My 11-12-year-old students were confused when I introduced them to the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and encouraged them to think critically about his artistic/ political response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
“But Ms. Katharine,” they implored me in confused tones, “you LOVE China! How can you suggest something negative about China?”
I coughed into my hand (pollution, rivers swarming with dead swine, rat meat), wondering if my entire unit on Ancient China had been a waste. Didn’t they at least remember our spirited debate about whether Shi Huang Di was a villain or hero? Were my essential questions that oblique?
It was the week after the Songkran holiday, and I was feeling rattled from the attacks on the Boston Marathon and the major earthquake in Sichuan Province, which occurred in the same area as the 2008 earthquake that resulted in around 80,000 deaths. Instead of carrying on reading from our heavy yellow Language Arts textbook, I decided to turn our focus on Ai Weiwei for the week and ignite a conversation about the intersection of art, social media, social justice and political activism.
For the sake of any potential readers, I’ll pause my own entry and enter excerpts from student essays. Keep in mind that the authors are 11-12-years old and writing in their second language.
Student Writing, Sample 1
Ai Weiwei. Think about that name. You may think of hundreds upon hundreds of backpacks forming a mosaic on the walls of an art museum. You may think of the person who rebelled against the government. Maybe you imagine him doing Gangnam Style with Chen Guangcheng. Or, you may see him as this random guy who simply likes to have fun. No matter what you think, his name sure stirs up a lot. Speaking of names, he had the courage to pursue one of his greatest achievements. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. He arranged that the names of thousands of Earthquake victims to be broadcast at his art exhibition. Now, you must know that this isn’t such an easy task. Ever since the Sichuan Earthquake, the government refused that the names of the children be released. Even if Ai Weiwei got beatings, even if he was watched, he endured it. He endured all of it. Just for the sake of all the devastated parents. Just for getting the message across. He did it. He risked it all. Any second, someone could grab him and put him in jail. Did he care? No! In fact, to exaggerate the fact that he was unaffected by the incident, he BASHED the government on his online blog and twitter. Before you get the wrong idea, I would just like to make it clear that I do not support ALL of his actions. I just simply think that people should start standing up for their own rights for a change. Ai Weiwei could be that first step. That first step to equality. That first step to justice.
Student Writing, Sample 2
He is a man. He is a man who stood up for thousands of Earthquake victims. He stood up against a government that did not even release the names of the victims. He fought the incompetence of the government in the way he knew best, Art. He is Ai WeiWei.
Before his ideological fight against the Chinese government, he was actually a redeemed artist. The government actually supported his works! He became such an esteemed artist in China, the Chinese government invited him to work on the what-was-going-to-be-called “The Birds Nest”. He worked on the megalithic project with other foreign architects like Herzog & de Meuron. At first he was initially enthusiastic, until an event happened in the South. While the gigantic Olympic stadium in Beijing was being constructed, an event of Mother Nature’s Bidding erupted in the Sichuan province of China. An earthquake erupted on Monday, May 12, 2008 in Southern China of a magnitude of 8.0. It horrifically killed 69,195 people, with 18,392 missing, but what was most sadistic was that thousands of school children were killed, maimed and missing because of the horrible school foundations that did not at all protect the children they were schooling and housing.
Student Writing, Sample 3
For me Ai Weiwei is a person I think I can call my idol proudly,because he is someone who isn’t scared of anything. He doesn’t care what other people think about him. If he doesn’t like something, he stands up for it. He was famous for when he was invited to design the olympic stadium at China (the bird nest). He used his fame to stand up for all the children who died from the earthquake in Sichuan. There are few people who would be brave enough to stand up and say something against the government like him. He used Twitter to tell people about all the people who passed away because of the earthquake. He made a lot of fans, and those fans helped him make a memorial for the people who past away.
Student Writing, Sample 4
Ai Weiwei’s decision was to make a sort of monument for the victims of the earthquake including (and especially) the schoolchildren who were prey to shoddy construction. I think that his decision was better than just giving a bunch of money to the victims. There are multiple reasons. One is that: If Ai Weiwei was giving the money to the victims, it may look like he was just trying to be nice and then just get over the whole thing. “Yay, I gave the money to the victims, I really care for them.” Alright, anyone can just give a whole load of money to the victims. The government, charity (especially charity) and some millionaires who feel like they need to spend their money on something and just happen to stumble upon this earthquake and think, “Alright, here’s something to spend on.” Not cool. The second thing, if you give the money then the victims would spend all of it. If you give them something else more permanent, that would be better. The third reason, if you make artwork, you put them effort, you waste money on the building of the project, you waste other stuff with money, the workers’ wages, the gas that it takes to get to Sichuan, etc. etc. That makes the victims realize the effort. The fourth one is that you can actually see the message: Chinese people should have a “spine” and take a stand against corruption.
