Overheard

 

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Photo by ky_olsen

I had weekend duty at my school on Labor Day. For those of you who might teach in other settings, weekend duty is fairly common in boarding schools. When we have students living on campus, making sure their needs are taken care of takes many hands, and the faculty living on campus cannot always meet those needs on their own. We are often given choices about which types of duty we might prefer. Sometimes we are not able to have our first choice. I was lucky, however, and was able to monitor the school library during my four-hour shift. I like working in the library, as it’s quiet, and the only real travel is checking on students who might be working downstairs.

A small group of junior and senior girls came to the library and worked for most of the four hours I was there. As I prepared to close the library and they were packing up, I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. One girl was finishing up their summer reading text, The Scarlet Letter. She remarked that the book was “horrible,” and that she felt like she had to “translate almost every sentence.” A senior girl remarked, “Wait until you get to Huckleberry Finn.”

I happen to love both of those books. I didn’t read either one until I was in my 20’s, and perhaps I came to them at the right time. I don’t always think we teach books when students are ready for them, when the time is right. On the other hand, I have had some success teaching both of those texts, or at least it seemed from my perspective as if students were engaged. Every single student? Honestly, no, but it’s fairly difficult to achieve 100% from any class. Enough students that I could see value in teaching the texts? Sure.

I don’t necessarily think these texts have no place in high school. I also don’t think we should do entirely away with teaching the whole-class text in favor of all student-selected books. There are a lot of reasons to read, and the whole-class text can be taught successfully. I am curious about the approaches to these two novels, The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn, in the girls’ classes. These are both hard-working, bright girls who are invested in their education, so I don’t think it’s the girls here. I’m sure if you polled more of our students, mine included, they might have similar stories.

I do independent reading in my classes because students need to make time to read, and they need choices about what they read. They need to learn what they actually like to read, and like anything else, the more you read, the better you are at reading. Having said that, I remain convinced that the whole-class text study also still has a place in English classes.

So what do we do? If we see value in teaching a text, how do we engage the students? What choices do we offer about studying the text?

Stay tuned. I feel a blog series manifesto coming on.

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I’m Still in Salem

At least in my mind. The visit actually ended a week ago. The first thing I wanted to do when I came home was read my favorite books set in Salem. If your students read The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter (yes, I know that one’s set in Boston), and they’re looking for more books about Salem, you might try steering them toward these books.

The Physick Book of Deliverance DaneKatherine Howe’s novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane begins on the cusp of the Salem witch trials. Deliverance Dane is a healer, a wise woman accused of witchcraft. The difference between Deliverance and others accused is that Deliverance actually is a witch. This novel follows the stories of several of Deliverance’s descendants, including  Connie Goodwin, the protagonist of the story. Connie is a history graduate student, and we first meet her during her oral examination. The novel is highly readable. Howe has clearly done her research, and she’s truly writing what she knows—she herself is a doctoral student in history and the descendant of two accused witches—Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the trials, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not.

The Heretic's DaughterKathleen Kent’s novel The Heretic’s Daughter is billed as “a gripping and original first novel based on family history from a descendant of a condemned Salem witch.” Told from the point of view of Sarah Carrier, daughter of Martha Carrier, who was condemned and hanged during the witch trials, the novel vividly explores the events of the trials. Kent herself is a descendant of the Carriers. This novel is geared toward a young adult audience and might be perfect for literature circles about the Salem witch trials (and I think I just had a really good idea for American literature this year after typing that sentence).

The House of Seven GablesFewer people read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables than its more famous counterpart, The Scarlet Letter, but some readers, including poet James Russell Lowell, felt that Seven Gables was even better than The Scarlet Letter. The house that inspired the story is a tourist attraction in Salem. Hawthorne’s birthplace has been moved to the same grounds. After visiting the house, I feel there is little wonder why the home inspired Hawthorne. The novel tells the story of the Pyncheon family, cursed because of the role an ancestor played in the witch trials. Fun fact: the Pyncheon family actually existed and are the ancestors of writer Thomas Pynchon, so you get a two for one connection.

The Lace ReaderBrunonia Barry’s novel The Lace Reader is more of a modern novel of Salem, but readers are treated to descriptions of the kitschy embrace of its witchcraft history that can be found in modern Salem. The novel centers around Towner Whitney, who is returning to Salem upon the death of a beloved aunt. Towner shares her aunt’s ability to read the future through patterns in lace. Several Salem landmarks are depicted, including the statue of Roger Conant and Red’s Sandwiches. The novel explores Towner’s quest to save herself and figure out who she is. It might be more interesting to more mature female students as opposed to male students, but I enjoyed it when I read it some time ago.

The Map of True PlacesBrunonia Barry’s second novel The Map of True Places is also set in Salem, where the author lives. This novel explores the long-term effects of the suicide of protagonist Zee’s mother. Perhaps because Barry herself returned to Salem after an absence, her novels explore characters who also come back to Salem and the complex psychological associations we have with place and home. The title is drawn from a Melville quote: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” Isn’t the cover gorgeous?

So, if you fancy a visit to Salem, give one of these books a try. If you’ve read them, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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