Tag Archives: ap 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    E. It’s a reference to a specific historical document.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.

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.

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


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”


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.

Teaching Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: First Chapters


I mentioned that I love teaching Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing so much that I tend to over-teach it in my previous post. This year, I’m trying to scale back what I do with students to the essentials. I’m hoping it will increase students’ enjoyment of the novel.

When I first started teaching this book a few years ago, there were not many online teaching resources. As I read the book, I made notes of questions and issues for discussion and captured all of these ideas in a Google Doc. I can’t recommend this process highly enough. I think it’s fairly obvious, but I also think many of us don’t do it because we don’t have a lot of planning time. I think it’s a worthwhile activity because if it interests you enough to take note of, chances are your students will also find it interesting. I have mentioned before that early in my career, I relied on canned curriculum. Those curriculum folders usually came with questions I could use for discussion, but I didn’t always find them all that useful or even all that deep. They could often be surface-level questions. I will not share great long lists of discussion questions in these posts because I think it’s worthwhile to create your questions. Better yet, have your students develop the questions; they’ll be the best questions. Instead, this post and subsequent posts will share some teaching tools I’ve used to teach this novel.

The first chapter of Homegoing centers on Effia. I explain the Akan custom of naming children after the day of the week they’re born. Effia’s name means she was born on Friday. One of the novel’s main symbols, fire, is introduced in this chapter, and I make sure students notice it and discuss it. Effia receives a stone necklace in this chapter that also becomes an important symbol in the novel. We discuss the fact that Effia is born of an enslaved woman in a Fante village. Later, it becomes clear her village is heavily involved in the slave trade. I found this clip of Trevor Noah interviewing Yaa Gyasi for The Daily Show enlightening and helpful for students to watch. Trevor Noah asks Gyasi about Africans’ involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Esi’s chapter begins in medias res, making for a good discussion point. She is given a stone necklace similar to her unknown half-sister Effia’s, but she loses it in the depths of the dungeons of the Cape Coast Castle as she is being taken to a slave ship. I usually ask students to track the stone necklace through Effia’s line. Students will want to compare and contrast the characters of Effia and Esi, and several of the scenes in the chapters would make for good scene studies. Effia and Esi establish the novel’s two family histories and introduce students to the abrupt shifts in fortunes that characters will experience, demonstrating how political events, history, and fate will impact the characters in the rest of the novel.

Esi’s friend Tansi tells an Anansi story, and I like to show this clip for students who may not be as familiar with Anansi stories (true story; I remember this video from when I was in school!):

This video is long, but some excerpts might prove helpful for students in learning more about the Asante Kingdom and its people:

The History Channel’s new production of Roots included some informational videos that I also use in teaching the early chapters of Homegoing. I generally show this video, which depicts the Middle Passage, a part of Esi’s story that we do not necessarily see; however, some of her experiences in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle echo Kunta Kinte’s in this film. What I like about this video is the incorporation of historians’ voices. The video also quickly fills in any gaps students might have in their background information on the Middle Passage.

Crash Course’s new series on Black history (featuring Clint Smith!) also has some great resources, including this video about the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Students generally find this animation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade compelling as well. When I show it, I try to point out the large numbers of ships at the time when Esi would have been transported (the 1770s). 

Quey’s chapter offers opportunities to discuss issues such as masculinity, sexuality, and familial expectations. Quey makes a decision to do what his family wants him to do, to bury his dreams. His son James will make the opposite choice. Discussion of their choices and the repercussions they have on their families is always interesting. 

Ness’s chapter opens with an allusion to the spiritual “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which you might want to play for students. I found this version by Eric Bibb last year and shared it with my students.

Interestingly, like Esi’s, Ness’s chapter begins in medias res. Students might find it interesting to draw structural parallels between Esi’s chapter and Ness’s. Just as comparing and contrasting Effia and Esi’s stories are interesting, students may also find comparing and contrasting Quey and Ness compelling.

Esi and Ness’s chapters are tough to read due to the brutality of their treatment. It’s a good idea to prepare students and to hold space for them to process the impact of the reading. Teachers must teach this novel with sensitivity and awareness of its impact on students. Many of them will learn things they didn’t know about history, which may provoke some cognitive dissonance. I urge you to engage in identity work and antibias/antiracist work before teaching a novel like this so that you do not cause harm. I honestly could not have taught this book about ten years ago because I wasn’t ready, and there was too much learning I needed to do.

