Paired Texts: Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” and Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During the War”

Robert Frost and Ilya Kaminsky
Robert Frost (New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress) and Ilya Kaminsky (Slowking)

I have to admit to a love/hate relationship with Robert Frost’s poetry stemming from the fact that I wrote a research paper on symbolism in his poetry as a senior in high school. That kind of thing will put anyone off, and it didn’t help that I had what I’d consider now to be an inarguable thesis (essentially it was, yes, he uses symbolism—not much of an argument there). Still, not many people write poems about people getting their arms chopped off with a chainsaw. There was a reason I chose to write about Frost at that time, and it was that I loved his poetry. After I finished that paper and set his poetry aside for a while, I came to enjoy it again. I like the simplicity with which Frost grapples with big ideas and large problems, bringing them to the scale of the mundane. He’s the type of poet who has been a staple of the classroom for so long and become such an institution that it might be difficult to approach him in a fresh way but remember, our students are often just meeting him for the first time. He’s new to them, and he can become new to us all over again when we teach his work.

After the war in Ukraine started, I knew I wanted to bring Ilya Kaminsky’s devastating poem “We Lived Happily During the War” into my classroom, but I needed to think about how. I teach thematically, and as a result, every work I teach connects to a theme. The more I thought about “We Lived Happily During the War,” the more I wanted to put it into conversation with “Mending Wall.”

My rationale is that both poems deal in some way with complicity. The speaker in Frost’s poem doesn’t rail against all the barriers and borders we put up. He says “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” But what is the “something”? Not necessarily the speaker. After all, he is the one who reaches out to the neighbor to say it’s time again to repair the wall between their properties. If he doesn’t exactly agree that “good fences make good neighbors,” he also doesn’t disagree because he continues this annual ritual—a ritual he’s not sure about. Kaminsky’s poem asks us to think about what we are doing (enough?) during a time of crisis or war.

In crafting my lesson, I drew from two excellent resources. First, Poetry Foundation has a poem guide for “Mending Wall” that includes a great analysis of the poem and offers interesting insights. Second, the podcast On Being: Poetry Unbound has an episode devoted to “We Lived Happily During the War” in which the host, Pádraig Ó Tuama, talks the listener through his analysis of Kaminsky’s poem. These resources helped me craft discussion questions for a teacher-facilitated class discussion of the two works.

I started class with some biographical details about Robert Frost. I like to introduce my students to the people they’re reading. Here is a good, relatively short biography of Robert Frost.

We listened to Frost read the poem “Mending Wall” and then read the poem on our own again, annotating and jotting down our thoughts.

After we read the poem, I asked students some questions:

  • What is Frost talking about literally in this poem?
  • What is he talking about metaphorically? (Students will probably identify this poem can be read about geopolitical borders, but if not, you might gently nudge them.) Are we driven toward connection and cooperation or are we more mistrustful?
  • Who gets the last word in the poem? How does that choice impact the poem’s message?
  • Who is the one who suggests the two go out and rebuild the wall? (Notice it’s the speaker, who seems less inclined to put up walls, who suggests it’s time.)
  • Why do they rebuild the wall? What purpose does it serve?
  • How do the speaker and the neighbor interact? Does the speaker confide his thoughts to the neighbor? Who does he confide in?
  • If fences do NOT make good neighbors, what does? Who is our “neighbor”?
  • In his old age, Frost said this poem had been “spoiled” by being “applied.” This comment seems to imply Frost wishes he could control how people interpreted or applied his work. Do we have to respect his opinion, or is it okay to interpret or apply his work in ways he might not have intended?

I told students Frost published this poem while living in England in 1914. We turned a historical lens on the poem and discussed how the times in which it was written may have informed the poem’s message. I shared how this poem became a Cold War poem after the Berlin Wall was built and that George H. W. Bush quoted from this poem when it came down in 1989. I referred to Ronald Reagan’s famous speech in which he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I explained that even if Frost wrote this poem at another time, he can’t control how people read and apply it later on. He might not even have been thinking about geopolitical borders when he wrote it, but even if he wasn’t, it doesn’t matter, especially if so many people see that message in his poem. Poems take on a life that no one can foresee, much less control.

One might argue this recently happened with Ilya Kaminsky’s poem, “We Lived Happily During the War.” I put this poem in conversation with “Mending Wall,” even though I have no idea if Kaminsky considers his poem in conversation with Frost’s poem or not. I showed my students this excellent feature on Kaminsky.

As we did with Frost, we listened to the poet read his work. I love Kaminsky’s dramatic reading.

It may be important to share that Kaminsky’s poem “We Lived Happily During the War” opens his collection Deaf Republic. Deaf Republic is about a town, Vasenka, in which soldiers shoot and kill a young deaf boy at a puppet show performance taking place in the town square. As a means of protest, the townspeople refuse to hear and create a subversive sign language to coordinate their fight against the soldiers’ oppression. It reads in some ways like a verse play, with a cast of characters.

As we did with Frost’s poem, we took a few minutes to reread Kaminsky’s poem. You might have students read and discuss in small groups. You know your students and their preferences for working.

After we took that time to unpack the poem, I facilitated a discussion, asking the following questions:

  • What repetition do you notice in the poem? What is the effect? (Be sure to unpack the implications of the repetition of “house” and “money” and “not enough”).
  • What is the “house”? Who is in your household? (Encourage students to think more broadly, as Kaminsky does when he starts with the street of money, the city of money, the country of money; could our “house” be our country?)
  • If everyone in our “house” is okay, is that enough? Should we be doing more for people outside our “house”?
  • What about the repetition of “money”? What does that make you think of? (The podcast mentions how crises and wars can be opportunities for people to make money.)
  • Who is the “we” in the poem and how do you know?
  • Later the speaker asks forgiveness—”(forgive us).” Why is that in parentheses? What is the speaker asking forgiveness for? Would you forgive the speaker? Would you want to be forgiven if you were the speaker? Do you think you could be forgiven? Who needs to be forgiven?
  • What does the speaker mean by “happily”? What is living happily, especially in the context of living happily during the war?

The podcast discusses the “politics of disability,” which may be interesting to share with students as well. There is also a connection to Martin Niemöller’s piece, “First they came for the Socialists…” I would definitely bring that piece for discussion. Pádraig Ó Tuama mentions in the podcast that in so many places in the world, people are dying or just trying to survive the day, while others are picking out a color to paint their kitchens. He says, “There’s a brutality about that. This poem isn’t, I think, trying to make us feel guilty about those things, but it is trying to say, ‘Are you doing enough?’ Because the poem has the invitation to say, ‘we protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough.'” Pádraig Ó Tuama invites us to wonder “What is the ‘enough’ going to be?”

One of my students said he felt like Kaminsky’s poem reminded him of the United States’ isolationist policies during World War II until Pearl Harbor. He explained the connection to his peers, who really appreciated it. Reading these poems gave us an opportunity to use a historical lens (or new historical) to examine how poetry can speak to the time in which it was written and the times in which it might be read.

