I teach 9th–12th grade Literature at New Haven Academy. NHA is a small high school of approximately 230 students. The school is affiliated with both the Coalition of Essential Schools and Facing History and Ourselves. From the coalition, our school has adopted a number of basic principles and philosophies: depth is more important than breadth in curricular design; students are to be known as individuals; the goal of education is learning to use one's mind well. From Facing History, my school inherits a commitment to issues of social justice and a deep curiosity about the ethical complications of history.
My course, "True War Stories," functions within both of these contexts. In their junior and senior year, students fulfill their English requirements by taking half–year electives. These courses are not tracked, resulting in a class of mixed grades and ability levels. Over the course of the semester I push students to grapple with divergent questions and engage the ambiguity that results. When we read Kurt Vonnegut's
, for example, we explore the tension between comedy and tragedy, both in the author's fictional account of war and in the lived experience of our lives. When we read
The Red Badge of Courage
, we discuss courage and cowardice. Our study of
The Things They Carried
is focused on the conflicted relationship between truth and fiction. I hope to use this unit as an introduction to the themes of the course. By carefully selecting poems and paintings, I want students to identify a variety of opposing perspectives regarding the experience of war, pairs of opposites that we can return to again and again as we continue through the course.
I also hope to use this unit to teach key skills of analysis and discussion that students will use for the rest of the semester. In order to effectively analyze literature and art, students must first be taught to notice and describe. As Norman MacLean says in
A River Runs Through It
, "all there is to thinking, is seeing something noticeable, which makes you see something you weren't noticing, which makes you see something that isn't even visible."
I want to teach students to carefully notice details in painting before asking them to do so in the less tangible medium of poetry. Such a progression allows me to scaffold the difficult and often confusing process of analysis, which requires the use of literal description to create metaphorical, invisible meaning. Students will learn this process in this unit, but they will continue to use it for the remainder of the semester.
An introductory unit studying poetry and art would also expose my students to a range of fully realized artistic works in the same amount of time I typically spend discussing a single novel. This would meet my school's commitment to depth over breadth by allowing us the time to dwell on individual poems and paintings. The opportunity to spend a full class (or more) on a single text would be a welcome change of pace for my students, who are often reading twenty or more pages between classes. Such focus also lends itself well to student led Socratic seminars. Although I use this mode of discussion elsewhere in my courses, discussions often suffer when students are behind in their reading. Limiting our discussions to poems and paintings for this unit eliminates this complication.