Teaching Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: Introduction

Yaa Gyasi’s 2016 novel Homegoing is one of my favorite books to teach. Not only is it well written and engaging, but it covers so many aspects of African-American and Ghanaian history that reading it is a historical education that’s hard to beat. The novel has also appeared as a suggestion for Question 3 on the AP Lit exam (2018, 2021), only one of many reasons it’s a good choice for AP English Literature.

I have been teaching Homegoing for the last three years—this year will be my fourth. I contend that you have to teach something at least twice before you hit your stride, and my experience with this book has been the same. I love this book so much that I have tended to over-teach it (in a recent post I described developing a vision board to help me target what’s critical). The students are generally with me until about the last 1/4 to 1/3 of the book, and after that point, I’ve made them tired. This year, I am making a more concerted effort to assign it in chunks. I’ll report on the results.

To introduce my students to this novel, I begin with a pedagogical tool I use frequently (at least once a week or more): journaling. I ask students to journal on the following question: What do you know about the Slave Trade/Triangle Trade? I give students a few minutes to think and write, and then we share out. Students have usually learned a good deal in their history classes. Next, I show them this clip of President Obama and Anderson Cooper touring the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.

We discuss the video; specifically, I like to ask:

  • What resonated most for you?
  • What did you know about castles like this before?
  • What are you curious about? (I list student questions and remind them to write them down.)

Students may have learned a great deal about the Slave Trade or Triangle Trade, but they have rarely ever heard of the slave castles, like the Cape Coast Castle. They tend to be quite surprised they exist. Following our discussion of the Cape Coast Castle, I like to read this article from The Atlantic about inherited trauma. Most of my students have learned about genetics in biology, and many of them have taken or take advanced biology classes (such as AP Biology) concurrently with my class, so they usually have a lot to say about this article. My experience has been that students tend to think it’s interesting but do not completely buy the argument that trauma can be inherited. I engage them in a discussion of the article by asking questions such as the following:

  • What is your reaction to this article?
  • Do you want to argue with any of the conclusions?
  • What are you curious about?

After discussing the article we watch this clip of Yaa Gyasi reading from Homegoing:

I explain to students that in a very real way, the experience of reading this book will be like Marcus’s experience. One of the characters in the book will say, “[T]he one who has the power… Gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you figure that out, you must find that story, too” (226-227).

After that, I usually point out the family tree at the beginning of the book and explain that we will be following the history of a family ripped in half by history. One branch of the family will remain in what is known today as Ghana and experience many of that country’s historical events, while the other branch will be enslaved and taken to the United States and experience many of that country’s historical events. Each chapter is devoted to a different character in the family. 

I am using digital notebooks for the first time this year, and I will most likely introduce students to their notebooks. They previously kept a notebook for Song of Solomon, so it shouldn’t take too long to explain each section and how students might use it. Digital notebooks should be a post all by themselves, but essentially I use this template from Slides Mania with 7 tabs labeled as follows: 

  • Response Log: for in-class journals.
  • Favorite Quotes: students can annotate their books, too, but copying the quotes out into their notes means less flipping when they’re looking for quotes later.
  • Characters: Notes on characters’ descriptions, growth, connections to others, etc.
  • Scene Studies: a close analysis of a scene.
  • MOWAW: Meaning of the work as a whole; they typically need a lot of guidance with the section, but essentially, this is where they analyze thematic elements.
  • Supporting materials: mostly embedded videos that will enhance students’ understanding of the novel.
  • Writing: a place for students to capture their writing ideas.

This notebook structure was taken from Roy Smith’s presentation at last summer’s Mosaic conference. I used it with great success when I taught Song of Solomon this year. With that notebook, I had two categories for characters: major characters and minor characters. The response log and favorite quotes were in the same section. Students suggested they be separated in future notebooks (they also requested digital notebooks for the other books we study this year).

Sometimes, when time allows, I like to start reading a novel together as a way to end the class, but this introduction typically takes a class period for me (my classes are 70 minutes).

I find this introduction helps prepare students for the novel’s setting and gives them a feel for what they will read. The article on inherited trauma primes them to think about how the intergenerational trauma of racism, colonialism, and slavery impacts this family, and it gives us an argument we can return to as the characters’ stories unfold, particularly as many characters will be cut off from their family history, either because of slavery or the characters’ choices. 

