The incoming ninth-grade class’s reputation preceded them into my “regular” English 9 classroom. Even before the first official day, teachers stopped me on the sly. “They made my friend want to quit,” one warned me. “Their old school was glad to get rid of them,” another said.
Soon enough, my students arrived. Yes, they were unsteady and, yes, they were loud. They were, after all, ninth-graders. With Shelby Miller, a special education teacher, in the classroom, I set out to connect these students to each other and their school. It was my second year of teaching, and I wanted to use my students’ experiences as a powerful base for their education. Through teaching the forgiveness unit, I wanted students to begin using forgiveness, poetry, and art as ways of expression and reclamation. I also knew that this lesson would deepen their understanding of other curriculum this year, namely the movie Smoke Signals and the play The Laramie Project . In the middle of the year, a three-week unit on “forgiveness” would take us there.
I chose this unit, based on Linda Christensen’s “Forgiveness Poem” lesson in Reading, Writing, and Rising Up , because I wanted the ninth graders to see forgiveness as a tool to help them process and move beyond difficult experiences. I wanted them to see writing about forgiveness as a practical and symbolic act of reclamation. I suspected that many of these students felt like their lives were stuck in a particular moment. And I saw the lines blur between students’ self-perceptions and the school’s system of labeling and sorting them into lower tracks.
For example, when Jaime* showed me the “bracelet” around his ankle on the first day of school, he said, “You see, my father and brothers are in jail, but my summer school teacher said that I should be glad that at least I can leave for school.” I heard case managers, guidance counselors, and students hold particular life events or circumstances responsible for students’ current situations. But instead of using their experiences as sources of strength, all too often they became marks of racism, hopelessness, and giving up.
While any track would benefit from this forgiveness lesson, I especially wanted my “regular” students to use the lesson to change, grow, and reclaim painful experiences in their lives. While all students make mistakes and feel pain and regret, I often felt that many of my ninth-graders were not afforded the luxury of experiencing sorrow and anger as markers of adolescent learning and growing.
The First Lesson
On the first day of the unit, students evaluated the role of forgiveness in their lives by responding in writing to questions ranging from “Describe a time when you forgave someone. How did it make you feel?” to “Is there a situation where a person should not be forgiven?” The class was hushed as the students wrote and Shelby and I mingled, bending down to talk to students.
Next, I used the questions to draw students into a discussion about the role of forgiveness. The questions allowed the students to either share philosophical ideas about forgiveness, or to talk about specific experiences with forgiveness in their lives. The prompt: “Is there someone or something that cannot be forgiven? Why/why not?” drew heated discussion. In one class, Pao talked about a much-publicized shooting death of a young woman in our area. Although we all knew the story, we hadn’t known that the victim was Pao’s cousin. When Pao said she could never forgive the murderer, many students agreed.
Ebony responded by telling us the story of her cousin, a young man who had been killed in a hate crime because he was gay. Ebony gave us wisdom from her mother, who said,”Forgiveness is the only way to be strong and to go on.”
In each of my four ninth-grade classes, some students stated that forgiveness made a person “weak.” “If some guy hurts my friend, I’m not going to forgive him,” Maggie said, “I’m going to jump him after school.” I had seen this gut pull to retaliate backfire on my students many times. So in this unit I also wanted them to learn that being strong often meant learning to forgive, learn, and move on.
While some students chose to sit quietly through these discussions and may have felt uncomfortable or even annoyed that we were doing this processing in English class, the experiences of the students who chose to share added closeness to our classroom community. And I wanted students to see that their lives were the basis of our curriculum.
Students left class this day with the assignment of brainstorming things and people they found easy or difficult to forgive, and listing possible “tones” to use for each.
Poetry Models and Writing Workshops
The next day, each student received a packet of Forgiveness Poems, some from the Christensen lesson and some from prior students. I wanted them to see how powerful and universal it is to write about pain and forgiveness. Although I had intended to read each poem out loud, students devoured them on their own. Then they each chose their three favorites and wrote the titles on the board. We tallied and read the class favorites out loud, discussing reactions and noting the theme, tone, and writing style (rhyme? free verse? refrain? stanzas?) of each.
We spent the next week engaged in writing workshops. In their rough drafts, I asked students to write poems that discussed forgiveness in their own lives. The assignment was to write a poem that contained at least 20 lines, to use a simile, and show a strong tone and theme. My students amazed me with their honesty. “I forgive you Daddy,” Candice wrote, “not because I want to/but to make my life a change./I forgive you Daddy/because I want to wake up/and say my father’s name.”
Among other themes, students wrote about broken friendships, disappointing loves, conflicts with their parents, and deaths. Many poems listed long lines of questions. In most cases, students wrote directly to the subjects of their poems, giving them strength to confront a father, mother, or girlfriend who was not around to listen, or to whom they did not yet feel strong enough to speak.
On peer editing day, many students proudly presented us with their rough drafts. I heard students praising each others’ work, taking time to help with spelling, and asking questions. I remember students pouring over tattered thesauri for “just the right word.”
Most English 9 students did not have computer access at home, so we spent two days typing final drafts in the library. Here, students worked hard to get poem-appropriate spelling and grammar, set up margins, choose the right font, and make their poems “sound like them.” I remember Katrina crying over her draft, still hurting from a fight with a friend years before. Although the friend had moved away, Katrina talked to her in her poem:
I can forgive
How you tried to turn people against me
Even if you forgot
That you used to be my sister . . .
