Welty opens with a vivid depiction of the main character, Phoenix Jackson (seen in the great image to the left that I got from this blog). The story then moves into an account of Phoenix's long and tumultuous journey on foot to the closest town to get medicine for her sick grandson. It's short enough that most students could read it comfortably in one day with time to do some other activities (if you're on block schedule with around 90 minutes per class), but if you want to break it up over two (or more) days, there's plenty to do to supplement the story, and you can work with the first half of the story on the first day. It works well to break it after her encounter with the hunter when he departs (stop before the paragraph where Welty writes, "She walked on").
For those who are teaching English 11 through the literary movements, this piece fits into Modernism. (A brief tangent about the teaching of literary periods for those who are interested: once we finally let go of that style of teaching in English 11, a world of possibilities unfolded before us. We were able to group texts (even traditional, canonical ones) into much more engaging, approachable units that focused on relevant skills and riveting essential questions rather than struggling through early American literature and losing students right there at the beginning of the year when buy in is so crucial. If you have the freedom to break away from that mold, I encourage you to try it--we've done lots of different kinds of units, and ALL of them have been more successful than the chronological approach. If you've never taught that way or left it behind long ago, you may disregard this whole tangent.) When we taught units focusing on different archetypes, this story fell into the "journey" archetype. It would also fit nicely in a unit on determination, love for family, selflessness, or the need to help others. With the current "social issues" style of unit creation that we're using (see the post on social issues for more info about that), I'd place this in a unit focusing on issues addressing class or race. There are many subtleties in the text that could be explored including class issues, social structure, racism, finding meaning in life, and identity.
The way I have taught the story, we explore the way that Welty uses literary techniques to create a theme. The activities has three parts: (1) An overview organizer that looks at Welty's life, reviews the literary terms, and examines some vocabulary from the story (2) An individual organizer that is differentiated to suit different students' comprehension/ skill levels. These organizers focus on SETTING/ CONFLICT/ CHARACTERIZATION/ and SYNTAX and SYMBOLISM. The students will only focus on ONE of the devices; there are basic plot questions at the bottom of each organizer to ensure that the students grasp the story while they are looking for their specific literary technique. (3) A group organizer that requires students to come together who have the different literary devices; that organizer focuses on creation of theme statements and lets the students explore HOW the devices create the theme that they see in the text.
The first day, we work our way through the pre-reading activities and get into the story. The students work on their individual parts of the story, finding examples and completing the organizer as they read. They can certainly work in groups for this, but it would work best if they worked with people who were looking for the same literary device.
The second day, we focus on theme creation and proving HOW the literary devices reveal the theme. We talk about theme statements and the fact that they are not simply single words but instead complete statements about life. They work to analyze how the different elements reveal a specific theme statement. The groups then share their themes and how the devices reveal them. (Posters are always a wild success on theme days; I often let students make them using the big sketch pad paper and markers--I have them place the theme statement in the middle, surrounding it with the support, which would be the devices and examples here.) I like to start with a warm-up and end with a wrap-up activity (which I call exit slips--a term that I'm sure was drilled into me at some point in my teaching career, but that is not universal). For this story, I typically do journal entries at the beginning of class, and the activities at the end of class focus on theme creation within a poem as well as analysis of the story.
There's a fascinating essay by Welty concerning Phoenix Jackson's grandson--namely, whether he is, in fact, alive at all. Check that out here if you're interested. (This is an essay I've used at times with classes--it leads to great discussion and debate.) She sums up her ideas when she says:
"In the matter of function, old Phoenix's way might even do as a sort of parallel to your way of work if you are a writer of stories. The way to get there is the all-important, all-absorbing problem, and this problem is your reason for undertaking the story. Your only guide, too, is your sureness about your subject, about what this subject is. Like Phoenix, you work all your life to find your way, through all the obstructions and the false appearances and the upsets you may have brought on yourself, to reach a meaning--using inventions of your imagination, perhaps helped out by your dreams and bits of good luck. And finally, too, like Phoenix, you have to assume that what you are working in aid of is life, not death.
But you would make the trip anyway, wouldn't you?--just on hope."
Ah, yes, that's a lovely sentiment for all of us, writers and teachers. Aren't we eternally working tirelessly with nothing more to guide us than our own internal compass, an assumption and a bit of hope?
If you're interested in the materials that go with this set of lessons, check out my page on TeachersPayTeachers. (The materials are not there yet, as of 2/9/15, but they will be there ASAP!) I'm just now getting it going, so I'd love any feedback and support that you can offer!