In choosing authors and readings for this unit I chose to focus on both men and women, internationally famous and less well known, poetry, short fiction and a full length novel.
The length and difficulty of the text defined the order of the writers: I need to keep the reading fairly uncomplicated but not juvenile; I want some new vocabulary every class session but not an overwhelming number of unfamiliar words. I also want to introduce students to writers who "stayed home", that is, writers who are identified by the country where they were born and lived, as well as writers who think of themselves as North Americans, yet with strong cultural ties to a home country in Latin America. In keeping with the theme of this unit, "observing others and observing myself", and also following the Language Arts Department guidelines, I chose to focus on texts that would encourage students to write. They will be writing in writing notebooks and making journal entries throughout this unit. Along the way the students will also examine metaphor, simile, learn new vocabulary and do several character studies.
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was an obvious choice for this unit. He appears in the Language Arts textbook and he is an internationally famous Chilean who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He is a man of three-quarters of the 20
century who did not just stay at home, but traveled extensively, and had a good deal to say about the social issues of his time. He loved nature and he loved words, metaphors and similes. I hope he meant us to smile when we read about the artichoke and the flea; I want the students to observe the care he takes in describing a vegetable and a small bug. Of course Neruda also wrote about big ideas in esoteric language but it's the everyday objects that count here.
Octavio Paz (1914-1998) has biographical details in common with Neruda: winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1990; devoted to his native country, Mexico, but widely traveled; interested in and outspoken about social issues in both Mexico and abroad. Paz "towers over the entire continent, north and south, as the premier poet of the moment" (González Echevarria and Pupo-Walker, p.5).While internationally famous, Paz's poetry is not included in the 7
grade Language Arts textbook, perhaps because he did not write about artichokes and fleas. Paz has been called "the Latin American Pope of Surrealism" (Castro-Klaren, p. 431). Students (Mexicans and others) should know this poet: in awarding the Prize, the Nobel Committee said that he had '"sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity"', and that he "has shaped and defined the role of the intellectual in contemporary Spanish America" (González Echevarria and Pupo-Walker, p. 356). Like Neruda, he loves words and for him, poetry is a "critical act of language" (Ibid, p. 361). The two Paz poems I have chosen are both quite short and have wonderful images beyond the obvious.
The only authored folk tale the students will read in this unit is by the Mexican writer and dramatist, Jorge Ibargüengoitia (1928-1983). After reading many folktales, I chose this one because it is clear that the author understands American culture: the gangsters are from Chicago! While known for his use of satire and interest in dramatizing political corruption in Mexico, it is clear that Ibargüengoitia is also a wonderful story-teller. I think the students will enjoy this story of a millionaire (Paletón) who wanted to buy a musical elephant and what happened when his wishes bore no relationship to reality.
Laura Esquivel (1950- ) is a puzzle. Her first novel, Like Water for Chocolate (1989), was made into a movie (1992) which received many awards - it is a sensuous, beautiful movie and based on a very sad story from the early part of the 20
century. The novel has 12 chapters, one for each month, and each prefaced by a recipe. While cooking and eating food plays a part in the movie, it is the relationship between the family members that is captivating; I couldn't help but dislike the mother who made life so difficult for her youngest daughter - a situation that had historical roots in Mexican custom. Esquivel's autobiographical writing, Between Two Fires (1998) is much weaker prose without a compelling drama pushing the story forward. I chose the essay she wrote about her mother and grandmother because among all the chapters in this book, this one has clear observations about these important women in her life. Many of the 7
grade students are in single parent households and no doubt many of the girls in this class will find themselves in this role as well. When given an assignment this past year to describe a person they admired, many chose their mother. During the second week of the unit the students will read this essay and write a journal entry about their mother or another family member they admire, and give specific details about that person.
And finally, Sandra Cisneros (1954 - ) is, like Neruda, an obvious choice for this unit.
