Focus Question: What is the role of culture in literature? [IS.12 - All Students]
Have students form a Socratic circle. [IS.13 - All Students] In this circle, they are to start a discussion by answering the question: “What is culture?” [IS.14 - All Students]
Explain response journals to the class as a whole, emphasizing the fact that their assignments are strategies that they can use to help them think about their future reading. Students will use their Reader Response Journal to help them analyze the meaning of poems and short stories, including the effect of the writers’ cultural heritage on their work.
Part 1 [IS.15 - ELL Students]
Read Leslie Silko’s “Prayer to the Pacific” aloud to the class. Have students record the title of the poem and date the entry. Then ask them to record two things in their journals: [IS.16 - Struggling Learners]
- what strikes them most strongly about the poem (e.g., its form, the imagery, the speaker’s journey to the sea, the reference to an ancient mythology)
- what they can tell about the poem’s speaker (e.g., has traveled from home, “a southwest land of sandrock” to the Pacific; is connected to myth; personifies the ocean; speaks of the great sea turtles that brought the Indians thousands of years ago; brings an offering to the ocean; uses story to explain why rain clouds come from the west; values nature).
Allow 5–10 minutes for students to write their responses; then open a whole-class discussion with what students found most striking about the poem. [IS.17 - ELL Students] [IS.18 - All Students] Encourage any responses.
Ask students to look again at what they identified as most striking about the poem. Say, “Now spend a few minutes writing about why this aspect of the poem seems particularly striking.” [IS.19 - All Students] (Discuss this word.) “Find evidence within the poem to support your opinion. Be as specific as possible.” Allow about 5 minutes for students to write; [IS.20 - Level 1] then say, “Each of you will share your idea about what is most striking, along with the reasons for your choice, with your small group.” Allow about 10 minutes for discussion about the impact of the poem and the reasons for the choice. [IS.21 - All Students] Record several responses using the board/interactive whiteboard or chart paper.
- Form—the spaces between words and lines slow the movement of the poem; “distant” on a line by itself; setting off words and phrases on a line emphasize them, like “Big as the myth of origin” and “to China”; the breaks emphasize the slowness of movement of the sea turtles; “gift from the ocean” emphasizes the importance of the phrase
- Imagery—“southwest land of sandrock”; “moving blue water”; “pale water in the yellow-white light”; images in final stanza create pictures of the products of the rain clouds that are the “gift of the ocean”; images present the setting, which is the essential part of the poem, the reason for the journey, the object of worship, the scene of the long ago myth, the giver of the gift
Put the information gathered somewhere students can see. Say, “What do we know about the speaker in the poem?” Have someone record the answers on the board/interactive whiteboard or on chart paper. (Possible responses: speaker makes a long journey to the ocean from the southwest; has a “myth of origin” in cultural background; personifies the ocean; makes a reverent offering to the ocean and takes a sample of it to keep; relates the myth of the arrival of the Indians from the ocean on the backs of giant turtles; says this is the origin of the rain clouds from the west that bring life to the speaker’s country)
“Now, what can you conclude about the speaker in the poem? What generalization can you make?” [IS.22 - All Students] (Possible responses: speaker is sensitive to the natural world; shows respect for nature; has respect for old tales, mythology; could be a Native American)
Say, “Next, from our class discussion and your notes, summarize the poem in two or three sentences. When you have finished, box it in and mark it ‘Summary.’” Give students about 5 minutes to write their summaries. Read some aloud. (Possible response: The speaker makes a long journey west to the ocean to make an offering to it and retells a myth of origin, in which Indians cross the ocean on the backs of giant turtles and arrive in their new land. Thereafter, the old ones say that clouds bearing the gift of rain always have come to them from the west.)
Say, “Now, return to your response journal. I would like you to write one sentence identifying what you think the author’s purpose is (quick review of purpose). Label it ‘Author’s Purpose.’” After a minute, have five or six students read theirs aloud without comments. (Possible response: The story of the speaker’s journey honors a belief in the importance of nature and in the old stories of the speaker’s tradition.)
