Category Archives: Teaching Literature

My Experiment with ChatGPT

A Laptop Displaying ChatGPT
Photo by Emiliano Vittoriosi on Unsplash

One of the things I dislike about teaching AP English Literature is that I really need to offer students opportunities to practice for the exam, which means timed writing and multiple choice practice. I don’t think timed writing is pedagogically sound because we are not replicating the kind of writing students will have to do most often in college and career. Sure, students have deadlines, but it will be uncommon for them to have to produce something like a timed essay in the real world. I also tend to ask more open-ended questions rather than multiple-choice questions. I have moved away from giving tests and even quizzes as learning assessments.  But I also don’t want to shortchange my students who plan to take the exam.

I don’t like giving students prompts that are disconnected from our studies. If, for example, we are engaged in a unit on Home and Family and are reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, I would prefer to have students practice timed writing or multiple choice connected to that text or at least to the themes we are exploring in the unit. Unfortunately, the College Board seems to think the best way to organize the class is by genre rather than by theme. Finding timed writing prompts is not too hard, but finding multiple-choice practice based on the texts I teach can be a challenge.

This week, I decided to try ChatGPT to write some multiple-choice questions just to see what would happen. This is the prompt I put into ChatGPT:

Create five multiple choice questions with options A through E about Layli Long Soldier’s poem “Whereas”

Here is a link to the poem. I really didn’t think it would generate much of anything because Layli Long Soldier’s work is not as well known as, say, Robert Frost’s or Emily Dickinson’s. However, in about 15 seconds, ChatGPT generated the following questions:

  1. In Layli Long Soldier’s poem “Whereas,” what is the significance of the title?
    A. It refers to a particular location where an event takes place.
    B. It’s a reference to a legal term used in U.S. government documents.
    C. It’s a metaphor for a state of mind or emotion.
    D. It’s a nod to the Native American oral storytelling tradition.
    E. It’s a reference to a specific historical document.
  2. What is the central theme of Layli Long Soldier’s poem “Whereas”?
    A. The importance of personal identity in the face of cultural erasure.
    B. The complexity and contradictions of language and communication.
    C. The impact of historical trauma on present-day Indigenous people.
    D. The beauty and power of nature as a source of healing and renewal.
    E. The struggle for justice and equality in contemporary America
  3. Which of the following literary devices does Layli Long Soldier use in “Whereas” to convey her message?
    A. Imagery and metaphor
    B. Rhyme and alliteration
    C. Foreshadowing and irony
    D. Flashback and symbolism
    E. Simile and hyperbole
  4. How does Layli Long Soldier use repetition in “Whereas”?
    A. To emphasize the importance of certain ideas or concepts.
    B. To create a sense of rhythm and musicality in the poem.
    C. To convey the speaker’s frustration and anger.
    D. To establish a connection with the reader.
    E. To evoke a particular mood or emotion.
  5. Which of the following best describes the tone of Layli Long Soldier’s “Whereas”?
    A. Angry and accusatory
    B. Reflective and contemplative
    C. Humorous and satirical
    D. Hopeful and optimistic
    E. Sarcastic and ironic

Now, the first question is tricky, but it’s the kind of question with a good distractor. Two answers are pretty good, but one is best. The other four are a bit more straightforward. I think they’re pretty good questions. If I had tried to write them, it would have taken over an hour, I’m sure. I am quite sure I wouldn’t have been able to find questions like this online or in any AP prep books.

I told my students where they came from, and one student who had missed a couple commented, “THAT’S why they suck.” Kidding aside, the students generally agreed they were AP-style questions. They also reflected that when I had asked them to write multiple choice questions as a thinking activity in class, it had taken them a good chunk of our 70-minute period to write just one good question.

I tried again with Layli Long Soldier’s poem “Obligations 2,” and ChatGPT didn’t do as well. I believe the AI confused the poem with another text based on the questions it generated, but I’m not sure which one. Still, I think this is a game-changer for including more quick multiple-choice practice questions on the texts I actually teach.

