A Sample Lesson

Here are sample essential questions I wouldask with Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

The essential questions that I like to focus on for this novel have to do with love.

The students and I try to analyze the relationship between Frederick Henry and Catherine Barkely.  Initially, students think Catherine is a dingbat and Henry is a player.  The priest tells Henry that to love is to sacrifice. We all understand what it means to sacrifice  for one’s religion, but when it comes to romantic relationships we are not so sure. Sacrificing for others seems so . . .well, masochistic?

But the priest is right:  Love is sacrifice.  We have to sacrifice our egos to have a meaningful relationship with God.  And those sharp, abrasive, self-serving edges of our personality must be worn off through sacrifice for any long-term romantic relationship to succeed.  So are Catherine and Henry willing to sacrifice for love? They do.  Catherine understands that Frederick Henry is her “religion.”  She risks her life to be in a relationship with Henry.

So what, if anything does Henry sacrifice?  Freedom to roam–in every sense of the word (wink, wink, nod, nod, nudge, nudge).

What is required for love to truly develop, grow, and sustain itself?  It’s rather ironic that Hemingway answers this question since he is really not a “romantic.” And having been a notorious womanizer, it’s unlikely he ever really experienced it himself.  But the people within the relationship must become good people.

Henry turning into a good man occurs after his escape from the carabinieri–he undergoes a “baptism” in the river as he flees and he is absolved of the misdeeds of his past live and he is ready to commit to Catherine.

So, the question remains:  What do the students really want to know? Do they want to know how Hemingway’s language contributes to his style or do they want to understand what it takes to make a romantic relationship work?

Watch the following video to find out what it takes to How to Be a Good Person

Teaching with Essential Questions

Teaching through inquiry is not new.  It has been around at least since the mid 1990s, if not earlier than that.  Yet many English teachers still prefer to teach their lessons via a more formalistic approach.  But does any student, besides an English major, really want to learn scansion (to be able to analyze the rhythm of a poem)?  That might beg the question whether kids really want to learn anything as the cynics might ask.

Actually, they do.  And not just the Advanced Placement students.  Most students want to gain a better understanding of life, love, and living.  Romeo and Juliet will get students to think about whether love is enough upon which to base a romantic relationship. Antigone reinforces that authority must sometimes be disobeyed because those with authority can be wrong.  And Hemingway admonishes students that if they are going to be stupid, they better be tough.

Essential Questions (EQs) are those questions that probe the heart of what we are trying to learn or study – they are the questions that drive our curiosities and focus our inquiries.romeo_and_juliet_01

Aw, shucks.  Does love like that really exist?  That’s what they want to know.  Knowing that Shakespearean plays are composed in iambic pentameter–not so much.  Should they know that the play is written in iambic pentameter?  Sure.  Why not? But the experience should be less about the technical details and more about the essential questions.  Let’s look at some sample essential questions.  The following one pertain to how and whether the writer’s culture affects how the piece was written, and whether the reader’s culture affects how he or she understands the work.

Cultural: the analysis of a piece of literature in terms of its cultural contextEQ 1: Why do you either identify or resist the cultural values of the piece?
EQ 2: Are you an insider or an outsider to the culture in this book?
EQ 3: How does the work reflect a particular culture or cultural values?
EQ 4: How does the culture reflected in the writing affect your understanding of it? How does your own culture affect your understanding of it?

Reading with Purpose

Reading!  Not coloring!

Reading! Not coloring!

While it may seem that reading is a passive exercise, readers are actually acquiring very complex skills whenever they engage in it purposefully.  Purpose, of course, will vary by situation.

Whether we read for the purpose of entertaining or educating ourselves, we are in the process of reinforcing vocabulary and spelling; we are mentally engaged, linking what we are reading to that which we already know.  These connections enable us to process new material so that learning can take place.

But apparently, not enough reading is going on–at least not in the public school arena.  Dr. Mike Shmoker in the essay “The ‘Crayola’ Curriculum”(2001) claims that the most salient reason that reading levels are so poor is because students, especially in the lower grades, are coloring rather than reading, writing, or doing math.  Shmoker notes  that while he was touring schools, he saw students in reading classes predominantly involved in activities–such as coloring–that had no connection to reading whatsoever.

He emphasizes that “the single most important activity we can do to promote readingis reading” (Shmoker).

Easy, right?  Well, not necessarily.  I am the lead teacher of our department, and I have sat with parents who have complained about teachers in my department who assign readings from the literature, give difficult reading quizzes, and have the students write a literary paper, but do not spend any time discussing the books.

And the students want to discuss the books.  They want to understand why Hawthorne won’t let Hester and Dimmesdale live happily ever after.  They are stunned to realize how difficult it really is to be “present” as Emerson admonishes us.  They have the same questions about religion as Huck does.  They are dying  to know what a good relationship between consenting adults needs to be based on.  And some are like Holden, wondering if any of this has any point at all–ever.

But they won’t find out any of that if they are not allowed to discuss the text with the teacher and with each other.

L Squared: Life and Literature

The author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which started the Romantic movement in Europe.

The author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which started the Romantic movement in Europe.

For some time I have thought about writing a book in which I discuss how I teach literature, and I am hoping that this blog will motivate me to finally do so.

I have often thought that there are two types of people in the world:  those who live their lives in books and those who don’t.  I am one who does.  When I was young, I lived in Westerns, ironically written by a German who had never set foot in America.  In my later teens and early twenties, I lived in the books of German Expressionists, particularly Herman Hesse.

After college, I spent years with Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy.  Then with Tolkien.  I have lived in Tuscany with Frances Mayes.  I have squirmed inside of Jonathan Franzen books.

For several months now I have been in Sweden in Lisbeth Salander.  It’s cold there, and I don’t think I want to live there.  I am quite anxious  to leave, but I am not through the third book yet, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest.

But before I fall back into the different lives I have led in books, I must remind myself that is not the purpose of this blog. 

What I hope to show in this blog is that students can and should learn to understand life through literature.  When I was young, I constantly searched for the meaning of life.  I finally found it in several books. 

I had recommended some years ago to a former student to read The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (in translation, of course), and I loved what he said after he had read it, namely, that he (the student) realized that he had never had had an original thought.  Everything he has ever thought has been written about in a book–and most of his thoughts at the time he had found in this particular book. 

It’s lovely, really, to share great thoughts with others.  Let’s begin.