This is the husband back for week two (I must've done okay last week, or the wife is just really desperate...). This week I’m stepping in for Ashley while she participates in the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) Conference in Boston. I am sure that a future post of hers will reflect on her weekend there. Stay tuned.
Last week I wrote about Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. We wrapped up our discussion of it this week and I asked my students for feedback. They were pretty positive about the book, and even the ones who did not enjoy it had some very insightful comments about it.
This week I thought I would look at my experience teaching Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982). This book is a memoir, and I had no idea how my students would respond to it. I feared the worst — complete apathy — but once again I learned that I underestimated my students... even when they did not “like” the book, they still took it seriously and reflected critically on its value and message. So, I was pleasantly surprised and plan to teach the book again in the future.
For some background, Richard Rodriguez is the son of Mexican immigrants, and he was born and raised in the U.S. He grew up in California, studied at Stanford (undergraduate), Columbia (MA), and UC Berkeley where he was a PhD candidate until he stepped away from academia to devote himself to writing. He is most well known as a (somewhat controversial) Chicano intellectual and essayist, the controversy stemming from his opposition to Affirmative Action and bilingual education. He has written several memoirs and essay collections, among them Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father (1992), and Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002). He was a finalist for the Pulitzer for Days of Obligation and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Brown. I find his prose to be deeply moving, raw, and beautiful, and even when I find myself disagreeing with what he says, I am moved by the way he says it.
Hunger of Memory is an excellent book for exploring questions of identity, community, and personal reflection. Rodriguez breaks the memoir into chapters that examine the different “spheres” of his life: public and private (family and school), language (Spanish vs. English), race, religion, social class, profession… With my class, this served the dual purpose of 1) providing an insight into the life experiences of someone growing up in an immigrant, bilingual household, and 2) helping us to reflect on how our own lives are divided between a multitude of spheres and influence. While my students might not have personal experience with being a linguistic minority, the memoir does lead to conversations about linguistic register in informal (private) and formal (public) settings, and it even led to some fascinating discussion on how we (should) present ourselves on social media platforms (that space where public and private get all mixed up!). Also, since my class is made up of many first-generation college students, they could easily relate to Rodriguez’s story.
Our reading and discussion of the book built up to a five page reflective essay. These have been beautifully personal works, and this is an assignment that I will repeat again in the future. I have posted the prompt for this essay below.
In short, if you are looking for a memoir to teach, then I would definitely recommend Hunger of Memory. I think that it would work best with older high school students (juniors or seniors). I believe that it is an excellent text for college students. It is approachable, beautifully written, and organized in a way that lends itself well to class discussion. As a teaser sample, I offer this quote from the book in closing. It expresses a sentiment I'm sure many of us can relate to...
"Despite my best efforts, however, there seemed to be more and more books that I needed to read. At the library I would literally tremble as I came upon whole shelves of books I hadn't read." (65)
This is the husband. I have been asked to contribute a guest post this week, and because I am a supporting husband I will do my best to help out and not to destroy all of the pedagogical credibility that my wife has sought to establish on this site.
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.
"Everyone in this tale has a rock-solid hamartia: hers, that she is so sick; yours, that you are so well. Were she better or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terribly crossed,but it is the nature of stars to cross, and never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves.' Easy enough to say when you're a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars." ~page 111
I realized recently that I did not have a book review of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars on this site, and I instantly thought, "How is that POSSIBLE?!?" I eventually came to the conclusion that I had read the book shortly before beginning this blog, which probably explains the oversight.
Anyway, I'll begin this with a long overdue review of the novel. I should start by admitting that I had ABSOLUTELY NO desire to read this book. I hadn't read John Green at all at that point (a sad oversight that I've been working on since that time), but even if I had known what a great writer he was, I still would have been reluctant to read this particular story. Everyone at school who was raving about the book would sum it up by saying that it was an amazing love story of two kids who had cancer, and that it was heartbreaking. Yuck. I was repulsed for a couple of major reasons: (1) I HATE feeling manipulated by authors, and this (very BRIEF and INADEQUATE) summary sounded like the perfect recipe for profound reader manipulation. (2) My mother died of cancer nine years ago, and while I thought (at the time) that it would be enlightening for some people to read about what cancer is like, I had my own life experience all too fresh in my memory and did not feel that I needed any help understanding it.
But then the faculty book club at school selected the novel, and I found myself reading it despite my objections. I'm SO GLAD I did.
It's true that it's a book about two teens who have cancer--but really it's a book about two brilliant, hilarious, painfully teenager-y kids who are trying to figure out life just like everyone else. Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters are two phenomenal young people, and they remind me so much of some of the amazing teenagers I've had the chance to know and work with over the past ten years--infinitely intelligent, snarky and optimistic, frighteningly unaware of the larger world. Hazel and Gus also have an obsession with an author, which leads them on all kinds of adventures. They are complex but loveable, and they live and love and discover so much that we, the readers, can't help but experience their adventures and suffering with them. Both Hazel and Gus suffer, but it is precisely their understanding of their illness that makes them such kindred spirits:
"Much of my life had been devoted to trying not to cry in front of people who loved me, so I knew what Augustus was doing. You clench your teeth. You look up. You tell yourself that if they see you cry, it will hurt them, and you will be nothing but A Sadness in their lives, and you must not become a mere sadness, so you will not cry, and you say all of this to yourself while looking up at the ceiling, and then you swallow even though your throat does not want to close and you look at the person who loves you and smile." (Green 213-14)
John Green does a phenomenal job of showing the inglorious nature of illness--the way that it strips people of even the honor of dying with dignity. He shows the profound impact sickness has on relationships, and the way that people (especially children) who are sick are isolated from the rest of the world by imaginary lines they can neither entirely understand nor control. But what I love most about this novel is that Green does not write a story about cancer; he writes a story about two teenagers who fall in love. It's a remarkable journey, and amazingly uplifting. More than my own testimony, I judge the success of this novel by the innumerable students who have read and passed along the single copy I own. As a testament to the well-loved nature of the book, notice the tattered edges of the cover in the image above. They all love it; lots of them are counting down to the release of the film in this coming June.
Reasons to teach this novel (and activities you might want to do with it):
"You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them. Language buries, but does not resurrect." ~page 112
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.