Pair One: Nature shaping character and narration; "The King of Mazy May" by Jack London and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost.
Jack London's story "The King of Mazy May" will transport students to the frozen Yukon during the gold rush of the late 19th Century. The hero of the story, Walt Masters, has been left behind in the rugged land to watch over the land claims of his father and a neighbor. When claim jumpers arrive and attempt to steal the land, Walt does all he can to outwit the claim jumpers and race for help in a nearby city. Much of the story is centered on a chase scene in which Walt is racing across the land on a dog sled while claim jumpers follow in hot pursuit. While there is no architecture to study in the story, the setting or sense of place is very much a part of the story. The Yukon is a rugged place with tough people and a hard life. By the end of the story, Walt has shown how tough he is as he works within his rugged and disagreeable setting to do the right thing.
Robert Frost's classic poem provides a perfect contrast with the Yukon in "The King of Mazy May." Although both places are frosty and cold, the mood in Frost's poem is definitely quite different from the adventurous mood of London's short story. Here the narrator has stopped as opposed to the almost constant action taking place in London's story. In Frost's poem the woods are "lovely, dark and deep" while Walt's Yukon is filled with temperatures of forty below, ice jams and a "deceiving moon." Yet both works do give the reader a sense of urgency. It is the place that makes the characters or the narrator want to act. The frigid, icy setting sets the characters to motion, perhaps fearing the lack of movement.
Take some time to discuss how authors use place to create moods. Emphasize how and why authors are able to use setting for shaping of mood and readers' and characters' feelings. What affect does repetition or personification have in the creation of setting? How do Frost and London use language devices to create moods and settings and characters?
Find some pictures of frosty landscapes to start off this section of the unit. What would it take to live in the icy setting? What adjectives or images come to mind when we look at the pictures? Think about incorporating W.A. Bentley's
Snowflakes in Photographs.
Which work better illustrates the beauty that Bentley found in snowflakes? How does the individual beauty of the photographed snowflakes compliment the reading?
After reading the works I think a journal entry comparing and contrasting the literature would work well here. Have students compare the effects the setting has on the thinking of the characters. A good way to start this would be with a Venn Diagram. Walt Masterson in the Yukon compared with the narrator in Frost's poem in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." How do the two settings affect the thinking or the plans of the two?
A nice way to close this section of the unit would be to allow students to create a winter landscape. Ask them to put themselves into one of the frosty scenes they have just entered. They could produce snowflakes, go out on a walk in the snow or try to examine snowflakes as Bentley did. If you are in New England doing this unit in the winter that will be easy. If you are at an arts magnet school it should be equally easy. Have them share and discuss their work with the class.
Pair Two: Uncomfortable Places; "The Moustache" by Robert Cormier and "I Stepped from Plank to Plank" by Emily Dickinson.
Another story middle school children love to read is Robert Cormier's "The Moustache."
The main character in this story, seventeen-year-old Mike, is anxious to grow up at the beginning of the story. He likes to drive his father's Le Mans, he has a girlfriend and he has grown a moustache. When his mother insists that Mike go to visit his grandmother at Lawnrest Nursing Home, he begrudgingly goes. The nursing home is one of Mike's least favorite places to go. He describes the nursing home with the "terrible cemetery kind of name." The reader feels the character's discomfort. Mike's grandmother has Alzheimer's and when she mistakenly takes Mike for her deceased husband, Mike is forced to empathize with her as he has never before.
Similarly, Dickinson's poem reveals the narrator's discomfort with walking on rickety dock-type planks over the water. The narrator is clearly uncomfortable, but finally admits that this is where you get experience. We all must go to those uncomfortable places in order to grow.
Start off this section with some uncomfortable images--pictures of nursing homes, cemeteries, prisons, operating rooms, dentist's offices, and small uncomfortable places. Look at the on-line sources that I've listed in the back of the unit. There are plenty of images available to teachers via the web. Discuss the images with the students. After reading discuss Mike's feelings with the class. I find that, unfortunately, many students are equally as disgusted with nursing homes as Mike was. Talk to them about that. Ask them how that setting makes them act. Do they act the same way in a nursing home as they do in a school? Again how are these public places affecting them as individuals? Why do these places make us feel uncomfortable? What does this reveal about us? What does this reveal about the characters we meet in literature?
For their journal topic, ask students to discuss an uncomfortable public place for them. What place makes them squirm a little? What place makes them feel most uncomfortable? How do they act there? Have them tell their story in their journal. This might be a good place to have places speak in soliloquies in students' journals. Think of all the stories those uncomfortable places could tell! Sharing the journal entries should be fun, but be careful about students' feelings and privacy on this one.
For a concluding project ask students to sketch themselves in their uncomfortable place. A simple pencil sketch on one page of their journal should suffice for this concluding section of the unit.
