As a high school English teacher, each student who entered my room learned Ghandi’s quote “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait...” For me, this statement reflects my life purpose; I desired to expose my students to emotionally challenging texts that could connect them to the experience of growing up without the freedom they encounter in the U.S. My hope was always to broaden their horizons as their compassion and tolerance for others grew. A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah and Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden were two non-fiction books I used that embody Ghandi’s intent - to change one’s view of the world. I had hoped my students would be moved to action by the power of these author’s words; many were. Some went on to read similar texts, others shared what they learned, and some even became activists fighting injustice in their own community and abroad. Both texts are appropriate for high school students but teacher discretion, an understanding of the school community, and student maturity should be considered.
A Long Way Gone: A Memoir of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah (2007) was my first experience learning about the war in Sierra Leone. The text, narrated by Beah as a young adult who escaped his experiences, explores the atrocities of war as a child soldier. The images of him as a 12 year old boy wielding an AK-47 and forced to murder others against his will, still live in my soul and resonate with students who cannot imagine a childhood like Beah’s. Like many of the “Lost Boys” he became part of a story he wanted no part of and didn’t know how to escape. Brainwashed to believe violence was right and justice could only come from the destruction of those who did not comply, Beah recounts his journey from self-destruction to self-forgiveness. How can one find “normalcy” after a life filled with such horror? Beah’s honest look at the life of a child soldier is a powerful story for students and adults alike. This Youtube video interview with Ishmael Beah provides background information and teacher resources can be found on the book’s website. The text includes difficult passages of violence and terror similar to what a student might experience watching a war movie.
In a similar path, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden and Shin Dong-hyuk (2013) provides the story of a boy (Shin Dong-hyuk) born into a North Korean prison camp in the 1980’s. For Dong-hyuk, the nephew of a government descenter, there is no chance of freedom; he must pay for the sins of a man he never met. Confined in a prison since before his birth, he did not know a world existed outside the loveless and solitary life in which he was conceived. Dong-hyuk knew nothing but work, hunger and hopelessness until he was sent to solitary confinement and met another victim of the government who once lived outside the fence of their camp. Within Dong-hyuk a fire begins to smolder and eventually grow to a plan to escape (as the title implies). Dong-hyuk’s story of overcoming the impossible provides readers with perspective that anything can be accomplished. For those with little understanding of North Korea, the text seamlessly intertwines the history of North Korea’s government to provide context to understand the current conflict between North Korea and the rest of the democratic world. This 60 Minutes interview provides a solid overview of Shin Dong-hyuk’s story and this livebinder includes classroom resources for anyone who wishes to teach the text. The book includes real-life graphic violence and may be emotionally challenging for less mature students.
About the Author: Katy Berner-Wallen is a Staff Development Specialist on the IES Team with a focus on secondary ELA and technology integration. She is also serving as a Curriculum Coordinator with the Pine Valley CSD and a Technology Integrator with the Silver Creek CSD.
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