I teach twelfth grade English at Hill Regional Career High School in New Haven, a magnet school for students interested in business, medicine, and science. There are three sections of English for seniors, and I have the upper two tracks, Honors and Advanced Placement. The Advanced Placement course is designed to assist students in preparing for the A.P. English Literature and Composition exam in May. Students who do well on this exam may be given college credit for their participation, so its rigor requires them to develop into careful and critical readers and precise and thoughtful writers. The Honors course is designed for students who are prepared and ready for a challenging curriculum of reading and writing, but it is more flexible in regard to writing assignments than the Advanced Placement Course, which is primarily expository essays and research papers; the Honors English feature more creative writing and artistic expression. Both courses consist primarily of the traditional canon of British and world literature, though there are some modern and American selections.
Our schedule allows for in-depth coverage of works of literature and for good use of a writing workshop. Our classes meet every other day, with periods of eighty-two minutes each, so little time is wasted on trivialities like attendance, announcements, etc. My class numbers are quite small, with my largest class at seventeen members and my smallest at eleven. With two periods of Advanced Placement and two periods of Honors English, I have fewer than sixty students. Students are motivated and bright, but bring deficits with them in the areas of grammar and mechanics, and do not always demonstrate an ability to read analytically and write with style and grace. These are skills I try to teach in whole-class mini-lessons and through individual conferences. Close readings of texts may occur as part of class activity or as homework, and writing assignments are generally done at home and in class, with time allotted for a writing workshop and writing conferences with me. An average class, then, would include a discussion of a reading assignment, a close examination of areas of ambiguity or difficulty in the text, a mini-lesson on a skill area such as grammar or punctuation, and a writing workshop in which students write and revise as I walk around, conferring with all students in turn and each again as needed.
The study of tragedy occurs in both courses, and usually includes a study of classical tragedy with
; a study of Shakespearean tragedy with
; and a study of contemporary tragedy with
Death of a Salesman
. While the worth of these works is not at question, it would be helpful to have texts of similar quality and theme that would better represent and engage our students. Our school materials are somewhat diverse, but I have not been successful in developing the sort of learning experience that I would like: bringing a classic to life through the use of contemporary works which feature diverse characters and themes. When works of similar worth but vastly different culture, period, and theme are paired, the students will have more reason to like - and to successfully analyze - both. They are fairly adept at identifying theme in works, but are less likely to see elements of genre, and this skill is one that I would like to hone for my Advanced Placement and Honors students. They can see books as works of art unto themselves, as instigation for thought, or as a reflection of the real world, but they are less adept at comparing works in a search for common elements and structure within a genre. My thought has been that if students were given works of similar merit, structure, theme, and genre, they may begin to recognize and categorize shared qualities.
By the time that we begin our study of
A Thousand Acres
, my students will have learned about Aristotle's elements of tragedy and A.C. Bradley's thoughts on the qualities of the tragic man. This, I feel, is very important to the understanding of the text, and while I will introduce it earlier in the year with Greek tragedy, we will continue to address the elements of tragedy and qualities of the tragic man as we read
A Thousand Acres
. I have included some lessons on tragedy here, but I feel it is important to note that the bulk of my teaching on this would have occurred earlier, and that the lessons included here are built on that foundation. I would suggest that any teacher attempting to use this unit do so only after introducing the concept of tragedy as a genre, and in particular the differences between classic, Shakespearean, and modern tragedy.