Say, “Last of all, think about whether you can connect this reading with anything else that you have read, viewed, or experienced. The connection could be subject, theme, setting––you can make connections in a wide variety of ways.” [IS.23 - ELL Students] The responses to the prompt should be diverse as it encourages students to look for those connections.
Say, “At this time, I would like you to read about the poet who wrote ‘Prayer to the Pacific.’” Have students read a brief biography of Leslie Marmon Silko. Give them a couple of minutes and then ask, “Is there anything that surprises you here, or anything that confirms what you already believed?” (Possible responses: She confirms her Native American heritage; she speaks of the importance of place to her; the difference in setting as explained in the “Passages” selection; her connection to the past).
Say, “Is there anything that you would change or add to the comments you have already written in your response journal?” After you have given students time, call their attention to what they have done: recorded their initial reaction to the poem and their reasons for it; wrote what they could tell about the poem’s speaker and the evidence for their conclusions; summarized the poem, identified the author’s purpose, and made a generalization about the speaker based on evidence; read about the poet and made any changes or additions to their responses.
Provide students with the mnemonic (WWGSAPC) to help them remember the process for analyzing readings. [IS.24 - Struggling Learners] You might create a poster to display in the classroom. Explain each letter and relate it to the process summarized above.
- What is striking
- What you know about the speaker
- Generalization about the speaker
- Author’s Purpose
Say, “Now, read ‘The Delight Song of Tsoai Talee’ and write about it in your response journal, using the same format we used for ‘Prayer to the Pacific.’ Use the mnemonic (WWGSAPC) to guide your responses. Be certain that you include evidence from the poem. Begin the response with the title of the poem and today’s date.”
When students are ready, break them into small groups and have them discuss the poem for about 10 minutes. [IS.25 - ELL Students] Have one group of students come to the front to lead the discussion commenting on what they found most striking about the poem. Record responses on the board/interactive whiteboard or the chart paper. Have students provide specific evidence to support their observations. [IS.26 - All Students] (Possible responses: the form with the “I am” repetition, closing repetition of delight in life; imagery: every line of the first stanza contains a vivid image)
Then move to what students can tell about the speaker. (Possible responses: in love with life; supported by a series of bright, cheerful images and the closing proclamation, “I am alive”; a nature lover, supported by series of affectionate identifications with nature, “I am a feather on the bright sky,” etc.). When someone mentions that the speaker is joyful, remind him/her that this is an example of voice.
Have two or three students read their summaries. (Possible response: The speaker presents himself as a series of objects from nature, such as a shining fish rolling in the water and the moon’s long track across the lake. He proclaims that he is glad to be alive and in a good relationship with the gods, the earth, and all that is beautiful.) Repeat the process for possible author’s purpose (to celebrate the beauty in nature). Then have students read a brief biography of the poet, N. Scott Momaday, ask if it adds anything to their understanding of the poem. (Possible responses: Kiowa background; appreciation of the earth; celebration of Native American oral tradition).
Ask students to also think about how the speaker in both “Prayer to the Pacific” and “The Delight Song of Tsoai Talee” affects what is said and how it is said and to write about the effect of the speaker on the poems in their response journals. Students should include the titles of both poems and the date in the heading. Allow about 10–15 minutes and then discuss.
- “Pacific”—speaker is writing about a pilgrimage to the ocean to give thanks to it because speaker comes from a tradition that prizes the past and nature; speaker has made a long journey and is speaking of something serious, so the words and lines are stretched out; images are of nature and reflect poet’s interest in natural beauty and its importance
- “Delight”—speaker seems youthful and is writing about the things he identifies with and takes delight in; is from a tradition that prizes the beauty of nature; chooses a form that shows his close connection to nature and to joy
Have students work in groups to analyze one of the following selections: [IS.27 - Struggling Learners]
- Leslie Silko’s short story “The Man to Send Rain Clouds”
- Ha Jin’s short story “Saboteur” (you could use a shortened version)
- Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to Maize”
In their group, students are to read the selection aloud and then respond in their journals to the same two initial prompts as they used with “Prayer to the Pacific”: what strikes them most strongly about the reading and what they can tell about the author, adding any generalizations they can make about the author on the basis of textual evidence. They will also add a brief summary, a statement of the author’s purpose, and a sentence or two about connections. (Someone will probably comment on the connection of the importance of rain in both “Prayer to the Pacific” and “The Man to Send Rain Clouds.”) Also, tell students where they can find a brief biography of the writer online, but ask them not to read it until they have made their first entry in their response journal. Give them time to do this and to discuss their findings within their groups (35–50 minutes).
