I chose this unit, based on Linda Christensen's "Forgiveness Poem" lesson in Reading, Writing, and Rising Up , because I wanted the ninth graders to see forgiveness as a tool to help them process and move beyond difficult experiences. I wanted them to see writing about forgiveness as a practical and symbolic act of reclamation. I suspected that many of these students felt like their lives were stuck in a particular moment. And I saw the lines blur between students' self-perceptions and the school's system of labeling and sorting them into lower tracks.
For example, when Jaime* showed me the "bracelet" around his ankle on the first day of school, he said, "You see, my father and brothers are in jail, but my summer school teacher said that I should be glad that at least I can leave for school." I heard case managers, guidance counselors, and students hold particular life events or circumstances responsible for students' current situations. But instead of using their experiences as sources of strength, all too often they became marks of racism, hopelessness, and giving up.
While any track would benefit from this forgiveness lesson, I especially wanted my "regular" students to use the lesson to change, grow, and reclaim painful experiences in their lives. While all students make mistakes and feel pain and regret, I often felt that many of my ninth-graders were not afforded the luxury of experiencing sorrow and anger as markers of adolescent learning and growing.
The First Lesson
On the first day of the unit, students evaluated the role of forgiveness in their lives by responding in writing to questions ranging from "Describe a time when you forgave someone. How did it make you feel?" to "Is there a situation where a person should not be forgiven?" The class was hushed as the students wrote and Shelby and I mingled, bending down to talk to students.
Next, I used the questions to draw students into a discussion about the role of forgiveness. The questions allowed the students to either share philosophical ideas about forgiveness, or to talk about specific experiences with forgiveness in their lives. The prompt: "Is there someone or something that cannot be forgiven? Why/why not?" drew heated discussion. In one class, Pao talked about a much-publicized shooting death of a young woman in our area. Although we all knew the story, we hadn't known that the victim was Pao's cousin. When Pao said she could never forgive the murderer, many students agreed.