My primary goal is to introduce tenth-graders to the literature of women’s dissent. I am focusing on American authors because tenth-grade English covers American literature in my school’s curriculum. It is my hope that as a result of my unit, students -- both male and female -- will be able to understand how and why female authors have criticized our society, especially the way women are treated. I also developed the unit so that students will be able to explore the role that women’s literature has played in debunking female stereotypes.
By the same token, students will be able to understand why women writers question traditional female roles, particularly the role of taking care of men yet being subordinate to them. Students will be able to recognize how destructive and restrictive those traditional roles -- and stereotypes -- can be to both girls and women. Students also will be able to examine the ways in which women have used literature to explicitly and implicitly assert their need for freedom, equality, identity and power. And, finally, students will be able to identify how feminist literature aims to change our patriarchal society by pointing out its flaws.
A second objective of this unit is to honor the myriad contributions women of various ethnic and racial backgrounds have made to literature and to our collective awareness as human beings. We will do that by studying the texts of female authors who, though well-known, are not generally represented in classroom anthologies. For example, we will read Kate Chopin, Zora Neale Hurston, Sandra Cisneros, Amy Lowell, Tillie Olsen, Susan Glaspell, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Marge Piercy, and Erica Jong, among others.
Yet a third goal is to help students prepare for the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT), which they take during the spring of their sophomore year. To that end, I will use many CAPT-oriented prompts for students’ written responses and class discussions. The reason why it is necessary to tie most of the literature we read in with CAPT preparation is because last year only 2 percent of students in my school passed the Language Arts portion of the CAPT. Overall, Language Arts is a weak area for my students, most of whom have difficulty with reading comprehension, critical thinking and the mechanics of writing well-organized essays, in which they use examples from a text to support the points they make. My students also have trouble making connections between what they’ve read and their own experience. By the same token, they have problems relating a text to other texts, or to movies and other art forms. Each of these skills is necessary for passing the CAPT.
My students’ strengths lie in the fact that most possess a high level of creativity. In addition, many are very sociable and/or kinetic, which can be a liability but also an asset if used in meaningful classroom activities. For example, I have found that my students like to take parts and read plays aloud, an activity that is a good way to channel their energy and creative impulses. As a result, I have designed lesson plans that include cooperative learning and creative projects, such as having students dramatically read the play, “Trifles,” by Susan Glaspell. Other creative activities involve having students write their own dramas, poems or personal essays about issues in the literature we read. I have also planned a visual arts project in which students can use a choice of media to portray one of the themes we discuss, such as freedom, self-expression and the struggle to find one’s identity.
All of the lessons, though, do not contain creative elements, since I must also address students’ need to improve their analytical and expository writing skills -- not only so they can pass the CAPT, but also because these skills are essential for academic success at higher levels. As a result, a good portion of our lessons will use the literature we read as a springboard to exploring each of the four CAPT Language Arts dimensions: initial understanding, interpretation, connection, and taking a critical stance.
This unit comprises a selection of poems, short stories, plays and chapters of novels. I did not, however, choose just any texts written by women writers. That’s because not every female author deals with themes of dissent or protest, just as not every African-American author writes about slavery or racism. Therefore, in the spirit of the Yale seminar that inspired this unit, the only texts I have chosen are ones that carry powerful messages of dissent. They are also texts that I consider to be great literature and would therefore use for units with other focuses.
I also have chosen literature that is easy to understand on a literal level. I have done so because my students tend to have problems with comprehension and also because many of them are used to the genre of adolescent literature, if they read at all. I want to expose them to good literature, but I feel I must do so in a non-threatening and gradual manner, or I will run the risk of losing their interest. I base this assumption on my experience in the classroom, where I have found that it is difficult for my students to maintain interest in literature they don’t immediately grasp. What’s more, without first securing students' basic understanding of what a text is about, there is little hope of going beyond its surface meaning and using the higher-order thinking skills required to pass the CAPT. Basic comprehension also is a precursor to unearthing the often subtle themes we will encounter -- the dual messages and hidden meanings.
I realize, however, that the very accessibility of the texts I have chosen may cause problems. That’s because many students at first see only the surface meaning and not the deeper themes. These students will comment that they find a text to be “corny,” or they will complain that I am insulting their intelligence and good taste. However, if a book is at all complicated, then students will often complain that they can’t understand it, and some will give up trying to. That is why in developing this unit I was very careful to pick literature I think I can “sell” to students -- works that have simple texts and intriguing subtexts.
For example, one of the works I’ve chosen, Adrienne Rich's poem, "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers," seems deceptively easy to understand. It is rhymed and has a regular meter, and on the surface seems to be a quaint poem about an old lady who does needlepoint. However, “Aunt Jennifer,” is laden with subtextual messages about the domination and abuse of women. The poem also asserts the hope that a woman’s creativity can help her transcend her circumstances. This poem is typical of the literature I have chosen because it is easy to comprehend on a superficial level, while giving much material for teacher and students to mine for deeper meaning.
This unit is flexible. It can be taught to students other than tenth-graders. It is actually possible that older students might get more out of it. The unit also can be connected with other units and/or disciplines. For example, it can be used in any English class in which American literature is covered, but it also can be used in a history or social studies class in which the idea of dissent figures prominently. It can be taught by itself or as part of a larger unit in which similar issues are discussed.
For instance, this unit would combine well with one on dissent in African-American literature, since both would touch on the quest for freedom, identity and self-expression. At the risk of sounding radical, I believe that some significant connections can be made between women’s issues and those of slaves, immigrants, or any other group of disenfranchised people who are searching for an identity, a voice, or a way to protest.