I think students will be able to identify with Lange the person; she conquered feelings of insecurity stemming from feeling abandoned by her father (who left the family when she was young), and from living with polio. Unfortunately, most young people can relate to the idea of being an outsider, of being made fun of for something, or of feeling alone, and of being angry because of that. Many of the students in my arts magnet school in particular should be able to relate to using artistic expression as a way to channel that energy; for those that are slow to explore that outlet, I hope that this unit may inspire them in that endeavor.
Dorothea Lange - Childhood
Dorothea Lange (pronounced dore-THEE-ah lang) was born on May 26, 1895.
She caught polio at the age of 7, one year after the birth of her baby brother Martin.
At the age of 12, Dorothea's father Henry left the family, and so they (Dorothea, mother Joan, and brother) moved in with her grandmother Sophie and her great-aunt Caroline. She was born Dorothea Nutzhorn, but changed her name to her mother's maiden name of Lange when she moved out on her own. She was ashamed of being left by her father, and lived her adult life as if she had never been a Nutzhorn.
Before the polio vaccine was made widely available in 1955, many children died or became partially paralyzed from catching polio. Lange's right leg and foot were badly damaged from the disease, and she walked with a limp for the rest of her life. Kids made fun of the way she walked, calling her "Limpy." Her mother was also obviously uncomfortable with her daughter's physical condition; when they would walk together down the street and someone they knew approached, Joan would whisper to Dorothea, "Now walk as well as you can!"
For a child who was already putting all her effort into walking as well as she could, that left her with the feeling that nothing she could do would ever be good enough. Of her polio, Lange has said: "I think it perhaps was the most important thing that happened to me. It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me. All those things at once. I've never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and the power of it."
As an adult, she would wear long, flowing skirts in an attempt to hide her limp, yet she clearly did not let it interfere with achieving success and going after what she wanted.
Dorothea lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, but commuted by ferry into New York City every day with her mother, who would go to work at the New York Public Library while Dorothea went to school. She felt like an outsider there; not only did she not live in the city, but also, most students there were Jewish and she was not. Two nights a week, Dorothea's mother worked late, and so Dorothea had to walk to the ferry back home alone, through a rough-and-tumble part of the city called the Bowery, also referred to as "thieves highway." Since she knew she couldn't run away very sprightly if things turned badly, she learned to develop a kind of blank facial expression meant to avert attention; she felt it helped her to blend into the background. She called it her "cloak of invisibility," and she consciously used it in her work as a photographer, to capture street photographs without drawing attention to them. Dorothea says, "If I don't want anybody to see me, I can make the kind of face so nobody will look at me."
Classroom Implementation Opportunities
Students can be asked to compare and contrast their family and early childhood with Dorothea's. This can be done through a free-write assignment, a class discussion, or a Think-Pair-Share activity, depending on the comfort zone of each individual class. Students can create an individual Comparison Matrix to graphically represent those findings.
Discussion can be led about disability, finding out what types of disabilities students are familiar with, and whether or not they or someone they know has a particular disability (to address reliability of knowledge, examining if understanding is based on experience, fact, hearsay, television portrayal, etc). Students can be engaged in considering personal strengths and weaknesses and how they might apply those strengths as Lange did; also, how they might improve on their weaknesses or use them as strengths (as Lange turned her insecurity into a drive to do well). As the teacher I would model this first with a personal example, then I would lead a class brainstorm; for homework students would prepare their own personal written responses to those questions. I think it would be fun to have students think about what their own "cloak of invisibility" would look like, and to demonstrate for the class, giving a brief explanation of what about that makes the person seem invisible, and why it might be useful. Perhaps the concept of a "defense mechanism" can be introduced, and students can be asked why the "cloak" might be considered one.
Comprehension Question Samples
See Appendix I for a guide to facilitate the task of creating CMT-style reading comprehension questions and using scoring rubrics. Below, the CMT strand being practiced is indicated in parentheses after the question. The following are only starters, so get creative!
· List 3 important facts about Dorothea Lange's childhood. (A1)
about Dorothea Lange's childhood. (B2)
· If Dorothea Lange were alive today, what would you most like to ask her? Explain your answer, using details from this unit. (C1)
· What was Dorothea Lange trying to explain when she used the phrase "cloak of invisibility?" How would you explain it? (A5)
· What important facts have you learned about Dorothea Lange's childhood during this unit? Use details from class discussions and previous writing assignments to explain why those facts are important. (A3)