Our story starts in a Berlin laboratory in December of 1938. A German chemist named Otto Hahn discovers that when a uranium atom is placed next to radioactive material, it splits in two. In doing so, it releases a tiny burst of energy—just enough to make a grain of sand jump. Hahn’s discovery spurs a race within the scientific community across three continents to develop the most destructive weapon ever known to mankind. This is the thrilling—and very real—story of Bomb, Steve Sheinkin’s book recounting the development of the first atomic bomb.
This year, all incoming ninth grade students read Bomb as their summer reading assignment. Because of its close connection to topics covered in John Beloff’s ninth grade Topics in Modern American History class (TMA), which starts the year studying the Manhattan Project, and the themes of heroism and hard choices that define the ninth grade English curriculum, Bomb was an ideal vehicle to encourage students and faculty to think across disciplines. “Students often see their subjects as having strong boundaries between them,” says English Department Chair Paul Abeln. “It’s important for students to see those boundaries as permeable and think beyond disciplines.”
The Complexities of Character
Bomb casts a spotlight on an incredible turning point in history and how leading figures justified—or struggled to justify—their role in creating and using the bomb. In that sense, it’s a very human story. Robert Oppenheimer, the wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory where the bomb was developed, pushes himself to his physical limits to build the bomb and then struggles with the consequences of his achievement. President Harry Truman has to make the difficult decision of whether to drop the bomb —not once, but twice. Manhattan Project spies Ted Hall and Klaus Fuchs hand inside information on the bomb to the Soviets for their own political and ethical reasons. Analyzing these real-life characters in both history and English class impressed upon students the humanity behind the history. “This and every other historical story is a human story at its core,” says John. “What is it like to be Harry Truman walking the halls of the White House at night by yourself and to have these huge decisions to make under impossible circumstances?”
In English, students approached their study of the characters through creative writing assignments. English teacher Deb Smith challenged her students to write from the perspective of a character in the story, focusing on how that individual felt about his or her role in history. Paul’s students wrote poetry in the voice of either a central figure in the story like Truman or Oppenheimer or an ancillary figure like a survivor of Hiroshima.
These character studies will echo throughout the year as students encounter other literary characters who face hard choices. “Oppenheimer’s crisis of conscience and the notion of the wages of sin is something that we see again in Beowulf and Macbeth,” says Paul, where the parallels between Oppenheimer and Lady Macbeth are particularly striking.
The interdisciplinary approach to Bomb also helped students think deeply about the immediate and long-term consequences of dropping the bomb. An early writing assignment had John’s students considering the difficult question: If the United States had shared everything about the Manhattan Project from day one, would there have been a Cold War? The ripple effect of the bomb continues throughout the year in TMA as students study the Cuban Missile Crisis, Korea and Vietnam, and the Cold War.
In English, Paul encouraged students to make connections to other points in history by writing about other moments that had a transformational cultural impact. Students talked about the cultural resonance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech or how technology has forever changed how we communicate. The idea that we are all living in a unique moment in history was another resonant theme. Just as the students looked back on the events of the 1940s in Bomb, Paul encouraged them to imagine themselves as a student in 2050, looking back on 2016 and writing about the choices that we are making as a society today.
The interdisciplinary approach to Bomb has also prompted multicultural and multigenerational approaches to understanding history. In Deb’s English class, several ninth grade boarders from Japan shared perspectives on the cultural mindset in Japan and explored why it was so difficult for the Japanese to surrender even after Hiroshima. In February, members of the Southborough Senior Center will meet with Fay ninth graders to discuss their lives during other times of war, further enriching the students’ understanding of how history has unfolded.