Finally, I asked students how these two poems could be in conversation with each other. How are their messages related? I placed them in a unit on the theme of Tradition and Progress. I might argue they explore the tension between the two ideas. Like Frost’s poem before it, “We Lived Happily During the War” has taken on a new life in the wake of Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine, especially as Kaminsky is a Ukrainian-American poet. Both poems might have been addressing the times in which they are composed, but they also speak to our time.

Teaching Tommy Orange’s There There: Part Four

Images used in accordance with Creative Commons Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0 and Fair Use for Educational Purposes

In my last three posts, I have described how my teaching partner James and I approach teaching Tommy Orange’s novel There There. In this final post, I will explain how we wrap up the study of the novel, suggest additional resources to use in teaching Native Voices, and share a summative assessment we use with our students.

James and I decided we wanted students to finish the entire Powwow section before we discussed it since that part of the book moves quickly among the different characters, but at about 60 pages makes up 3 reading assignments. Rather than plunge into discussion of this fast-paced part of the book, we paused to show students this video from Vox about the Native boarding schools, including the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. This video also touches in the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which will be challenged in the Supreme Court case Brackeen v. Haaland this year. Our students found this video very interesting. It covers a great deal of important ground that is not covered in great detail in the novel. ICWA connects to the character Blue , who is adopted by White parents and must reclaim her Cheyenne culture as an adult. I understand that Tommy Orange’s sequel to There There will explore the Native boarding schools.

We also showed students the following video that asks Native people to reflect on several statements and explain whether they agree or disagree and why. It helps students to understand that indigenous people are not a monolith—their backgrounds and opinions on issues that impact Native people vary. Fair warning: the video includes the F-word and one reference to the N-word, so students should be warned.

Once students finish the Powwow section, we will use a class discussion strategy called “Conversation Stations” or “Converstations” to unpack quotes we identified as important in this section. We use big poster-sized sticky paper with a printout of each quote taped next to the paper. Students will travel in groups, discussing the quotes, and capturing their ideas on the paper. Then they will rotate to the next station and add their thoughts to the ideas already written and connect to their peers’ ideas.

James and I assess our students’ learning at the end of this unit through a writing assignment we call “I Used to Think… Now I Think.” This assignment allows students to discuss what they previously believed to be true about Native people and reflect on their learning. What stereotypes did they believe? How have their perceptions changed? Students might consider the following issues from the novel:

  • Addiction
  • Trauma
  • Identity
  • Belonging
  • Nation
  • Family
  • Connectedness

Students can weave discussion of symbols and motifs from the novel as well. Some examples might be the spider and its web or reflection and mirrors. We ask students to write one body paragraph explaining what they used to think and then, in two additional body paragraphs, explain what they have learned in the unit, focusing on two different things (one per paragraph). It’s not a five-paragraph essay in that we don’t expect students to write an introduction and conclusion, though sometimes they do. We encourage first-person voice, which is a natural choices for a personal reflection. An optional challenge for students is to include a third learning takeaway. We use a graphic organizer that looks like the following to help students plan.

TopicDelete this text and type your topic, the focus, theme, or thread you plan to discuss.
I used to thinkDelete this text and discuss the beliefs you previously held about the topic. Discuss 2-3 things you used to think about Native people prior to this unit.
Now I think 1Delete this text and discuss one aspect of your thread or focus that you have learned more about. Think about what has changed. How have stereotypes been altered or eliminated? How did that happen?

Identify two pieces of evidence for your learning in the text of There There or other resources.
Now I think 2Delete this text and discuss one aspect of your thread or focus that you have learned more about. Think about what has changed. How have stereotypes been altered or eliminated? How did that happen?

Identify two pieces of evidence for your learning in the text of There There or other resources.

We use the rubric below to assess the writing. It’s a variation on a rubric I have used for years, originally developed and published on Greece, NY’s Schools’ ELA resources site (which is, sadly, no longer accessible).

I hope the resources shared will help you in teaching Tommy Orange’s brilliant novel There There. If you have additional ideas, please feel free to share them in the comments.

Teaching Tommy Orange’s There There: Part Three

Images used in accordance with Creative Commons Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0 and Fair Use for Educational Purposes

In my previous posts, I shared how my teaching partner James and I prepare students for reading There There and how we teach the novel’s Prologue. In this post and subsequent posts in this series, I will not share day-to-day lesson plans; rather, I will share some resources that James and I have used. Our class is discussion-based, and if you are looking for discussion ideas, you might want to check out my blog post on discussion strategies and use or adapt them for discussing this book if your class is discussion-based also. You know your students best and understand what sorts of activities or prompts will work for them.

Tommy Orange has some prior involvement with StoryCenter, formerly the Center for Digital Storytelling. In fact, his novel was informed by storytelling organizations such as StoryCenter and StoryCorps. Orange says in his acknowledgments that he received a grant like his character Dene Oxendene. He created a digital story that we shared with our students because it gets at the heart of what Dene is hoping to do (in some ways) and also shares some interesting context for the novel. In fact, Orange gives a line from the digital story to his character Edwin Black (watch out for it!).

Tommy Orange’s Digital Story Ghost Dance

If you’re interested in learning more about digital storytelling, you might want to check out some of my prior work. I have done digital storytelling projects with students in the past, and they are powerful. 

When teaching about Opal’s first chapter, which takes place during the Native occupation of Alcatraz, we introduced students to the American Indian Movement (AIM) through this article. We did a close reading of the imagery on AIM’s flag. We showed our students the video below, but I have to share a caveat. This video is relatively short, which makes it great for class, and it also summarizes pertinent information about Alcatraz. However, at one point in the video, the host snarkily makes a remark to the effect that Native people didn’t understand inflation. Even if he meant it as a joke, it falls flat. James and I addressed this problematic comment head-on, and our students concluded that it wasn’t lack of understanding of inflation but rather a symbolic gesture. The moment in question falls about 1 minute 45 seconds in. James and I are always on the lookout for a short video that is this comprehensive without being sarcastic. Let me know if you found one!

Edwin’s chapter refers to A Tribe Called Red, which has since changed its name to Halluci Nation. Edwin describes their music as “the most modern, or most postmodern form of Indigenous music [he’s] heard that’s both traditional and new-sounding” (77). James and I play a track called “R.E.D.” and ask students what they think of Edwin’s assessment. Note: the lyrics are not “clean,” but to be honest, the book includes the same curse words, so James and I didn’t worry about it.

While we’re on the topic of music, Tommy Orange created a playlist of music he either refers to or listened to while writing the novel.

In teaching Jacquie Red Feather’s first chapter, we thought it was important to address her alcoholism and discuss how alcoholism affects Native communities, so we shared this fact sheet.

Jacquie’s grandson Orvil is attempting to reconnect with his Cheyenne heritage through powwow dancing. We shared this video so students could get a feel for what a powwow looks like.

