Tag Archives: literature

Teaching “A Modest Proposal”

A Modest ProposalI enjoy teaching “A Modest Proposal.” I think in many cases it’s the first time students have been introduced to satire on that level. Sometimes my students are appalled at Swift for even suggesting such a thing—and that’s the point, isn’t it? To be appalled?

I don’t do anything magical when I teach it, and it’s certainly not creative or new, but maybe sharing what I do will help along someone whose never taught it before, and others of you who do fun things with it—feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

First, I think you need to introduce the concept of satire. I share an article from The Onion without telling students that’s where it’s from. You can take your pick, but one of my history teacher friends gave me this one that she has used for DBQ’s in AP European History: “Industrial Revolution Provides Millions of Out-of-Work Children with Jobs.” The themes of both this article and Swift’s essay are similar—the exploitation of children for the benefit of adults, the loss of childhood innocence, harsh conditions for children.

Read the article and generate discussion. Ask students if they agree with it. They’ll probably say no. Ask why. What’s wrong with it? If they don’t figure out it’s satire, you need to lead them toward that conclusion. Then ask them to generate a definition for satire based on their understanding of what it is. Compare that definition to the one provided by your book or dictionary of literary terms. Ask what is the point of satire? Why not just present the problem and the solution in a realistic way? Why not just directly present an issue? What does satire accomplish? Have them list forms of satire they’re familiar with—mine shared mostly TV, but some of your students will know about The Onion or maybe even M.A.D. Magazine.

Next we look at the argument The Onion article made by analyzing the subject, occasion, audience, purpose, and speaker. I use the acronym SOAPS. Subject: What is this article about? Occasion: Why was it written? What is going on at the time that the author is mocking? Audience: Who is this article aimed at? Purpose: What does the author hope to achieve by writing it? and Speaker: How does the author establish himself/herself as an authority on the subject?

My students told me that the subject was children working in the industrial revolution. The occasion was the current economy and large number of out-of-work adults—they felt perhaps the author was drawing attention to the fact that times have been worse. Audience they felt could be virtually anyone living through our current tough economy. They felt the purpose was to give the reader historical perspective, to think about the difficult lives of children in the past. Finally, they felt using quotes from fake historians and the overall tone of the article established the speaker as someone to listen to. Of course, we talked about the rhetorical triangle in context of this analysis, too.

After we analyze The Onion article, we begin “A Modest Proposal.” I think the vocabulary is fairly difficult, so I read it in class with students. We stop and talk to clarify and define vocabulary. After reading the first few paragraphs, before Swift makes his proposal, I ask students what they think he will suggest. How would they solve poverty and hunger? They offer suggestions, and no one in my class at least thought of cannibalizing babies. After reading and discussing the entire essay and analyzing it as we did The Onion article, discussing the article’s effectiveness in drawing attention to the issue, discussing some of Swift’s better barbs, and in particular, drawing attention to the paragraph in which Swift reveals several reasonable solutions to the problems—taxing absentee landlords, manufacturing luxury goods in Great Britain, etc.—I suggest students write their own modest proposal modeled after Swift’s. It’s not the most creative assignment; I did the same assignment myself in high school, so I know I’m not the first person to come up with it. However, it remains my favorite assignment from high school, and I think it gives students free rein to go kind of crazy with their writing and still exercise persuasive writing skills.

We start by generating a list of social issues. Students should think of an outlandish solution to that problem. They should include a paragraph like Swift’s in which they introduce solutions that are actually reasonable and workable only to explain why the reader should not speak to the writer of such untenable solutions. Swift’s essay makes an excellent model for how to proceed. Students may need to do some research about their issue, too. Students usually have a lot of fun with this essay, but it’s also a great assignment for teaching rhetoric and argumentative writing.

Oh, and I still remember what I wrote about for my own essay in high school. Some of you older teachers remember the garbage barge full of NYC trash that had no place to dump? It was an issue in the news when I was in high school. Well, if we have no place to dump our trash, we should dump it in developing countries. Perhaps the toxicity of living with our trash would cause the inhabitants to die off, solving two problems in one: we would have a place for our trash, and we could stop supplying aid to developing countries and use the money for ourselves (preferably luxury goods).

