Violence in Stories
A few months ago as we were developing a One Word Image, a class of mainly sophomores wanted our personified bar of soap to kill the shampoo because it was jealous of it. I believe ten, or even five, years ago I wouldn't have blinked an eye at accepting the suggestion. This time I stopped, thought about it, then said no.
If I am honest about my first years stumbling around with teaching and trying to get better at TPRS, I recall scenarios that, had I had the time and wherewithal to reflect on them, certain violent details would likely not have past muster. With years of experience growing my ability to discern in real time the picture we are painting together, not to mention some important conversations with TCI colleagues, I have certainly changed in what I allow to filter into our collective creations.
The last few minutes of that class, while one highly-participatory student was visibly upset that I did not invite this extreme response to jealousy into our story, I stopped and turned things into a town hall. I acknowledged the obvious and strong disappointment by a few, and (what seemed to me) the majority of the class' support of this disappointment. Then I told them what I thought about needlessly adding violence to our story. We had created this character after all. Our protagonist. Yes, it's a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo. But do we really want to use this platform to make light of murder? How would it feel different if your parents were in the room too?
On their way out of class, another rock star student mentioned privately to me, "I just think people might begin to check out if we don't get to have this type of story." I appreciated the honesty and ability of this teenager to share an opinion respectfully with an adult. And I responded honestly as well. "So be it. If not having violence in our stories turns people away, so be it."
The next day in class, I picked back up with the bar of soap. Maybe I should have just moved on to something else. But I decided I wanted to stay and learn more about this bar of soap, and why he was so jealous of the shampoo in the first place. An obvious reason emerged: he wants to clean hair instead of skin. Then an additional and not-so-obvious yet perfect accompaniment to this problem emerged: The Yellow River Sasquatch was in the shower. So we have this bar of soap who really only wants to clean hair, in the shower next to the shampoo that gets to exclusively clean this big hairy creature.
Fast forward two days. I come into class and ask students to do a re-write of the Jealous Soap story. When the first few minutes were up, I gave them the option of straying from our collective story by adding an alternative ending. I even mentioned that this is a fine opportunity to have the shampoo die if they so choose. When I read the re-writes later, one of the students I referred to above had written an alternative ending, and at the bottom mentioned "Yo no necesitaba mata el champú (I didn't need kill the shampoo)". I wasn't expecting that.
Fast forward a few more weeks. Parent/Teacher conferences and the mother of a third disappointed-with-no-murderous-soap student from the class arrives. We have a very pleasant discussion about her son's progress and creativity in Spanish, when she mentions "Yeah, Johnny did mention a particular story that he thought you should have let them kill a character. So I told Johnny to think about it. I asked him if he really thought his teacher would feel comfortable making fun of violence with all these school shootings and such. Johnny said 'Yeah, I guess I didn't think of that... that makes sense'." I wasn't expecting that either.
Needless to say, this mother's story helped quell some of the doubt I held about my decision. I had wondered if I was being too square. Maybe I was. And maybe I still am. Nonetheless I feel more confident going forward, operating under the default of NO to unnecessary violence in our literary co-creations. Not necessarily a rule. But the default. And I can fortunately say weeks later that my resolve on the matter had no noticeable negative impact on my overall relationship with this class.
What is your threshold for violence in stories? Do you have a standard rule that guides you and your classes in this area as you co-create narratives together?
P.S.: I have allowed violent characters a time or two since this occurred, despite the "default" I'm trying to respect. It's weird... details emerge sometimes without my awareness, as if I'm momentarily hypnotized by this thing we're making together. Sensitivities among students seem fine. Energy is fine. We're all good. Then I'm typing up the story later and think "What?! How did we end up with a horrifying squirrel that has killed over 200 blonde people out for runs in the forest?!!" And to be clear, I'm not talking about ALL violence. We discuss legends, news and history that often involve violent measures and outcomes. How could one not in a H.S. class about communication among different people and cultures? Rather, I'm talking about violence inflicted by the characters that we create together. And when it does filter in, accidentally or not, I think it prudent that logical consequences be discussed and real ramifications of those actions considered. Thanks for reading. What do you think?