"On Sunday There Might Be Americans" Lesson
"On Sunday There Might Be Americans," by former Peace Corps Volunteer Leslie Simmonds Ekstrom, was first published in Living on the Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers, a collection of Peace Corps Volunteer fiction edited by John Coyne (Curbstone Press). Many Peace Corps Volunteers are inspired to write about their encounters with other cultures—especially relationships or events that held great meaning for them. Often their writing is a way of preserving their memories of important people, stirring events, and significant places in their Peace Corps experience. Sometimes it is a way of thinking through differences in cultural values—or reflecting on personal changes they may have experienced as a result of their Peace Corps service. And sometimes it is a way of sorting through their experience of leaving the United States, a land of plenty, and encountering cultures and peoples who may lack the basic necessities of life.
Leslie Simmonds Ekstrom served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria, a country in West Africa, from 1963 to 1965. Before starting her story, she tells readers what prompted her to write it:
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I'd always loved being part of the excitement and commotion of an African marketplace. When I lived in Niger as a Peace Corps staff spouse, I didn't have the freedom I'd had as a [Peace Corps Volunteer] and I missed being "among the people" in a bush marketplace. Except for the sassy, noisy boys who demanded to guard your car, barter a price, or carry your loads, the market that most reminded me of my Volunteer days was at Ayorou, near the Mali border. One Sunday at Ayorou, a small boy followed me all through the market. He was shy and hesitant and I thought I could ditch him, but then he'd reappear in my shadow again. I finally paid him to go away. But I kept thinking about him—what his life might be like, how he perceived Westerners, and how easily Westerners become oblivious to the lives of ordinary people like him. Trying to imagine his life, I wrote "On Sunday There Might Be Americans."
"On Sunday There Might Be Americans" is a story about many things: It's about a young boy taking responsibility for his family's survival; about how close family bonds bring balance to difficult economic conditions; about a young boy's hopes and dreams; and about how it feels to be overlooked and ignored.
On the deepest level, it is a story about seeing yet not seeing others. The difference between seeing people only with our eyes and seeing them with our minds and hearts is immense. This story is a way for you to explore these issues with your students. It is also an opportunity for your students to experience what it's like to grow up in a culture very different from their own.
Ekstrom's nonfiction articles and commentary pieces have been published in numerous community publications, as well as the Washington Post. Her fiction has appeared in The Bridge, a national publication on cross-cultural affairs.
About the setting
Niger, in West Africa, a country of 10 million people, is located in sub-Saharan Africa, south of Algeria and Libya and east of Mali. The Sahara extends into Niger's northern regions. Located close to the Equator, Niger has extremely high daytime temperatures and little rainfall in many regions. Drought is the main threat to food production, and malnutrition is a persistent health problem. Many Peace Corps Volunteers work in rural areas of Niger to improve the nutritional status of children and pregnant women.
According to World Bank data, Niger is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. In statistics for the year 2000, Niger ranked 173 out of 174 on the United Nations Human Development Index—an assessment of social, health, and economic conditions. According to Peace Corps data, roughly 25 percent of children in Niger under the age of two are malnourished, resulting in one of the world's highest infant mortality rates. Nearly a third of the children born in Niger die before age five from malnutrition and poor health conditions. The life expectancy for the total population is 45 years. According to World Bank statistics for 1999, only 23 percent of Nigeriens over age 15 can read and write, and only 24 percent of school-age students attend school.
Niger is pronounced either NY-jer or nee-ZHAIR.
- Provide students with information about Niger presented in the background section. Show students a map of Africa and point out Niger, in West Africa.
- Ask students what they think the lives of Nigerien [nee-zhair-ee-EN] children and teenagers must be like. Give the students an opportunity to share their thoughts with a partner.
- Explain to students how Leslie Simmonds Ekstsrom came to write "On Sunday There Might Be Americans," using the information provided in the background section. Ask students what they think Ekstrom might have wanted readers to be thinking about as they read her story.
