Adversity Meets Diversity

How Yangsook Choi’s The Name Jar helped students write about conflict and become their own hero.

When I first met the 5th grade students at PS 98, they were eagerly engaged in a conversation with the visiting author, Yangsook Choi. The writer asked the students why their favorite book was their favorite. Their answers were not too different than my own would have been: themes of friendship, family, mystery and humor were among the most popular choices. The author then asked for student volunteers to read their own original stories aloud to the class. The children were very excited to share their works and when they had finished, they accepted feedback from their classmates as well as Choi. Some students were told to add more detail, while others were asked to hold back some. The author encouraged the students to make sure their conflicts were pronounced enough so that it would make the story more exciting and relatable.

Choi herself is no newcomer to storytelling, as she has written and published over 10 children’s books. One of the most influential, The Name Jar, features a girl named Unhei who is leaving her home in Korea to come to America for the first time. She is anxious about starting school. Unhei wants the children to like and accept her so she decides not to tell them her name, thinking that they won’t be able to pronounce it. Throughout the week she tries out more “Americanized” names such as Suzy or Amanda, suggested by the other students. However, by the end of the story Unhei realizes that although different, her name is special and unique to her and her culture. She tells her class her real name and helps them to pronounce it.

Working it Out
Choi also talked about her own process of writing and how it took her many, many times to rewrite and publish The Name Jar. She discussed the importance of story boards and how to use them to organize their stories and future works. Choi emphasized the need to create a conflict with many levels so that it is not easily solved. When the problem reaches a peak, the character must decide to solve the problem and then come up with the solution.

After reading The Name Jar, students created their own short story about a character who goes through their own adversity, as Unhei did. Many children decided to draw on their own life experiences as inspiration for their stories. Others created works dreamed up by their imaginations. While one student’s story was about a surgery that she had undergone, another’s was about a group of friends that get sucked into a video game.

Putting it All Together
Once they completed the first draft of their stories, the students participated in an art workshop. Each student received three blank puzzle pieces to use to illustrate their work. On the first puzzle piece, they drew a portrait of their main character and were therefore forced to think about what their protagonist is like: their looks, attitude, mood and hobbies. For example, one student drew her character sleeping because as she said, it’s their favorite activity to do (can’t argue with that). Another student informed me, “My character isn’t smiling because she’s happy. She’s being sarcastic.” On the second puzzle piece, the students were to draw a symbol of the conflict in their story.

The students picked up on the idea of symbols quite quickly. Soon they were drawing pictures of bad report cards, hospital signs, and pregnant bellies to signify the conflict in their stories. For their final puzzle piece, the children drew the resolution to their works. One girl’s story was about someone being bullied by another student. She ended the story with (and drew a picture of) the student tutoring the bully and the two of them becoming friends. When the students were finished with their puzzle pieces, they were put together with everyone else’s in the class to form one giant mural that was hung up outside their classroom. The buzz amongst the children who were so excited to see their completed mural hung up was contagious.

Importance of Diversity
I was very happy to see that The Name Jar was chosen for the 5th grade class to read because I believe that it is extremely important for students to read diverse books. Even more important for children this young is for them to understand that they can be the heroes of their own stories.

One small moment that really struck me: when the students were coloring in their puzzle pieces, several kids told me that they couldn’t find a marker that matched their skin color exactly. It doesn’t seem like a very important moment but it stuck with me long after I left the classroom for a few reasons. For one, I was very excited to see that the children were featuring themselves as the protagonists of their own stories. However, the moment as a whole seemed symbolic of the world around us. As I looked across the room for different colors and found only a pale whitish pink colored marker, I, maybe dramatically, felt the weight of the under-representation of minorities in the world – in media like books and movies, as well in government and executive positions.

The work that Behind the Book does goes way beyond improving literacy skills in low-income school districts. They allow children to see themselves in the world that they are so frequently erased from. When Behind the Book brings diverse authors and books to schools that discuss different cultures, languages, and ways of life, it allows students to feel that their own identification is valid – just as Unhei does at the end of The Name Jar. In addition, it creates an open discussion for topics that students are not familiar with but grow to learn about and appreciate. When students, especially at a young age, are taught to accept rather than reject people who are different them, the world becomes a much more peaceful place.

This guest blog was written by Kelly Schmaeling, a rising junior at Hunter College majoring in Media Studies. Kelly visited a number of workshops to get a truly substantial understanding of this Behind the Book program.