the reason i jumpBy Elizabeth Grimaldi, English Teacher, Cranbury School  

The Reason I Jump was written by a thirteen-year-old, non-verbal autistic, Naoki Higoshida, who is clearly not only a gifted memoirist, but a brilliant fable and parable writer as well. With captivating honesty and refreshing simplicity, Naoki shares the answers to many of the questions he’s been asked (and imagines) by people over his thirteen years, in an effort to shed some light on his non-normative behaviors and more importantly, on his inner world.  A powerful story of courage that will move you to tears, I added it to an eighth grade English curriculum unit this year. The unit begins with an excerpt from Daniel Keyes Flowers for Algernon, and the documentary Wretches and Jabberers, the story of a trip around the world with a group of autistics that includes Naoki.  This rich contextual material was designed to lay the groundwork for the study of the text.

To engage all learners, the study of the text itself was launched with an activity called a Picture Puzzlement (J. Manzone, USC). This approach relies on a thought-provoking image to prompt students to generate questions that lead to a brief research task. I used a snapshot of a scene from the Broadway show, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (based on a novel written from the point of view of an autistic) in which the main character, a teenage boy in obvious pain, lies on the floor surrounded by a storm of random and flashing lights, images, and sounds. Suggestion: Begin a unit on the Great Depression by showing your students a photograph of a breadline but do not tell them what it is. See what happens.

While reading Naoki’s sensitive and sometimes heartbreaking Q/A entries, students recorded their connections in a reading log and subsequently engaged in conversations about Naoki’s inner world. The tool served to push their thinking by asking them to identify the deeper learning from each entry, the common themes of the text, and, finally, to ask questions.  For example, after learning of Naoki’s love for the serenity of nature, Jenna A. wanted to know if Naoki loves animals, too. Among the big ideas we shared was that all human beings want to be loved and above all, understood, and that we have shared this common suffering, at one time or another—our inability to be understood. In her log, Caroline noted, “Those with autism are always searching for something then can’t find.” In the conversation that followed, we discussed that her insights may be a metaphor for the human condition. As a class, we talked about the non-normative outward behaviors that are characteristic of autistics and looked for ways to adapt to non-normative expressions through empathetic behaviors, such as through greater openness and kindness. In letters to Naoki, one student, Arnaud, wrote, “I’ve learned that every human being, with or without disabilities, needs to strive to do their best, and by striving for happiness you will arrive at happiness.” In his reading log, Luke shared, “I grew to have an awareness that helps me to be understanding rather than critical.”

Having completed the text, working either independently or with a partner, the students self-selected from a list of research topics. The topics were generated with the text in mind, drawing from a principle called “Thinking Like a Disciplinarian” (Kaplan and Manzone, USC). The “disciplinarian” is the person working in a specific academic discipline.  To the extent that is possible, depending on the developmental maturity of the student, the task should push students to envision themselves in the career, exploring some of the questions that might naturally emerge from the study of the discipline. This approach suggests that there are multiple access points to meeting the CCSS standards while capitalizing on student interest areas, and it provides several avenues through which the curriculum advances toward depth, acceleration, complexity, and novelty.

Using the study of the memoir as the springboard for sparking their curiosity to learn more, I asked the students to conduct research into their selected discipline and to present their research in any valid format, choosing from another optional list of modalities. Many chose Google Slides. Anthony and Justin opted to research the role of a “Statistician,” analyzing numbers associated with the rise in autism. Sara and Erin wanted to know what it takes to become an effective Special Education teacher. Jenna studied current research in neuroscience on autism. Arnaud and Julius, aspiring visual artists, studied the gorgeous illustrations in the memoir, and their creators, Kai and Sunny, and shared some exceptional insights to explain why the illustrations hold special meaning. During their presentation, they paused their slides after each display of an image from the memoir, asking their peers to think about how the images related to the experience of autism, relishing in the engagement they garnered and noticing the value of the art to elevate the students’ experience of the text.

From the options list, Caroline and Faria chose “Literary Adaptation,” choosing to study the work of Robert Frost, and, finally, selecting one of his poems, entitled “Sand Dunes,” for explication. They noted his fascination with the changing forces of nature and soon decided to write a poem to mirror the structure, content, and style while representing Naoki’s memoir.  Here’s the text of the poem Caroline wrote:

Eternal Spring

The gentle breeze, it sings to me
In the field of vibrant green.
The twittering birds, they call to me
With warbling streams of melody.

The sun’s soft rays cradle me
with arms of warmth against my skin.
The babbling brook runs over me
With flowing streams of clarity.

I close my eyes against this world
Its hustle vanquished from my thoughts;
Any struggles turn to sand,
Trickling slowly through my hands.

The basics of life are all I need,
Earth’s simple blessings for all to reap.
Far from the commotion of this world,
Falling into eternal spring.

—Caroline Xie

To further explore the possibilities of the “Literary Adaptation” while connecting to her artistic self, Faria chose to represent the impact of Naoki’s fable, The Black Crow and the White Dove, in the form of an exquisite watercolor painting.  In the painting, words on feathers drop from the two birds, contrasting the white dove and black crow, words such as “villains,” “weird,” “scary,” “peaceful,” and “loving” to illustrate the painful dichotomy.

picture

Faria’s watercolor painting reflects the pain of the black crow, disturbed by having been cast as a bully or villain in most stories. Our class observed that Naoki’s parable is a story about prejudice.

Caroline is currently working on another poem, hoping to adapt the memoir further, and she plans to share it with the class. In the framework of Kallick and Zmuda’s Habits of Mind, she is “creating, imagining, innovating, and taking responsible risks,” yet another example of personalized learning while exploring the interplay of teaching and learning, learning and teaching!

Works cited:
Kaplan, Sandy. (2014) Think Like a Disciplinarian. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin.
Kallick, B., & Zmuda, A. (2017). Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.

If you have any questions about this unit please contact me at egrimaldi@cranburyschool.org.

Originally published in a 2017 issue of the NJAGC.org publication, Promise, a members-only newsletter for educators and advocates for the Gifted and Talented

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