Bitter: How is Change Navigated and Shaped Toward Justice?

Renata Martin & Rob Wasielewski, Eighth Grade Humanities Teachers
Eighth grade humanities students just finished their first unit in which we set out to answer our primary year-long throughline: How is change navigated and shaped toward justice? Akwaeke Emezi’s Bitter “explores both the importance and cost of social revolution–and how youth lead the way.” 
Following Bitter, our protagonist, the story is set in the fictional city of Lucille, where the young people “know they deserve better—they aren’t willing to settle for this world that the adults say is ‘just the way things are.’” They are protesting, leading a much-needed push for social change. But Bitter isn’t sure where she belongs–in the art studio or in the streets. And if she does find a way to help the Revolution while being true to who she is, she must also ask: what are the costs? It is also a novel about effective activism, the need for hope in social movements, balancing self-care with doing right by others, and creating a more racially just world. This unit has provided eighth graders with opportunities to grapple with these questions and possibilities, as well as grow and demonstrate their skills in discussion, active listening, and writing.

We've had two styles of discussion during this book club unit: leaderless discussion and fishbowls. Most book club meetings include a leaderless discussion where the students pose questions they’ve been gathering throughout their reading, and then each member of the group summarizes the discussion about the question they posed. In our weekly fishbowl discussions, a small group circles and engages in conversation over a shared text while classmates observe from outside. While outside the circle of discussion, students use an online collaborative tool that’s projected onto the whiteboard to (a) track the conversation visually and encourage equitable participation, and (b) quote classmates who help to add to or complicate their understanding of the themes of the reading. 

Zoe P. and Ally S. posed questions to the group about ethics — “Do the ends justify the means?" and "Do all monsters deserve to die?" Abe L. examined the implications of some characters turning to violence to affect change: “If you kill the monsters, that makes you a monster too.” When they observed leaders who decided to conceal the means by which change is eventually achieved, students turned their discussion toward truth. Camila J. asserted that “leaders of the revolution shouldn't hide the truth,” and Andrea F. noted, “By hiding the truth, the same problem will happen again."

In addition to discussing the reading, the students dug deeper into the characters through Character Autopsy and Hot Seat. For their Character Autopsy, students found important passages within the text about the character’s traits, desires, fears, and beliefs, and recorded them on the inside of their character’s outline, and then on the outside of the body, they wrote key influences on the character including setting, relationships with other characters, laws and societal expectations, events, race, and other aspects of identity. For Hot Seat, they stepped into their character’s motivations and influences, using evidence from the text to answer questions about how their character changed throughout the book, their character’s reactions to various events in the story, and speculations about their character’s unknowns based on what they’ve learned in the text.

After completing these discussions and activities, students chose one of the topics (subjects that come up in the text) tracked during their reading and turned it into a theme (an opinion or claim about the purpose of the text). To finalize their work with Emezi’s Bitter, this week they are painting watercolor reflections about their theme, supported by a written piece which will showcase their ability to assert a claim, cite evidence, and thoroughly explain their evidence, in addition to an artist statement explaining their work. From reading to questioning, from discussing to listening, and from writing to painting, students have been exploring the complexities of change and justice, strengthening their empathy, creative expression, and reflection skills, and building their chops as critical readers, thinkers, and writers.

Explore how discussions like these engage students in meaningful conversations from literary characters to current and historical social issues throughout their K-8 journey


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