- Tell students they will be reading about a day in the life of Musa, a 12-year-old Nigerien boy. Refer them to the vocabulary list, then have them read the story. Ask them to try to visualize the different scenes in the story as if they were creating "a movie in their minds." Also ask them to highlight sentences or passages of particular meaning to them and to jot down notes in the margins regarding anything that may raise questions or cause confusion.
- When students have finished reading the story, ask them to form groups of three and share their highlights and questions. Then conduct a class discussion to address anything the students are confused about or that raises questions.
- Point out to students that there is no one right answer when trying to interpret a story. Different individuals will respond to a story in different ways, based on their own perspectives and life experiences. Suggest that reading a story is enriched by hearing many different interpretations and then selecting those that have the most meaning. With these thoughts in mind, ask students:
- What do you find significant about this story?
- What ideas do you think Ekstrom wanted her readers to be thinking about?
- As you conduct a discussion about these questions, some students may focus on the personal and cultural differences between Musa's life and their own. Some may focus on the relationships in Musa's family. Others may focus on the issue of poverty. And still others may focus on the way the American woman was so caught up in her own world that she simply ignored Musa and what his needs might have been. All these interpretations will help students recognize the many rich facets of "On Sunday There Might Be Americans."
- Additional questions to stimulate discussion (have students discuss these questions with a partner before beginning a class discussion):
- Why did Ekstrom choose this particular title for her story? Does the title make sense to you? Why or why not? Is there another title you would have used?
- Why do you think the author ends her story the way she does? Remind students that since this story is fictional, the author could have ended it any way she wished. So why this particular ending?
- Journal Entry. For homework, ask students to reread the story, complete Worksheet #5: Story Frame, and respond in their Reading Journals to the following prompts:
- What does this story leave you wishing you knew more about?
- What experiences does this story make you think of?
- What do you think is really important about this story?
Note to Teachers
In preparation for the next day's lesson, here are approaches of a more factual nature to check students' comprehension of the story:
- Describe Musa's surroundings and what they tell you about his life and economic situation. Who are the people living in the same compound with Musa? What does this tell you about the local cultural family traits?
- Explain the dynamics between the pack of boys "hovering near the hotel gates" and the people driving the cars through the gates.
- How does the man in the white Peugeot respond as the pack of boys circles the car? What do you think of his response? How would you have responded?
- When one of the Fulani (a nomadic tribe) girls looked at Musa, "speaking to him with her eyes," he didn't "answer back." Later, when the Bela (another nomadic tribe) girls were "flashing their eyes at him," this time he looked back. What do these encounters reveal? How can you relate to this?
- As Musa looks at his reflection far off in the hotel doors, he thinks about what could be in his future. What are his dreams? How are they like yours? How are they different?
- Reread the dialogue at the end of the story between Musa and his mother. What is taking place between the two of them? Do you think Musa's mother understands what really happened at the market? What keeps Musa going back to the market on Sundays?
- Tell students that you'd like to try a visualization strategy—forming a picture in the mind—to help them increase their comprehension of the story. You will be focusing not only on mental pictures but also on feelings. You would like them to put themselves in Musa's place and try to "walk in Musa's shoes." Ask students to close their eyes and picture in their minds the following:
- Musa holding his baby sister in his lap and feeding her his porridge.
- How Musa must have felt as he was walking in the crowd of people going to the town market.
- All the boys swarming around the large green car filled with wealthy Europeans going to the hotel. Feel how Musa must have felt as he watched them.
- How Musa felt when he looked inside the hotel gates.
- Musa following the American woman around the market hoping she would ask for his help.
- Musa being distracted by the shy Bela girl.
- How Musa felt when the American woman allowed him to be the go-between so that she could buy a bracelet.
- How Musa must have felt in the heat of the day when the American woman went into the hotel.
- How Musa must have felt looking into the hotel knowing that this world was closed to him and that he could not go in.
- How Musa must have felt when he realized he had slept too long and woke up to find that the Americans were leaving.
- What Musa must have felt when the American woman said to him: "Oh, I forgot about you."
