Let’s Get Real

Maybe it’s the former journalist in me (in third grade, I knew I’d be Lois Lane when I grew up), but I’m hooked by narrative non-fiction. Tell me that a story really happened and I’m with you ‘til the very last page.

So when Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken winked at me as I tore away the Christmas wrap, I was in. With my mom-teacher-blogger hamster wheel of life, my secret shame is that I’m an English teacher who doesn’t have much time to actually read books. Ridiculous, right?

My intention, then, was to kick back this past week and zip through the NYT bestselling story of juvenile-delinquent-turned-Olympic-runner-turned-WW2-POW Louie Zamperini. You know, take an actual break on my winter break and read something just for me. Not for school. Just for me.

But I wasn’t even six chapters in when I started to hear the voice.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston – a little girl whose family was forcably taken from Long Beach and shipped away to Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp hidden away in the remote desert of California’s Death Valley. Whispers of her memoir, Farewell to Manzanar, kept distracting me as I read Zamperini’s story.

Zamp was a first-generation kid of hard-working immigrants. So was Jeanne, you know. At first, the Italians weren’t wanted in their southern California town of Torrance, I read. Neither were the Wakatsukis in nearby Long Beach, I thought.

mapThe evidence mounted and I found myself doodling a Venn diagram. Both were imprisoned. Both were resilent. And, now, both have celebrated books (and films) based on their lives.

Enough. The whispers were now shouts that these two pieces of literature need to be taught together, so I fired up my laptop and got to work. The result is a two-day lesson (maybe three days if I include the well-made CBS News segment linked below) that I’m hopeful will thrill and challenge my kids, a handful of whom already read Unbroken this fall. Click here to take a closer look at my print-and-teach materials.

booksAlas, I don’t have a Dumbledore wand that instantly brings a winged FedEx box full of new books to my classroom door. Instead, I’m stuck with 25-year-old copies of The Grapes of Wrath and a cabinet full of dusty copies of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. No offense to the masters (seriously, gents, I’m a huge fan), but I have to help my teens emotionally connect to the 1930s and 40s. Zamp and Jeanne are up to the task, and I found free online excerpts that will be plenty for my kids to chew on. And who knows? They may even be inspired to pick up the full-text versions. I know where there’s at least one copy of each they can borrow.

Bonus: As part of the 1998 Winter Olympics coverage of the games in Nagano, Japan, CBS reporter Bob Simon put together a high-quality 35-minute piece on Louis Zamperini that likely helped clear the path for Hillenbrand’s work. We’ll see if I can squeeze in this extra nugget of interesting into my spring calendar:

Teach on, everyone!

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