Creative Commons License photo credit: Charlie & Kasie Bennett

Related posts:

Evaluating Materials

49/365 - summer reading.I have been lying in bed all weekend, trying to get over a bout of the flu. I decided to preview a video I asked our media specialist to buy for our library: Great Books: Wuthering Heights. If you are unfamiliar with the Great Books series, they are actually fairly good documentaries about books produced by Discovery Schools. Back in the day when TLC used to be an acronym for “The Learning Channel,” and as such, actually produced educational content, the Great Books series could sometimes be caught on broadcast on that channel.

I disagree with a few conclusions drawn in the Great Books episode on Wuthering Heights. Emily Brontë is known to have been an intensely private person. She was furious when her sister Charlotte read poetry Emily had written. When Anne and Charlotte went to London to reveal their identities to their publishers, Emily refused to go and insisted upon remaining anonymous. She was again angry with Charlotte when Charlotte revealed that “Ellis Bell” was her sister. However, the DVD conflates this desire for privacy or perhaps even shyness (although I admit I don’t know enough about Emily to determine if she was shy) with “madness.” At one point, the video points out, rather boldly and without explanation or foundation, that because Emily enjoyed writing about her fantasy world of Gondal, she was “in danger of losing her mind.” Later, the video concludes that she based her character Heathcliff on herself, again without presenting evidence or explanation.

My first thought was that if I were a student watching this video, which seemed authoritative and informative, I might take these statements at face value rather than question them. After all, they are produced by Discovery School, so one can infer they are accurate, reliable, and educationally sound. I suppose if I’m going anywhere with this thinking-aloud exercise, it is here: it’s critical for teachers to evaluate materials they are thinking of presenting to their students, but more importantly, it’s critical to do your own research as well. If I had seen this video ten years ago as a relatively new teacher, I might not have questioned some of the conclusions drawn by the video’s producers because I myself didn’t have the slightest knowledge about Emily Brontë’s life, and while I’m far from an expert now, I have at least learned enough both in content and as a critical thinker to discern the accuracy of materials I’m previewing. Instead, I came away from the video feeling that the producers had not given Emily Brontë much credit for possessing an imagination that allowed her to write fantasy stories without necessarily living in a fantasy world or to create a character purely out of a talented gift as a writer. Of course, not wanting to give Emily Brontë much credit for her imagination is not new, but one would hope educational materials produced in 2005 would be more enlightened in their view. If I were to use this video with my students, I would challenge them to locate evidence regarding the conclusions drawn in the video. It might be a good critical thinking exercise for them. However, my instinct says not to show it. With no abundance of time and no shortage of materials, it is not the best course of action, in my mind, to use class time for materials I find misleading at best, erroneous at worst.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Elemeno_Pea

Related posts:

Beowulf: Lost in Translation

A lot of folks do a translation exercise with Beowulf.  If I remember correctly, the old Scott, Foresman books I used in high school had one.  This ReadWriteThink lesson plan looks like a good one.  I created one for my own students, and I thought I’d share it here.

This translation exercise examines one of my favorite parts of the poem: the scene when Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off.  I took four translations done by Michael Alexander, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland, and Constance Hieatt.  The last is a prose translation.  I found all of these translations at BeowulfTranslations.net.

After examining the translations, students will answer the questions on the second page (I refer on the handout to pages on the reverse because I always make double-sided copies when I can).  The excerpts in our particular texbook, Prentice Hall’s Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The British Tradition (also true of their new Penguin edition, though pages differ) are from the Burton Raffel translation.  This is most likely because the Raffel translation is published by Signet, who is owned by Penguin-Putnam.  I’m not sure of the exact relationship between Penguin and Prentice Hall, but there appears to be some sort of understanding.  If readers know, feel free to chime in.

These are the questions:

  1. Compare the translations. What are the major differences that you see? The major similarities?
  2. Burton Raffel translated the version in your textbook (p. 48, lines 381-393) in 1963. Compare this version with the others on the reverse.
  3. Which translation do you think is most interesting/exciting/easy to understand/appealing?
  4. What Anglo-Saxon literary devices that we’ve studied (kennings, caesuras, alliteration) appear? In which versions are these devices preserved?
  5. Which Anglo-Saxon literary devices don’t seem to translate well—in other words, they don’t appear to be easy for translators to work into their versions of Beowulf? Speculate: why do you think this might be?
  6. I included one prose translation of Beowulf, though many more exist.  How do you think a prose translation differs from a poetic one? What qualities might be compromised in a prose translation?
  7. What conclusions can you draw about the process of translation?
  8. What would your advice be to translators (consider the following:  What do they need to think about in order to produce a readable translation that is still faithful to the spirit of the poem? What should they avoid doing?)

