Witness and Your Classroom
Witness’s versatility makes it an incredibly valuable text to teach. A free verse poem in vignette style, set as a drama in five acts, Witness conveys events related to the Ku Klux Klan in Vermont in the 1920s, weaving in numerous historical references to the life in United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. Witness thus lends itself to teaching poetry, voice, characterization, drama, and historical fiction; I explain below how the text works as a readers’ theatre and offers numerous opportunity for alternative assessment of students’ literary comprehension.
The text has major potential for connections to non-fiction as well. In 1977 on a flight from a speaking engagement, Karen Hesse read in a flight magazine the story; as a good historian, she instantly began research to prove the article “wrong.” Hesse discovered Maudean Neill’s book, Fiery Crosses in the Green Mountains: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan in Vermont; a story in the book told of a Klan family that took in an man and his son, who were suspected of being Jewish. The family was told they’d need to leave the Klan because they were “harboring Jews.” Hesse wrote in notes in Witness: “Many events in the book were inspired by news articles I came across, but that story gave me the human book I needed to land the book.” (Witness 170)
Complement to “canonical literature”
Karen Hesse struggled to identify the “form” to use in telling the story; in her own words: “I hit one dead end after another, so I finally tucked the idea away and worked on something else. A few years later I received an email from my editor with the subject line: ‘Book Idea?’ The message, which followed read simply, ‘Remember Spoon River Anthology?’ Suddenly the back corner of my brain flooded with light. I had performed Spoon River Anthology in high school. That was it! The path to the Klan project had been there all along, blazed by Edgar Lee Masters” (Witness 169). What Hesse captures from the Spoon River Anthology is the poignancy of vignettes. Witness’s voices -- eleven townspeople-- speak directly to the reader and relate the juxtaposition of acts of hate and love, violence and peace, terror and kindness; they illuminate the full range of human strengths and weaknesses in one small town. As is typical of the YA genre, the strongest characters are children or teens: Leanora Sutter, a 12-year-old Black girl has recently experienced the death of her mother and faces isolation because of racial prejudice. Esther Hirsh, a younger Jewish girl, befriends Leanora and like Leanora is the target of the Klan’s bigotry; Merlin VanTornhout, a teenager, is merely trying to find his way and the Klan seems, for Merlin, the route to success.
(Some might work in your classrooms)
All We Know of Heaven by Sue Ellen Bridgers
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Wringer and Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
Day of Tears by Julius Lester
Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Witness tells the story of the Ku Klux Klan’s attempt to recruit members in a small town in Vermont in l924. Leanora Sutter, a 12-year-old Black girl who has recently experienced the death of her mother, is isolated because of racial prejudice. Leanora is befriended by Esther Hirsh, a younger Jewish girl, who like Leanora is the target of the Klan’s bigotry. Esther’s innocence and natural optimism provide sharp contrast to the other characters. Merlin VanTornhout, a teenager, and Johnny Reeves, a minister in the town, voice the Klan’s hate-filled message of white supremacy. Other characters – the town constable, Percelle Johnson, and the newspaper editor, Reynard Alexander, try to walk a careful line of neutrality until they realize the importance of taking a stand. Storekeepers Viola and Harvey Pettibone represent two opposing reactions to the Klan’s methods as they discuss the issues in their own home. Iris Weaver represents a new freedom for women, who have recently gained the right to vote. Over the course of many months, the town’s residents are affected in a number of ways by pressures that build in the community, leading up to a climactic moment of violence.
(***Note: I’m replicating Karen Hesse’s style of all lower case)
1. i pushed the window up in school
to get the stink of leanora sutter out of the classroom
where miss harvey brought her to show off
a dance from last week’s
turned and stared through me
that witchy girl
with those fuming eyes
she meant to put a curse on me.
she meant to.
i left school right then.
no amount of air will get the smell of her
out of my nose,
the soot of her out of my eyes.
2. roads were bad.
don’t blame me.
it’s not my fault.
these roads are nothing but hog wallow during a thaw.
folks ought to know that.
wright sutter should have thought
before bringing his wife and child along to town with him.
that wasn’t my fault,
his horse and wagon miring down,
stuck in the mud.
i wasn’t on duty.
not my fault he couldn’t get help.
no one too energetic about helping a colored man hereabouts…
wife took a chill,/waiting. she put her wrap around the little girl…
sick all year…
the sutter woman died this past spring…
3. they made me mad.
willie pettibone and some of the other boys, they said things
about me and daddy.
i shouldn’t let them get to me but
i’m flint quick these days…
i turned my back on willie pettibone and walked out of school.
i didn’t know where i was going.
i just walked out
without my coat,
without my hat or rubbers.
i didn’t feel the cold,
i was that scorched.
