What Happens When Middle Schoolers Read Maus?

What Happens When Middle Schoolers Read Maus?

I was introduced to the graphic novel, Maus (I and II), in my second year of teaching. I took over an existing Gifted and Talented program from a master teacher who had already been using the book in her classroom. Upon reading the book, I knew exactly why it had been chosen and why it should be an essential component of any curriculum seeking to deeply understand history and the complex ways we fit into the broader story of hate, prejudice, acceptance, and love for your fellow humans.

In 2005, it didn’t seem all that controversial to me to include stories of the holocaust in the curriculum. The Book Thief had just come out and was a flying off of the library shelves in our school. The only thing that ever made my students uncomfortable about the book were the brief scenes of naked (Mouse) bodies during the scenes in Auschwitz. This seemed like a pretty normal reaction, given how uncomfortable most 7th/8th graders are with their own bodies. The book worked well within our interdisciplinary curriculum (the Social Studies teacher and I would make sure we were integrating our lessons together so that the historical context of the Holocaust was understood as they read the book).

But, here is the most important part: The Kids Learned. A lot.

That is what is missing from a lot of the conversation around Maus being banned by a school district in Tennessee. The kids learn from this book. They weren’t just looking at the pictures or learning about the history of the systematic extinction of the Jews. Instead, the middle schoolers took the graphic novel as a serious literary work of non-fiction. They did textual analysis and justified their thinking with images and quotes from the book. They also learned empathy and how to spot power dynamics in speech. In short, they were students, reading a book to understand themselves and the world around them.

But, you don’t have to take my word for it. In a rare moment of future-proofing, I had my students share some of their thinking about the book on Slideshare, which somehow still exists in 2022. These were my instructions for the assignment in the third year of teaching the book to my classes:

Frame analysis:

  • Describe- Describe the frame in detail. Make sure you find even the smallest pieces of information that are hiding within the illustration.
  • Explain- Explain the meaning of each of the objects and details in this frame. What do these things symbolize or represent? Why does the author use this image instead of another one? What message is the author trying to convey through this frame?
  • Expand- Show how this frame and its different meanings relate to the rest of the book or to your own life.

These are some of their responses that I found most relevant for the current debate about this book. As you look at them, remember, if this book were banned in my school district, these students would have missed out on this learning. And I ask you, what is worth that?

When I read these passages from my former 7th and 8th grade students, I know just what we are giving up by banning these books and encouraging censorship in our classrooms. This is what is at stake, and while I know that there is no “sacred text” that should be taught in every classroom, this should always be an option for students. Our kids are smart enough, empathetic enough, and mature enough to handle these important issues. We should not be afraid to let them do so.

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