America’s Largest Powwow by Keeley Gould

We also showed students this short video explaining powwow regalia.

And finally, we watched part of this video tutorial on powwow dancing. You might draw students’ attention to a couple of things: 1) the instructor is clearly in an urban or suburban area (apparently a park), much like Tommy Orange’s characters, and 2) this is exactly the kind of video Orvil probably watched to learn.

I wouldn’t necessarily have your students learn and perform this dance if they are not Native as it would be cultural appropriation, but they might appreciate seeing the kinds of tools Orvil would have had at his disposal.

Later in the book, Orvil scratches a bump on his leg and removes spider legs. This is something that really happened to Tommy Orange, and your students might be interested to know what inspired him to write it into his novel. Orange has turned it into a symbol, of course, but it’s possible that he suffered from Morgellons Disease.

Blue’s chapter offers a couple of opportunities for discussion. First, you might want to faciliate a discussion on the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). Deb Haaland is the first Native cabinet secretary. She is the Secretary of the Interior, and she oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We discussed the fact that not much was being done to address this horrible problem until Sec. Haaland introduced the formation of a Missing and Murdered Unit in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Our class discussed the harrowing scene in which a strange woman protects Blue from her violent husband by pretending that she is the only person in the restroom where Blue is hiding and decides to wait with Blue until her bus leaves. This moment in the novel is so poignant, and I shared with students that it makes me cry every time because of the solidarity the woman shows. One of our students said she found it remarkable that Tommy Orange could write this scene with so much sensitivity since he is a man.

Another opportunity for discussion in connection with Blue is that she is adopted by a White family and has to reconnect with her Cheyenne culture later on. The current season of Rebecca Nagle’s podcast This Land focuses on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). The Supreme Court will hear a case this year that seeks to challenge ICWA. You may want to use the podcast in conjunction with teaching the novel somehow. If you don’t use it with students, you will still learn a lot from listening to it yourself. Keep your eyes on the Supreme Court. Given the Court’s current makeup, I am worried about how Brackeen v. Haaland may go. 

Thomas Frank’s chapter is written in the second person, and it is a great opportunity to point out that Orange uses first-, second-, and third-person narration in this novel. Whose chapters are written in the first person? Why? Third person? Why? What does Orange achieve by writing Thomas Frank’s chapter in the second person?

Thomas Frank also expresses appreciation for the artwork of James Hampton, and the Smithsonian recently produced a video about Hampton’s work.

We decided to teach a short lesson on Native language preservation, especially Sequoyah’s creation of the Cherokee Syllabary.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you might check out the series We Shall Remain. James and I are considering showing our students the final episode, “Wounded Knee,” which details the occupation of the Pine Ridge Reservation by members of AIM in the 1970s. I think you can only access this documentary if you purchase it on DVD or on one of the streaming services.

In my next post, I’ll share a few final resources and how we assess students’ learning in this unit.

Teaching Tommy Orange’s There There: Part Two

In  my previous post, I discussed how my teaching partner James and I approach pre-teaching or setting the context forTommy Orange’s novel There There

The Prologue introduces readers to a lot of history that many of them might not know. James and I decided that this year, we wanted students to unpack the Prologue and generate the questions, so we used Marisa Thompson’s Thoughts/Questions/Epiphanies method (see this blog post) so students could generate discussion questions. Here is a screengrab of the slide deck I used with prompts for the students.

Tommy Orange makes several allusions in the Prologue, and I thought it was helpful to create a slide deck to unpack the allusions, especially if the students didn’t ask questions about them. You can make a copy of the slide deck by clicking this link.

You’ll notice this slide deck starts with the biography slide I mentioned in the previous post and also includes a picture of me and Tommy Orange (you can easily delete this if you make a copy) and the PBS News Hour video I mentioned in the previous post. What follows is a run-down of some of the remaining slides and how I use them:

  • Slide 4: A journal activity designed to generate discussions/reactions to the Prologue
  • Slide 5: A video of the Indian Head Test Pattern that Orange mentions. Warning: the sound is included, and you may want to turn it low or off. We scared our students!
  • Slide 6: Allusions to Native depictions in films. Orange doesn’t refer to Apocalypto by name, but that’s the movie he’s describing. He also describes Dances with Wolves and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
  • Slide 7: Orange makes a references to John Wayne’s role in Westerns, and James and I dug up this quote from Wayne as a talking point.
  • Slide 8: Orange also mentions Iron Eyes Cody, a Sicilian-American actor who made a career out of playing Natives and insisted he was Native (note: I am just old enough to rememeber the commercial embedded in this slide, but James is not and can barely believe it was real!).
  • Slide 9: This slide offers a great basis for discussing logos and mascots. Land O’Lakes has changed their packaging, and the Washington R-skins and Cleveland Indians have changed their names and logos. I screengrabbed a few headlines and images to talk about what messages the depictions send.
  • Slide 10: This slide offers another discussion/journal talking point.

The remaining slides are used to discuss other elements of the text, and I’ll explain them in a future post.

Tommy Orange discusses the Sand Creek Massacre in There There, and it might be worth spending some time reading about the massacre with students. James and I like this article from Smithsonian Magazine. Tommy Orange grew up hearing about the Sand Creek Massacre from his father and grandfather, and I believe I heard him say in an interview that he descends from a survivor of the massacre.

The slide deck above collects a lot of the resources I have used (and some I still use) in teaching There There. Thank you to the great Joel Garza and Scott Bayer for creating a Google hyperdoc with a graphic organizer I have adapted. If you click the image below, you will be taken to the document. You can make a copy of it and adapt it to your liking.

James and I used the sections “Tracking the Characters” and “Questions About Structure,” but we found it worked better for our students to have the Structure part at the beginning, followed by the Character section. I cannot overstress how helpful this hyperdoc is, so make sure you grab a copy if you plan to teach this book.

Stay tuned for more posts about how James and I approach teaching the rest of this wonderful novel. As a reminder, we teach this novel as part of a cross-curricular course on Social Justice.

Teaching Tommy Orange’s There There: Part One

Tommy Orange discusses Native writers, his process, and his book There There

Is it just me, or is February the busiest time of the year? I’ve been meaning to start this blog series on teaching Tommy Orange’s phenomenal novel There There for a long while, but trying to carve out the time to write the blog posts has been challenging.

I teach this novel as part of a unit on Native Voices—Native literature and history—in a cross-curricular elective for seniors at my school. This elective is technically titled What’s Goin’ On: Social Justice in Literature and History. I team-teach the class with my wonderful colleague James, who is a history teacher.  It’s a year-long course, and students decide whether to take the class for an English credit or a history credit. Over the last three years that we’ve offered the course, the numbers of students earning English credits as compared to history credits have been roughly even, so James and I divide the students in those roughly even groups when we are assessing their work—I assess the work of students in the English section, and James assesses the work of students in the history section. Of course, both of us conduct formative assessments on students through discussions, conversations, and the like in class, and we both facilitate discussion. We plan our lessons together, meeting at least once a week during one of our planning blocks. At some point, I should share more about that course on my blog, but I think that context is enough to understand our approach to teaching There There

Because of the special cross-curricular nature of this class, some of the lessons I will describe may need to be adapted for your purposes. However, I might argue that it’s important to share the historical and contemporary context of the novel, even if your students are not taking a cross-curricular class, and when I teach other novels that require this kind of contextualization, I teach the history or contemporary events (see, for example, my resources for teaching Homegoing).

