Of late I have noticed that many of my students seem concerned—if not panicked—about their futures. They express such a concern in a variety of ways. Some students display little initiative; rather, they demand constant direction and adopt a totally reactive stance. Others exhibit blatantly regressive behavior. Seniors call this syndrome “senioritis,” but they rarely discuss its causes, symptoms, or ramifications. I see it as a sort of identity crisis. My students are scared, and they are in some cases desperately seeking to avoid the adult world which awaits them.
It is my hope that devising a unit on the family and identity may create a forum for students which will enable them to deal constructively with their emergence into the adult world. Through discussion, reading, and writing they can explore the things they are feeling, but may not have articulated. I believe it would prove beneficial for my students to consider the notion of identity development, especially with regard to the relationships and values of the family.
I would like them to begin to consider their own past family experiences and their past and present reactions to these experiences. I hope that, as a result, they will develop a consciousness about their feelings, their actions, and/or their values. Ultimately they might consider such questions as: Who am I? How have I changed? Where am I going? With the development of a consciousness about the self and others comes a sense of the freedom and responsibility that an adult experiences. But the transition from youthful tentativeness to adult maturity is not an immediate one, and students will be encouraged to realize this. In short, this unit is meant to encourage students to take the initiative and/or begin to know, like, and trust themselves.
Literature will provide the impetus for discussion. I have chosen works which consider the conflict between generations as such conflict appears to be an immediate “real” concern for my students. They will consider the many reasons for the “generation gap,” such as personality differences, varying life-styles, and societal pressures.
This approach to literature will also serve another purpose: it will underscore for my students the relevance of studying literature to individual development. By delineating human experience, literature provides insight and comfort. Through reading, students may come to realize that literature can speak to their needs by providing encouragement in ideas and comfort in the portrayal of human emotion.
I’ve deliberately chosen works which cover several genres and several cultures. Poetry, the short story, and the novel are considered in order to underscore the relevance of varying literary forms. Further, the literatures of various cultures are considered for the purpose of broadening student awareness of the human condition. Such works may also provide students with a sense of the universality of their anxieties.
The various forms of literature in this unit are ordered according to both length and sophistication. Thus students will be introduced first to the theme of identity and the family by way of “On Children” by Kahlil Gibran. The two poems which will follow, “Grandpa Schuler” and “Sestina of Youth and Age,” provide two perspectives of the generation gap, yet both deal as well with youth’s search for identity.
With the study of fiction (short story, novel) comes a broadening of the theme. Students will consider experiences of parents and children amidst varying societal and cultural backdrops. The short stories to be considered are both American, but they reflect two distinct views of the American experience. “Almos A Man” considers the coming of age of a black boy in the country, “Prelude” of a white boy in the city.
The length and form of the novel allow a more complete picture of family issues.
The Beloved Country
provides the reader with varied examples of parent/child relationships, and, equally important, places familial relationships in the context of societal issues. In a sense,
The Beloved Country
is the quintessential family work, for it connects the very notion of family to larger philosophical and religious constructs. From this, students can see that their problems are set within the structure of family; and that the concerns of the family extend to concerns of society at large.
I hope that
The Beloved Country
, the culminating work of this unit, will enable students to recognize in literature the traditional expression of values that is communicated from generation to generation.
City, The Beloved Country
is primarily a modern extension of the most influential of books to emerge from western culture, The Bible.
The Class Discussion: Purpose and Plan
Though students will be required to respond to the works read in prose of their own, this unit’s primary strategy for learning involves discussion and/or the direct sharing of ideas and feelings. It seems to me that much of the enjoyment which comes from reading emerges when one articulates intellectual and emotional insights to an immediate responsive audience. Discussion often makes our own thought visible; the immediacy of response to thoughts enables one to push ahead to a clearer understanding of the work and the self. I believe this phenomenon takes place in Institute seminars; it should also take place in public school classrooms. Though much of reading and learning is of a solitary nature, a “community component” of discussion and exchange of ideas enlivens, broadens, and enriches all participants.
Yet, it is no secret that the most difficult role of the teacher is that of discussion leader. Many of our students have had little experience in the mode of give and take communication. One has only to spend some little time in the hallway of a school to realize that students (for many reasons) talk at rather than with even each other. Thus the first hurdle which must be overcome before discussion can occur in a classroom is the promotion of students’ acceptance of the very activity of discussion. The teacher must introduce discussion as a format in a careful almost surreptitious way. Spontaneous and natural discussion permits students to test their thoughts and/or discover something about themselves. In order for this to happen students must be touched somehow personally. Thus the issues at hand must be of interest to them and,they must be able to draw upon their own life experiences when articulating their opinions. In short, the leading questions (which are developed by the teacher) must be well-thought-out and directly connected to the lives of the participating students because such questions are the catalysts for effective discussions.
Obviously, there is much more to be said about the art of leading discussion. Learning to do it well involves much in the way of learning to think on one’s feet; it is a personal achievement. Yet, the first step of posing the appropriate question is less idiosyncratic and will be addressed in this unit.