4. well how do you like that.
down in texas,
mrs. miriam ferguson,
the wife of the impeached governor
defeated the klan candidate
by 80,000 votes
to win the democratic nomination for her state.
if she wins/she’ll be the first woman
governor in /the whole damn country.
5. we shall reign in the kingdom,/neighbor.
we shall form a great fist,
and we shall still those who oppose us.
we shall strike them out,
wipe them out,
blot them out.
together we cast a long shadow, neighbor,
and with our shadow
we cast our foes in darkness.
we cast those who are not like us into the arms of satan.
6. folks ask why i never married.
i watched my/father swallow his breakfast whole and rush away,
leaving mother with us children to be readied for school,
lunch to be prepared for noon,
washing to be done,
and the fitting out of a big evening meal.
father would come home late,/tired out,
falling asleep in the best chair after supper,
while mother put the house to rights,
got me, my brothers, my sister
and, finally, father off to bed…
father got a holiday from time to time.
mother never did.
that’s why i moved out and came to work on the farm.
soon as i could i bought it for my own.
all these years i’ve managed fine without a man.
i may work as hard as my mother,
but i’m drudge to no one.
7. when the barn cat did have her six little kittens
sara chickering had takings of the baby kittens
away from their mamma.
what did you do with the little things?
i did ask sara chickering
sara chickering said the kittens did go far away.
that is what they said about my mamma, too. she did go
far away on the train to heaven.
8. down in town,
families listened to the independence day concert
while up on the hill a fiery cross was set ablaze.
it started burning about the time the band finished
the star-spangled banner.
only a lunatic/would ignore the dry conditions,
or the fact that a crackling fire
could spread so easily out of control.
or perhaps it was the work of children
stirred by griffith’s birth of a nation,
that racist rubbish,
which will not fade away.
Almost any literary selection with multiple characters and sufficient dialogue can be adapted into a Readers’ Theatre. Over the many semesters I’ve used Witness, I’ve varied the way I assign characters. I give the students a list of the characters about three weeks before we do the Readers’ Theatre in class. I also have had three or more readers for each character, depending on how many students are in my class and often the character speaks in the five acts of Witness. What I’ve come to see in each subsequent semester is how much the students engage with Hesse’s text. It could be the readers’ theatre; it could be that reading and immediately responding act by act helps the students “stay with” the text; maybe it helps that the students don’t have to read the text “alone.” I’m also amazed at the “voice” the student readers give to the characters, demonstrating exactly how they are understanding the text. They seem to grasp a particularly key aspect of Witness—a single experience is told from multiple perspectives.
When we do Witness in my three-hour class, I ask students to respond after each act to each of the following questions:
- With which character do you relate or empathize the most? Why?
- What voice is most powerful? Why? Or another way to focus your response: What are the “power lines” that capture your response?
- What lines or words help you to hear and know the voice?
- For the character you read: What in the text makes you give the character the voice you are using? Explain.
Creating our own Readers’ TheatreFollowing the class reading of Witness, I remind students that what Hesse has done is tell a single story or recount a single event from multiple perspectives. The key is the event has been shared or experienced by many people. Then I suggest that all of us have had shared experiences and direct them to the following prompt. I tell them that once we’ve written, everyone will read their vignette aloud—in any order—depending on who is “moved” to read—but that everyone will read—thus creating our own readers’ theatre.
In your own voice or in the voice of someone you’d like to represent (for example, a passenger on one of the hijacked planes, a NY fireman or emergency worker etc.) describe your experience of September 11, 2001. Develop your response in the free verse poetry style of Karen Hesse or in a short prose vignette. Be prepared to read your vignette aloud.
NOTE: Depending on the students with whom you read Witness, you could surely create a prompt of a shared event more pertinent to them. Sadly, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and fear of others still permeate our world. Any community touched by gun violence, terrorism, or natural disasters will have shared perspectives.