- Musa returning home to his family with nothing to show for his day at the market. Feel how he must have been feeling.
- How he must have felt when he returned home and his mother offered him a fresh, warm bowl of porridge.
- How Musa must have felt when he told his mother he would try again next week because "Americans come every Sunday."
- In a class discussion, ask students:
- What visual images in the story were particularly striking to you?
- How easy or difficult was it for you to put yourself in Musa's shoes? Why?
- What makes it hard to see the world from another person's point of view?
- Did the American woman see the world from Musa's point of view? Why or why not?
- How do you learn to see things from another person's point of view? Why bother?
- Now ask students to turn to the Worksheet #5: Story Frame (find link above) and questions they responded to in their homework. Have students compare their Story Frame in groups of four. Tell students not to expect that each Story Frame will be the same. Different students will think that different things are important in the story. Ask them to see what they can learn from their group's Story Frames.
- After five minutes or so, ask several volunteers to share the content of their Story Frames with the class.
- Then have students discuss their responses to the journal prompts they completed for homework. Remind them that these are not easy questions to answer and, in fact, there is not one right answer to the questions. These are questions that call for personal interpretation. Encourage students to express many different ideas and to back them up with quotations from the text.
- What does this story leave you wishing you knew more about?
- What other experiences does this story make you think of?
- What do you think is really important about this story?
- One way to encourage students to express different points of view is to remain nonjudgmental about their responses. Remind students always to support their viewpoints with examples from the text.
- Graphic Representations. Allow sufficient time for a discussion of these questions. Then ask students to form groups of three. Give each group a large sheet of paper and some felt-tipped markers in various colors. Ask the groups to draw symbols, sketches, or other graphic representations that capture the main ideas in "On Sunday There Might Be Americans." Research (Marzano et al., 2001) has shown that when students are able to represent key ideas nonlinguistically, their comprehension increases.
- As students may not have enough time to complete this activity in class, ask each student to come up with his or her own symbols, images, or sketches for homework. Ask students also to look in various magazines for photos that may represent the main ideas of the story and to bring these photos to class. Let students know that in the next session they will return to their same group of three and finish their graphic representations of the main ideas of "On Sunday There Might Be Americans."
- Have students rejoin their groups of three and complete their graphic representations. Provide glue sticks to groups that have magazine photos to add.
- After groups have completed this assignment, ask each group of three to share their graphic representations with the class. Then, post each group's graphic representation on the walls around the room.
- Cooperative Learning Activity. Reassemble the class into no more than five groups. Give each group a number from one to five. Explain that you will give each group a different question to respond to.
- Here are some suggested questions. Write each on a separate sheet of paper. Number each paper with the question number. Staple three or four sheets of blank paper behind the paper with the question on it.
- In what ways did the American woman not really "see" Musa? If the American woman had been able to see Musa not only with her eyes but also with her mind and heart, what do you think she would have done differently? Why?
- How do you think the world within the hotel gates and walls is different from the world Musa lives in? What does it feel like to be an outsider?
- Musa wonders "why Allah had made the world unevenly." Why does he wonder this?
- What disturbed you most about the story "On Sunday There Might Be Americans"? Why?
- Like the American woman, sometimes we are so caught up in our own worlds that we really don't see others—or realize how they might see us. How could we change this? What would we need to do differently?
- Once you have prepared the questions, explain to the five groups that each will be receiving a different question about the story. Each group's task is to read the question, discuss possible answers, arrive at the best answer(s), and write them on the attached sheets of blank paper. Each group will have five to seven minutes to do this. Ask each group to select a discussion leader, a timekeeper, a "gatekeeper" (explained momentarily), a recorder, and a reporter. (The discussion leader's role is to read each question to the group, to read previous responses to the question to the group, to make sure that each group member has a chance to contribute to the discussion, and to permit only one person to speak at a time. This role is an important one, so you will want to make sure that the class knows these ground rules. The gatekeeper's role is to support the discussion leader by ensuring that all members are being listened to. The recorder's role is to write down the group's responses to each question. The reporter gives the final summary, and the timekeeper gives the "two-minute" warning.)