I warn students that this novel will be hard in the beginning. I don’t mean that the writing is difficult to parse but that it will discuss traumatic events unflinchingly. They might be tempted to stop. But the ending is joyous and redemptive, and if they stick with it, they will find the experience of reading it rewarding. 

Slice of Life: Improvisation

My AP Lit Class

This morning my Keurig decided to break. I have a single-serve Keurig that I have to fill with a cup of water each time I use. Only half a cup came out. I knew there had to be water trapped inside, but I wasn’t able to open it to see. So I turned it upside down over the trash can, and super-concentrated coffee went everywhere. Including the legs of my chinos. I knew they’d dry fast based on the kind of material they’re made out of, and my previous experiences getting them wet taught me I could try to wash the coffee out of my pants in the bathroom, and they’d probably be dry by class time.

I sat down and checked Blackboard. I started my doctoral program yesterday, and we are introducing ourselves to each other in both of my classes. I also wanted to see if my professor had answered my question. She had.

Then I thought to check my plan book to see what my AP Lit classes had on the docket for today, and I realized with horror that I’d made a big mistake. I had actually finished a project with them a day earlier than I had anticipated when I created my plans. I didn’t have anything for my students to do.

I knew I wouldn’t have time to create a meaningful lesson out of whole cloth, and I couldn’t move ahead because I had given my students until tomorrow or Thursday (depending on which class they are in) to finish Thomas C.  Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor.  It wouldn’t be fair to tell them they had to create seminar questions today when they might not be quite finished reading.

The project my students had just completed was to learn how to use a literary analysis tool (one was TPCASTT) and teach it to their peers in a presentation in which they also share their analysis of a literary work using the tool. In past years, I’ve been frustrated that the tools have been introduced early in the year and haven’t gained any traction. The students thought they were useful, but later on, they simply didn’t return to them when they were analyzing literature. We fall back on habits and methods that we know. We forget.

I thought fast. What if my AP Lit students worked in groups to choose a poem in one of my new collection of books by (mostly) living poets, chose a literary tool they learned last week (not one they themselves presented), analyzed a poem, and shared their findings with the class?

I tossed my poetry books in a box and made my way across campus. It was just starting to rain. I was glad I had remembered my umbrella so the books would stay dry.

All went well in my first class. After you’ve taught for a while, you come up with some handy go-to techniques you can use to stretch a lesson.

As I made my way back across campus slowly and carefully in a torrential downpour that was the remains of Hurricane Florence, I tried to keep the books dry and succeeded in making my pant legs wet all over again—the puddles were unavoidable—and arrived back at my office about ten minutes late for my “office hour” ( really half-hour). Thankfully, no one was waiting for help. I dried off my shoes with a paper towel from the bathroom and prepared to do the lesson again in my second class.

What started out as a mistake turned out to be serendipity. The students dove into the poems and presented thoughtful analyses. They considered which tool to use thoughtfully, thinking about what their chosen poems included in terms of diction, literary devices, imagery, symbols, and other elements. It was brilliant. And I think it may have helped me along the path to achieving my goal of convincing students to use these tools to analyze literature.

Thank you to #TeachLivingPoets, and thank you to generous AP teachers everywhere who share their ideas. In spite of me, I had some great classes today.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

Tim O’Brien: Story Truth and Happening Truth

My AP Lit students read Tim O’Brien’s story “How to Tell a True War Story” from the novel/collection The Things They Carried for today. I used the ideas O’Brien expresses in his story “Good Form”—that there is “story-truth” and “happening-truth” and “story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth”—as the center of my class’s discussion of the story we read.

I began class by showing students Eddie Adams’s iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photo Saigon Execution.

Saigon Execution, Eddie Adams, AP Photo

I asked them what they thought the story of this photo was. I gave them a few minutes to think (and write, if they wished). Then we had a class discussion. The students generally came to the same conclusions that many people do when they see this photo: that it depicts the execution of a civilian, that it represents the brutality of war.

The true story behind the photo is more complex. Really, read the article I linked. It’s quite an incredible story.

