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My favorite class to teach was (and will always be) American Literature. There's something about teaching the sordid history of our country that gave me not only chills but opened my student's eyes to the meaning of how literature can shape a country. In anticipation for my new group of flippant juniors who were counting down the days until they were seniors, I made it my point to expose them to writers who (more times than likely) had not been exposed to at this point in their school lives. I would visit obscure bookstores, anthologies, and other literary works just to find that perfect text for the appropriate time period. Once I found the text that would be the focus of my class, I then would craft my assignments around it so that students knew they would have to read to make it to the land of being a senior. As a rule, I decided to never teach the same book two years in a row, so each year I changed texts to expose my students to new writers and new perspectives on being an American.
However, no matter the year (or the assignment) there are some writers that deserve to be read year after year. Not so much because of the literary hype around the author, but more because of the love they exuded through the stories they decided to tell. What's powerful in these texts is that right now (in February) any of these texts would be appropriate to start tomorrow if you're covering American Literature in subsequently.
1.Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
According to Amazon, Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the most important and enduring books of the twentieth century, Their Eyes Were Watching God brings to life a Southern love story with the wit and pathos found only in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Out of print for almost thirty years—due largely to initial audiences’ rejection of its strong black female protagonist—Hurston’s classic has since its 1978 reissue become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.
While I love the love story between Janie and Teacake, I find that this book resonates with young students mostly because this is the classic story of a woman and her battle between pleasing others and pleasing herself. The kids initially struggle around the language of the novel, but once I play them the audio version they are hooked. I've traditionally had the students really study the epic downfall (and rise) of the late Zora Neale Hurston and kids are always intrigued with how a person with so much life, suffered so much in their lifetime. Almost every time that I teach this novel, I get students who obsess over Janie's quotes and who are stuck in the book for many weeks trying to rationalize all of the rash decisions Janie made all in the name of love.
2. The Color of Water by James McBride
Who is Ruth McBride Jordan? A self-declared "light-skinned" woman evasive about her ethnicity, yet steadfast in her love for her twelve black children. James McBride, journalist, musician, and son, explores his mother's past, as well as his own upbringing and heritage, in a poignant and powerful debut, The Color Of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother.
I found this The Color of Water in one of my many summer travels and I read it in one day all while I traveled through the South. The first time I assigned this book, my students were reluctant to even open the cover. The hurled questions to me like, "What is the color of water?" Why would anyone care about the color of water?" It took a lot of prodding, mean stares and everything in between to convince my students that this book was worth it, but when I did they could sit this book down. I loved that this book is an informational text and helps my students understand the racial ambiguity that many biracial children go through well into their adulthood. This is a great read!
3. Black Boy By Richard Wright
According to Amazon, Richard Wright grew up in the woods of Mississippi amid poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and raged at those around him; at six he was a "drunkard," hanging about in taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, pitying, or cruel, and on the other by blacks who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot.
Black Boy is Richard Wright's powerful account of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. It is at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment—a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering.
For years, this book set on my shelf without me even thinking about reading it with any seriousness. However, one winter break while I was preparing for my AP Language class, I happened to open the book and I was hooked. The story was dark enough that it made me shed a couple of tears, but more importantly as I read it, all I could think about was my boys who I taught who could get something from this book. So with a week left on Winter Break, I rewrote my second-semester syllabus and made this required reading for all of the boys in my class.
I've used Black Boy to teach the Reading Informational standards in American Literature and this was a great way to engage the students the students in many social issues still occurring in America.
This informational text was a winner with all of my students whether they were a struggling or enthusiastic reader. The mix of real life horror of upwards of millions of Rwandan killed due to their ethnicity. I had kids actually stealing my books and really I did not mind- the book is that good. I always started the book by doing a read aloud of the first chapter where the killers are hunting Immaculee while she hides in a bathroom trying to save her life. I recommend this book for any teacher who may need an alternative text for teaching the standards with the Holocaust or for comparing with a text for Night by Elie Wiesel. I've also used this text to teach the ELA research standard (W9-10.8) as the students complete the
I've also used this text to teach the ELA research standard (W9-10.8) as the students complete the research paper for the second semester.
5. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most popular, and most puzzling, play. It follows the form of a “revenge tragedy,” in which the hero, Hamlet, seeks vengeance against his father’s murderer, his uncle Claudius, now the king of Denmark. Much of its fascination, however, lies in its uncertainties.
Among them: What is the Ghost—Hamlet’s father demanding justice, a tempting demon, an angelic messenger? Does Hamlet go mad, or merely pretend to? Once he is sure that Claudius is a murderer, why does he not act? Was his mother, Gertrude, unfaithful to her husband or complicit in his murder?
Out of all of William Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet is my favorite because it entails all of the things my students love- sex, murder, and money. Traditionally when I teach this unit, I use No Fear Shakespeare so that my struggling readers have access to the text. By the time we've discussed the death of King Hamlet by the hands of King Polonius, the kids are ready to write their constructive responses and demand the latter's punishment. This text is a great way to get the kid's argumentative essay going and finding textual evidence.
5. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Celie has grown up in rural Georgia, navigating a childhood of ceaseless abuse. Poor and despised by the society around her, she’s also badly treated by her family. Raped and abused by her father, she strives to protect her sister, Nettie, from a similar fate. Nettie escapes to a new life as a missionary in Africa, and their father sells Celie as a child bride to an older suitor. Now without her best friend and confidant, she is sentenced to a life alone with a harsh and abusive husband.
Celie begins writing letters directly to God in an attempt to transcend a life that often seems too much to bear. Her letters span twenty years and record a journey of self-discovery and empowerment guided by the light of a few strong women. She meets Shug Avery, her husband’s mistress and a jazz singer with a zest for life, and Sophia, her stepson’s wife, who challenges her to fight for independence. And though her husband hides the many letters from her sister, Nettie’s unwavering support will prove to be the most breathtaking of all.
Lauded as a literary masterpiece, this is the groundbreaking novel that placed Walker “in the company of Faulkner” (TheNation), and inspired an Academy Award–nominated film starring Oprah Winfrey and directed by Steven Spielberg, and a Tony-nominated Broadway musical.
The first time I taught this novel along with my unit on writing, I struggled with how to make students understand this was not the movie and the Celie was a character that embodies many issues girls go through. This is not a novel for the "faint of heart" and before I even introduce it to the class they have to get signed parental permission and we dicuss some of the issues they will face in the novel and how it ties to the standards. Despite everything I do to "front load" my students about the complexities of this text, I still have to have alternative text available for the students who just are not mature enough to handle the work of Alice Walker.
WHile this list is not extensive it covers MY favorite texts for students to read. What texts would you add (or take off) of this list?