I was your medicine for sorrow
I was your sun for a rainy day
And now I’m a hole filled with nothing.
Shining from the computer screen, Sai’s Forgiveness poem raged with anger that shocked me. Sai had listed “talking out loud in class” as one of his year-long goals in English 9 and, sure enough, every morning he sat in class, shy but smiling, eyes downcast and silent. Now here, on the computer screen, Sai talked to his father with anger and sadness:
You made me have hope
That you’d stay with me
But all was lost
When at the last minute
You walked by without saying a word.
Michael wrote about a friend who died from an overdose. He blamed himself for her death, wondering: “How can I forgive myself/ When I lived and she didn’t/I don’t know if I can.” Through-out the poem, Michael used the image of a hand. When I asked him why, he explained that he would never forget the memory of the drug dealer’s hand placing the drugs in his own, and then the image of his hand placing those same drugs into his friend’s palm. He tied this together in the end of the poem, writing: “Now I will forgive myself for being so stupid/but when I grow up to be a man/I will remember what was at hand.” Later, his case manager told me that Michael had shown her this poem proudly. She had been trying to get him to talk about this incident all year.
Not all of the poems were serious. One student devoted a stanza to each of his teachers that year, using humor to forgive them for perceived ills. I remember laughing out loud at the stanza about a gym teacher, who had made the writer take hoop shots with ashy legs.
Another student wrote about a “bad referee” who had mistakenly given him a technical foul. Yet another forgave a certain English teacher for making her write poetry.
The Forgiveness Quilt
On the day the final drafts were due, students began to turn their poetry into a “Forgiveness Quilt.” My students got to see an example from a class during my student teaching. The students had turned their Forgiveness Poems into paper quilt squares, which were held together by brightly colored yarn.
Students responded to questions designed to help them sketch out a rough draft for the quilt. The questions ranged from those about the tradition of quilt-making (“For centuries, people have been making quilts to share stories about their lives. What kind of stories will people in this school learn about ninth-graders by looking at our quilt?”) to specific questions about their rough drafts (“What colors and shapes represent your poem’s tone?”).
Next, students chose whether to use their entire poem in the square, or to highlight 10 to 15 lines. This way, those who had written very personal poems could still share their stories more easily.
Putting It All Together
After finishing the “final drafts” of the squares, students watched the film Smoke Signals, based on a book by writer Sherman Alexie. I had recently been won over by the film, which explored the power of forgiveness through the eyes of two teenage boys as they traveled from their Coeur d’Alene reservation to the site of a father’s death. The movie allowed students to further process the most prevalent subject of their forgiveness poems: anger toward a parent. In particular, many students needed to express and process intense anger towards absent fathers. Smoke Signals, with its lush imagery and eloquent dialogue, allowed students to connect with an underrepresented culture. And it further encouraged students to voice, and thus reclaim, their emotions.
With the help of a student, we pieced together the squares of the quilt and afterward, we lugged it up to the school library and hung it in the window, facing out into a busy hallway. At the suggestion of a librarian, I put a note about the quilt in the daily school newsletter inviting students and staff to take time to view the piece.
Looking back, I realize I could have made some changes to this unit. Although I am proud that students initiated the sharing of their work, I wish I had provided formal time. Although many of the students’ poems were profoundly personal, doing a “read-around” of squares would have provided many a safe space to share. While many staff members remarked on the power of the piece, hallway lighting prevented a complete reading. Later, I moved the quilt into my classroom. There, a visiting counselor told me he wished they had space to display the quilt in the guidance office. Next time, I want to find ways for students to continue to interact with the quilt after it is made.
The forgiveness unit continued to affect our classroom in a way I hadn’t predicted. While reading the book Speak, students connected the protagonist’s use of art to express her anger with their poetry squares. Watching The Laramie Project, students drew parallels between their forgiveness poems and Matthew Shepard’s parents’ decision to ask that their son’s murderers not receive the death penalty.
Now, the quilt rests in my closet, ready for my next classroom. When I look at it, I realize how each square represents a student’s thoughts, fears, and forgiveness. This quilt represents that people who “tie together” tough emotions and experiences become strong. I look at it and wonder: What does it mean for me to own this? What will come, over time, of carrying around all these lives?
On the last day of school, Jaime, former gang member, now a teenage father and current straight-A student in English 9, gave a poem to me. In it, he had written: “You showed me I was stronger than my past/that I had to move forward and stop looking back.” Through the exploration of poetry and art in the forgiveness unit, students learned to reclaim their pasts and to move forward. I learned to be whole.
Tracy Wagner ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) previously taught English 9 and 10 at Madison East High School, in Madison, Wis. She will be attending the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the fall. *All students’ names have been changed.
Christensen, Linda . Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Rethinking Schools (2000).
Eyre, Chris (Director). Smoke Signals. Miramax Home Entertainment (1998). Halse Anderson, Laurie . Speak. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux (2000).
hooks, bell . Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, New York: Routledge Books (1994).
Kaufman, Moises & Tectonic Theatre Project . The Laramie Project. New York, New York: Vintage Books (2001).