This year, James and I decided to start the unit with something interactive: a role play. There are two great options available from the great educators at Rethinking Schools. One lesson in their book Rethinking Columbus involves putting Columbus and his men on trial. We have a colleague who likes to use this lesson when teaching US History, which I inadvertently discovered the first time I taught There There and some of the students informed me they’d already done this role play. Truthfully, one part of the role play is problematic, and students pointed it out as well: we shouldn’t hold the Taínos responsible, and it shouldn’t even be on the table to contemplate that they might hold any responsibility for their own genocide. The role play invites students to consider that the Taínos themselves might be responsible for their genocide.

James and I decided instead to use Ursula Wolfe-Rocca’s role play on the Dakota Access Pipeline (Ursula is a great follow on Twitter!). This lesson is perfect for our class’s focus on social justice because it asks students to consider what is the right course of action—what’s the right thing to do? We use Michael Sandel’s text Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, particularly his framework on thinking about justice decisions through a consideration of competing interests of welfare, freedom, and virtue. Asking students to take on roles and consider these competing interests in connection with the DAPL was a perfect way to start our unit (thank you, Ursula!). Everything you need to engage in this lesson is provided at the link I shared and also at the Zinn Ed Project (note: you’ll need to create a free account and login to access the downloadable materials). Our students found the lesson really engaging, and it turned out to be an even better way to start the unit than the Columbus role play because it exposed our students to a present concern most of them didn’t know much about. To quote Tommy Orange in the novel’s Interlude, “we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive.” Learning about an issue that impacts modern indigenous people was a perfect way to start engaging with Tommy Orange’s novel. 

James and I ask our students to do a great deal of reflection. We invited students to contemplate what they would have decided had they not been assigned a role. In other words, would they have built the pipeline or not? Most of the students felt they wouldn’t have built it, but a few saw economic advantages, and it seems as though they were swayed by the arguments they had to take on as part of their role. We had an interesting discussion.

The next class period, we started with a land acknowledgment. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a land acknowledgment is simply a statement acknowledging that the place where you are gathering is Native land. You might find this resource on land acknowledgments helpful. You can use this resource to find out whose land you’re on. It’s important to mention that land acknowledgments should not be an empty gesture. Debbie Reese, an enrolled member of the Nambé Pueblo, has a great blog post on land acknowledgments. Our school happens to be located on the land of the Nipmuc people, and I shared with students the name of their current chief, who lives in Worcester, as well as the fact that they named the area where we live Quinsigamond, a name they’re familiar with as it lives on the name of several local places, including a lake famous for crew racing and a community college. The Nipmuc Nation is recognized by Massachusetts, but not by the federal government.

After the land acknowledgment, I share a Nipmuc creation story with students (embedded in the slide deck below). If you do something similar, I highly encourage you to find a story from the people whose land you are on.  We discussed the ways the story is similar to other creation stories they have heard. I explained that many indigenous people refer to North America or even the whole of planet Earth as “Turtle Island” and that the turtle features in many indigenous origin stories.

We use a lesson from Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) that quizzes students on their prior knowledge about Native peoples. Unfortunately, in the renaming of their website and subsequent moving around of tools and ideas, I’m not able to find the quiz. However, I created a Pear Deck slide deck (that allows for interactive quizzes) based on the questions in the quiz. The answers to the questions are in the Notes sections of slides, and you can make a copy of the presentation embedded below by clicking this link.

 

After engaging in this important work of grounding our unit in the place our school calls home, we learn about Tommy Orange. I will share my slide deck for the unit in a future post, but here is the biographical slide.

We shared the video embedded below as a way to introduce students to Tommy Orange. He reads a brief excerpt from the Prologue to There There in this video.

PBS News Hour interview with Tommy Orange

In the next post, I’ll discuss how James and I teach the Prologue to There There, which packs an emotional punch and introduces students to history they may not have learned before.

Upcoming: Teaching Tommy Orange’s There There

Tommy Orange
Dana meeting Tommy Orange at the NCTE Convention.

About a month ago, I shared my conviction that it’s important to teach contemporary authors in the classroom and wrote a series of blog posts about the resources I use to teach Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing. My next series will focus on how I approach teaching Tommy Orange’s novel There There.  Stay tuned for these upcoming posts!

I team-teach a cross-curricular course in Social Justice, and There There is the centerpiece of a unit on Native history and literature.

On a slightly related note, I recently polled some folks on Twitter as to whether there was any interest in receiving a monthly email newsletter from me. This blog already publishes posts to subscribers’ email inboxes, but the newsletter might collect posts in one place and share other resources and ideas. To be honest, I’m not sure what yet, but I’m open to your ideas. I am sharing the subscription link below and will add a convenient link to the sidebar as well. My plan is to share my first newsletter with subscribers in March. Feel free to share your ideas and questions.

Why I Teach Thematically

I received my course survey results, and the feedback has me thinking, as it should, about what I need to improve and what is working well. I have consistently received good feedback from students on connections between my class and other classes and connections to the world outside the classroom.  I prioritize these types of connections in my approach to teaching. I consider it a high compliment when students express the opinion that something we did felt relevant.

I’m convinced that one reason students see these connections is that I approach teaching literature thematically. While teaching survey courses chronologically is common, particularly with American or British literature, there is no reason a survey course has to be a chronological march through the literature. My personal feeling is that chronological approaches ensure that students don’t study the most engaging and relevant literature until late in the course. 

I never liked teaching genre-based courses either. In these courses, a teacher might teach a poetry unit, then a short story unit, then maybe a drama unit, and so on. The CED for AP Literature is organized as a genre-based study, which is something I don’t like about it. I feel that genre-based organization leads students to see genres as separate from each other and doesn’t foster connection. 

One of the greatest influences on my teaching has been backward design. Maybe some of you were reading this blog when I read Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design and blogged about my response to it.

Reading that book set me on the path toward teaching literature thematically, and I would never go back to another approach. I think approaching literature thematically helps students see relevance in the literature. Students have a sense of our shared humanity. In other words, we can learn valuable things about ourselves from literature.

