Read an essay by author Dana Alison Levy
Creating Cracks in the Certainty: How Books Can Help Break Down Walls
One of the most powerful ways that books can change lives is by offering readers a chance to step inside other experiences. When we immerse ourselves in another, fictional life, we are able to both understand elements of our own stories and begin to develop empathy for others.
In IT WASN’T ME, the main character Theo has been wronged. His artwork has been vandalized multiple times, and the five potential perpetrators are staying quiet…all anyone will say is “It wasn’t me.” So now the six of them have to spend vacation week together in a kind of restorative justice program, trying to get to the truth. But Theo is convinced it will be a waste of time. As he says, “I know who I’m dealing with. These are the same people I’ve been in school with since kindergarten: the Overachiever, the Jock, the Nerd, the Weirdo, and the Screwup. And—honesty time—nothing that happens in this classroom is going to make a difference.”
I suspect many teachers are familiar with this attitude. I suspect all of us are familiar with it these days. We are living in a time of certainties and fixed positions, where the willingness to ask questions and listen to answers is rare. In school, it can be all too easy for students—whether they are victimized or perpetrating problematic behavior—to be certain, down to their very core, that there is nothing new to be learned about the people around them. Like Theo, they know that nothing will make a difference. Theo says he hates being labeled The Victim, but at the same time, he uses that label to avoid having to do engage with the process, to avoid thinking about how he might act in a similar situation. As much as he hates being stereotyped and judged, Theo comes to realize how his own judgements might be flawed.
So how do we help them? How do we help students take that step so that they are willing to consider more stories than their own? In IT WASN’T ME, educator Ms. Lewiston spends time asking the kids to share information about themselves that has nothing to do with the problem at hand. While it doesn’t always go perfectly—there is a sock-puppet disaster in the mix—her goal is to put a chink in the armor, to allow a crack to form through which new information might travel. Theo thinks he knows all there is to know about his classmates, but learns that in fact, he has no idea what matters to them, what events have shaped them, what struggles they’ve faced, what passions they follow.
Writing Option 1: Taking a page from Ms. Lewiston, teachers can ask readers to fill out an assessment similar to the one that the students use in IT WASN’T ME. Like the kids in the book, readers can write down their thoughts for each new day of Justice Circle. By exploring what they think happened to Theo’s photos, citing evidence of who they think is guilty and why, readers are able to see how they judged the characters at the beginning, and how their opinions shift during the course of the story.
Writing Option 2: One fun way to help students open up is to have them write Two Truths and a Lie, then go around and see if others in the class can guess what’s false about each other. This playful exercise offers students a way to share elements of themselves in ways that might break down assumptions. They might be surprised at what they find out!
Writing Option 3: Another option for teachers is to have students write about a time they (or someone else) was unwilling to come forward and tell the truth. Ask why it seemed smarter to stay quiet. Ask how it was handled. Ask what happened after. Ask what might it look like if restorative justice had been used. This prompt can work as a creative writing prompt or a personal narrative; offering students a choice also allows them a layer of freedom to write about sensitive topics.
Throughout IT WASN’T ME the students and Ms. Lewiston use restorative justice practices to break down assumptions and stereotypes, until they can get to the truth. And it is my hope, as classes read it, they too can break down some of their own walls, and let some new truths in. Like Theo, Molly, Jax, Andre, Erik, and Alice, readers will hopefully learn that while we all have different stories, we all share one truth.
When Theo’s photographs are vandalized and trashed beyond all recognition, there are five kids at the scene: The Nerd, the Princess, the Jock, the Weirdo, and the Screw-Up.
All anyone will say is “It wasn’t me.”
Theo doesn’t care who it was, he just wants to stop being the victim. The sooner the school forgets the whole humiliating thing, the better. But his favorite teacher is asking the six of them to spend vacation week together “learning to trust” and getting to the truth. She calls it a Justice Circle. He calls it his worst nightmare.
Theo knows everything he needs to know about his classmates, and he’s sure this Justice Circle is going to be an epic and totally mortifying waste of time. But after a few days of sock puppets gone wrong, artificial flesh wounds, and dangerous candy reconnaissance missions, he’s not so certain. As they share their secrets, Theo realizes that he doesn’t know anyone as well as he thought, not even himself. And the truths they share might change their lives forever.