Tag Archives: contemporary novels

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. 

Teaching Contemporary Novels

After finishing yesterday’s review of Teach Living Poets, it occurred to me that we shouldn’t just be teaching living poets. We should be teaching living authors, period, and for all the same reasons. As Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith argue in Teach Living Poets, one reason for teaching living poets is that students can begin to see themselves as poets and understand that poetry can discuss contemporary issues that they care about. All of this applies to novels as well.

Another great reason for teaching contemporary novels is that you can incorporate more voices into your curriculum. While it’s entirely possible to teach classics by authors of color or women, for example, it’s also true that these voices were much more marginalized in the past, and the bulk of classics are written by White men. 

I recognize that many schools have a book room, and teachers are confined to what’s in the book room—I certainly experienced that barrier early in my career. I will be upfront that I do not currently have have that challenge, as I work in a private school that expects students to purchase their books, so I do not need to constantly update an outdated book room. I can change books each year, if I like. If you are working in a school where you are limited, you might try DonorsChoose or educational grants. A friend of mine recently shared her Amazon Wish List on Twitter in order to procure a contempary novel for her class, and she was able to obtain a full class set in this way. I recognize we all have different levels of comfort in asking for help in this way and also that some of us may need to go through department chairs or curriculum directors, too, but I promise that making the effort can pay off.

One of the barriers to teaching contemporary novels, similar to teaching contemporary poets, is not having the canned content and premade lesson plans. Let me tell you a secret. When I was an early-career teacher, I relied on that canned content, and it was terrible for my students. I didn’t feel prepared enough or creative enough to come up with my own approaches to teaching books. I found a bunch of these novel guides in my classroom, and I used all the study questions, tests (ick), and essay prompts—you name it. While using these tools might save you time, ultimately, they’re not that engaging. Even the free novel guides you find online are not really lesson plans (though I admit to reading them when I’m thinking about big ideas and discussion questions).

A few years before I started teaching living poets, I began incorporating more contemporary novels in my curriculum as well. Of course, that also meant I had to create lessons around these novels, and often there wasn’t much I could find online from other teachers. This turned out to be a great experience for me as an educator because I completely tailored my lessons to the students in my classes. All of this may seem glaringly obvious to you, and if so, that’s great, but if you think a little help might be good, stay tuned. I am planning to share my approaches to teaching several contemporary novels here on this blog. For our purposes, I’m defining “contemporary” as published in the last 20 years. I plan to focus on three novels, in particular: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, There There by Tommy Orange, and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. 

I have curated a list of great contemporary novels on Bookshop.org, and I will keep adding to this list. I’m looking forward to sharing these lessons and ideas with you, and I hope they’ll be useful.