Courageous Conversation: Thanks to Orbiting Jupiter

Christmas break has only been a few days, and I already re-read Orbiting Jupiter, a young adult literature book by Gary D. Schmidt.

This past semester I taught Orbiting Jupiter as a part of my enrichment class because it offered an opportunity to reinforce many of the Maryland College and Career Readiness Standards, and it was one of the most engaging young adult books I read in quite some time. I could not put it down.

My wife read it too. But her reaction was quite different than mine.

I was excited to teach it and have courageous conversations with students who were living in a poverty culture where they could relate to the book. My wife — my devil’s advocate — continued to give me scenarios about the maturity of the content.

I agree … yes, it is mature. However, it was what was best for my students.

In a short 14 day span there were two murders in the community where I teach and some of my students had ties to the victims and perpetrators. It was a scary time and many teachers would not discuss it.

It was a time when students needed to have a trusting adult to listen and I wasn’t walking away from an opportunity to serve my students. I did a close-read of the newspaper article in our local paper to bring up the topic. Many students had some wild responses on why it happened or what they heard.

I sat back and listened.

I asked questions for clarity.

I wanted to hear their opinions.

Then is it was my turn … Orbiting Jupiter: a book that included: a young man named Joseph who made numerous life changing mistakes, who came from a single-parent home, who had a father that was destructive and an alcoholic, who lost his life too early because of another, and had caring people who loved Joseph unconditionally.

Each of these components of the book leant itself to this authentic tragedies — loss of life — in the community where I teach.

Those 20 minutes comparing the real situation to the novel were breathtaking, the reason one gets into education. Often students were cheerleaders for Joseph always wanting the best for him during his troublesome decisions, but it was different when it happened in their community. I often asked whether we should judge Joseph, or anyone for that matter, by their worst moments.

I did the same when speaking of the local murders.

Joseph, a 14 year old fictional character, received a different level of empathy and compassion from my students than the individuals in our newspaper article. It brought a struggle to forgive a real person, who committed a real crime compared to Joseph who made juvenile mistakes.

Tears did not drop, but eyes watered.

“What do we take away from both of these situations — Orbiting Jupiter and the indigents in our community?” I asked during my closing thought.

Here are some of the student responses:

  • Novels and real life can be the same. Joseph lost his life in an act of violence, the same as someone in [our community]. Both were dealing with dangerous people. Each person’s family must find a way to get past this violence.
  • Mistakes as a kid or an adult follow you forever. If everyone did not make these mistakes maybe they would be alive for Christmas.
  • I feel sympathy for everyone who died and their families. Each person who dies was special to someone and probably had their good qualities. We must cherish one another and value the time we have on this Earth; it can be gone before we know it.
  • Books can happen in real life. The stories are different, but both resulted in death. We should try to forgive each person who caused the deaths because life will be stressful if we do not. It is hard to forgive someone, but our heart must let it happen.
  • Life is not fair as our principal shared with us. Joseph had some bad things happen to him and probably so did the others who died, but we cannot let those moments show who we are. We must define ourselves by how we act and do in school. We must work when we do not want to to be successful, like Dr. Cook said.

Some responses were truly heartfelt (and was asked not to be shared with anyone), but the wow factor was simply having the conversation and allowing student voice to appear. Too often we silence children or do not take their feelings into consideration. This day was the first step in allowing students to share how they feel about mature content.

Orbiting Jupiter was the first chance to students to really discuss mature content in a fictional setting, similar to what they see in their real community. Thankfully, we read the book in time to be able to use it as a springboard to talk about this difficult time in our community.



About briancookeducator

Husband, Daddy, teacher, #Mountaineer, coach, and aspiring school leader | Thoughts are my own.
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