words” led to further productive student conversations. Seventh graders felt compassion as characters faced difficult decisions. They recognized the power of Liesel Meminger’s (the book thief) last words in her autobiography, “I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

At points in this inquiry, my students struggled to accept the idea of Jewish passivity. My search for an information companion text ended at the NCTE conference when Charlene discovered We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler, a soon-to-be-released account of the founding members of the White Rose student resistance movement in Nazi Germany. I value this author since I use Russell Freedman’s Freedom Walkers, an account of the 1950s Montgomery bus boycott, with my eighth graders.

the power of words

I found We Will Not Be Silent difficult to put down. Needless to say, I already purchased a class set to pair with The Book Thief next year. I also found a website that offers English translations of original leaflets published by the resistance group, The White Rose Society. Small groups of students could read, discuss, and evaluate discoveries to share with the whole class.

Through Freedman’s account and links to translations of each White Rose leaflet, I anticipate the power of words will continue to morph. I imagine my seventh graders’ reactions and comments as they broaden their understanding of an era that leaves them questioning and clarifying citizens’ responsibilities. I hope to nudge them to evaluate their own actions and behaviors as responsible students.

In our last week of Responsible Citizens and Workers, Charlene shares examples of text trios. We are always on the lookout for complementary texts that juxtapose fiction with information texts and digital sources.

Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Check out our two online journals, WOW Review and WOW Stories, and keep up with WOW’s news and events.

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