I owe a debt to Carol Jago, Renee H. Shea, Lawrence Scanlon, and Robin Dissin Aufses. Their text Literature & Composition for teaching AP Lit has been influential in the thematic approach I take to teaching that course. Even though I don’t use the text and do not use most of the works suggested in their thematic units, I found their themes compelling, and borrowed several of them for my approach to teaching my AP Lit course:

  • Identity and Culture
  • Love and Relationships
  • Home and Family
  • Conformity and Rebellion
  • Tradition and Progress
  • Art and the Artist

I admit I don’t always get to all of these units, so I prioritize them. I teach Song of Solomon in Identity and Culture, Homegoing in Home and Family, Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours in Conformity and Rebellion, and Never Let Me Go in Tradition and Progress. I’m thinking about doing an Ishiguro literature circle instead next year—students would select either Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day, or Klara and the Sun in the Tradition and Progress unit if I make that change.

I include short stories and poems that work thematically with these units. The Love and Relationships unit is entirely poetry and short stories. I’ve done a play in the past and am considering doing The Importance of Being Earnest as a drama—if I do that play, I need to cut back somewhere, which is tricky. I admit I should be including more drama, but I prioritize teaching poetry because my students have read more drama prior to my class and need to read more poetry than they have.

This year, my Love and Relationships unit included the following works:

  • A revisit of “When Maze & Frankie Beverly Come On in My House” by Clint Smith (students read his collection Counting Descent for summer reading)
  • “She Walks in Beauty” by George Gordon, Lord Byron paired with “To the Girl Who Works at Starbucks…” by Rudy Francisco
  • “Bright Star” by John Keats and “Love’s Philosophy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (paired texts with clips from the Jane Campion film Bright Star)
  • “The Storm” by Kate Chopin
  • “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
  • Sonnets 116 and 130 by William Shakespeare
  • The Kiss by Gustav Klimt and “Short Story on a Painting of Gustav Klimt” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
  • “The Dead” by James Joyce (with a timed writing practice)
  • “Brokeback Mountain” by E. Annie Proulx
  • “The Outing” by James Baldwin
  • “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John Keats (with a multiple choice practice)
  • A Rudy Francisco deep dive with “If I Was a Love Poet,” “Scars,” and “To the Random Dude Who Started Dating My Ex-Girlfriend…” (all of which can be found in Francisco’s collection Helium)
  • The essay “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle (thank you to Scott Bayer and Joel Garza for inspiring its inclusion)

Turning a critical eye on this list, I can see there are not many women. However, do teach a lot of women writers in other units, and I believe it balances in the end. The students seemed to enjoy this unit. There is a mix of canonical, classic literature and new voices. Many of these works could easily be read in different units if we focused on other thematic elements. “The Dead,” for example, could easily be about Home and Family and Tradition and Progress, but I taught it with a focus on Gabriel and Gretta’s marriage and his feelings of jealousy when he learns of Gretta’s premarital love life. Themes act almost like lenses—they provide a way for us to approach the study of literature to see what it has to teach us about that theme.

Students refer to the unit theme often in our discussions. They see the common threads that unite all the literature we are studying. I believe it contributes to their ability to see connections to other classes and life outside of the classroom, too. I had the wonderful, gratifying experience of seeing one of my students read a poem she had written at an impromptu poetry reading hosted by one of my department colleagues. Before she read, she said the poem was “inspired by AP Lit, the Love and Relationships unit.” My heart sang. She saw the relevance of the theme, but she was also inspired to contribute her own voice. Isn’t that what we want for our students?

Teaching Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: The Final Four Chapters

Homegoing

One of my favorite things about teaching Homegoing is the redemptive arc of the narrative. If this book has a thesis, I would argue that it can be found in Yaw’s chapter, when he is teaching his students that those who have the power control the narrative and that it’s essential to seek out the stories that have been suppressed. I like to ask students to journal on this topic: How is Yaa Gyasi’s novel a response to Yaw’s argument about history on pp. 224-227?

I find Yaw’s story incredibly moving. I have yet to read of his reunion with and forgiveness of his mother Akua without crying. I like to ask students if they are beginning to notice a shift—is the family starting to reconcile at this stage in the book? Yaw and Sonny are the first two characters whose children know their grandparents (at least since James knew Effia). This shift to reconciliation and healing is important.

Yaw’s story takes place in the years right before Ghana’s independence. The Big Six are mentioned in the chapter, so I like to share a little bit of the history that occurs right after the chapter with students. I show students this clip about Ghanaian independence.

Some things I like to point out: Queen Elizabeth II appears in the video. This history isn’t that long ago—the same monarch is on the throne (true, she is the longest-serving English monarch, but it still offers important perspective). 

A student pointed out a couple of years back that E. T. Mensah’s highlife song in celebration of Ghana’s independence sounds like “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash. It truly does, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Musical plagiarism happens all the time, and White artists have certainly stolen from Black artists (looking at you, Led Zeppelin). “Ring of Fire” was released after “Ghana Freedom.” Aside from that fact, I can’t say for sure what happened because I could find no evidence that Johnny Cash was inspired by the song.

It becomes clear in Yaw’s chapter that Akua is having real visions. She was troubled by the “Firewoman,” her ancestor Maame, when Yaw was a baby, but now she has visions of a cocoa farm and the Cape Coast. I like to ask students what they think is happening with this character. 

This year, when students come in to discuss Sonny’s chapter, I plan to play this song, which I have somehow come to associate with Sonny for reasons I’m not sure about, unless it’s just that Coltrane’s story reminds me of Sonny’s.

Sonny returns to The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois. I didn’t read this book until college, and I suspect not many high school students have read or are familiar with it, so I do a little teaching on the book and its legacy. I share Du Bois’s argument from the book that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” I like to ask students about their impressions of this argument before sharing a follow-up argument by critical race scholar Zeus Leonardo, who says in an article entitled “The Souls of White Folk: Critical Pedagogy, Whiteness Studies, and Globalization Discourse” (Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 5.1, 2002) that “The problem of the twenty-first century is the global color line.” In other words, racism is a global problem. Do students believe Leonardo’s argument will prove as true as Du Bois’s has? Based on what evidence?

I also share Du Bois’s definition of “double-consciousness”:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,— an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

From The Souls of Black Folk

To help students understand the impact of W. E. B. Du Bois, I share this quote from Manning Marable about the legacy of The Souls of Black Folk.

Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position. It helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century. “Souls” justified the pursuit of higher education for Negroes and thus contributed to the rise of the black middle class. By describing a global color-line, Du Bois anticipated pan-Africanism and colonial revolutions in the Third World. Moreover, this stunning critique of how “race” is lived through the normal aspects of daily life is central to what would become known as “whiteness studies” a century later.

I also like to share reviews of the book (sources follow the quotes). All of these quotes generate some good discussion.

