Who’s to Blame?

Today, my classes are reading a short story called Storm Warning in which a young couple with little sailing experience decides to rent out a sailboat to spend an afternoon picnicking on an island outside the harbor. An overwhelmed employee skips a few steps in order to get the sailboat checked out to the couple quickly. A bystander decides against warning the couple of the storm brewing nearby because he figures they probably know what they’re doing.

Their lack of sailing experience, paired with the brutal storm winds and whitecaps, the couple finds themselves in a deadly predicament, unable to find their way back to the harbor. A conflict between the air and boat rescue mission crews causes a fatal accident, as one of the sailers is flown from the boat, never to surface again.

After reading the story, students are asked to think about all characters in the story. There are seven total. Then I ask, “Who’s to blame?” On their own, they ranked the seven characters in order from most to blame to least to blame.

Finally, I removed myself from the discussion and told them to talk about their rankings. The expectation I set for them was that by the end of the discussion, they all needed to have the same exact ranking. So far, I have completed the activity with only one of my five Humanities classes.

Wow.

Observations

  • Initially, students naturally broke into small groups to discuss with a neighbor or two and started to share their choices and reasons. This could have been because some were afraid to share their opinions to the whole group right away. It could be because they recognized the benefit of starting small and transitioning to bigger. Either way, it was fascinating to watch.
  • Eventually, the conversation somehow naturally morphed into a whole-group discussion. It often occurred when one group had a break in the action and overheard a comment from another group they wanted to chime in on. The natural transition was so fun to observe as each small group suddenly turned to join the group as a whole.
  • There were very minimal interruptions. Overall, students were very respectful with their listening and waiting for an open turn to comment.
  • Without prompting from me, students were naturally citing evidence again and again from the story to prove their point and to persuade others to change their rankings about certain individuals in the story. They also often pulled from their own personal background knowledge and experiences to support their ideas.
  • They showed empathy toward various characters at different times throughout the discussion. They often considered how they would feel if put into a similar situation and tried to justify or at least understand the actions of some of the story’s characters.
  • Some students spoke more often than others. Some kept quiet more often than not, but all chose to speak out when they felt compelled to comment. All voices were heard.
  • After not making much progress toward the ultimate goal of matching their rankings, they strategized and decided to reverse their thinking and work their way backwards through the rankings.
  • After about 25 minutes of discussion time, the entire group had a matching ranking they all felt good about.

Takeaways

  1. The ranking the group landed on in the end did not match one student’s original ranking. This means every single student changed their minds at some point during the discussion. This also means they allowed their minds to be changed. By entering with an open mind and truly listening to the voices and opinions of those around them, each of them was swayed at some point throughout the discussion.

    How many adults can say they walk into similar situations in the same way as my students did today? How many adults can say they are open to the possibility of having their minds changed? How many adults can say they are able to participate in a discussion in which people are disagreeing and are able to truly listen to differing opinions without interrupting others involved?

  2. As the teacher in the room, it is so difficult to keep my word and to keep my mouth shut. If I’m being completely honest, I disagree with their final ranking. That’s not the point. In fact, the point really is that there is not one right answer. Every single person in the story carried some of the responsibility.

    When we apply this thinking to current events, as we did at the end of class today, it becomes evident that all of us play a part. The fact is, when it comes to the enduring racism in our country, the current pandemic, the approaching election, you name it, there is not one person to blame, not one person who carries the weight. Each of us carries a responsibility on our shoulders.

  3. To piggyback off of this idea, a final take away for me had to do with my first class’s choice in ranking one particular character from the story. Tom, a fisherman passing by the sailboat on its way out to the ocean, has the opportunity to warn the sailors of the impending storm. Assuming they know what they are doing, he decides not to say anything and goes on with his day.

    Of the seven characters in the story, the students in my first hour class today deemed Tom the third person to blame. This speaks volumes to me. Tom is the only character who is never actively involved in the actual story scenario. He is an innocent bystander who happens to notice something odd and chooses not to say anything about it.

    Third on the list? We all find ourselves in uncomfortable situations in which we are the innocent bystanders on the side. It can be easy to redirect responsibility onto the shoulders of those directly involved. According to my students this morning, though, we all have a responsibility to speak up when we see or hear something that isn’t right.
A Decade of Work — The Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign

2 thoughts on “Who’s to Blame?

  1. HEAVEN HUSE says:

    Hey! Been a long time since I read these but had time to! This Is making me miss being in your classes there so much fun! High school is alot for me rn but Thanks for being a amazing teacher! Miss you! -Heaven Huse

    Like

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