I decided to try again to see what would happen if I asked ChatGPT to create some discussion questions. Here is the prompt I used:

make up discussion questions based on Zitkála-Šá’s poem “The Red Man’s America”

It generated the following:

  1. What message is Zitkála-Šá conveying in “The Red Man’s America,” and how does she use language and imagery to convey that message?
  2. How does Zitkála-Šá’s personal experience as a Native American influence her perspective on the United States and its treatment of indigenous peoples?
  3. In what ways does “The Red Man’s America” challenge traditional American narratives of manifest destiny and the conquest of the West?
  4. How does Zitkála-Šá’s poem reflect the broader struggle of Native Americans to maintain their cultural identity and resist assimilation into mainstream American society?
  5. What role does nature play in “The Red Man’s America,” and how does Zitkála-Šá use descriptions of the natural world to convey her ideas about the relationship between Native Americans and the land?
  6. How does “The Red Man’s America” compare to other works of Native American literature in terms of its themes and style?
  7. In what ways does Zitkála-Šá’s poem challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about Native Americans that are still prevalent in American culture today?
  8. How does Zitkála-Šá’s poem speak to contemporary debates about issues such as land rights, cultural appropriation, and representation of indigenous peoples in popular culture?
  9. What does Zitkála-Šá’s poem suggest about the potential for Native American cultures to survive and thrive in the face of colonization and assimilation?
  10. How does “The Red Man’s America” speak to broader themes of identity, belonging, and resistance in American literature and culture?

I don’t love all of these questions, but I admit most of them are pretty good, and I would use them in a class discussion. I really thought, again, that I might stump the AI with a lesser-known writer, but I didn’t.

Next, I asked ChatGPT to write me a lesson plan based on three Emily Dickinson poems I want to teach. The lesson plan was okay. It wasn’t great, but it was not terrible, either. I decided I wouldn’t use any of it because I had some other ideas about how I wanted to approach teaching Dickinson’s poems.

I think ChatGPT has the potential to save some time for tasks, but it’s not yet as creative as a human. Still, given how much time teachers spend doing some of these tasks, I think it could be a very interesting tool.

Free Rhetorical Analysis Unit

I recently found myself in the position of having to teach AP English Language for about five weeks. I won’t get into why that happened. I have never taught AP Lang. I think I’ve taught just about everything else! I decided it would be a good opportunity to do a quick unit on rhetorical analysis, which I have at least taught in the past.

For context, my classes are 70 minutes long, and typically meet three times per week. What follows below is a day-by-day plan for my unit. Feel free to use any of this. I borrowed very heavily from others and acknowledge or link to their work where I was able to do so.

Day 1

I used a lesson from Jennifer Fletcher’s book Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response. For reference, it’s the Parlor Conversation Metaphor/Learning to Pay Attention lesson in which students examine a painting for ten minutes. I used the same painting as Jennifer and followed her lesson instructions exactly. Because her text is copyrighted, I cannot share the materials here, but I urge you to purchase her book.

Day 2

I introduced students to rhetoric. First, we journaled on this topic: Think of a time someone talked you into doing something or believing something. How did they do it? What tactics did they use? Students may share out journals. I gave students a graphic organizer with a PAPA analysis (purpose, audience, persona, argument) and picked a speech. Frankly, the speech I picked, which was Samwise Gamgee’s speech to Frodo Baggins in The Two Towers, failed spectacularly since students had no frame of reference. Note: that movie is old now. I know. It makes me sad, too. So go cautiously if you use this, but maybe pick something else. You can find a massive list here.

To be honest, I didn’t have time to make my own, so I bought a bunch of graphic organizers from Teachers Pay Teachers. Students worked with a partner to fill out the PAPA graphic organizer. Then we shared out to the class.

For homework, I assigned students an article from Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week website. Pick one you like! I picked this one about food deserts because our school is located in one. I asked students to prepare to have a fishbowl-style discussion on the article using the questions on the article (see the end). Before we ended class, I set discussion norms with the students.