- Call "time" at the end of seven minutes, at which time each group passes its question and answers to the adjacent group. In this way, each group will have a new question to answer, but may benefit from thinking about the answers from the group that previously answered that particular question.
- Repeat the process, call time, and have each group again pass its question to the adjacent group. Ask the discussion leaders to read the group's new question, as well as the answers from the previous group(s).The process repeats itself for a total of five rounds until each group has its original question back.
- At this point the groups read all the responses to their original question and discuss and reflect on the responses in order to present a summary of the responses to the whole class. Ask each group's reporter to present a summary of the responses to their question to the whole class.
- Since this is a cooperative group process, it works best when each member of the group has a role to play.
- Journal Entry. In all likelihood, it will take the rest of the class period to complete this activity, so you will need to process it the next day. For homework, ask students to respond to the following prompts in their Reading Journals:
- As I think about the activity we just completed, here are some things that I came to realize about the story's meaning that I hadn't thought of before:
- As I think about "On Sunday There Might Be Americans," what surprises me is …
- Ask students to share their journal responses from the night before with a partner and then in a class discussion.
- Character can sometimes be viewed as the mark you leave on another person. Ask students:
- What impression or mark did Musa leave on the American woman?
- What impression or mark did the American woman leave on Musa?
- What impression or mark did Musa leave on you?
- What do you see as Musa's strength of character? What are the character traits that most impress you about Musa?
- After exploring these questions, talk with students about the ways they think reading can provide new perspectives on the world. Ask what new perspective they gained on the world as a result of reading "On Sunday There Might Be Americans."
- Talk to students about the ways they think writing can help us make sense of confusing or complicated experiences. Ask why Ekstrom might have written "On Sunday There Might Be Americans." What was she trying to make sense of?
Frameworks and standards
- Sometimes we are so caught up in our own world that we really don't "see" others—or realize how they might see us.
- To avoid misunderstanding—or possibly hurting—others, we need to see the world from their perspective, in addition to our own.
- Reading enables us to see the world from many different perspectives and expand our worldview.
- How do you learn to see things from another person's—or another culture's—perspective? Why bother?
- What does it take to put ourselves in another's shoes? Why bother?
- How does reading help us expand our perspective on the world, ourselves, and others?
National Council of Teachers of English/International Reading Association
Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world.
Standard 2: Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions of human experience.
Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
Standard 5: Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
National Council for the Social Studies
Theme 1: Culture. Social studies programs should provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity so that the learner can explain how information and experiences may be interpreted by people from diverse cultural perspectives and frames of reference.
- Responding Through a Personal Narrative: Write a personal narrative, using (or adapting) one of the scenarios below:
- Describe a time when someone (a friend, teacher, coach, group of kids) made a you feel completely left out, invisible, disregarded, or ignored—or a time when you made someone else feel that way.
- Describe a time when someone seemed completely oblivious of your feelings and needs—or when you were oblivious of his or hers.
- Describe the similarities and differences between a Sunday in your life and a Sunday in Musa's life. What are the reasons your life is the way it is, and what are the reasons Musa's life is the way it is? What does comparing your lives make you think about? Describe a "new Sunday" in Musa's life the way you'd like it to be.
- Responding Through Fiction: Write a piece of fiction based on one of the ideas below. Your fictional account should include characterization, description, setting, and dialogue.
- Rewrite the ending of "On Sunday There Might Be Americans" in a way that is credible to readers, based on what they know about Musa and his situation.
- Write a sequel to "On Sunday There Might Be Americans" that begins at the point where the short story ends.
- Responding Through Letter Writing: Write three letters: the first from you to Musa; the second from Musa to you in response to your letter; and the third from you to Musa in response to his letter to you. Or write a series of letters from you to the American woman and from the American woman to you.
- Responding Through Poetry: Compose a narrative poem about Musa that captures the essence of "On Sunday There Might Be Americans"—and that also captures the way in which this story relates to your own life.