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This article was originally published in Kim Essenburg’s blog on January 29, 2022.

Fiction offers us a powerful marriage of information and empathy. When we vicariously experience, through reading, not just the facts, but what it was like for a person to live those facts, we are more fully empowered to honor that Divine image-bearer and love that neighbor. Nice philosophy. Does it play out? How about with middle schoolers?

To find out, ask. I did. And my 6th and 7th graders have given me a resounding “YES.” I am sitting at my kitchen table on a Saturday afternoon, a little bit in awe of the learning they have shared with each other and with me. I had prepared the ground, selecting a novel, posing essential questions, and scaffolding activities. Then, at the end of it all, I simply asked, “What did you learn or think about during the last 4 weeks?” I’ll get to their answers in just a moment.

Before the term started, I considered my students. Most of them fully or partly Japanese, attending an international Christian school in Japan. I wanted them to think about the cultural, spiritual, and personal identity they are building from the diversity of stories that have brought them all to this unique setting. I also wanted them to consider what global issues they are unavoidably entangled in. The novel I selected was When My Name Was Keoko by Newbery Award-winning author Linda Sue Park, narrated from the alternating perspectives of a Korean sister and brother over the years from 1940-1945. 

Then I chose essential questions: Who am I? How are people the same and different? How does historical fiction help me understand and impact the world? Finally, I scaffolded the learning with before-reading and during-reading learning activities. (More on that next week.)

Yesterday, when we had finished our final discussion, I posed the question online and asked students to post their own response and then reply to at least 2 classmates. (Every single post got 2-5 replies. They were so engaged.) Here are some of the things they said:

My thought was that there were a lot of changes to the characters. Especially Sun-hee, I feel like she became more mature and responsible. I also learned that the characters were all brave, but in different ways. Uncle did big things and was a rebel. Abuji and Omoni were calm but also did unexpected things. Mrs. Ahn was also surprisingly brave and helped the rebels. Every Korean’s identity was changed as Japanese, but I was happy to read that they were able to change their identity back at the end. I am glad the Kim family was proud of their country and was courageous even in their worst times.

I think that Tae-yul was very brave to join the Japanese army for his Uncle and for his family. I think I would not have had the courage to join the Japanese army for anybody, even if it was for my family. Reading When My Name Was Keoko I learned that sometimes you have to help people before yourself.

I learned that even though someone may be small they can make a big impact on the world. Like Tae-yul volunteering for the kamikaze, it made the Japanese be nicer to the Koreans. Uncle also made an impact on the world at his time, he printed the illegal newspapers and handed them out to people.

(4 replies to that one, including: I think it’s interesting that even someone small can make a big impact on the world, and it kind of encourages us to do something. This could lead to some brainstorming next week!)

I tried imagining how it would be like to hide something illegal in your house, and I was amazed at how brave all of the characters were. I also thought that Abuji wasn’t doing anything, but he was actually writing the newspapers but he didn’t tell his family about that. I thought that he was extremely brave since people knew that his brother was printing illegal newspapers, but Abuji still helped uncle even though he knew it was very dangerous. I will try to read a bit more historical-fiction because it makes me think about things more seriously.

This book really showed me how the Koreans were treated while they were conquered by the Japanese. It also shows me the perspective of a Korean person and how they saw the whole thing. Overall this book is really great and reading it could teach you a lot like being grateful. Discussing this with other teammates also helped notice some parts that I didn’t notice the first time I was reading the book, therefore discussing it helped me learn more than I could if I read it alone.

I learned about how the book can be seen by other people with different cultural backgrounds. And discussing with other people in my class has helped me understand the book more deeply. When I was reading the book, I had this feeling of guilt in me because I live in a country that wiped out Korean culture and replaced it with its own. With the guilt, I noticed how there are two types of people: the one that is brave enough to stand up and spread his/hers thoughts around and the one that just rather follows the enemies rules because you don’t want to be arrested/killed. This has made me think about which person I’d be if I was Korean back then. But it also made me think about my personality in general: Am I a coward, or a hero? I love historical fiction in general because I like learning about history itself. I am happy and honored that I could read and speak about the Japanese occupation in Korea.

(Reply: I also felt kind of guilty but I hope we can reflect on the past so it won’t happen again. Same student replying to another post: Yeah I think the Japanese treated the Koreans badly but I’m mainly going to blame war for making this happen.)

Interchange after a similar post:
S1: I agree with “If I were the Koreans I would not want to change my name” I don’t want to change my name too!
S2: Yes, because that will mean losing part of yourself!
S3: I agree, I never knew anything about Korea and Japan and it’s really interesting to learn it in a story like this and the relationship between Korea and Japan!
S2: Me too I did not know why Korea hated Japan so much.

Wow. I definitely have some thoughts to follow up on—from brainstorming ideas about small acts that could lead to big impacts to what to do with national guilt as a middle schooler. But that’s what Jesus is for!

Mostly, I’m just impressed by where kids will go with their peers if I give them the chance, and blessed to have the opportunity to be part of the process. 

What happens when you ask students what they’ve learned?

Kim Essenburg has taught in international Christian schools in Japan since 1987. She has served as curriculum coordinator and department chair, teaching English language arts classes from 4th grade through 12th grade, with occasional forays into PE, math, ESL, and even chemistry for one never-to-be-repeated quarter. She currently teaches middle school ESL and English language arts for grade 4-7. She is passionate about helping students discover their love of reading and writing, helping teachers discover ways to even better engage students in learning, and exploring what it means for people as God’s image bearers to develop the potential of language for joy and justice. Her blog Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn can be found at kimessenburg.blogspot.com. While she enjoys teaching, reading, writing, and going for long walks, her absolute favorite things to do is connect with her 5 grandchildren online.

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