Day 3

Students engaged in a fishbowl discussion of the article they read for homework. If you are new to fishbowl discussion, essentially, you divide the class into two groups. The first group is the “inner circle,” whose job is to begin the discussion. It should be student-centered, and the teacher should listen and take notes. I track discussions like this using an iPad app called Equity Maps. The second group is the “outer circle,” whose job is to listen to the first group and take notes. I set a timer for 15 minutes for the first group. Then the groups swap positions and the second group has a discussion while the first group listens and takes notes. After both groups discussed the text, we debriefed the discussion experience:

  • What did you observe during the discussion of the text?
  • What is one thing you heard that you agree with?
  • What is one thing you heard that you disagree with?
  • How did you feel while on the outside of the fishbowl?
  • How did you feel while on the inside of the fishbowl?

For homework, I assigned students to write a reflection on their learning. I have used the same template for seminar reflections for years. I stole it from Greece New York Public Schools well over 15 years ago. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available on their site, so I’m going to try to link it below.

Socratic Seminar Reflection

Day 4

I introduced students to ethos, pathos, and logos. Because students had read Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy over the summer, I returned to his work and shared his TED Talk with them.

As students watched, they took notes on a graphic organizer:

  • Speaker: Who is the speaker?
  • Audience: Who is the intended audience for this speech?
  • Subject: What is the speech mostly about?
  • Context: What was happening in history at the time this speech was given (Stevenson discusses some of this in the speech)?
  • Why do you think the speaker gave this speech?

I drew a triangle on the board and asked students to tell me which of the questions above related to who the speaker was and how he established his credibility. I wrote “ethos” next to the top corner of the triangle and defined it as an author or speaker’s credibility on the topic. Is the speaker or author reliable or credible? Is the speaker or author knowledgeable? Does Bryan Stevenson establish himself as credible? Why or how?

Next, I asked which of the questions above were related to how the audience feels when listening to the speech. I added “pathos” to the triangle on the board and defined it as an appeal to emotions. How does the text make the audience feel? What emotional appeals does Stevenson make? How does the speech make you feel?

Finally, I asked which of the questions above has to do with research, evidence, or facts (this might be a good time to point out that some areas overlap; context, purpose, and subject might appeal to both pathos and logos). I added “logos” to the triangle and defined it as an appeal to logic and reason. How do the facts and evidence support the claim? What appeals to facts, logic, and reason did Stevenson make?

Following this introduction, we discussed the speech using these questions as a guide:

  • What do you think would happen if these three different kinds of appeals were unbalanced? For example, what if the speech had no appeals to emotions? No facts, research, or evidence?
  • What if it were someone else besides Bryan Stevenson (feel free to play with different celebrities here; could Taylor Swift deliver this speech believably? Kanye West?
  • How well do you think this speech balances the three types of appeals?

For homework, students read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Day 5

I shared the background context (but not the Call for Unity letter… yet) as seen in slide 1 below. Then I posted the questions on slide 2 and asked students to get in small groups to discuss.

We reconvened as a class, and groups shared out the highlights of their discussion. Then I shared the Call to Unity letter so students could check their speculation about question 3 on the slide deck.

I introduced a one-pager assignment on Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Day 6

I gave students this class period to work on their one-pagers. I supplied paper and colored pencils for students who wanted them.

Day 7

For this lesson, I owe everything to the #TeachLivingPoets crowd. They created the whole lesson and shared it at NCTE in 2018. We read Clint Smith’s poem “Playground Elegy” from the collection Counting Descent. We discussed the following questions:

  • What do you notice?
  • What words and phrases stand out?
  • What patterns do you notice?
  • What is the argument?

Next, I asked students to work with a partner or group of 3 to create a rhetorical triangle analysis of the poem. It’s fun to use big sticky poster paper and markers, which I provided for students. You might want to display a rhetorical triangle for students as a reminder. Students should include the following:

  • Speaker/author
  • Subject
  • Audience
  • Thesis/purpose

Students put their large sticky posters up and did a gallery walk. I made them spend two minutes on each poster so they would really read it. I set a timer and everything! Then I asked them to share something interesting they noticed on another group’s poster.

The one-pagers were due for the next class, so I reminded students to finish them for homework.

Day 8

This lesson was also stolen from the #TeachLivingPoets presentation from 2018. I displayed the slide deck below.

