Full disclosure: I am not an expert in YA lit, and beyond the Harry Potter series I have read very little of it. My wife is possibly scraping from the bottom of the barrel by resorting to my contributions, but she does always remind me that my sense of humor is exactly the same as that of her freshmen boys. And then she rolls her eyes.
I do teach, though, so I’ve got that going for me. We spent the early years of our marriage teaching high school together (I teach Spanish, she: English). A decade, two continents, three states, and five houses later (and graduate school for both of us somewhere in there) I am now teaching at a small liberal arts college and amassing an impressive array of cardigans and corduroy jackets with elbow patches. You can always judge the erudition of a person by their sweaters and elbow patches. At least that’s what I tell myself.
So, qualifications established, I shall commence my contribution to this blog.
I primarily teach Spanish classes in our World Languages & Cultures department, but one of my favorite courses to teach is our First Year Seminar course for entering students. My course is generically titled “An Intro to Critical Thinking through Chican@ Literature,” and we cover a variety of topics pertinent to the liberal arts all through the lens of Chican@ writings. My students are predominantly white, from the surrounding area, and very often first generation college students. For many, this is their first exposure to Chican@ history and readings, and I have been very pleased with our discussions and interactions in class this fall. I am impressed with how quickly the students have been able to move from relative ignorance on the issue to embracing it as another aspect of the American experience that is unique but not so different from their own lives.
Currently I am teaching Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972), the groundbreaking Chican@ novel that has received significant critical and cultural acclaim in the 40+ years since its first publication. I would like to say that I have some incredibly creative lesson plans that I executed perfectly and I received a standing ovation from my students after each class. That is not the case. What has impressed me has been my students’ insights and discussions.
Since the First Year Seminar course is designed for first semester students at our institution, it is a course that lays much groundwork for the students as to what to expect from their college classes and what is expected of them. With these parameters in mind, I have made it a priority in my class to make students feel comfortable contributing to, participating in, and leading class discussions. I believe that if they can become comfortable with contributing to in-class conversations on a regular basis, then they will be able to get the most out of their college courses. We all know that these are not skills that are limited to a college classroom - they are desired for any level classroom, and are essentially desirable skills for community/civic participation and involvement.
To accomplish these goals of classroom interaction, I have modeled throughout the semester how to approach a text: What are some textual elements we are looking at?; What questions arise?; What questions are you left with?; How does this relate back to our lives? I got us started by leading discussion on the first few chapters and then I passed it over to small groups. They were responsible for creating the questions we would discuss in class and for guiding our approach to that chapter/section. Many times the groups have hit the same points that I would have. Quite often, I have been surprised by their insight into a point that I overlooked. Each time, I feel like the group has taken ownership of the discussion and genuinely wanted the rest of the class to understand the importance of their selected chapters.
This approach may well not work with younger high-school students. I am dealing with 18 year olds and they do have (some) more maturity than 13 year olds. But the moral of the story comes from the fact that I tend to be a control freak in the classroom. I like to micromanage every minute and make sure that I have plenty of activities to fill the class-time; however, I have learned that when I am able to release that desire to control and direct each component of class discussions, and when I hand that responsibility over to my students, I am often amazed by their responses and participation.
So, Bless Me, Ultima is a wonderful book to teach. There was a film adaptation made that just came out on DVD this fall and offers some great text-to-film comparisons. One of the greatest resources is the National Endowment for the Humanities' “The Big Read” pages. It comes complete with a teacher’s guide with sample lesson plans, discussion questions, and useful handouts. There is also a reader’s guide that offers history and context to the novel, and there is an audio guide and short documentary to accompany the novel. All wonderful resources.
Our class has approached the novel through the themes that it raises. Bless Me, Ultima lends itself well to discussions of myths, symbols, place, maturity, religion, critical thinking, and others. We spent a day talking about the place of myths in society and how they function for good and bad within our culture. Place is always a topic that my students can relate to, even though the hills of the Shenandoah Valley are quite different than the Llano of New Mexico. My students often feel very tied to their hometown and so can relate very well to the importance of setting and place in the novel.
Most importantly, I have found that Antonio’s coming-of-age narration is an excellent starting point for discussions on critical thinking and the process of learning. For these reasons, I think that it is an excellent book for students at a transition point in their lives, such as starting or finishing high school or college. Antonio must incorporate new knowledge into his understanding of the world, and this process is one that models critical reflection and intellectual growth.
So, when my wife discovers how I have tarnished the good name of her blog through my own lackluster writing, I may never be invited back to write a guest post again. I hope that the damage done is not irreparable. I promise, your regularly scheduled blogger will be back very soon! In the meantime, give Bless Me, Ultima a look.
Bonus: Below is the trailer for the 2013 film adaptation of Bless Me, Ultima.