Posted by: Heather Durnin | July 3, 2012

Strengthening Compassion via Half Brother & Project Nim

This year the Idea Hive read aloud featured the book, Half Brother by Canadian author Kenneth Oppel. The Idea Hive is two grade  7/8 classrooms located 2 700 km. apart in Wingham, Ontario and Snow Lake, Manitoba.  The story which was included in this year’s Red Maple selection (and the resulting winner) centres around 13 yr. old Ben and his relationship with a baby chimp Zan. Ben’s scientist parents are trying to prove that chimps can communicate with humans by teaching them sign language. Oppel’s synopsis:

“Ben Tomlin was an only child for thirteen years. Then his parents brought home a baby chimp. It isn’t long before Ben is Zan’s favourite, and Ben starts to see Zan as more than just an experiment. His father disagrees. Soon Ben is forced to make a critical choice between what he is told to believe and what he knows to be true — between obeying his father or protecting his brother from an unimaginable fate.”

Similar to our read aloud last year, my teaching partner Clarence Fisher or I read the novel to the students via Skype or on our radio station, 105theHive. One of us interacted with the students in the chat room while they listened. At the end of each reading, students posted their comments and reflections on an online sticky note. You can find links to all the chats and reflections on the Idea Hive site. Throughout the readings, students were asked a variety of thought-provoking questions including whether or not they agreed with the researcher’s distant approach to Zan, or life lessons that emerged as the characters developed. Some questions dealt with the humourous sections of the story as Ben attempted to win a girlfriend and so they provided relationship advice for Ben.

Once we were finished the book, Clarence and I planned to have our students watch the documentary Project Nim which mirrors the storyline in Half Brother. Before doing so, I posted the following on the Idea Hive website:

Summary from NPR article:

“In 1973, an infant chimpanzee was taken from his mother’s arms and sent to live with a human family as part of a Columbia University psychology experiment. The goal of the project was to see if the animal, named Nim Chimpsky, could be conditioned to communicate with humans if he was raised like a human child in a human household. He learned some very basic words in American Sign Language, but Nim continued to act like a chimp — he bit the children in the house and didn’t understand how to behave like a human child. It was decided that the family could no longer care for Nim, and he was shuffled from caretaker to caretaker for several years.”

Sound familiar?

We will be watching this recently released documentary, Project Nim, over two class periods. Afterwards you’ll be asked to write a blog post addressing the following issues:

What similarities and differences do you notice between Half Brother and Project Nim (characters, story line, setting etc.) ? What surprised you most in the documentary? What were you most disturbed about? What were you happiest about? What did you learn from the documentary that you hadn’t thought of before?

Students noticed a number of similarities, particularly the traits between the two key researchers. They were shocked at the differences portrayed between the chimps’ behaviour. In the novel, Zan was portrayed as a cute and intelligent chimp with a tendency for mischief and the odd bite. In the documentary, the dangerous, aggressive nature of mature chimps was much more evident. Students were disturbed by the scene showing chimpanzees being strapped onto a table for injections. Chimps who were raised as humans were stripped of their comforting toys and surroundings once the research trials had been disbanded. Frank and honest comments were posted on some of their blogs. “They made a huge commitment to Nim, treating him like a human,  and then they left. That’s animal cruelty.”

“We learned about how much of a traumatic change it was for Nim to go from living with humans to living with other chimps.  He wasn’t comfortable with them, and he suffered a lot.” Alyssa

After students had commented on each others’ blogs, they had questions surrounding the ethics of animal testing, so we asked a local veterinarian, Dr. Suzanne Baird, to address these. Dr. Baird visited our Wingham classroom and both classes listened to her either live or via 105thehive and a chat room. Dr. Baird provided a very balanced approach to the topic. Students learned not only about regulations regarding animal testing as well as the advances in human health that have come as a result. You can listen to the entire broadcast: Interview with Veterinarian, Dr. Suzanne Baird. Following her visit, students raised money by selling freezies at their annual ball tournament. This money was donated to Dr. Baird with the students’ request that it be used for the treatment of an animal where finances were limited.

Half Brother paired with Project Nim not only engaged our students, this project forced them to address some powerful, challenging questions regarding issues of animal testing. It strengthened their compassion for others.

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