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Thursday, October 18, 2012

What if Noah said NO?"

A few years ago, my sixth graders and I happened upon a Plaut Commentary that was missing several pages -- the whole Noah story, in fact, and some of Abraham and Sarah. I guess we were in a silly mood, because we began joking about how Noah and the others had fled the Torah, and then we began imagining why they might have wanted to escape and what we might do to get them to return.

We had so much fun letting our imaginations go wild, we decided to write a chapter book centering on this fantastical concept.

So each student took one or a group of characters and envisioned where he, she, or they might go. Each student then created a fictional version of herself (the class was all girls that year) and placed herself in the story, as the heroine who ultimately helps make the Torah whole.

There were only a few requirements for the students: They had to create a whole chapter, with a beginning, middle, and end; they had to determine why their character(s) left the story and where the character(s) went; and they had to make a convincing case for an ultimate return.

There were many interesting aspects to this project -- but the one that stands out in my mind is how many of the stories the students created involved being afraid. The student who chose Noah decided that Noah left the Torah because he was scared to take responsibility for all the animals' lives. The student who chose the dove decided that the dove fled because she knew that at the end of the story she would leave Noah for good, and she was scared to go out on her own. The student who chose the animals (led by a grumpy elephant) decided that the animals were scared to believe in Noah's predictions about a flood and to put their lives in Noah's hands.

As I read their stories, it occurred to me that fear is a big component of a sixth-grader's life. Sixth graders fear being ostracized, they fear feeling left out, and they fear that their friends will let them down. They're scared of failing tests, they're scared of missing buses, they're scared of being late to class or being yelled at by a teacher for some infraction they didn't intend. They're scared of being considered a "baby," -- but they're also scared of growing up.

So I read these stories with particular interest in how each student's fictional persona would behave. And I was impressed with what I read. The students' alter egos were all calm, kind, and understanding individuals who made compelling cases for abandoning fear. Noah came back, for example, because his heroine convinced him that the beauty of the natural world was too precious to abandon; the dove returned because her heroine helped her understand that there comes a time when you have to leave the nest -- or, in this case, ark -- but you can always come back to visit. The elephant decided to lead the way back because his heroine helped him notice a cute lady elephant, and he realized he wanted to move forward with his life.

And as they convinced their characters to come back, my students also wrote in some rewards for being brave -- specifically, Noah got a cup of ice cream to enjoy, and the elephant -- well, he ate some peanuts while he deliberated his fate.

I hope that when my students have to deal with fear, they get the same kind of comfort their alter egos gave to our missing Torah characters.

And I hope that those who comfort them realize that a little nosh goes a long way!