Yes, the Vessay.  It’s new.  Or at least it is to my students.

When you’ve done something as momentous and difficult as creating a Holocaust museum, what do you do next?  It’s not about topping it, it’s about fresh challenges and helping them build different skills in a new way.  Enter the Vessay or V-essay, if you prefer.

After the Holocaust unit, we transitioned to current day genocide. I used to teach the Holocaust without any follow-up, naively asking my students if they thought it could ever happen again.  The answer was always no.  Then I learned about Rwanda.  And now my students learn about Rwanda.  Why?

The implication here is that we can’t call our English teaching successful if our students, however fluent, are ignorant of the world’s problems, have no social conscience, or use their communication skills for international crime,
exploitation, oppression, or environmental destruction. ~ Kip A.Cates

The genocide we specifically look at is the one that occurred in Rwanda in 1994.  The year many of my students were born. When we began, none of them had heard of it. Not one of my students had any knowledge, before now, that the year they were born, during 100 days, spanning from April to July, 1,000,000 people were brutally and unmercifully slaughtered. It often feels to me like my students have important gaps in their learning. Or maybe it’s just that the time has come for them to learn things like this, and it’s my job to lead them to this learning.

We began by watching the movie Shake Hands with the Devil — the story of Gen. Romeo Dallaire’s experience of the Rwandan Genocide.  And we followed it up with a PBS/Frontline documentary video called Ghosts of Rwanda.  Why did I choose to use videos for this unit?  Because in this instance there were no better experts to teach my students. The movie is based on Daillaire’s first hand account and is incredibly powerful. I’m proud to show it because he’s Canadian.  He was one of the few who remained to try to help; he’s also one of my heroes.

What did my students learn? That even after the Holocaust, when we promised “never again,” it has happened again, countless times, and continues to happen today. The world abandoned Rwanda. As we currently abandon countries that are not strategic.  The lethal bystander mentality. I want my students to be part of a generation for whom this is not acceptable.

As with the Holocaust unit, my students have a number of books to choose from. A Long Way Gone, War Brothers, Bite of the Mango, and Left to Tell. However, they are free to use any other novel of their choice, dealing with this same theme and of the same caliber.

I made it clear to my high achievers that they should be reading more than one of these novels. Consequently, some of them have read three or four. My objective is to instill in all my students that their education is about pushing themselves to grow and stretch in every way possible over the next three years. But with the high achievers, there’s always the dreaded question, “Is this for marks?” And to be honest, I still haven’t answered the question to myself or them. I’ve stated they’ll need to show their learning, but in reality I don’t want it to be about the mark.

The truth is, I don’t read books for marks.  Instead, I read to learn.  I wish this is the value instilled in our students more often.

With the Vessay, I’ve upped the stakes

One of the ways they will show their learning is the vessay. It’s an essay, but more. In grade 10 we work to develop a solid five paragraph essay. To them, this can be a daunting task. Now I’ve upped the stakes.

When I first explained the concept to my students, I told them it would be an essay, but with audio and visual included. One of my students said, “kinda like a vlog.” Yes, but no. Two girls from the back table almost immediately blurted out, “it’s a vessay!”  And the name was born. One of my students has googled it and says she couldn’t find any use of it on the net. This is a class that likes to be original.

So what is the vessay? It’s a VoiceThread persuasive essay. It will require a thesis that can be argued, transition words to make their writing fluid, and evidence from the text to support their point. Then they will need to find pictures to represent their argument and, finally, record it as a voicethread.

I have no doubt in my mind that for many of my students this will be difficult. Why? They’ll need to speak. How often do we have our students breathe life into their arguments through articulation, rather than solely writing it on paper for an audience of one?  It will require skill to figure out how to emphasize their points, and which visuals complement their argument.

I wish I could describe the looks on their faces today when I was trying my best to explain it. Forging into new territory can be hard work for all of us. It’s often difficult to explain something they’ve never done before, or that I’ve never assigned before. They have no reference for it. They’ve never used VoiceThread before.

But I have complete confidence in the ability of this class to create amazing Vessays. I’ve seen that expression on their faces before. It was the exact look they gave me the day I told them we were going to build a museum that had walls.  And that seems to have turned out okay.

About the author
Shelley Wright is a teacher and education blogger living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in Canada. She has taught high school English, science and technology, and currently works as a National Faculty member and PBL consultant for the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). Her passion is social justice and helping her students make the world a better place. She blogs at Wright’s Room. Follow her on Twitter at @wrightsroom.