I freely admit an affinity for the Heaney translation, but I think others make a more poetic statement with this particular passage.  I am not a huge fan of Raffel’s translation, despite having written a teacher’s guide for this version.  What I hope students gain from this exercise is an understanding that translation is somewhat subjective.  They may not be getting the most accurate, word-for-word version in modern English, and different translators focus on different elements.  Like the ReadWriteThink lesson states, I want them to understand translations are rarely the literary works themselves so much as they are an “imaginative reconstruction” of these works.  I also want them to think about the number of decisions translators must face.

You can download the handouts here:

They are also available on the Handouts page.

Related posts:

Brave New World

My 11th grade British literature classes read three books as part of a summer reading assignment: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester.

The way we typically assess summer reading is to have students complete a test, writing assignment, or project on two of the books without any discussion of the novel.  We discuss the third as the first unit of the year.  I actually like Dorian Gray the best of the three, but I think Brave New World has meatier discussion material, so I am starting the school year with that text.  I have already begun discussions with one class, and so far, I am really intrigued.  The way I figure it, I have one of the best jobs in the world because I get paid to discuss literature with smart kids.

I hate to recycle, but we just started back to school, and until I get my rhythm, posting will be light.  However, some of you might be interested in checking out the unit plan I wrote for Brave New World, including the final assessment.  I had fun with this assignment last year, and I had some students who produced some impressive work.

Related posts:

Choosing Books for Students

Reading SiddharthaHow do you decide what your students read?

For many of us, which books we have available in the book room or which books are approved by the school system’s list may limit our choices.

I had a conversation the other day with an English student teacher I know, and she was telling me of her frustrations that her college is pushing her to integrate YA lit into her lesson plans, while the school where she is student teaching is advising her to limit her selections to the book room.  I remember taking a course in YA lit in college, and while I loved my professor, the venerable Dr. Agee, who has since retired from UGA, I was never able to use much of what I learned in the class in my high school teaching experience.  NCTE also pushes YA lit, to the point of recommending (or they did when I was in college, anyway) books like From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges Between Young Adult Literature and the Classics by Sarah K. Herz and Donald R. Gallo — a book whose purpose is to help teachers learn which YA books might be paired with classics already in the classroom.

I actually really like YA lit.  I am reading New Moon, the second book in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga.  I am a total Harry Potter nut.  For my money, The Giver is one of the best dystopian novels I’ve ever read (I love dystopian novels, too), and the only part of teaching middle school that I really enjoyed was teaching The Giver.  I don’t mean to discourage YA lit.  I think the agenda of our education schools and NCTE is clear — let’s present our students with age-appropriate literature that will grab them.  I agree that students should be encouraged to read YA lit, but I’m not sure that I agree we need to let it take over the high school curriculum, and I don’t agree with Teri Lesesne (in the article “Question for the Ages” below), who says that The Catcher in the Rye, The Scarlet Letter, and Beowulf are more appropriate in college.  I have successfully taught all three books in high school, and I would even argue that Catcher is best suited for high school — the symbolism is easy, making it a great introduction to symbolism, and students around Holden’s age relate to him.

Some more reading on the subject:

If you have more research or articles on the use of YA lit in the high school classroom and/or selecting age-appropriate books for students, feel free to share in the comments.

Image credit: Nick Today.

Related posts:

If You Liked…

In our high school literature studies, we often stick to tried and true classics, which is fine. There are very good reasons why these books are classics. But what if you want to read something newer, but somehow related to a classic? What if you want to extend learning for your students and want to choose a similar book? What if your students must read a certain number of books to fulfill state objectives (Georgia’s GPS require students to read 20 books a year) and you want to steer them toward books related to others you have studied?

I provide you with ten recommendations for extension. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments.

Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund

Read it with Moby Dick by Herman Melville

What it’s about: In a small passage in his chapter, “The Symphony,” Melville’s Captain Ahab tells Starbuck about his young wife. As God fashioned Eve from Adam’s rib, so Naslund from Melville’s brief description creates Una, who begins her own narrative no less memorably than Ishmael began his: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Una’s story is every bit as fascinating as that of her husband. She meets and rubs shoulders with such ninethenth century luminaries as Margaret Fuller, Maria Mitchell, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The book is a lush garden of literary allusion, from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene to Homer’s Odyssey.

Why students should read it: Naslund’s Una is one of the literary characters you will wish you could meet in real life. She is vibrant and real. Students will learn a great deal about mid-nineteenth century life and history from reading the book, too. The prose is gorgeous literary fiction.

A Thousand AcresA Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Read it with King Lear by William Shakespeare

What it’s about: Larry Cook, a farmer in Zebulon County, Iowa, decides to divide his thousand-acre farm among his three daughters, Ginny, Rose and Caroline, insisting he is saving them an inheritance tax. The daughters do not want him to do this, but Larry possesses a single-mindedness that will not be crossed. When Caroline objects more firmly, she is cut out of the deal. The family gradually implodes under Larry’s seeming madness, a suit to get back his land, and Ginny and Rose’s competition for the affections of neighbor’s son Jess Clark.

Why students should read it: This Pulitzer-prize winning novel closely mimics the plot of King Lear, but gives Lear’s daughters some depth — while Goneril and Regan are “unnatural hags,” Ginny and Rose have good reasons for hating their father, and Caroline is not the unflinchingly honest daughter that Cordelia is. Students will see quite clearly how Shakespeare’s timeless stories and themes still apply to readers today. Students will be fascinated by how Smiley takes a quintessentially British author’s story and makes it profoundly American.

A Lesson Before DyingA Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Read it with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

What it’s about: Jefferson is a young black man who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Falsely accused of murder, tried by a jury of his white “peers,” and sentenced to death by electrocution by a dismissive judge, Jefferson believes the defense attorney’s closing argument, which compares him to a “hog.” Grant Wiggins (no relation to Grant of UbD fame!), a teacher at the black school in the Quarter, is employed by Jefferson’s godmother to help Jefferson die like a man.

Why students should read it: While To Kill a Mockingbird works because a child who doesn’t understand why certain things should be reports what she sees, this novel works because a jaded, bruised, and downtrodden teacher who is all too acutely aware of the oppression of racism tells us the story of the journey to self-discovery. It’s a powerful book, and through a study with To Kill a Mockingbird would make for interesting exploration into the justice system as it existed in the 1930’s and 1940’s, as well as questions of inequity in education and living conditions. Both teach profound lessons about acceptance and love.

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

Read it with The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and/or Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

What it’s about: Gerard Freeman is an Australian librarian who lives with his mother — a clingy, obsessive woman afraid above all that Gerard will leave her. His only real friend is a pen-friend, Alice Jessell, an English woman with an injury which confines her to a wheelchair. Though the two have never met, they have been corresponding since they were 13 and eventually fall in love. Intensely curious about his mother’s past after finding short fiction written by her grandmother, Viola, Gerard travels to England to see Miss Jessell and learn more about the darkest secrets of his mother’s past.

Why students should read it: If your students thought Miss Havisham was deliciously creepy and loved the haunted Victorian feel of The Turn of the Screw, they will enjoy Harwood’s love letter to both novels. Viola’s creepy short stories are as delightful as the novel itself and would be good illustrations of the “story within a story” idea that students might encounter in other works, such as Hamlet.

The Poisonwood BibleThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Read it with Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

What it’s about: Baptist minister Nathan Price takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo [Democratic Republic of the Congo] to serve as missionaries right before that country’s independence from Belgium. The story is told through the viewpoint of Orleanna Price, Nathan’s wife, and each of his four daughters: Rachel, Adah, Leah, and Ruth May. Africa has a way of getting under the skin of the Price family women, each in a different way, and the book is a grim illustration of America’s own culpability in the devastation of colonialism on the African continent.

Why students should read it: The novel is rich in gorgeous prose and biblical allusion and shows readers a side of colonialism that is an interesting counterpoint to Conrad’s vision in Heart of Darkness. Kingsolver has a gift for creating vivid, realistic characters and bringing her setting into vivid relief (see also her novel The Bean Trees for an example set in America).

The Dante ClubThe Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

Read it with The Inferno by Dante and/or selections from the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the other “Fireside Poets.”

