Tree Shaker: Nelson Mandela Biography Open Response for English Teachers

Nelson Mandela passed away on December 5 of this year.  It was around this time of year a year ago that I read a biography of his, Tree Shaker, by Bill Keller.  I read this book in order to create a sample assessment for students.

Instead of assessing students by assigning a generic book report, one of the options is to have them an Open Response Test, a test made up of open questions that are answered at length.  In this way, students essentially create a composition out of responses by answering questions that are both specific and generic in a way that can apply to any biography.  I don’t know who first came up with the Open Response Test, but I’ve come up with this list of questions to apply to the reading of a biography.

Below is a sample assessment, with my responses to my own questions given as exemplar student responses:

The purpose of this test is to assess your comprehension of the biography you read.  Rather than write a summary, you are to answer the questions that pertain to the details in the individual’s life that are significant to their character.

These short essays questions are not about a right or wrong answer, but are based on how you react to the biography.

1. What childhood experience do you think most shaped who this figure would become, and why?
Nelson Mandela’s circumcision was the point in his life when he became a man.  When people of his Xhosa tribe turn 16, they enter into a circumcision ritual that last for weeks and represents a turning point in their life.  They aren’t supposed to show any fear, and when it happens they have to scream out, “I am a man!”  Then their faces get painted.  Nelson was embarrassed that he was so afraid and hurting at first, he forgot to scream out.  He realized that he needed to be a man and one day be a great tribe leader.

2. What important societal, political, or cultural background do you think most challenged this figure, and why?
The South African system of Apartheid went on for over 200 years.  According to the biography, “their goal was to push the Africans off the most desirable land and contain them on reservations” (20).  When Mandela was born, this system kept the native blacks in ghettos and fake “homelands” while the whites, called Afrikaners, enjoyed a more luxurious and privileged life.
3. What decision or event in this figure’s early adulthood do you think first led them to discover who they would become and what they would do, and why?
Mandela engaged in his first protest in 1943, marching with the African National Congress to protest against a rise in fare on buses serving Africans.  This was shortly after he met Walter Sisulu, who helped him discover his potential for leading the African people.

4. What do you think became this figure’s greatest goal or aspiration as they became an adult, and why?
Nelson Mandela made it his goal to fight for equal rights for Africans.  He protested and debated, even risking imprisonment for his belief.  At one point, he even thought of using violence to accomplish what he wanted.  Keller even describes him as a “neglectful husband” and a “distracted father” because of his dedication to the movement (88).
5. What yo you think became this figure’s greatest challenge to their goal or aspiration, and why?
Mandela was sentenced to prison, where he remained for twenty years.  From prison he was unable to reach people like he did before.  He was isolated from the world.  He was denied his freedom in this prison, and had to fight inside himself to hold on to his hope.  He would do things like stage work slowdowns at the rock quarry where they made him work.  He and his fellow inmates found ways to survive and protest from within the prison.

6. What do you think was the most controversial aspect of this figure’s life and accomplishments?
A leader like Mandela had many things controversial about his leadership, connections, decisions, and stances.  As Keller says, “he was willing to let innocent people die in the cause of liberation.  He befriended some terrible despots from other countries and kept quiet about their cruelties because they supported the South African struggle” (88).  A politician will never be able to please everybody, and Mendela displeased a lot of people.

7. If you tend more to admire this figure, what do you admire most?  If you tend to look down on this figure, what do find you the most disappointing or shameful?  Why?
What I most admire about Mendela is his ability to make unpopular compromises that accomplished equality, even when he had the potential to reverse injustice and insight rebellion.  He did not seek to just punish the white world and give their spoils to his people.  He sought comprehensive reform that established better equality, but unified the country of South Africa and its several factions as best he could.

8. What do you believe is this figure’s ultimate legacy to the world?
I believe that Nelson Mandela’s ultimate legacy is his wisdom and passion that helped him maintain his commitment to a better promise for future generations.  Even thought he was imprisoned for a quarter of his life, he remained committed to his values and his hope, inspiring others.  Mandela struggled through numerous societal and legal battles, demonstrating to the world that longsuffering through life’s trials is worth a good cause.

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