Teacher focuses on social injustice
Seward High School English teacher Lori Krier has been trying to educate her sophomore World Literature students about the varied socio-economic, religious, political and cultural differences experienced by people around the world, as well as the history of racism and bigotry here in America. Through studying literature, she hopes they will recognize injustice and intolerance when they come across it in their own lives, and maybe take steps to stop it.
One of their recently-assigned readings was Khaled Hosseini’s intense novel “The Kite Runner,” published in 2003, and set in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “The Kite Runner” tells the story of Amir, a privileged Pashtun boy from Kabul who befriends Hassan, his father’s young Hazara servant. The book is set against a backdrop of tumultuous historical events, including the fall of Afghanistan’s monarchy through the Soviet invasion, the mass exodus of refugees to Pakistan and then to the U.S., and the rise of the Taliban regime.
It was a difficult book to read, and raised the horrifying specter of child bullying, rape, socio-economic and religious differences, the ravages of war, and the public execution of women. Nevertheless, Krier was surprised when one of her students’ parents opted that their child not read about a country with which we are at war, feeling it would be inappropriate.
“What better reason is there to study about Afghanistan than the fact that we are at war and that we need a little better understanding of each others’ cultures?” she said, although Krier allowed the student whose parent objected to study a different book. “My nephew has spent a tour over there and will be going back next spring. So, yes, it’s still frightening. It’s frightening to have somebody over there.” But for Krier, the point of teaching literature is to get students to step out of their comfort zone and try to experience the nuances of different cultures, the good as well as bad.
Krier’s class began by looking up everything they could about Afghanistan on the Internet and sharing their findings. After reading the novel for a while, they had to research a cultural or religious aspect of interest; the food, education, children, music, etc. of their own choice. They could either put together a photo-documentary on their chosen subject matter, or make a scrapbook presentation on the events in the book.
“The Kite Runner” explores the effects of the adult narrator’s own childhood experiences and trauma growing up in Afghanistan that led to his later life choices such as adopting an orphan refugee from Pakistan. So the students were encouraged to examine their own past experiences, and how they may still be influencing their lives. They also cooked an Afghan dinner from menus one student had gathered as her project. They made Naan, a flatbread, a lamb dish, a chicken dish with rice and potatoes, vegetable stew and eggplant casserole, which those who tasted, loved. Some students wore scarves to class that day, and tried to fashion turbans for their heads, Krier said.
Reaction to the unit by the students I spoke with was mixed.
“I thought it was a well written book, and it was very insightful and educational. It wasn’t one I particularly enjoyed,” said Daren Sanderson, adding, “It was truthful and very serious and it was a good thing to read, but it wasn’t like ‘Oh wow. I love this book’... it’s harsh.” But it opened his eyes to some types of exploitation and other things that are going on in the world that could be changed for the better, if people get involved, Sanderson said. He doesn’t think that the U.S. should try to force change on places like Afghanistan. “I think we should try, but only to the point where they want us to. But if they tell us to back off, I think that we need to.”
“I learned like how awful it was over there, and what it was like in Afghanistan,” said Isabell Barnwell, who chose to do a scrapbook on “The Kite Runner.” Reading the book and studying the country “absolutely” brought her closer to understanding what soldiers deployed in the area are facing, and witnessing over there, she said.
Rachel Tougas chose to focus on the religions of the region, in particular to explore the differences between radical and more moderate forms of Islam. “I found that really interesting... just that the entire Middle East is put into the category that everybody is bad because they’re Muslim, and that everybody is out to get you. But it’s not true, it’s just a small portion of them.”
In the years prior to her discovering “The Kite Runner,” Krier had her students study “Cry the Beloved Country,” Alan Paton’s heart-wrenching 1948 South African novel about life prior to Apartheid. The students had a heard time relating to it, she said. But Krier will still have them read, “Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry,” a 1976 children’s novel by Mildred D. Taylor about black and white tensions in Mississippi during the Great Depression. They will also study Eli Wiesel’s “Night,” which focuses Wiesel’s survival experiences with his father in Auschwitz and Buchenwald Concentration Camps in 1944-45. She teaches this horrific Holocaust memoir so kids can realize that genocide still occurs today, Krier said. “I just want kids to know that these things still go on, and we personally are the ones that need to take a stand and say this isn’t right. You know, whether you’re Native Alaskan and somebody’s harassing you, because that happens, or whether you’re Black or whatever — otherwise we’re as bad as the perpetrators.”