What it’s about: A murderer is stalking Boston. Strange and gruesome crime scenes appear to be coming right from the pages of Dante’s Inferno. The Dante Club, the group of poets engaged in helping Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translate Dante’s work, are the only ones who make the connection — which also makes them the likeliest suspects!

Why students should read it: Students studying Dante’s Inferno will gain an understanding of and appreciation for Dante’s work and the path scholars took to make it accessible for American readers. Pearl’s novel is also an interesting insight into literary Boston following the Civil War.

PossessionPossession by A.S. Byatt

Read it with British Victorian poets, such as Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and others.

What it’s about: The relationship between Randolph Henry Ash, a fictional Victorian poet modeled perhaps after Robert Browning, and Christabel LaMotte, is uncovered by literary scholars Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, who turn Victorian literary scholarship on its head with their findings.

Why students should read it: I will admit that perhaps you want to recommend this one to your most voracious and enthusiastic readers because it is not an easy read, but it is a rewarding read. Students will be fascinated to learn about the dark, seedy underworld that is literary scholarship when territorial specialists are more concerned with preserving their pet theories than with disseminating the truth about their “charges.” The love story at the center will likely appeal to the resident romantic in high school and college students.

The Thirteenth TaleThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Read it with Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and/or The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

What it’s about: Margaret Lea, a fan of nineteenth century fiction like Jane Eyre, turns up her nose at the popular books of Vida Winter. Until, that is, her father, a rare book dealer for whom she works, acquires a first edition of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. Margaret tears through the book, dismayed to discover the title is a ruse: the book lacks a thirteenth tale. Miss Winter, impressed by Margaret’s writing, contacts her to write her own biography, tantalizingly promising the secret of the thirteenth tale will be hers if she accepts.

Why students should read it: Setterfield clearly loves gothic fiction of the 1800’s, and I have to admit, I finally read Jane Eyre this past fall because of Setterfield’s devotion to the book as expressed through the pages of her own novel. This novel will hook students with its mystery and gothic atmosphere, while enhancing their appreciation for the gothic fiction of the nineteenth century.

WicketWicked by Gregory Maguire

Read it with The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

What it’s about: Maguire tells the famous story of Dorothy’s nemesis, the Wicked Witch of the West, through her own words and in a sympathetic light. This answer to Baum’s classic becomes a political allegory in the deft hands of Maguire, who imagines the Wicked Witch to be Elphaba, shunned and rejected from childhood, and fashions a complicated past complete with Galinda (Glinda — her college roommate and friend!), the Winkies, and the Wizard himself.

Why students should read it: Most high school and college students won’t be studying The Wizard of Oz, I suppose, but they will benefit from looking at the other side of the story and examining point of view in narrative. Students will be hooked because of what they already know of this story, but they will stay intrigued by what they learn when Elphaba shares her side.

Reading Lolita in TehranReading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Read it with Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Daisy Miller by Henry James

What it’s about: Azar Nafisi was a literature professor when the Shah of Iran was overthrown and Ayatollah Khomeini became the leader of the new Islamic republic. She was fired when she refused to wear the veil, but secretly conducted a book club for female students. This book chronicles her stories teaching Western literature both in and out of a university setting. Her focus is on the four books mentioned above and her Middle Eastern students’ responses to and connection with Western literature.

Why students should read it: Not only does this memoir give Western students a different lens through which to interpret literature, but it also gives students a new and deeper appreciation for these four books of the Western canon. The trial of The Great Gatsby was particularly intriguing to me; I shared this section with my American literature Honors students when we studied Gatsby. I also read Lolita after reading this book (thank you Professor Nafisi — it was wonderful).

Do you have other recommendations for books that can be paired with classics?

Related posts:

Neil Gaiman: Free Book!

English teachers, here’s one to pass on to your students.  In celebration of his blog’s seventh birthday (quite impressive!), Neil Gaiman is going to post one of his books online for free for a month.  Readers vote on which book they want to see.  It might be fun for book clubs or classrooms to participate in a literature circle or perhaps even create student blogs to discuss the book.