This book is dangerous for the Negro to read, for it will only incite discontent and fill his imagination with things that do not exist, or things that should not bear upon his mind.—The Nashville Banner

A review of [the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau] from the negro point of view, even the Northern negro’s point of view, must have its value to any unprejudiced student—still more, perhaps, for the prejudiced who is yet willing to be a student.—The New York Times

The boycott of the buses in Montgomery had many roots . . . but none more important than this little book of essays published more than half a century ago.—Saunders Redding, introduction to 1961 edition of The Souls of Black Folk

I point out that W. E. B. Du Bois was a leader of the Pan-African movement, a worldwide movement that aims to encourage and strengthen bonds of solidarity between all people of African descent. He actually died in the capital of Ghana, Accra. In a way, this book is an argument for Pan-Africanism. After learning all of this about Du Bois, I like to ask students, what do you think it says about Sonny that he returns to this book over and over again?

Another interesting connection I point out is that Sonny’s real name is Carson (and his father is Robert). Robert “Sonny” Carson was a civil rights activist. His story was made into a movie called The Education of Sonny Carson in 1974. I also believe Gyasi was alluding to a short story by James Baldwin called “Sonny’s Blues” about two brothers; the Sonny of the title is a jazz musician with heroin addiction. This year, my students will read Baldwin’s story and decide for themselves whether or not the connection is more than a coincidence.

Sonny is involved in the Civil Rights Movement and makes allusions to riding in the back of the bus, marching, the NAACP. However, when trying to help a family in his capacity as a member of the NAACP, he is profoundly impacted by a boy’s accusation, “You can’t do a single thing, can you?” (pp. 246-247). In fact, he winds up leaving the Movement and spirals into heroin abuse. I share an opinion piece from The New York Times, “The End of Black Harlem,” with students because I see a connection between Sonny’s futile attempts to help the boy and his family and a remark that the author of this article captures when talking with a couple of boys about gentrification.

But even then, a few boys passing by on their bikes understood what was at stake. As we chanted, “Save Harlem now!” one of them inquired, “Why are y’all yelling that?” We explained that the city was encouraging housing on the historic, retail-centered 125th Street, as well as taller buildings. Housing’s good, in theory, but because the median income in Harlem is less than $37,000 a year, many of these new apartments would be too expensive for those of us who already live here.

Hearing this, making a quick calculation, one boy in glasses shot back at his companions, “You see, I told you they didn’t plant those trees for us.”

The city where I teach and live is undergoing gentrification, so I like to make connections to what is happening right in our school’s neighborhood and beyond. Worcester’s “renaissance” has included a burgeoning nightlife, an array of hip restaurants, road construction to make the city easier to navigate (and more aesthetically appealing), and a new baseball stadium for the Worcester Red Sox, the AAA team for the Boston Red Sox.

Sonny meets the woman who ultimately becomes Marcus’s mother, Amani Zulema. During one memorable scene, she sings the song below from Porgy and Bess. I like to play this clip for students and ask them if they see any parallels between the scene and the relationship between Sonny and Amani.

Just as we saw with Yaw, Sonny appears to reconcile with his family. I ask students if they’re familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. If so, I ask them to explain it; if not, I explain it. Is Sonny like the Prodigal Son? As with Yaw, we see the family beginning to heal and find a way to forgive and unite.

Marjorie and Marcus’s chapters end the novel and reunite the two separated lines in the family tree. Marjorie’s story is the most autobiographical chapter, as Gyasi emigrated to the United States as a child and lived in Alabama. Gyasi said

I came from a country that had involvement in the slave trade, then I end up in a place where the effects of slavery are still so strongly felt, and it’s something that wasn’t lost on me, and it’s something that I was sort of unconsciously navigating my entire childhood, going home to Ghanaian parents and being told all the ways that I wasn’t African American, then leaving my house and being African American to the rest of the world, and trying to figure out what that meant for me, and what that meant for my brothers. And all of that is in this book—questions of identity, questions of identity as it pertains to ethnicity and race and country and all of those things are in here. I think if I hadn’t grown up in Alabama, I don’t know that I would have had the same kinds of questions.

It might be interesting to share that quote with students and have them reflect on Gyasi’s inspiration for the novel. On the other hand, Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Sons, found a scene in Marjorie’s chapter jarring. I like to pull this quote from her review of the book and ask students to wrestle with what Wilkerson is saying. Does she make a good case? Do you want to agree/disagree/qualify?

[T]here is a jarring moment when the last of the West African line, a young girl named Marjorie, immigrates to America with her parents, [actually, Marjorie was born in America] settling in Huntsville, Ala. (as did Gyasi’s family). There, she learns that the people who look like her “were not the same kind of black that she was.” The only African-American student we meet is a girl named Tisha, who ridicules the studious Ghanaian. “Why you reading that book?” Tisha asks her. When Marjorie stammers that she has to read it for class, Tisha makes fun of her. “I have to read it for class,” Tisha says, mimicking her accent. “You sound like a white girl.” It is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché—that ­African-Americans are hostile to reading and education—in a work of such beauty.

Later, Marjorie’s teacher sees her reading The Lord of the Flies and asks her about it: “But do you love it? Do you feel it inside you?” I like to have a conversation with students about why she asks that question. What books do you feel inside you? Marjorie later finds the books that she feels inside herself. When Marcus meets her, she has majored in African and African American Literature.

On pp. 289-290, Marcus expresses frustration over how his research is going (he is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Stanford). I suggest spending time unpacking that passage and its significance with students. After meeting Marjorie, Marcus travels to Ghana and sees the Cape Coast Castle. He is overwhelmed. The symbols of water and fire appear again as Marcus and Marjorie grapple with their respective (inherited?) fears. Marjorie gives Marcus the stone necklace that has come down her family’s line from Effia and says to Marcus, “Welcome home.”

Marcus’s chapter might also be paired with Clint Smith’s poem “What the Ocean Said to the Black Boy” from his collection Counting Descent.

I like to show students this clip of Don Lemon’s visit to the Cape Coast Castle with his mother, which has echoes of this scene between Marcus and Marjorie.

via ytCropper

Finally, I like to ask students to consider this quote from Leilani Clark’s book review of Homegoing at KQED:

Until every American embarks on a major soul-searching about the venal, sordid racial history of the United States, and their own position in relation to it, the bloodshed, tears, and anger will keep on. Let Homegoing be an inspiration to begin that process.

This novel is the centerpiece of a unit on Home and Family in my AP Lit course. The unit revolves around the following essential questions:

  • What makes a house a home?
  • How do our families and homes make us who we are?
  • What keeps families together? What drives them apart?

For a culminating assessment, I ask students to create a one-pager, and I have included some of my students’ work from last year below. My students will also do a Q3 timed writing, which I will not grade, and a Socratic seminar after Part One of the novel. I will check their digital notebooks frequently and give them small grades for that assignment that might add up to a quiz grade, as I did with Song of Solomon. Feel free to ask me any questions you may have in the comments, and also feel free to share your ideas for teaching Homegoing. I hope the series of blog posts on teaching this novel have been helpful.

Teaching Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: H, Akua, and Willie

Homegoing

One of my favorite things about teaching Homegoing is the redemptive arc of the narrative. If this book has a thesis, I would argue that it can be found in Yaw’s chapter, when he is teaching his students that those who have the power control the narrative and that it’s essential to seek out the stories that have been suppressed. I like to ask students to journal on this topic: How is Yaa Gyasi’s novel a response to Yaw’s argument about history on pp. 224-227?