Review of Student Writings to the 9/11 prompt
I have numerous semesters of student writing to the 9/11 prompt. I always write one too, and read it amid the reading of our own readers’ theatre. These 9/11 writings are available on line at
Two examples follow:
In the first sample Ahmed Al-Sheikh, a Middle Eastern student, expresses his anxiety and anger, knowing the backlash that was inevitable. Both student samples, though, convey powerful voice and demonstrate how strongly they connected to Hesse’s text. In example two, Scott Ferris chose to “voice” former President George W. Bush.
I saw the future as I saw the towers fall
saw it before because
Americans hate Arabs more than
or any they hated before.
They butcher us in their films
Disregard our culture as backward and oppressive
When the bomb went off in
they blamed us all.
Women covering their heads in modesty
Children saying hamdilulah instead of bless you
when they sneeze,
Men with earth tone skin and thick dark hair
They punished us all before it was revealed
to be two
I knew it would happen again when I saw
the towers fall
And when one evil man who happened to share
my faith and birthplace admitted responsibility
it became worse.
They’ll kill us all. – Ahmed Al-Sheikh
I had arrived at the elementary school,
my sole task being to read a book.
A children’s book for children about
something they could understand,
something they could cope with.
The children were so excited to see me
and I was excited too.
I began to read
and they began to listen,
nothing more important on our minds
than that story.
Not long after I had started reading
one of my men walked calmly over to me
and whispered something in my ear.
A great tragedy had occurred,
something the children
I remained calm and
struggling to prevent any change
in my voice or on my face.
They were so young and little
and they didn’t need to know what had happened.
Not right now.
A short while later,
the same man came over to me,
whispering once more.
Tragedy had struck once more.
I continued reading.
Perhaps I should have stopped,
perhaps I should have gotten up and left.
But what could I have done?
The damage had been done.
I had been powerless to stop it.
But I was not completely powerless.
Rather than scare the children,
and I read.
I did what I thought was
the one thing I could do at that moment.
I tried to protect them for just a while longer.
I had failed to protect my country,
but I would not fail to protect them. -- Scott Ferris
Text Types and Purposes:
3.Write narratives to develop real or imagined evidences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
Key Ideas and Details:
- Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
- Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text
Craft and Structure:
- Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
- Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and styles of a text.
Speaking and Listening:
Comprehension and Collaboration:
- Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric
6. Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.
In What Ways Can You Use Witness with an Entire Class? – these ideas came from my “LSU class” in the Young Adult Conference & Seminar: YA Lit. What is it Good For? Absolutely Everything, June 2014; participants included both pre-service and in-service teachers
What ideas do you have for implementing Readers’ Theatre in your classroom?
I plan to use Witness in the second semester, so I really haven't planned that unit of study yet. There are some things I will do in the first semester, though, to "set the stage" in terms of readers' theater.
As a culminating project for the book Wonder, students will choose a voiceless character (one whose perspective is not offered) and write a new chapter of the book. We'll spend some time talking as a class about who has voice and who doesn't and see if we can figure out why the author made those choices.
Additionally, we'll have a lesson on characterization, focusing on what we can learn about each character not only from their perspective but also from chapters other than the ones in their voice.
Some of the questions we'll use as guides throughout the year are "From whose perspective is this story?" and "How would this story be different told by another?" We'll talk about this in literary terms as we examine different kinds of narrators, but also in bigger terms as we think about seeing things from another angle (which, I believe is the precursor to empathy). We do some work with current events throughout the year, and we'll hit it then, too. ( these classroom ideas came from Martha Guarisco)
1. unit on Greek and Roman mythology – Trickle Down Mount Olympics – already is set in readers’ theatre. Have students in small groups create a myth into readers’ theatre; fairy tales; story telling – create own tale;
2. move from readers’ theatre into dramatic enactment
3. older students visit schools on earlier levels (9th graders to 1st graders) – write a tale
4. taking characters from different books you’ve read and creating dialogue among the characters presented via readers’ theatre as a culmination of a thematic unit
5. fluency issues in reading – readers’ theatre is a vehicle to give individual students “ownership” of a voice; they want to convey the part as successfully as possible
6.“thinking maps” – visual to concretize the points of view -- with Witness – by character; by event – the cross burning, the hearse of the Klansman that is struck by lightning
7. Scholastic Scope – has readers’ theatre each issue
8. Record a presentation – create a video or Youtube of the setting
9. Characters who don’t speak but are spoken about – Witness – Ira Hirsh and Wright Sutter
10. With Out of the Dust, write vignettes for non-speakers
11. All We Know of Heaven
Additional Teaching Resources
Dean Schneider's Teaching Ideas
Witness discussion guide