Pair Three: Out of Place; "Rain, Rain Go Away" by Isaac Asimov and "People Zoo" by Shel Silverstein
In his story, "Rain, Rain Go Away," Isaac Asimov portrays newcomers moving into typical American suburbia. The Wright family, especially Mrs. Wright, is fascinated with the arrival of new neighbors. Lillian Wright is constantly peeking out of her curtains at the newly arrived Sakkaros who just don't seem to fit into the neighborhood. By the end of the story it is obvious that Lillian was truly right as the Sakkaros seem to sort of melt away in a rainstorm, revealing to the reader how they really did not belong not only in the neighborhood, but on earth.
Shel Silverstein's poetry provides endless possibilities for this section of the unit. Children love his comical poems and sketches that accompany them. "The People Zoo" is a poem in which a child talks about being put behind bars for animals to gawk at. The sketch which accompanies the poem illustrates how "out of place" Silverstein's characters sometimes are.
This section of the unit should focus on characters being out of place. What happens when a character who has grown up in one place, who essentially becomes that place, is transported to another. How do they look? How do they feel? How must they adjust?
Again the true value of this unit will come through in journal writing. Have students write a monologue of a person taken out of his/her element. The entry can be fictional or autobiographical. We have all felt out of place in different settings. What is it that makes being in that setting or place uncomfortable for us? What happens to us when we are transported to a place where we don't really belong or we feel lost? Most importantly, how can we grow from being forced to step outside of the box? Remind them of Dickinson's poem. The journal entries should be quite interesting and fun to share. Again be mindful of feelings and privacy. Never force students to share their journals.
For a closing art piece ask students to draw a symbol of something or some place misplaced. Ask them to think about their city or their neighborhoods. Are there any buildings that seem out of place in town? Talk about scale, size, and style in this section of the unit. Take a walk or a field trip with your class. Look for odd places and buildings that just don't belong. For a more elementary approach ask students to simply draw objects out of place; a dog in a bird's nest, a man in a cage with animals looking in on him. These should also be fun to share.
Pair Four: Hearing the voice of a city; "Raymond's Run" by Toni Cade Bambara and "Harlem" by Walter Dean Meyers
Toni Cade Bambara's story "Raymond's Run" is one that my eighth graders love to read every year. It is the story of a girl named Squeaky who is growing up in modern day Harlem. Squeaky is a tough girl who really has two loves at this point in her life; one is taking care of her handicapped brother Raymond, the other is running. Like all children at her age, Squeaky has challenges and rivalries which she faces daily and it quickly becomes clear in the story that Squeaky is very much shaped by her environment.
Living in New York, she is a tough girl with tough language and a tough attitude. At one point she sees her arch enemy coming up the street and thinks for a second about what to do:
So they are steady coming up Broadway and I see right away that it's going to be one of those Dodge City scenes 'cause the street ain't that big and they're close to the buildings just as we are. First I think I'll step into the candy store and look over the new comics and let them pass. But that's chicken and I've got a reputation to consider. (page 36)
Not only is Squeaky a byproduct of her environment, but also she really is a part of the city. She thinks about blending in for a moment to let the crisis pass. She knows how easy it is to disappear in the city, but decides against it due to what the city has taught her.
Now pairing up "Raymond's Run" with Walter Dean Meyer's award winning poem "Harlem," gives us a look at the same area, but from a different perspective. Meyers examines Harlem, its legends, its images, its growth and its metamorphosis in a beautifully written work filled with images and a mood that we can find in Squeaky as well. How has Harlem and its many landmarks shaped Squeaky and hundreds upon thousands of others? Through this study we can see how an environment, or a setting, can become a parental influence on us. I believe that breaking the stories down in this manner will not only help student see the connection between place and being in the literature, but in their own lives as well. Students in our urban school district may find relating to Squeaky and Raymond easier than relating to one of Sherman Alexie's Native American characters, but they may be able to see how place shapes others to become different characters or people. Understanding of this concept, I believe, will lead to more acceptance, respect and understanding of others.
There are plenty of images of Harlem for students to examine in this section of the unit. James Van Der Zee gives us a wonderful look at Harlem through his photography. Look at the artwork of Jacob Lawrence, or others from the Harlem Renaissance for numerous examples of Harlem at the beginning of the 20th Century.
After reading the works, it will become apparent to the students that Harlem has given both Squeaky and the narrator in Meyer's poem a unique voice. For the journal writing of this section I am proposing two options: students can imitate the voice of Squeaky in their journals or they can write a poem on their hometown. I have done both with students and they will love to share either. If you decide to let students imitate Squeaky it is helpful to give them a situation to write about. They can write about a bad day they had, a conflict with a teacher or friend, how frustrating it is taking care of Raymond. Just a little focus will help them immensely.
If you decide to write a hometown poem, first discuss images with the students. After choosing some of their favorite images from the poem "Harlem" I asked students to list images of New Haven for me. We shared the images and then I asked them to incorporate their images into a poem.