Teaching Identity

Teaching and discussing identity regarding race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation are always sticky subjects regardless of if you’re in the classroom or not.  People tend to be timid around the topics that could possibly offend or upset. To me, it’s important to think of the word “possibly” from that statement.  That leaves the possibility, and I think the more likelihood, that you won’t upset or offend if you are tactful with your words.  For me in my classroom, I always try to be as honest as possible with these topics.  Most of my students are Hispanic or African American and they always have questions and want to talk about race.  I know that these topics may also be uncomfortable for people to talk about, but I truly believe just ripping off the Band-aid is important because kids have questions and want answers (I just listened to a This American Life podcast about this – shout out to Katrina).  

 

Concerning the questions of if you can teach identity in literature without discussing politics or social justice, I think it’s possible, however, I think it’s slightly irresponsible to do so.  Thinking about the novels I have taught, or just teaching English in general, the topics in the novels lend themselves to open discussion about life because of the nature of literature.  Even when we get a little “off topic”, having these discussions give students an education about the world they live in; it would be irresponsible to not talk about these things with them.  

 

Specific novels that come to mind that I teach that deal with race, nationality, and gender identity are The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Giver, and The Book Thief.  Race identity stand out particularly in ATDPTI and The Book Thief.  For Junior on the Rez, he struggles with his identity as a Spokane Indian who chooses to “abandon” his Indian culture by going to a white school off the reservation in order to better himself by getting a better education and not have to use the same textbooks that he knows for a fact that his own mother used when she was in school.  Not only does he feel like an outsider at his new school, Rearden, because he’s the only Indian, but he is also alienated on the Rez because all the other Indians look at him as a betrayer.  With this novel, this lends to political discussion as well as nationality since we can talk about the politics of both our country and the treatment of Indians by our government, but also the politics of the Indian community as well.  

 

In The Book Thief, we have the main character, Liesel, who is the foster child to a German family during World War II who is hiding a Jewish man in their basement.  She befriends all the boys her age on her street, her best friend being, Rudy, a German boy who is obsessed with the American track star, Jesse Owens.  Naturally, race, nationality, and politics must be discussed with this novel.  This would be a case where not talking about it would be inappropriate, especially since I teach middle school and a lot of context is lost in reading if students don’t understand these issues.  It is also important since many of my students, even though they live in a city where one whole neighborhood is predominantly Jewish and we have Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana off in our calendar, are confused about the Jewish religion and ethnicity.  They don’t see why they have been historically discriminated against or how you could even tell who was Jewish or not Jewish.  They ask me about this frequently during our Holocaust unit.  It’s important to bring up these issues and differences so they can make the connections in their own lives – why have black people and Hispanic people been discriminated against?  There is no good or legitimate reason, and these ideas need to be discussed in class because one day or another, students sadly will have a brush with discrimination in some way, shape, or form.

I had a tougher time thinking about novels that I teach that discuss gender or sexual orientation, especially at the middle school level.  In The Giver, gender is important because everything is so controlled.  When Jonas stops taking his magic pills that take away any feelings he would have, he starts to see these differences, but the bigger theme of this novel I think lends itself to discuss nationality and race more than gender because the government of their community is so overbearing.  I haven’t taught The House on Mango Street, but I think it would be a good read for middle school to discuss gender identity and race identity since Esperanza is a young Hispanic girl who is trying to navigate her way through the world of being Latina and being a Latina girl.  I think my students would relate to the culture in this book very well.  Other books that came to mind that would work with this lense as well, but for high school, are The Catcher in the Rye or The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

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Authors’ Impretents Throughout Ages

Throughout the reading, I found it very difficult to see where Barthes and Foucault were coming from.  To me, an author always has a purpose for writing, therefore, it is nearly impossible for me to separate an author from his work. An author is always inspired whether it be by a life experience, a deadline, or by money to write. I see contradictions in the fact that Barthes and Foucault clearly have a belief that they want to convey through writing.  I can concede that, “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing (1325).  I don’t think knowing Barthes’ or Foucault’s background would matter in reading either of their essays.  It doesn’t changing the message or meaning.  However, knowing their background wouldn’t box in the reader, like how Barthes’ believes.  Everyone has their own experience when reading, so it wouldn’t box anyone in.  For example, I have read The Catcher in the Rye several times in my life and every time I’ve read it, I’ve had a different experience with it.  Knowing about J.D. Salinger and his tendency to be a recluse didn’t and doesn’t affect my reading of the novel.  It helps me understand the motivation behind Holden Caulfield’s behavior and how lonely he is, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that either just because I know that J.D. Salinger preferred to be alone.  Barthes mentions a could of times how writing is made up of all kinds of quotes and cultures, like, “The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (1324).  I guess, in a sense, he could be saying that knowing the background of the author doesn’t matter because his product comes from so many other places, but to me, that would just mean that there are so many more things the reader should understand before reading a text.

I can also understand Barthes’ and Foucault’s arguments from the lense of reading a book for pleasure, for simply just the story.  In reading Jane Eyre without knowing anything about Charlotte Bronte, the reader experiences a very interesting story with many characters that you can relate to, but also many characters that you can’t relate to either.  It’s like going to the movies where the audience doesn’t usually know a ton about the director or writer or producer because the audience goes in with the suspension of disbelief.  In studying literature, or film for that matter, I don’t think you are truly studying the text unless you know all the aspects of it.  Did the fact that Charlotte Bronte, and her sisters, all wrote with a male pen name affect the novel?  Did how Charlotte Bronte grow up influence the story she wrote?  These are all important aspects that must be analyzed for students to understand a novel, especially in this day in age where students are so curious, but also don’t fully understand unless you bring this biographical context in as well.

