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October 26, 2009
Michaela Andrews
Middle School English Teacher

Of Elephants and Pencils: Exploring Points of View

One of the many aspects I love about my job as a Middle School English teacher is the way in which classroom conversations often bounce from the silly to the profound, from nitty-gritty lessons in grammar and literary devices to philosophical conversations in which we connect what we are reading with our own lives and our deepest values.

I recently taught a lesson on point of view with my 6th graders, relating it to Chapter 9 of The Phantom Tollbooth in which Milo meets Alec Bings, a character who doesn’t grow up but instead floats in the air and gradually grows down to the ground.  Alec explains to Milo that it’s much less trouble to always see things from the same angle, but we talked about what it would be like to have your point of view never change, to never see the world from a different perspective.  Several students immediately noted how boring that might become.  

Running with an idea I got from my colleague, Martha Douglas-Osmundson, I put one student’s pencil in the middle of the room and asked another what she saw.  “A pencil,” she responded.  “Great.  Now what might that object be to a baby?” I asked.  They shot out answers: a chew-toy, something to drum with, something mysterious and fun.  “How might this pencil or chew-toy appear to the mother of that baby?” I continued.  “It could be dangerous.  It’s sharp.  Or what if the baby ate it?  That wouldn’t be good.”  We talked about how to a writer, it could be much more than just a pencil, but instead a tool to your life’s calling, an instrument of inspiration.  One girl said that to an ant it could be a huge obstacle like a log.  To an elephant it could be so insignificant as to be stepped on and not noticed (although, in perfect Middle-School fashion, another student pointed out that if the pencil were pointed upward, the elephant would probably notice it!).  

I shared with them “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe in which six blind men go to find out what an elephant is but because they are all touching different parts of it, they walk away with drastically different impressions.  It is like a snake, a spear, a fan, a wall, a tree, or a rope depending on your point of view.  All were partly right, and yet all were also wrong (or at least not “seeing” the big picture). Pencil or elephant, the same principle applies.

I then connected the concept of point of view to our Quaker principles.  I wrote SPICES up on the board vertically and, with a few helpful hints, together we filled in each principle: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equity, and Service/Stewardship.  We discussed how the ability to look at the world from multiple points of view could help us live out these principles.   “What would happen,” I asked, “if you and your best friend were in a fight but neither of you was willing to look at things from the other’s point of view?”  They shared personal anecdotes and reasoned that it would be impossible to resolve the fight and they would both feel sad and grow apart. One student extended the analogy to two countries at war, and pointed out how the ability to see things from another’s point of view could help create peace and a stronger, happier community.

Before shifting gears and exploring the pros and cons of different narrative points of view (a topic I merely introduced and later covered in much more detail in subsequent lessons), I related our discussion to the morning’s Silent Meeting in which our 8th grade clerks posed the query: What can you do each day to make the world a better place?  Before I knew it, our fifty minutes were up and we grudgingly wrapped up our conversation, saving it to reopen on another day.  Now, weeks later, I find myself still reflecting on how point of view, taking the time to understand someone else, can make a world of difference. 


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