Blog Post Resumes…Class Process
I welcomed the class back from their Songkran holiday and asked them to tell me about what events had happened around the world that week. Their responses varied: Boston, Syria, their own travels. In both classes, at least one student mentioned the earthquake in China. As it happens, their former LA teacher had been in a serious accident that week, and so we talked about her healing process and how lucky she was to be alive. I then asked the students to open a new Google Doc in their folders and to journal about the following:
1. How does your culture or community respond to death? What traditions are carried out?
2. How does your culture or community honor the death of many people, such as from war or a natural disaster?
3. How do you wish to be remembered when you die?
We discussed their responses for a few minutes and then I assured the children that we were going to leave behind our serious discussion and move on to something more fun. I also warned them that we’d get serious again in a few minutes.
And then I started blasting Ai Weiwei’s spoof on Gangam Style. Luckily, my classes of 44 pre-teens of Thai, Chinese, Indian and Japanese descent were immediately hooked on Ai Weiwei thanks to his spoof. Three annoying beats into the song, and the kids were galloping around the room, anxious to know why that funny looking guy with handcuffs had replaced Psy.
Gangam Style was my hook, but I still needed to lead the kids gently into the big ideas we’d be discussing. With no Lego sets at my disposal, I raided the supply room for various sets of math manipulatives. I chose three types: interlocking, flat and tiny cubes. Back in the classroom, I instructed groups of 3 – 5 to select one type of manipulative. Only one group was allowed to use the set of interlocking units. I gave the groups 4 minutes to see who could build the tallest, 4-sided structure. Students were also instructed to film the building process using their phones or laptops. After four minutes, students were told to step away from their tables and to look at each other’s creations. Then I asked them to identify which structure was a government official’s home and which was a school. Then I surprised them by running up to each table and simulating an “earthquake.” Inevitably, the interlocking blocks mostly survived while structures erected from the tiny cubes completely collapsed. This was my segue into introducing the 2008 earthquake.
I gave a brief talk about the devastation of the 2008 earthquake, and alarmed the students by sharing information about the number of schools that collapsed versus other types of government and privately-funded buildings.
Next, kids watched their videos of their building process and wrote a reflective journal entry addressing the following: how well did we work as a group? what was frustrating? if given another chance, how could we improve our working process and build a stronger structure?
Student Response: at first i thought the lego building would be good for governmental and the school but then i knew our flat building would be much more safer. at first i felt like this would take forever but then i realized that when builders try to build a house or building they would have to stack brick by brick and it will really take this long.
At this point, the children were primed to watch the 17-minute PBS version of Allison Klayman’s documentary (the PBS version is shorter and “kid friendly”). We also listened to Melissa Block’s NPR story about Ai’s creation “Straight” and answered questions (listening skills, comprehension and critical thinking). We watched the Gangam style video again and discussed why a Chinese dissident would cover Psy, and oh who is that guy with sunglasses dancing?
We gathered for story time and I read the children a picture book version of “Tikki Tikki Tembo,” which is about a Chinese boy with a name so long that it almost kills him. Many of the children knew the story and chimed in singing the boy’s name at the appropriate times in the story. This book led to a discussion about the importance of names and naming, which we linked back to our question about why Ai Weiwei wanted to gather the names of the children who died in the earthquake.
Finally, the students embraced their writing assignment, which was to summarize their learning about Ai Weiwei and to express their opinions about “Straight,” which is a 38-ton sculpture made of rebar claimed from the earthquake rubble. Students were asked to consider whether it was more meaningful for Ai Weiwei to spend the money buying and transporting all that steel in order to make a sculpture that thousands of people would see, or if the money would have been better spent if it had gone directly to helping the earthquake victims. (see essay excerpts above)
For Writer’s Workshop, we focused on the 6 + 1 Writing Trait of Organization. Using a Google Doc, we worked on organizing a peer’s paragraph, and then worked independently to organize our own essays. The student quoted here didn’t exactly get her facts straight, but the difference in her organization is quite clear between drafts one and two.
First draft, pre-Writer’s Workshop
- Ai Wei Wei is an artist who’s from China, but ending up being hit on the head by the police(s) when he visits Hong kong and he’s still ok even though he got hit on the head by the police(s) because he got brain surgery after that. All these problems cause from him opposing the laws in China and because he wanted to honor the children that died from the earthquake, he made an artwork by using the children’s bag and pile them up and he place the bags that were piled up in front of the museum because he wanted people to think about the children that died during the earthquake. And when the government see the artwork, they send the police(s) to hurt or arrest him (I think). Oh, Ai Wei Wei also made another artwork that’s about the earthquake. The artwork is called “Straight”
Organized paragraph, post-Writer’s Workshop
- Ai Wei Wei is an artist from China. He is an understanding person and always stands up for others and himself. He is also the person who designed Beijing Olympics stadium or “The Bird’s Nest.” After that when the earthquake hits Sichuan, many children died because the school buildings were not strong so the buildings collasped because there’s just a little rebars. So Ai Wei Wei decided to make an artwork about the earthquake by using children’s backpacks and pile them up together and put his artwork in front of the art gallery so everyone can see. When the government saw the artwork, they send the police(s) to beat him up. Ai Wei Wei got beaten and got brain surgery because he got hit on his head. After the brain surgery, he did another project called “Straight.” The materials that are used in the project is only the rebars to represent the school buildings without the rebars. I think that Ai Wei Wei is a caring person who understands other people but I think the government is mean.
We “published” the stronger essays by arranging them on the bulletin board alongside photos of Ai Weiwei.