I used this introduction to set up O’Brien’s ideas regarding “story-truth” and “happening-truth,” and then we discussed O’Brien’s story, starting with the students’ own selections for lines they found particularly powerful. They had many lines to share, and we took the conversation where they wanted to go for a while. I shared a few of the notes I took at Tim O’Brien and Lynn Novick’s session at NCTE last November, mainly his ideas regarding the obscenity of sending young men to war and condemning them for their use of language when a student noted a line that really stood out to him was Rat Kiley’s description of Curt Lemon’s sister as a “dumb cooze.” Why does that word work so much better than “bitch” or “woman,” which O’Brien says Rat Kiley did not say? I asked them. Because it’s truer, they said.

They totally got it. Tim O’Brien would have been proud.

We talked about Rat Kiley torturing the baby VC water buffalo. They argued it was somehow important that it was a baby. That it was VC. That it never made a sound. Somehow, if it made a sound, the story becomes something else. I read them “Good Form,” and we discussed the ideas he presented in that story.

I showed them this interview with O’Brien:

We came full circle at the end of class with the image Saigon Execution. So this image’s “happening-truth” is that the man holding the gun was a South Vietnamese general named Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. He executed the young man because he was a VC terrorist or guerrilla fighter, for lack of a better word, named Nguyễn Văn Lém who had participated in killing 34 people that day.

But the “story-truth” is that the man is a civilian caught up in the brutality of war.

And in a way, that story is also true. Maybe, because it’s the narrative that won the day, it’s “truer than happening-truth.”

As they were packing up, students expressed how much they enjoyed the story. “I liked it so much I read it to my parents,” one student said. Another said, “I could talk about this story for a week.”

Slice of Life: Writing a Rationale

brokeback mountain photo
Photo by jiadoldol

I started a unit on Love and Relationships in my AP Lit class today. We discussed everything from what it means to love someone, what it means to love yourself and how you show love to others to the four kinds of love defined by Greeks to Capellanus’s rules for courtly love to #metoo and sexual harassment and rape. It was quite a class.

I took a second look at my syllabus, and I realized something was wrong with it. All the relationships depicted in the stories and poems were heterosexual. I am committed to selecting texts that are both windows and mirrors for students. As such, not only do they need to read to learn about others and develop empathy but also to see themselves reflected back in the books they read. Statistically speaking, even if students are not “out,” I have to have students who either already identify as LGBTQ or are still thinking about their identity. Adolescence is a time of considerable confusion; it’s especially confusing for kids who wonder if they are okay or if other people struggle with the same feelings as they do.

What a gaping hole in my curriculum!

I can’t defend the fact that my syllabus did not explore this issue in the Love in Relationships unit, but I did already include LGBTQ authors Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham in my Conformity and Rebellion unit.

Some years ago when I was teaching in Georgia, I taught a short story course for seniors, and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories was one of my major texts. My students engaged in literature circle discussions of the stories. Students had to read “The Half-Skinned Steer” and could select other stories, including “Brokeback Mountain.” I had students who were eager to read the story, but I also had students who refused.

“Brokeback Mountain” explores some essential ideas within the unit theme of “Love and Relationships.” Most critically, it explores the essential question: How have changing roles in society affected romantic love and relationships? I had to put it in my syllabus, so I made a small change. I took out a story I wasn’t even that familiar with but thought I’d teach since a text I use for reference in building my AP Lit course suggested the story, and I replaced that story with “Brokeback Mountain.”

“Brokeback Mountain” addresses literature standards involving the development of elements such as setting and character and narrative structure and offers an opportunity to read through critical lenses (psychological, sociological, historical, among others).

I decided to re-read the story so that I could identify what issues it might raise if, in the worst case scenario, it’s challenged. After all, it was a long time ago that I last taught the story. Maybe ten years!

If I’m honest, I can’t think of another short story with LGBTQ characters that addresses some of the same issues as “Brokeback Mountain” does.

But there is a depiction of the sexual relationship between main characters Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, and the characters use realistic, coarse language.

So I wrote a rationale for using the text.

It was an interesting experience. I think through in some considerable detail why I am using specific texts, especially for new courses when I am creating backward design units, but I haven’t written an entire rationale for a text. If a text I had selected was challenged, I think I could have come up with a rationale for its use, but it’s so much better to be thoughtful about why we are using texts in advance. One of my big takeaways from NCTE is the critical work of teaching literature means we need to be able to justify our choices. We might not ever need to, and that would be great. However, we should be able to explain why we are asking students to read texts and what we hope those texts will offer.

You know what? I’ve been complacent because I’ve been fortunate. Writing that rationale made me feel like this:

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.