Stories Moving Readers from Fear and Bias to Tolerance and Acceptance:
An Unfinished Curriculum
Mary L. Warner
Mary L. Warner is an Associate Professor of English and Director of English Education at Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC. This article is based on a paper presented at the 1999 National Council of Teachers of English Convention in Denver.
"English teachers, the primary users of story, are crucially poised to address attitudes of bias and hatred…with the literature that inextricably links students with other human beings."
"Noon Wine," centerpiece of the unit, develops the potent theme of bias and intolerance thrust on those who are new, strange or different to a community or context…
"The human capacity to injure other people has always been greater than its ability to imagine other people"
The decade of the 90s was fraught with many signs that Americans, particularly students in America's middle and high schools, are growing more intolerant. Hate crimes and school violence dominate the news, sadly most often from the small towns of the United States which paradoxically should be the place of the strongest family-centered populations. English teachers, teachers who are the primary users of story, are those crucially poised to address these attitudes of bias, fear, and hatred, because we are the teachers most capable of reaching students with the literature that can inextricably link then to other human beings.
…And that really is what a good literature program is. The
authors we read and think about and worry about and doubt become
part of us as we become part of them. If literature doesn't become part
of our hearts and our guts and the guts and hearts of our students,
then what is it good for? And that is our responsibility and our joy,
to know so many different books and stories and poems and to present
them so that young people will take some of them in and become wiser
and nobler people because of the literature--and us. (Donelson, 1989)
I suggest a curriculum built on canonical literature augmented by young adult literature exploring a range of differences. The aim of the curriculum is to share books, stories, and poems that can help our students as readers get into "the hearts and the guts" of their peers, particularly peers who are different and of others world-wide who we can know only through hearing their stories.
The ideas suggested for this teaching unit apply best to the ninth grade course of study, focusing on literary genre and elements, and tie as well to the eleventh grade curriculum of American Literature, since the foundation story, "Noon Wine," is by Katherine Anne Porter, an American writer (l890-l980).
Porter's "Noon Wine" is set in Texas, l896-1905. A stranger comes to a farm in south Texas seeking employment; he is different from the lifelong residents there and is frequently called "the Swede." The Swede's experience--in this new place of employment--of suspicion, reluctant acceptance, and subtle harassment, parallels the experience many people of difference continue to face, over ninety years after the time of Porter's story.
"Noon Wine" is rich with powerful lines that demonstrate our human reluctance to accept someone new and someone perceived to be unlike us. When Mr. Thompson, the small farm's owner, first sees Mr. Helton, Thompson is described as judging "him" to be another of these Irishmen, by his long upper lip ("Noon Wine" l964). One other dialogue early in the men's acquaintance typifies the theme of skepticism and xenophobia:
"Now just where did you say you worked last? he [Thompson]
asked, as if he expected Mr. Helton to contradict himself.
"North Dakota," said Mr. Helton.
"Well, one place is good as another once you get used to it,"
said Mr. Thompson, amply. "You're a forriner, ain't you?"
"I'm a Swede," said Mr. Helton, beginning to swing the churn.
Mr. Thompson let forth a booming laugh, as if this was the best joke
on somebody he'd ever heard. "Well, I'll be damned," he said at the top
of his voice. "A Swede: well, now, I'm afraid you'll get pretty lonesome
around here. I've never seen any Swedes in this neck of the woods."
"That's all right," said Mr. Helton ("Noon Wine" l964).
Porter's story builds to a stark and surprising ending. Her story has parallels to Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," but "Noon Wine" more thoroughly and complexly develops the potent theme of bias and intolerance thrust on those who are new, different or strange to a local community and context. This story, as well as many of the other texts in the unit, powerfully illustrates the words of Elaine Scarry, cited in Teaching for a Tolerant World:
The human capacity to injure other people has always
been greater than its ability to imagine other people. Or
perhaps we should say, the human capacity to injure
other people is very great precisely because our capacity to
imagine other people is very small (For Love of County, l996).
Launching the Unit
Before reading and discussing "Noon Wine" with your students, consider using one or more of the following as a pre-reading and anticipatory activity.
l. Play the song "People are Strange" by The Doors, from the album, Strange Days. Have students listen to the lyrics, writing down the words they find as significant, and use these lyrics as the basis for a writing prompt to initiate discussion. Some key lyrics are "People are strange when you're a stranger/Faces look ugly when you're alone…No one remembers your name when you're strange."
2. Discussion questions or questions for students' writing journals
a. Have you ever been new to a place? A school? A neighborhood? A city or community? A gathering? How did you feel? What were your feelings about the people or the setting into which you were moving or becoming a part of?
b. Write about a time someone new moved into your neighborhood, community or school. How did you feel about this person? What questions did you have about the newcomer?
c. How long does it take you to get to know someone? What kinds of differences do you find hardest to accept: Physical? Racial or ethnic? Linguistic? Gender? Disabilities of some kind? Personality or emotional?
