Sunday, March 17, 2013

"The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas." Why I love reading. And teaching.

Friday, home time. I'd held a couple of Year 10 students back after English. I was giving my annual plagiarism lecture, which usually occurs at about this time of year.

"Look," I pointed to my laptop screen. The girl was standing next to me, arms crossed defiantly. "You'll have to admit that it's quite strange that your essay is identical to this one."

"I swear I didn't read it," she persisted in the face of contrary evidence.

Her friend, packing up her books, was listening in. "I copied an essay from the internet when I was in year 7," she said, matter-of-factly. "I was really embarrassed when I got caught." Had a bit of a laugh at the memory.

The boy was all outraged innocence too when I showed him how easily I'd Googled a few words from his essay, enclosed in inverted commas, and found what he was passing off as his work

I wasn't particularly angry. Plagiarism happens even more regularly in these 'one to one' days - every kid has a computer and internet access - and it's easy to spot. It's good for students to find out early that this is cheating. It avoids more serious consequences in the future.

They left, ruefully promising to repeat the work.

Meanwhile, Chris was waiting to see me.  He's a quiet, intelligent student.

"You said you wanted to read this, miss." He placed a copy of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas on my desk.

I taught Chris for a couple of semesters in years 7 and 8. He was one of the more talented students in my now defunct Creative Writing class. A couple of days earlier he'd asked for help with his 'wide reading' essay. He was working on the topic "A worthwhile text makes you view the world a little differently".  This is one of five generic topics that my Year 10s must respond to. I'm trying to teach them to write well structured introductions including at least three general points that they'll develop in the bodies of their essays.

I hadn't read Chris' novel but knew vaguely that it was about the Holocaust. I took a stab at an answer. Suggested he could write about those awful perennial themes, survival, racism, inhumanity, good versus evil. He seemed satisfied with this and set about writing his essay. I'd also asked if I could borrow his book, given several students had expressed an interest in reading it.

Well, Chris, your old teacher started reading your book on Friday evening and was easily engaged, as one is by an apparently simple driving narrative. I finished it this morning and I have to say it's made me see the world a little differently.

The simple narrative cleverly belies the wisdom and strength of this story. It is the story of 9 year old Bruno, whose quite self-satisfied life is somewhat spoiled when he, his small family and their servants are transported to 'OutWith' as he pronounces the unfamiliar Polish word Auschwitz. However, at Auschwitz he is on the protected side of the fence, his father being the camp commandant. Bruno's naive remarks on his life in what becomes his new home are profoundly ironic.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has given me another poignant indelible impression of the horror, injustice and cruelty of the Holocaust. I highly recommend that you read it. (Having done a bit of Googling myself, I'm thinking I'm perhaps the only English teacher around who hasn't read it.)

Chris, thanks for putting up with my plagiarism lecture, cos you were subjected to it too on Friday arvo. I'm really moved that you remembered I'd said I'd like to read your book. You've reminded me why I love both reading and teaching. (And you know how I said you might really appreciate Markus Zusak's The Book Thief? I'm sure you would.)


Stella said...

Yes, it is a good book. Or maybe that should be a sad book. They did/are doing a film of the book too, I believe.
Did you ever see that?

Fraudster said...

Hi Stella. I actually watched the film today after I'd read the book. On YouTube. Pity the sound was out of synch with the film. Was good though. Harrowing. So I've had two gut-wrenching sobs today, followed by a pile of marking. Now drinking chardy to get over it! Lucky me.

Jules said...

I saw the movie a while back, and cried pretty much all the way through it. That poor innocent naive child. I've started reading the book, but don't get as much time to settle in with it as I'd like to