Say, “This time we need to add some other points to your discussion. Think of the elements of fiction––characterization, plot, setting, theme, tone, mood, point of view––and consider the story or poem you just read (the elements, except perhaps for plot, do apply to Neruda’s ‘Ode’). Which of these elements is particularly important in the selection you read?” (characterization, plot, and setting in “The Man to Send Rain Clouds”; characterization, setting, and irony in “Saboteur”; setting and tone in “Ode to Maize”) “Why do you think so? What’s your evidence?” Have students add their observations to their response journals. Students’ responses will vary, but they should offer evidence for their ideas.
Possible responses for “Rain Clouds”:
- characterization—the priest’s lack of understanding of Teofilo’s people cause him to miss the fact of Teofilo’s death, but his essential kindliness causes him to sprinkle holy water on Teofilo’s grave in keeping with the people’s need to believe that Teofilo will now be able to bring rain for their crops, even though this act is not in keeping with the priest’s own beliefs
- plot—the death of Teofilo leads to his clan’s traditional, quick funeral rites and their request of the priest to sprinkle holy water on the grave, not to sanctify it, but to enable Teofilo to be the man who “could send them big thunderclouds for sure”
- setting—the dry setting, among the arroyos and cottonwoods of the Southwest, creates the great need for rain, which creates the motive for Leon’s request of the priest for the sprinkling of holy water, and the priest’s eventual compliance, so that Teofilo will be able to bring rain to his people
Possible responses for “Saboteur”:
- characterization—it is Mr. Chiu’s desire to avenge his treatment at the hands of the city’s police that causes him to become a “saboteur,” deliberately spreading his disease
- setting—it is because of the Communist Chinese setting, with its severe limits on personal freedom, that Mr. Chiu is arrested on trumped-on evidence, an act which brings about Mr. Chiu’s vengeance
- irony—throughout the story, Mr. Chiu is the victim––apparently the helpless victim––but the final brief closing of the story reveals that he has been more powerful than the reader could have imagined, and has caused hundreds of deaths by going to restaurant after restaurant in the city where he has been arrested, deliberately spreading his illness
Possible responses for “Ode to Maize”:
- setting—the growth of the Americas (concentrating on southern Americas) is attributed to maize, which provided strength to the people of the land and allowed them to live, the unfailing source of food to the poor “in the blue sierras” and “beside the sea/of distant song and deepest waltz”
- tone—tone is reverent because the speaker attributes the establishment of the Americas to maize, tells the poet to praise it, and speaks of it as having “radiance,” offering hope, and being a treasure
Say, “For the final activity, think about your own culture and cultural background. Write a free-verse poem to express an idea that reflects your culture.” [IS.28 - All Students] Provide time for volunteers to share and discuss their poems.
- For students who need additional practice with the process of analyzing the meaning of a reading, use the poem “Rosa” by Rita Dove. Work with individuals or small groups to elicit responses, such as the following: Most striking feature is its simplicity––short lines; short sentences; the simple name Rosa; few actions; the use of paradox, e.g., “the time right inside a place/so wrong it was ready,” “Doing nothing was the doing,” “How she stood up/when they bent down.” What can be learned about the speaker: admires the passive resistance of Rosa Parks, her quiet calmness, her steady gaze (“the clean flame of her gaze/carved by a camera flash”), her minimalist approach, e.g., sensible coat; no wasting of words.
- If students have trouble seeing the importance of form, show them a poem written as a prose paragraph, or rewrite it so that each stanza is three long lines. Then discuss the difference that it makes in the way they read the poem.
- Students who need a review of the elements of fiction may benefit from having a bookmark that lists each element with a brief description.
- Students who are ready to move beyond the standard might act out, draw, or bring in an article that expresses the impact of culture on contemporary literature.