3. Read the following poems (possibly having the words on an overhead transparency); the poems, taken from Frost and Fire Collected Poems and Translations by Maxim Tabory (Goldsboro, NC: American Hungarian Review, l986). The poems reflect the sentiments of Eastern European writers; writers from countries which experienced the Holocaust and have known the Cold War, the horrors of civil war and ethnic cleansing.
Judith Selymes Ilosvay
It does not matter where you were born
where you live now
what your mother tongue was
what language you speak now
what you wanted to become
what your old religion was
what you dared to do
in which God you believe
It does matter whether
you have remained
a human being
The Final Reckoning
The blood everywhere is red.
Tears are always the same tears.
A scream for help at night
in every language sends the same message.
Many are the hues of the skin
and the colors of the eyes vary.
Words are too poor to cry out the pain
which cuts into the soul.
Woe to you man, woe to you,
if you do not fight evil.
Woe to you, if you do not see
how alike are the Gulag and Auschwitz.
Woe, if you live a double standard
and observe the present only through the past;
if how you view the chains of South Africa
depends on whether they are profitable to you,
and you judge according to your interests;
if Cambodia's destiny is different for you
than that of Palestine or Israel;
if Belfast is close to your heart,
but Afghanistan does not interest you;
if you cry over injustices in Chile,
but the conditions in the Baltic States
are not your concern;
if you wish to gain freedom
by killing your enemies,
and after the victory
you only create more prisons, woe to you,
for then with your own hands
you will hasten the coming of
These poems may help students see that in fact, hatred and intolerance are not gone, "cured" by the Civil Rights movement or the attempt to foster acceptance of difference. Use these poems to help students to start to comprehend the essential: we are all humans. Use the poems also to help students examine their stereotypes, preconceptions and their own lack of knowledge of others. Also have your students locate a poem in which they identify similar themes. Bring these poems to class and visually display these for other students to examine. Or as an alternate assignment, students can create a found poem with words taken from headlines or newspaper or magazine texts. These too, should be displayed as visuals to reinforce the theme of the unit.
During the in class reading or readers' theatre presentation of "Noon Wine," teachers might use a "List of Ten" activity. Students could list
1. Ten statements they would not like to have said to them or about them
2. Ten images or descriptions that contribute to feelings of hatred or violence
3. Ten reactions to characters about positive or negative actions of the characters
4. Ten responses to Mr. Thompson, Mrs. Thompson, Mr. Helton, Mr. Hatch, or other characters
After they have read "Noon Wine," students can focus on the images and ideas
they have gleaned from the reading. Have their perceptions of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson changed throughout the reading? How do they feel about Mr. Helton? Does he deserve the treatment he gets? How about the bounty hunter? "Noon Wine" is set in the late 1800s, early 1900s. Do students see parallels to the world of today? Are there any contemporary situations which are similar to those experienced by Mr. Helton? By the Thompsons?
In the discussions which follow the reading, return to the prewriting students have done with the song or the poetry or the Lists of Ten that have been reader responses. Compare what students previously felt to their responses in light of reading Porter's story. There is a film version, as part of the American Short Story Collection, available from Fries Home Video. The l987 production, #33267, is eighty-one minutes and starsFred Ward, Lise Hilboldt, Stellan Skarsgard, and Pat Hingle. Use of the video following the reading allows students to see a visual and dramatic portrayal of the story; additionally, students can work with the layers of interpretation from film producers and directors with aspects like background music, cinematography, or selection of actors.
Extending the Unit
For individual or small group reading, work with the following Young Adult texts. There are a variety of ways to guide selection of the novels. Students might be encouraged to read about an aspect of difference with which they are least familiar or knowledgeable. The aim, overall, of using these YA texts is to have other adolescents speak and make their stories known since we seldom fear what we know, and when we know others' stories, we frequently build empathy for them. You might also begin with a Book Pass Activity; this involves providing copies of the novels and having students spend five minutes with a book before passing it on to the next reviewer. Students can get an initial introduction to each work and then can make a more informed selection of one they'd like to read.
Reading of the YA novels can be outside of class work; all these texts have reading and interest levels, which are easily accessible. At the same time, the books offer examples of powerful writing. Presentations on their individual reading can take a variety of forms, limited only by the creativity of your students. Each presentation should focus on how the reader has come to a new or deeper awareness of another person's differences or of another person's struggles and sufferings. Some possibilities for projects responding to the reading might include
1.Creative dramatics or a one-act play presenting the highlights of
2.Writing poetry to express the experiences of the book's protagonists
3.Presenting a dramatic monologue capturing highlights of the protagonist's experience
4.Selecting music or writing music that could be a sound track for the video.
5.Producing a video that demonstrates the themes of the book
6.Interviewing people who face some of the same experiences in their lives; the presentation of the interviews could be done in a Talk Show context
7.Artwork-- painting or sculpture or other format to convey emotions felt by characters
Young Adult Literature Selections
The Giver by Lois Lowry: The key in this story is lack of difference. In the communal lifestyle Jonas and others experience, everything is the same. While all the regulation can present an aura of security for them, the young people in Jonas's world face the deprivation created by sameness. The ultimate horror of the sameness is release of anyone different. Lowry's novel might work best for readers who don't see the
richness in diversity.