As a teacher, I think I go back to the statement I made earlier that an author always has a purpose for writing.  I think it is important to focus on this because it usually lends itself to cross curricular instruction.  Teaching The Crucible could lend to history through both the Salem Witch Trials and the fact that Miller was using the play as an allegory for the Red Scare.  With Shakespeare, you can give the historical context of the play as well as Shakespeare himself, while possibly lending the math and science to build a model of the Globe theatre.  With The Odyssey, it’s always important to discuss the oral tradition of Homer’s time to give the context of the style.  The only time I can see a pure break from the author through teaching is perhaps through teaching non-fiction, for the most part.  You don’t need to know the author’s experiences to read a biography of someone, however, it is important to know if that person is credible, so knowing about the author could be vital even in those instances.

I Get The Big Deal, But I Don’t Get It…

As a middle school teacher, it is hard to think of a time where the Marxist lense would apply or be appropriate to teach simply because it is so complex for the young adolescent mind.  It would perhaps be easier if the more modern types of government and economic systems were in the curriculum, but the middle school social studies curriculum exists of ancient civilizations and US history from pre-colonial times to the late 19th century, so the opportunity for cross curricular teaching and learning doesn’t present itself readily.  If it were easier to present this theory, I would.  I think looking at Marxist theory in a historical context makes the most sense.  You need to look at the revolutions of Europe and the rise against monarchy. I would also have no problem saying the words “Marx” or “socialism”.  Quite frankly, I would think it pointless to even talk about the ideas without saying the creator’s name.  It’s like saying “he who must not be named” instead of “Voldemort”.  Students should be exposed to these terms and understand them in an age appropriate manner.  

In typing this, I have realized that this topic could actually links very easily to the novel I am teaching right now, The Giver.  In our closing writing assessment, an argumentative essay, students had 5 research topics to choose from that connect the novel to our world we live in today.  One topic in particular has to do with The Sameness they practice in The Giver.  In a way, I have been discussing social programs with students and the social programs in the novel already.  Students have to argue if The Sameness is good or bad for society while comparing it to examples in the real world.  In teaching these essay topics, students have been investigating our government vs. China’s, Cuba’s, and North Korea’s, among others.  This just goes to prove my point that these ideas, though to some may be extreme, can be discussed and they don’t need to be hidden.  How are students supposed to understand the capitalist society we live in, that has some socialist aspects to it, if they don’t understand the force that competes against it?
Cultural studies, on the other hand, is something I find myself going through every day almost.  With every piece we read in class, I need to build background knowledge of the topic or the writer or both.  This always deals with the historical lense, but also the cultural.  Students respond very well to this.  Regardless of if we are reading a book or discussing an article or just discussing current events, culture is a conversation that is very prevalent in my classroom. Students find it interesting and they like to make connections to their own cultures and their own lives.  This year we have read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Giver while we have The Diary of Anne Frank and possibly The Book Thief coming up.  Reading these books through the cultural lense, I would argue, is the only way to read these books, especially for middle schoolers.  Using the cultural lense helps students discover other people they haven’t encountered yet in their young lives, but they most likely will encounter in their adult lives.  By exposing students to all of these ideas, we are giving them the tools necessary to interact with others.  We would be stunting the intellectual growth of our students if we kept these topics of discussion away from them.

Relating Novels To Life

When I start reading a new novel with my students, I always try to look for ways to relate the novel to my students’ lives.  I find that a lot of my students don’t like to read because of a few things.  The first is many don’t read outside of school.  As a result, many of my students struggle with reading, which is the second reason they don’t like to read.  That being said, something that makes it easier for them to get into a book in school is to make sure they can see something about the novel in their own lives.  I usually explore this with my students through character analysis and theme analysis.

For character analysis, graphic organizers are my best friends.  As students begin to read, I have them pick out the details about each major character and record their appearance, their actions, what they say about themselves, and what other characters say about them.  The characters I would have them explore the most would be Jane Eyre (obviously), Mr. Rochester, Bessie, the Reed Cousins, Helen Burns, Bertha Mason, and have them pick a couple other characters they think are important to include.  By completing this graphic organizer, we can see as a class who the characters are and infer why each character behaves the way he or she does.  This will allow students to understand the motives behind each character so they can understand the plot better.  It will also allow students to connect to certain characters, make opinions about characters they don’t like, and connect to life.  I find myself mediating students frequently about when one student doesn’t like another student or another teacher.  By analyzing character, we can relate to life that there will always be people we like and people we don’t like, as there are characters we like and don’t like.

The next aspect of the novel that I think would be important to address with students is the theme of Jane trying to find herself in her world and fit in.  School at the secondary level is highly social for all students.  They just want to find who they are and fit in with the people around them.  To connect to their own lives, I would have students analyze this theme at each step in Jane’s journey from Gateshead Hall to Lowood to Thornfield Hall.  Identify what happens to Jane at each juncture in her journey and how she grows from a young girl to a young woman basically all alone.  What happens around her that gives her the will to keep going since she isn’t really surrounded by the happiest of people or lives.

Lastly, a couple activities that I like to employ with reading novel are journal/letter writing as characters or writing a piece of the novel from the perspective of a character who doesn’t provide the main narration.  It allows students to really understand the novel from all aspects since it forces them to look at other characters more critically.  They could explore the class issues of why John, Eliza, and Georgiana are so terrible to Jane.  They could pretend to be more of the more eccentric characters of Mr. Rochester or Bertha Mason.