I went through slides 1 (with Fatimah Asghar’s biography) to 5. Then I posted slide 6 and handed out copies of Asghar’s poems “Microaggression Bingo” and “Partition” from their collection If They Come for Us: PoemsStudents discussed these questions in relation to the two poems in groups. Then the groups shared with the class.

I wrote SOAPSTone on the board and gave students a SOAPSTone graphic organizer with a chart on both sides of the paper. They analyzed each of the poems using the graphic organizer as a class, but you could easily have them do it in small groups.

Day 9

I introduced an out-of-class rhetorical analysis essay and gave students a list of speeches from which to choose. I said they might also pick another speech, and one student did. I also brought in some essay and poetry collections, but all my students opted for a speech. I asked them to fill out a SOAPSTone graphic organizer on their selected speech. Then, I suggested they examine appeals to ethos, logos, and pathos with examples of each, identify style choices and details and build an analysis:

  • What is the writer’s intention?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What is the argument?
  • What is the writer’s strategy to make that argument? Why?
  • What appeals does the writer use to persuade the reader? Why
  • What kind of style does the writer use?
  • What effect does this work have on the audience?

Students had time in class to begin all this planning work.

Day 10

I decided to introduce rhetorical analysis of a film by screening Ava Du Vernay’s 13th, which is available on Netflix or free on YouTube.

As students watched the film, I instructed them to take notes on the following aspects:

  • Appeals to ethos
  • Appeals to logos
  • Appeals to pathos
  • SOAPSTone

This film is over 1:40, so we didn’t finish in one period and carried the film over to the next class.

Students continued working on drafts of their rhetorical analysis for homework.

Day 11

We finished the film and discussed it using the Thoughts, Questions, and Epiphanies method I described in this blog post. Credit for this strategy goes to Marisa Thompson. Here is what I posted for students to guide their discussion:

Students were in groups of 3 or 4, and I gave them 15-20 minutes to talk. Then they shared their top 2 thoughts, questions, or epiphanies on the board, and their ideas guided the rest of our class discussion of the film.

For homework, students finished a first draft of the rhetorical analysis.

Day 12

Writing workshop. Conference with students on their drafts, give them time to read and edit each other’s work, or work on their drafts.

Day 13

Ugh. The test. Most of our students take AP Lang exams, so I gave them the 2021 AP Lang rhetorical analysis (Sonia Sotomayor’s speech) as a timed writing practice. We debriefed the prompt after the timed writing. I gave them a copy of the AP rhetorical analysis rubric and went over it. Then I asked them to score themselves on the rubric and add a sentence to the end of the timed writing explaining how they scored themselves and why.

Day 14

We examined the College Board’s sample essays on the rhetorical analysis for the 2021 prompt on Sonia Sotomayor’s speech and scored them. Then I revealed the scores the essays earned and explained the rationale for the score. My students nailed it. They scored each essay exactly as the College Board did! We also discussed how they feel about their timed writing from the previous class now that they’ve seen models, and most students indicated they feel pretty good. At this point, I was preparing to hand the class over to their new full-time teacher, so she took some time to get to know the students with some games.

Day 15

We played rhetorical analysis Jenga. I decided to have them examine a short piece by Temple Grandin from This I Believe. I introduced students to Temple Grandin by showing this short video.

I owe Melissa Smith and Joel Garza for the idea for the Jenga game, which I adapted from literary analysis. Here is a list of questions I used.

You will need enough Jenga games for students in groups of 3-4. Number the blocks from 1-22. You will repeat numbers, and that is okay.

I also collected final drafts of the rhetorical analysis essay.

The graded assessments in this unit were the fishbowl reflection, the one-pager, and the rhetorical analysis essay. I do not believe in grading timed writing or participation. I think it puts too much pressure on students to grade timed writing when it is practice and should be a formative assessment. I have moved away from grading participation because it is difficult to assess what students are learning. Students may dominate discussion without really learning much to rack up participation grades, or they may be introverted and struggle to speak but still learn a lot, so I just don’t do it. I grade reflections on discussions instead.

That’s it! I hope it’s useful.

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


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.