Here is how I've done it at the start of this new unit on Indian Country by Philip Caputo.
Getting students to read a long text (419 pages) in a short-ish unit (3.5 weeks) and not punishing them for being behind in the reading. Giving every student the ability to complete the classwork to some degree, even if they are behind. Focusing on the things that are really important from the novel, and not on the minutia that is unimportant.
A mixed ability 11-12th grade English elective that lasts one semester. The course is American Literature I, and is one of many options for how to fulfill English requirements at Redwood High School. Most students report struggling with assigned books because they are either being asked to read something they don’t relate to at all, or they are being Close Read’ed to death in class. They have read one novel and one play for this class, and this is the final unit. Nearly all students completed the reading for the last two units, but many reported not finding it super-engaging at times.
My goals for this unit:
- Analyse and trace a variety of themes through a long, complicated text
- Engage students’ love for reading
- Examine the way war changes Chris and what the long-term ramifications are on his psyche and on the relationships around him
- Discuss ways in which loneliness can be dealt with and ameliorated
- Respond critically to a variety of passages that illuminate the motivations and desires of a character, as well as how those push them to interact with others
- Make them see that there are certain things that just make us human and that we all share
Here’s the way this looked in class:
Tuesday (11/20 - 50 minutes): Quiz 1, review/clarify misunderstandings, time to read
Monday (11/26- 50 minutes)): Quiz 2, review/clarify misunderstandings, time to read
Tuesday (11/27- 50 minutes)): Activity #1, #2 and #2.5 with discussion of responses
Wednesday (11/28 - 90 minute block): Activity #3 to accompany Vietnam: A Homecoming
Friday (11/30 - 50 minutes): Activity #4-#5 and time to read
If you want to see the actual assignments with rationale for why they were created and what the purpose was, you can see them after the break.
#1 (30 minutes)
- Read: page 98 from “He apologized...” to “that’s what he would do”
- Context: This is when Christian is home on leave, and is visiting his parents.
- Topic: Is Lucius right about the war? He worries that his son will become half man half beast. Is that the inevitable result of war?
- Analysis: Explain your answer. Refer to the specific parts of the book that might prove/deny that. If you haven’t read this far, you may use other evidence to support your answer (people you know, what you’ve seen on the news, other books you’ve read
#2 (10 minutes)
- Read: page 99 (3rd paragraph)
- Topic: Why do the kids throw food at Chris?
- Analysis: Why is Chris’ father mentioned in that passage?
#2.5 (10 minutes)
- Read: pages 99-100.
- Topic: How is Chris treated once he leaves the army?
- Analysis: Was the treatment fair? How did it affect him?
Rationale: For these three activities, the only context they need is given to them, and we read the passages together. Students are able to respond to the questions without having read the section, but also get the benefit of hearing their peers, many of whom have read it, and the answers they gave.
#3 (90 minutes)
- Watch: Vietnam: A Homecoming
- Analyse: Choose one of the following prompts (A, B, C, D or E) to answer:
- A. After watching Vietnam: A Homecoming, do you understand the reaction of Chris, Lucius, and the people who reacted negatively to Chris on his homecoming?
- B. Many of the vets talk about needing to “stay hidden” from the horrors of war - how do they stay hidden from those emotions and memories? How does Chris stay hidden? What happens when someone can’t stay hidden any more?
- C. “Vietnam was a demon to me” - how is war, especially this one, like a demon to the men in the movie? How is it a demon to Chris?
- D. “I just want it over with and buried” - is that an insensitive thing for the spouse of a Vietnam vet to say? How are marriages portrayed in the movie? What is Chris’ marriage to June like? Would June say that she just wants it “buried”?
- E. How is it possible to heal from this kind of trauma? Can the past ever really be “forgiven” and “buried”?
- Respond: What surprised you in the video? What did you learn about Vietnam and the repercussions war has on veterans? What other connections did you see between the video and Indian Country?
Rationale: This activity involves a high-interest and emotionally rich documentary that almost exactly parallels the situation in the book. This activity actually convinced many kids to catch up with the required reading because they understood the characters in the novel better. Again, they could complete this journal with only the knowledge of plot/characters they gained in class.
#4 (25 minutes)
- What do people want? Why do they want those things?
- (Security, Approval, Comfort - everything fits in those categories)
- How do we try to get those things?
- How do Chris and June get those things?
- Which is the most important to them? Why?
- What happens when you DON’T have those things?
- Which does Chris lack most?
- Which does June lack most?
- How does that lack impact them?
- Which do you most need? How do you get it? What happens when you don’t?
#5 (15 minutes)
Write: In what ways do you relate to anything in the book? It can be characters, situations, feelings...anything.
Rationale: These last two activities were designed to have students make personal and emotional connections to the characters. Talking about these topics helped students understand each other and the novel better as well.
Quiz #1, pages 1-60 (25 minutes to take and share answers)
- Did you bring your book to class?
- At the end of this section, does Chris make the right choice? Why?
- What from this section did you find interesting, confusing, boring, exciting [or insert other adjective here]?
Quiz #2, pages 61-139 (40 minutes to take, share answers and revise)
Make a google doc (titled Indian Country Quiz 2). Share it with firstname.lastname@example.org. Put your name, the title and date in the top corner of the document.
- Did you bring your book?
- Be honest: how much of the reading did you complete?
- Why is there so much detail about trees in this section? What do you think that means, and why is it significant?
- How does Christian deal with loneliness and being alone?
- How do you deal with loneliness and being alone?
- What is one thing you found interesting/exciting/boring/ confusing/challenging in this section?
- Write your own question for this section (either a real question you have or a question that you would put on a quiz for this section of reading).
- Share the document with your partner
- Open their document and close yours
- Choose a colour to write in and make sure everything you write is in this colour!
- Put your name under theirs in the top corner
- As we go over answers, add to theirs. Don’t delete ANYTHING they wrote. I would recommend using the space beneath the answer for your part.
- Specific responses:
- #1 put your name if they told the truth. correct it if they didn’t.
- #5-7 write them a note where you respond to what they wrote on a personal level
Rationale: The purpose of this quiz was to have the students think critically and make connections about the universal theme of dealing with loneliness. By revising a peer’s quiz, they had to think about the connections and differentiate a “wrong” answer from a “right” answer. This gave them more repetitions in the information and created more opportunity to connect with one another and the themes/characters.