Man, have I read some amazing (mostly YA) literature lately! I’ve been fortunate to burn through lots of gift cards loading up on summer reads based on great recommendations (Thanks, Jen Moyers, my book guru!), and I can hardly keep up with all of the inspiring texts I’ve been enjoying. (In fact, this book review is a month overdue, but I’m finally going through what I initially wrote to post it. More reviews should be on their way shortly!)
Today I want to focus on Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero. (Credit goes to Goodreads.com for the cover image.)
From the provocative cover to the unique use of images and poetry within the novel, this book certainly gets the reader’s attention from the start. I read it on an e-reader (due to space constraints while traveling—see this post for more about that journey), and I feel like I missed out a little bit on some of the interesting aspects of the text, but I’ve looked at a paper copy as well to experience some of the richer, more colorful aspects of presentation. It's also a short novel, and I've written before about how valuable that can be, especially with a teen audience in a classroom setting.
This brilliant novel hits on all sorts of issues through the eyes of a hilarious, curious, critical girl, Gabi Hernandez, as she journeys through her senior year in high school. She spends much of her time figuring out what it means to be a woman, and she documents all of her thoughts and adventures in a diary that we, the readers, are privy to seeing. Gabi struggles through many typical teen issues with humor and self-reflection: she’s an awesome friend who helps out with a friend’s coming out and another friend’s pregnancy, and she struggles to find her way in relationships with boys. Gabi works through finding her voice as a writer, and she goes through the challenging process of applying for college. She also continually works to maintain meaningful relationships with a mother who, while well-meaning, can be oppressive, a brother who can be irresponsible and careless, and a father who is a drug addict.
The best part of the novel is Gabi’s voice. She’s distinctive, funny, and self-assured (even when she’s insecure). She doesn’t hesitate to say exactly how she feels, even when it’s difficult or makes people uncomfortable. Here are a couple of examples: “Curse the day I fell in love or like or whatever with Joshua Moore! I hate him. Hate him! HATE HIM!” (Quintero 20). Here she comments on her discovery of her love of writing: “I’m finding out that I really like poetry. It’s therapeutic. It’s like I can write something painful on paper and part of it (not all of it, obviously) disappears. It goes always somewhere, and the sadness I feel dissolves a little bit” (Quintero 48). This manifests into some brilliant poetry later on in the novel as she discovers more about the world of writing. The poems about her grandmother and her father are stunning—ones that could easily stand alone, ones that I found myself rereading after I had finished the novel. Here's a brief excerpt from the poem about her father, "In light of the fear of my father's death I write this down":
Guilt of gluttonous
He evades questioning questions
and dodges disagreements
a refugee in refuge
a reduction of
my father the brave. (Quintero 65)
In the classroom: There are so many teachable aspects of this novel. However, the most intriguing aspect of it to me is the way that you could pair the novel with the texts and authors that Gabi discovers in the novel. As she discovers her own voice as a poet, she also encounters many other poets and writers, and you could use the pieces that she discovers as a way to pair the YA novel with more classical, traditional literature in the classroom setting. She encounters writers such as the Beats (specifically Ginsberg’s Howl), Sylvia Plath, Pablo Neruda, e.e. cummings, and Sandra Cisneros. She also talks about Brave New World (though only in passing), and there are references to Edgar Allen Poe and other authors. The text is full of literary connections that could enrich its reading.
I also love the incorporation of Spanish and the way that Gabi shows her readers what it can be like to grow up as a second generation immigrant in America. The Spanish in the text is unobtrusive to non-Spanish readers, and Gabi always makes her point clear in English, but it highlights the richness and complexity of her experience as she navigates through her world of colliding cultures and generations. The way that she talks about Mexican food also shows the richness of her culture. When one of her early relationships falls apart, she talks with her mother:
I tried to act like I didn’t care about the whole Josh situation, but it was hard. I came home today and told my mom what was going on (because she’s my mom and can ALWAYS tell when there’s something wrong and won’t let it go until I tell her) and she offers some words of comfort so my heart wouldn’t shatter. She knows heartbreak, she said. She said. “Yo se lo que es estar joven y enamorada.” I tried to think of my mom as young and in love, but I couldn’t, it was too far of a stretch. (Quintero 22)
Gabi's relationship with her mom is complicated (aren't they always?) but tender and rich. The way that Gabi embraces her heritage and balances her different cultural influences shows one more aspect of her growing into herself. She reflects on her Mexican-American heritage and how hard it can be to be in that situation of split allegiances. It’s one more way that the text is complex, while being totally approachable.
This novel covers so many issues: it is not a book about being overweight, but Gabi talks openly and honestly about her struggles with food and self-image. It’s not a book about sexual identity, but Gabi manages to highlight to us the struggles that so many teens face as they try to learn about themselves. It’s not a book about being homosexual, but her friend’s struggles with his family show how difficult it is for some teens to come out to their loved ones. It’s not a book about teen pregnancy, but her friend Cindy’s struggles show what that path can look like for a young mother. It's not a book about addiction, but Gabi shows the way that addiction impacts the lives of loved ones. Through Gabi's eyes and voice, Quintero covers so many issues with humor, compassion, and authenticity.
In short (I realize this should be an ironic statement since this review keeps getting longer and longer...), I LOVED it, and it would be an invaluable addition to some of the more traditional canonical texts.
First of all, if you haven't read Eudora Welty's lovely short story, "A Worn Path," take the time to read it. Although it's a "traditional" text often found in textbooks, it is one that resonates with students and results in good engagement and strong discussions.
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.
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!
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)
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 2018. 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.