I find Yaw’s story incredibly moving. I have yet to read of his reunion with and forgiveness of his mother Akua without crying. I like to ask students if they are beginning to notice a shift—is the family starting to reconcile at this stage in the book? Yaw and Sonny are the first two characters whose children know their grandparents (at least since James knew Effia). This shift to reconciliation and healing is important.

Yaw’s story takes place in the years right before Ghana’s independence. The Big Six are mentioned in the chapter, so I like to share a little bit of the history that occurs right after the chapter with students. I show students this clip about Ghanaian independence.

I said in my previous post that the chapters about James, Kojo, and Abena are some of my favorite parts of the book. Well, the chapters about H, Akua, and Willie are my real favorite, favorite parts. In fact, Willie’s chapter might be my favorite chapter in the book, and I have some great resources for you in this post.

Kojo and Anna’s son H becomes mired in the convict leasing system in Alabama. The first time I taught this novel, my students were stunned to learn about convict leasing. When I teach H’s story, I like to use primary sources. I have developed a lesson for the Right Question Institute using primary source images, but I teach this chapter slightly differently after some trial and error. I think using the question formulation technique with primary sources is a great lesson. However, instead of doing an entire QFT, I show students images of leased convicts and ask them two of my favorite standby questions: What do you notice? What do you wonder? This slide deck includes the images I use (you should be able to see it and make a copy for your use).

H reminds me of the legendary John Henry. John Henry beats a steam-powered drill and digs a tunnel through a mountain using two hammers. Similarly, H picks up the shovel of a flagging fellow coal miner and does the work of two men, earning the nickname “Two-Shovel H.” I like to show students a Disney short on the legendary John Henry. This film used to be available on Netflix, but the best option I could find is to purchase it on Amazon (if you have Prime) for $2.99 if you want to use it. Note: That link is an affiliate link, and if you follow it and make a purchase, I earn a tiny commission. You can also purchase or rent it from other streaming services for a similar price. I’m not sure why it’s not on Disney Plus, which would be the natural option. I do think it’s worthwhile to show the film; my experience with students is that they are unfamiliar with the John Henry story, and I like for them to get the allusion Gyasi is making.

One fascinating primary source document I like to include in our conversation about H is a treatise written by John T. Milner entitled White Men of Alabama Stand Together. Milner had been an enslaver and later ran Milner Coal and Railroad Lines. He was an advocate of convict leasing and could have been the man who owned the coal mine where H worked. I discovered his treatise when I found this lesson plan, which I have also embedded below in case the link breaks sometime in the future (some of the links in the lesson’s PDF already no longer work; I can’t do anything about that, I’m sorry). You can now find the Slavery by Another Name website at this link (as of this writing).

You can also find letters by Ezekiel Archey, who is mentioned in this lesson plan, at the Alabama Department of Archives and History website.

The way I use these sources is to ask students to read Milner’s treatise and respond—what would they say to Milner if they could speak to him?

Using primary sources has been critical to teaching H’s story, and my experience has been that the students are at their most engaged for this lesson. They have told me in the past that they learned a lot from H’s story.

I find Akua’s story captivating. Gyasi brings back the fire symbolism. Once again, her characters find themselves entangled in historical events. As James Baldwin remarked, “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” Akua witnesses the defeat of the Asante Empire. Prempeh I, the Asantehene, is taken captive and exiled. His mother, Yaa Asantewaa’s rousing speech advocating for the women to join the fight (if the men are going to give up) is captured in the chapter and in this video that I like to share with students.

If you want to explore the colonial mindset, a good poem to pair with this chapter is Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden.”

Importantly, and perhaps surprisingly, Akua will be one of the few characters in Effia’s line who will know her grandchild. The only other character in this line who does is Effia herself. Many characters in this family line decide to leave their family behind. However, students likely will not guess this might be the case when they read Akua’s chapter.

Willie’s chapter offers opportunities to discuss the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migration, and “passing.” Nella Larson’s novel Passing was recently made into a feature film, and you might want to show students the trailer. Depending on the time you have available, you could even pair the texts (either Larson’s novel or the film and Homegoing).

In any case, the concept of “passing” is important to discuss when teaching this chapter, as Willie’s husband Robert chooses to abandon her and their son, Sonny, in order to pass for White. Colorism drives Willie and Robert apart and also prevents Willie from pursuing her dream of singing. Willie is extremely talented, but she can’t pass the “paper-bag test”—her skin is darker than a brown paper bag. 

I like to review the Harlem Renaissance with students, too, even if they’re familiar with it. There are many great resources, but this year, I will probably use this Crash Course Black History video hosted by Clint Smith.

I have researched the song Willie sings, “I Shall Wear a Crown,” and the only song I can find with that lyric dates from the 1980s. I have concluded that it’s probably the song that Yaa Gyasi is referring to, and perhaps she made a mistake about how old it is (it does sound like an old gospel tune). I like to play this choir singing it at Aretha Franklin’s funeral for students. Get tissues before you watch. This is incredible.

I can’t prove this is the same song that Yaa Gyasi means, or even if Yaa Gyasi is referring to an actual song, but I still think it works as a resource to share with students. If you like, you can also share this version by Yolanda DeBerry.

Zacardi Cortez also sang this song at George Floyd’s funeral (homegoing).

Sharing any of these versions of “I Shall Wear a Crown” offers an excellent opportunity to discuss the novel’s title. I wait to explain what a homegoing service is until this point in the book. Willie sings “I Shall Wear a Crown” at H’s homegoing service, and it is frequently sung at homegoing services (as you can see above). You might find an obituary to share that mentions a “homegoing service” as well.

The term “homegoing” has its origins in the myth of the flying Africans that Toni Morrison weaves into her novel Song of Solomon. She speaks about the myth in this video.

This myth has its origins in the story of the Igbo Landing. Virginia Hamilton retells the story of the Flying Africans in The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales.

My students have already studied Song of Solomon, so I will remind them of this story, but we will not revisit these materials. However, if your students are not familiar with the origin of the term “homegoing,” the idea that originally, enslaved people went back home to Africa when they died—which evolved into going home to Heaven—you might wish to share these resources with them.

Yaa Gyasi’s book could be the centerpiece of an entire course. There is so much to unpack with students. Tomorrow, I’ll share my final post in this series on teaching the last four chapters of Homegoing. If you missed the previous posts, you can access them right here:

Teaching Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: “James”-“Abena”

Homegoing

One of my favorite things about teaching Homegoing is the redemptive arc of the narrative. If this book has a thesis, I would argue that it can be found in Yaw’s chapter, when he is teaching his students that those who have the power control the narrative and that it’s essential to seek out the stories that have been suppressed. I like to ask students to journal on this topic: How is Yaa Gyasi’s novel a response to Yaw’s argument about history on pp. 224-227?