Related posts:

Book Glutton

Book Glutton might be my new favorite website (via Classical Bookworm).  Here’s a demonstration:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/TkCoknkwua4" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

I can see all kinds of exciting potential for literature studies.  Literature circles would be great on Book Glutton!  I love the proximity chat and annotation features.  Caveats: the site is still in beta, and according to Sylvia (Classical Bookworm), only works in Firefox (though I admit I didn’t test the site in other browsers, nor could I find information on the site that states the site doesn’t work in other browsers — still, I thought it prudent to pass the warning along).

The first thing I wanted to do was dive in and form a reading group with my students.  Social reading networks.  I love Web 2.0.

Related posts:

Memorizing Literature

Did you ever have to memorize literature for English class?

I did.

My luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June
My luve is like the melodie
That’s sweetly played in tune

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I
And I shall love thee still, my dear
Till a’ the seas gang dry

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my luve
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun
I shall luve thee still, my dear
While the sands o’ life shall run

And fair thee weel, my bonnie luve,
And fair thee weel a while
And I shall come again, my luve
Though it were ten thousand mile.

If you check out Bartleby, which I did after typing this from memory, you will see I don’t have it 100 percent, but I learned it in 1990 — 18 years ago now — in my 12th grade British literature class.

I know it’s considered passé, but I do ask my students to memorize literature. When I initially make the assignment, the reactions are all pretty much along the lines of What’s the point of doing this? This is crazy! This is impossible! I can’t do it… no, you don’t understand, I really can’t do it.

After my students figure out I mean it, they buckle down and start memorizing. My students who read Macbeth last semester memorized “Out, out, brief candle.” My students reading Romeo and Juliet are in the midst of memorizing (some recited today, and others will tomorrow) Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, and my students studying Hamlet are memorizing “To be or not to be.”

Once they realized it wasn’t going away, I really admired the way my 9th grade students reading R&J attacked the text. They made sure to tell me what they thought of Mercutio’s delivery of their lines when we discussed the play yesterday. One of my favorite moments in the play was when Mercutio paused dramatically on the line “And in this state she gallops night by night / Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of…” One of my students impulsively called out “love!” The good-humored actor playing Mercutio pointed and nodded at my student and agreed, “Love!”

Years ago when I last taught A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I asked my students to memorize Titania’s “Set your heart at rest.” The next semester, one of my students showed me the speech, written decoratively and inserted in the cover of her binder. She was really proud of having memorized it, and that speech displayed on her binder was her way of saying she owned that piece of literature.

Ultimately, that’s what memorization does. It’s a gift of ownership over literature. It’s being able to say that poem, that speech, that monologue, that soliloquy is mine. I have read and taught Romeo and Juliet so many times that I have many of the lines memorized, and it makes me happy to be able to recite. Please understand I don’t mean that as a boast. I mean that reciting literature, rolling those words around without having to look them up, makes me feel power over them. It makes me love them and understand them. It makes me feel like a part of the literature as much as the literature is a part of me.

And maybe I’m old fashioned (and that’s OK), but that’s a gift I want to give my students. I’m not naive enough to think all of them accept this gift and keep it, the way I did with the literature I have been required to or have chosen to memorize, but if even one student can say in 18 years “That Queen Mab speech? Yeah, I own that,” then I’ll be satisfied. Of course, I hope more than one student will say that.

That Robert Burns poem? Yeah, I own that.

Related posts:

The Freedom Writers

The Freedom WritersSoon after The Freedom Writers, a movie based on the book The Freedom Writer’s Diary by Erin Gruwell and her students, was released to theaters, I viewed the movie and posted a review here. I know some educators don’t like this kind of movie in general and didn’t like this movie in particular, but I enjoyed the movie and found value in using it in the classroom in order to teach the power of written expression and finding one’s voice. In addition, I think the movie is a great way for my students in particular to understand a broader spectrum of the American experience. Finally, as the movie centers around how Gruwell’s students were affected by a work of literature, I think the movie shows the profound connections we can make between literature and our own lives if we avail ourselves of the opportunity. I think the movie would work well in an English class, but I like to use it in writing courses as well.

The question is, what can you do with the movie? When my students viewed the movie last year, we used it as a springboard for discussion about several important issues, including racism, anti-Semitism, and abuse, and how these issues impacted the characters in the movie. We frankly discussed Erin Gruwell’s sacrifices and the fact that she did move on to working with the Freedom Writers Foundation and no longer teaches.

If you are interesting in using the film in your own classroom, there are many resources available to you:

Please share other resources you know about in the comments.

Related posts: