I am not nearly as entertaining as I think I am. For four years I dreaded seeing my sixth-grade student’s faces slowly glaze over in boredom. Sometimes, one of them might try to liven things up by throwing something across the room or making creative use of the stapler.
I faced moments of recurring dullness every single class period. Except for one day. For one glorious lesson, I had them. We debated the hottest topic to sweep middle school since those 2016 rumors of clown attacks. I am talking, of course, about the untimely death of Harambe the gorilla.
We started class with an article from May of 2016 about the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo. A three-year-old climbed into the gorilla’s enclosure, and the zookeepers shot the ape. Luckily, the toddler was fine. Already, my students were fired up. Not only was Harambe a popular meme, but also they were convinced that the gorilla was trying to help the child and that a great injustice had taken place. I posted signs on each side of the room asking students to stand next to the one they agreed with. Did the zookeepers make the right choice? Then each kid got a chance to make their case referencing the article and the book we’d just finished, The One and Only Ivan. If another kid felt convinced, they could move to the other side of the room. The students that were usually most disruptive (because I am pretty boring) were completely invested. This was a life-or-death situation. Kids that struggled with quizzes got to watch their peers get persuaded by their passionate arguments. For once they felt what I’d always known about them: they had something valuable to contribute. I hope they remember that day as fondly as I do.
I tried to recreate that lesson in other units, but kept running into the same problem. The books assigned by the district were often wonderful, but when they presented an ethical problem, they solved it. I wanted something different: an age-appropriate novel that would raise difficult moral questions and then, and this is the tricky part, not answer them. I wanted to teach a novel that let students find their own answers.
That’s what I wanted to do with my debut novel, Pighearted. This is the story of 12-year-old Jeremiah who is in desperate need of a heart transplant and his best friend, the pig with the heart that could save his life. The pig is created with human DNA and has a human heart, but the doctors don’t know that he also has also a human brain.
Every bit of the medicine and science in the story possible with today’s technology, but not yet legal because of the ethical problems that scientists and lawmakers are grappling with. What makes a person a person? How far can you go to save someone’s life? How do you weigh one life against another? Those kinds of questions are not beyond the comprehension of a 12-year-old. In fact, working through those kinds of difficult issues is exactly what kids crave.
As a teacher it can be hard not to scaffold everything for students so that they arrive at the “correct” answer, but it is worth it. In today’s world of standardized testing, kids need a break from working to deduce whether to circle “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D.” Giving kids the freedom to think also gave those students that lived for drama and to challenge authority a time to shine. The pedagogy of problem-based learning is based around that idea. Give students a complex real-world problem and let them figure it out. I hope that Pighearted can naturally set up the critical thinking, communication, and ethical skills supported by problem-based learning. My students were twelve. They had a lifetime of big problems a head of them, but those problems don’t have a right or wrong answer. Those decisions can’t be penciled into bubbles on a scantron. Life isn’t like that.
Now I have a dream that one day a class of students will discuss Pighearted. They’ll argue and cite the book and related articles and desperately try to convince each other to save the life of Jeremiah or J6. Kids that don’t care that much about reading will care, at least for that day, because this is important. This is life-or-death. They’ll learn that each one of their opinions is valuable and that every single one of them has something to vitally important to say. Maybe a shy kid might feel a little more confident speaking up in class or a loud kid will learn the power of their voice. I don’t have a good answer for the questions that Pighearted poses, but these kids are much smarter than I’ll ever be. Maybe they can find their own answer and along the way have a really good day in class.
Alex Perry used to teach middle schoolers in Houston, but now she writes for kids everywhere. She currently lives in Arkansas with her family. Pighearted is her debut novel. She invites you to visit her at alexperrybooks.com or follow her on Twitter @Alextheadequate.