I find Yaw’s story incredibly moving. I have yet to read of his reunion with and forgiveness of his mother Akua without crying. I like to ask students if they are beginning to notice a shift—is the family starting to reconcile at this stage in the book? Yaw and Sonny are the first two characters whose children know their grandparents (at least since James knew Effia). This shift to reconciliation and healing is important.

Yaw’s story takes place in the years right before Ghana’s independence. The Big Six are mentioned in the chapter, so I like to share a little bit of the history that occurs right after the chapter with students. I show students this clip about Ghanaian independence.

In my previous post, I discussed approaches to the first four chapters of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. In this post, I’ll describe my approach to teaching the remaining chapters of Part One of the novel: “James,” “Kojo,” and “Abena.” This section is one of my favorite parts because there is so much history to share with students.

It’s been my experience that most of the history students learn from these three chapters is new to them. On a literary level, it’s interesting to contrast James and Abena with their forebears, Quey and Effia, while Kojo’s story explores the impact of slavery on families.

James’s chapter opens as his grandfather, the actual historical figure Osei Bonsu, has died. Osei Bonsu was Asantehene, King of the Asante, from 1804 to 1824. Thus, this chapter can be definitively dated from 1824. This chapter alludes to a theory that the British killed Osei Bonsu in retaliation for the death of Sir Charles MacCarthy, a British military governor. The history behind the opening pages of this chapter is fascinating. MacCarthy died on January 21, 1824, during a war with the Asante. MacCarthy’s force numbered 6,000 soldiers, but he divided it into four columns. The column under his direct command numbered only 500. The Asante forces numbered 10,000. When the battle started on January 20, MacCarthy’s other columns were miles away and no help. MacCarthy ordered his musicians to play “God Save the King,” thinking it would scare the Asante away. Needless to say, that didn’t work. The British soldiers mostly held their own until their ammunition ran out. MacCarthy called up his reserve ammunition, only to find macaroni instead of bullets! You can’t make this stuff up. The Asante overran the British force; there were only 20 survivors. MacCarthy was killed, his heart was eaten, and his skull was later rimmed with gold and turned into a drinking cup used by Asante rulers. It’s interesting to discuss what Gyasi accomplishes by including this historical event and actual historical figures at this point in the story. While there is not a record (that I could find) that Osei Bonsu had a daughter named Nana Yaa, as Asantehene, and a Big Man, he would have had multiple wives and possibly dozens of children, so Gyasi’s choice to invent Nana Yaa was a logical way to connect her characters to historical figures.

James reflects on a previous trip to Kumasi, the capital of the Asante, when he played with his cousin Kwame and nearly set fire to the room where the Golden Stool is kept. I like to show students this Khan Academy video about the Golden Stool because it explains its importance to the Asante very well.

This video also discusses an artifact, a two-headed crocodile that joins at the stomach. The video’s narrators, Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Beth Harris, explain that the crocodile relates to a proverb that a family shares a stomach. They say that “your essence, your connection, your belly is connected to your family” and that “if you go off on your own, you’re really not going to get very far in life.” Students quickly relate this proverb to James, who decides to leave his Fante village, fake his death, and join his true love Akosua. They are happy together, but James is so unsuccessful that the villagers where they settle call him “Unlucky.” James makes a very different choice from his father Quey, who buries his dreams and desires and enters into the family business of the slave trade and marries Nana Yaa at his uncle’s behest. Comparing and contrasting James and his father makes for an interesting discussion.

Kojo’s chapter offers an opportunity to discuss the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act. Kojo’s status is uncertain, as he is technically not free. His wife, Anna, however, is free and has papers attesting to this fact. All of their children would have also been free, as children’s status was the same as the mother’s. However, it is Anna, not Kojo, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Her story is similar in some respects to that of Solomon Northrup’s. The film Twelve Years a Slave is just old enough now that most of my students tend not to have seen it. If you would like your students to explore Solomon Northrup’s writing, his book is in the public domain. I like to show them this featurette about the film and have a discussion about parallels between Anna’s fate and Solomon Northrup’s.

We also discover at the beginning of Kojo’s chapter that he and Ma Aku are still together. They have formed a bond similar to that of mother and son—at first out of necessity, at least on Kojo’s part, and later out of love. This video explains how enslaved people created families comprised of “fictive kin” under similar circumstances (note: a White character uses the n-word in this video).

Many of the chapters about Esi’s descendants explore the impact of slavery on families, but this chapter is particularly wrenching because the family lived freely and happily, and Anna’s enslavement destroys the family.

James’s daughter Abena’s story closes out Part One of the novel. Abena is James and Akosua’s only child. She enters into an extramarital relationship with Ohene Nyarko, who promises to marry her, but ultimately does not keep his word. Abena and Ohene travel to Kumasi together, and Abena sees the Golden Stool, a sight that moves her inexpressibly. I like to ask students if they have any similar stories of visiting a place that felt sacred or seeing a thing that felt sacred (such as a monument, work of art, etc.). I invite them to share their stories. I often tell my story of seeing a Van Gogh self-portrait in person. 

While in Kumasi, a man about James’s age sees Abena and thinks she is James for a moment. He’s wearing kente, and Abena tells Ohene that he must be a royal. I like to ask students how she figures this out; it’s a good close reading exercise. Ohene jokes, “If he is a royal, then you are a royal too” (139). The irony is that he’s correct: both the man and Abena are royal, though neither Abena or Ohene know this because James obscured his family history from his daughter. I believe the man is probably James’ cousin Kwame based on his description. Both James and Kwame would be royal because they are the grandsons of Osei Bonsu are are related to the Asantehene at the time the chapter is set: Kwaku Dua I. Kwaku Dua I would be Abena’s first cousin twice removed, as the two previous Asantehenes, Osei Bonsu and Osei Yaw Akoto were his uncles. His mother was their sister. This family tree will help.

Ohene Nyarko brings cocoa plants to the village in a story reminiscent of the legend surrounding Ghana’s cultivation of cocoa: “in 1879 a native of Mampong (also in Akwapim) brought back pods from Fernando Po (an island off the Cameroons) where he had been working, and raised a few trees which he planted on his farm near that village.” Cocoa is now Ghana’s dominant crop. It’s also produced with child labor and contributes to environmental issues such as deforestation, though initiatives are underway to alleviate both problems. You may want to bring these issues into the conversation about this chapter.

Abena’s chapter closes Part One, and this year, my students will create Socratic seminar questions on Part One using the Question Formulation Technique. I like to discuss why Gyasi chooses to end Part One with Abena’s chapter rather than H’s, which might be the more natural division in some respects. Why does this chapter feel more like a “transition” than H’s chapter?

I mentioned in my previous post that my students will be using a digital notebook to track their understanding and analysis of Homegoing, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share the hyperdoc resource that Scott Bayer and Joel Garza created.

Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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