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher: This novel is filled with characters--adolescents in particular--who face lack of acceptance because of difference. Eric Calhoune is fat and his nickname is "Moby"; Sarah Byrnes has a physical disfigurement and hides the story of the horrible abuse she's experienced; Mark Brittain, a young man set on upholding the highest moral values, has a story hidden behind his self-righteous facade; Jody Mueller looks like the "all together" young woman, but holds a painful difference inside. A good read for students who are willing to question some of the status quo.
All Together Now by Sue Ellen Bridgers: Casey Flanagan, the novel's protagonist, learns about loving someone of difference: Dwayne Pickens, a 33 year old whose mind has never grown beyond that of a twelve year old boy. The novel is set during summertime; Casey and the whole community learn, in a context outside of school, a good deal about life.
The Trail on Which They Wept by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler: This novel presents the story of the Cherokee people's tragic oppression in the voice of a young Cherokee woman experiencing the forced exile. It is only one of many possible texts displaying the injustices Native Americans experienced.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor: The book, as do all of Taylor's writings, presents the experience of Black Americans in Mississippi in the 1930s and the period preceding the Civil Rights Movement. Cassie, Taylor's protagonist, is female, Black, and part of a land-owning family in an area of white sharecroppers, who are themselves besieged by the Depression but further blinded by racist reactions. Taylor's novel is easily paired with To Kill a Mockingbird.
Children of the River by Linda Crew: This text works with Asian immigrants, specifically Cambodian refugees, and their settlement in the U.S. Relayed in the voice of an adolescent protagonist, Sundara, the book addresses the cultural differences experienced by those who want to hold to their cultural heritage, but must assimilate in contemporary American culture.
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick: Max, a boy who is large for his age and frequently ridiculed for his physical size and lack of intellectual ability, narrates this book. Max bears a striking resemblance to his father, a man imprisoned for killing Max's
mother. Kevin Avery, alias "Freak" who has a giant mind and a deformed, dwarfish body, befriends Max. The combination is "Freak the Mighty." A l998 video, "The Mighty" further supplements this text displaying a range of differences.
Belle Prater's Boy by Ruth White: This novel is captured best by White's epigram, taken from Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." These words could be the overall theme for this entire unit on exploration of difference, for tolerance and acceptance grow when readers enter the essentials of another person by hearing that person's story. Set in Appalachia, this novel offers an environment where people are often stereotyped. As the novel reveals, however, the aspect of difference actually deals with a universal: external appearance. In this book, Belle has been plagued by her "ugliness," which she believes causes her to lose the man she loves; Woodrow has severe cross-eyedness; Gypsy’s father, who becomes disfigured while serving as a fire fighter, eventually kills himself when he cannot accept his disfigurement; and Blind Benny has been born without eyes. This novel is a good read for those willing to see in new ways.
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech: This novel also presents a powerful adage regarding acceptance of others.: "Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins." Sal, whose full name is Salamanca Tree Hiddle, has ancestors who were Seneca Indians. Sal narrates the story of her friend Phoebe Winterbottom as she travels with her grandparents from Kentucky to Idaho. The power of this novel is precisely in the power of story. Behind Phoebe’s story, is Sal’s story; both young women face the loss of mothers and face the experience of being different from others because of family situations. This difference may be one to which many students relate.
At the close of the unit, students should have new insights on some aspect of difference, possibly their own differences, which they want to communicate. Using the picture book, If You’re Not From the Prairie by David Bouchard as a model, have students design a children’s book about difference. In Bouchard’s book, the narrator suggests that if you’re not from the prairie, you can’t really know the sun, the wind, the
sky, cold, snow, or flat; in fact, "You don’t know me. You just can’t know ME." The key lies in the small word "unless," for as the book ends the narrator asserts, "Unless deep within you, there’s somehow a part…A part of these things that I’ve said I know…" If
there is such an understanding, there can be oneness and unity. Students can develop their own descriptions of "If you’re not from…you can’t know…."; hopefully they will feel free to write about the differences they feel are least understood.
Finally, in this unit of using story to move readers from fear and bias to tolerance and acceptance, it is vital to celebrate the positive aspects of diversity. One other picture book works well to assist students to identify important qualities, which make them who they are. Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book can be read aloud. It is a pattern book, which moves through a series of objects--from a spoon to a daisy to the rain and ultimately to a child—presenting a variety of characteristics of each. The opening and closing lines of each description reinforce "but the important thing about ….is" Students can write their own "important thing about me" descriptions, and teachers can display these descriptions in a variety of ways. I have seen teachers create a giant patchwork quilt framing each student’s uniqueness. In any case, the crucial goal is to see that each student is a unique human being and the differences need to be celebrated, not feared.
Each text above offers literature that can become part of the heart and guts of our students. Each work gives voice to characters who experience difference and who possess the universal human desire to be accepted and loved. Literature allows readers to hear the voices, to feel with those hurt and abused, and to be challenged to move out of the limited world of individuals to the wider world of diversity. The title of the article suggests, though, this is an unfinished curriculum; the continuation belongs to the teachers who want to move their students beyond hatred and bias to acceptance and celebration.