The House on Mango Street won her an immediate reputation as an astute observer of the Chicago barrio - "a poetic rendering of social aspects previously almost unheard of in Chicano letters" (González Echevarria and Pupo-Walker, p. 580). Cisneros writes about a young girl with "no opportunity or permission to fulfill [her] own aspirations" (Caulfield and Davis, p. 27). While the girl in this novel, Esperanza, had less opportunity than my female students, they too may feel enclosed by rules and regulations especially if there are strong male family members pushing them aside. I sense that many of them are not sure they want to excel academically although many of them have the ability to do so. The vignettes in Cisneros's novel do not talk about school but rather focus on everyday happenings, family members, how to belong and have friends in the neighborhood. Until they resolve these same issues for themselves, the 7
grade girls at Truman will not direct their attention to learning vocabulary, preparing for the CMT or reading outside of class. Esperanza ("hope") doesn't want to be like her great-grandmother and spend her life looking out the window; I'd like to think our students have higher aspirations as well.
The unit will open with two examples of poetic observation. In Neruda's "Ode to an Artichoke" (both in Spanish and in the translation by Cheli Durán) the poet is "seeing" more than an artichoke. Neruda also wrote an ode to a tomato which students can read on their own as an outside assignment - both these odes are a wonderful description of a common vegetable taking on extraordinary characteristics. The artichoke becomes a member of the armed forces, dressed in armor, yet with a soft heart.
The unit will continue with Octavio Paz's "Vision" and "Water Night" (translation Muriel Rukeyser; in English and Spanish). The short Paz poem is an invitation to the reader to "see" even with his eyes closed, where he is. Both poems emphasize observations and students should begin to see what an author can see. We will examine the writer's craft in metaphor, simile and other descriptive details. In- class and homework assignments during this week will include writing about a simple object of the student's choice. Students will be asked to use as many details as possible in their writing. We will share and post examples of student writing that have caught the essence of making observations and using details to describe what can be seen.
The unit will then turn to folktales for the insights brought to this genre by a contemporary writer, and authorless stories. We will read "Paletón and The Musical Elephant", by Jorge Ibargüengoitia (Mexico), and several unauthored folktales; each is a magical story with a special message running underneath the text. Students will be guided to see special details in the text and to think about the question, "what does the author want me to see and learn from this story?" Each of these stories also has one or two special characters faced with a problem. Each solves the problem in a singular way: we will create story maps for these tales and consider what the characters learn to see along with the "big story" the author wants us to understand.
The unauthored folktales are "The Turquoise Ring" (Chile), "Five Eggs" (Ecuador) and "Juan Bobo" (Puerto Rico). These stories focus on relationships between people and again, the characters are solving one or more problems within the story. As we read these stories students may recognize common elements from other fairy tales ("Three Little Pigs", "Three Billy Goats Gruff", "Jack and the Beanstalk") which they have read before (4
graders at Truman School do a unit on fairy tales and discuss "good" characters - heroes, and "bad" characters - villains). Each student will be keeping a journal about the readings and writings during this unit; at this point in the unit students will be asked to think about what things they see about themselves - are they seeing the same or different details than those they have seen so far in the writings of others? Can they develop similes about themselves? Metaphors? Could they write a folktale about their role within their own family or a family they know? In-class and outside assignments will include an outline of what such a "family folktale" might include in terms of details, and what it might include in terms of a character's feelings and thinking.
The final part of this unit will focus on Sandra Cisneros's novel, The House on Mango Street. (Mr. DeLucia and I will need to decide how much of the novel we have time for and possibly skip some sections - perhaps students will be interested enough in the story to read these parts on their own). Written 25 years ago, this story by a Mexican-American living in Chicago tells many short stories (vignettes) and touches on some themes encountered throughout this unit. The story of Esperanza, her frequent moves, her growing maturity, her relationships with family and others in a large urban community and her many observations (as well as those we can assume are those of Cisneros) will be the focus of this part of the unit. We will concentrate on several new vocabulary words every day along with a class handout asking specific questions about each section of the story. When we finish the story we will spend part of a class summing up and tying together various key threads that have been an integral part of this unit.