Sunday, May 4, 2008

Thoughts on my Cry, The Beloved Country unit

This is my second year of teaching this novel. I don't know if I will teach it again for a while; next year I am going to try something different if I can round up enough copies.

Anyway, here are my thoughts. I began my unit by showing the students just the first ten minutes or so of The Gods Must be Crazy. After talking about the two different pictures of Africa (actually Botswana) it presents, we read the first chapter and talked about its two different pictures of Africa. For the remainder of that first day, the students completed a webquest about the history of apartheid in South Africa.
Fear engenders hatred, and only through love can fear be cast out.
Having laid the framework, we preceded at a leisurely pace through the novel. I learned my lesson from last year, when we had to rush through it, so this year we are taking it slow. On Fridays we are doing something different (Fractured Fairytale Friday), so the students don't get too burned out on the novel.

The second day we read chapters 2-4, and I reintroduced the heroic quest elements from way back at the beginning of the year when we did Beowulf because the letter Kumalo receives is a "call," and he will gain mentors, fight obstacles, enter the abyss, and experience a return in the novel. I also introduced the essential questions we would be thinking about throughout the novel and posted them on the board:
  1. What does it mean to be a family?
  2. Why are familial relationships so important to the well being of a country?
  3. What happens to a country when its basic unit, the family, is destroyed?
  4. What can a country, its leaders, and even everyday citizens do to rebuild and strengthen families?
  5. Why do we fear the things we do not understand?
  6. Does anything good ever come from fear?
  7. How can we prevent fear from controlling us?
Basically, I wanted to have the students focused on the ideas of of social disintegration and moral restoration.
Before we read chapters five and six, I had the students read the parable of the Prodigal Son. This allusion appears throughout the book, so I thought it was important for the students to be familiar with it.

Then, before they read chapters seven and eight, I had them read the story of Absalom. I constantly referred back to these two different father/son stories, as there are many allusions to both throughout the book. Because we watched a movie about the Atlanta bus boycott while we were studying Henry David Thoreau, I had the students compare the two bus boycotts.

Since chapter nine introduces a whole new point of view, I had the students review the different points of view (first person, objective, third person, limited omniscient, omniscient) before we read it. After the reading, I had the students draw a picture that symbolized some feeling they got out of reading the chapter. I posted the pictures on the board following a sharing session modeled on "Save the Last Word for Me." Because this chapter is full of strong imagery, this activity worked particularly well.
One of the surest ways to remain superior to another group is to remove the means for the subjugated to acquire knowledge and literacy. ~ Paolo Freire
I used a story from the Peace Corps lesson plans, "A Single Lucid Moment" before we read chapters 10 and 11 to focus the students thoughts on the ideas that action is necessary to solve problems in this world, that our view of the world is not the only view, and to demonstrate the cultural differences. This went over very well, especially because the story emphasized that the break up of the tribe meant that this safety net of caring people who were willing to share with everyone was gone.

Before reading chapter 12, which is another different point of view chapter, we read
"A South African Storm". This was another Peace Corps lesson. I used this story to teach the students that racial prejudice has deep roots and may linger after official policies that condoned it have changed and that adapting to another culture requires one not only to speak the language but also to follow some of the simplest local routines. This story also brought up some nice essential questions:
  1. What are effective ways of fighting prejudice that is based on race or ethnicity?
  2. How do we effectively fit in when living among cultures different from our own?
After reading chapter 12, I had the students prepare a dramatic monologue of about a half a page about any character in the story, from major to minor. They have done this once before, so they were familiar with it. Some of them chose very minor characters, like the young man who robbed Kumalo at the bus station. Here is one student's submission about Absalom:
"What did I do? I see the white man falling, blood forcing its way into the world it was never meant to see. The gun, hot in my hand, stings. Then everything stings, everything is so clear and sharp, my body aches with sudden exhaustion, physically rejecting what it just witnessed. My mind burns, I see it happening again, the white man jumps out yelling, then he starts screaming, and everything hurts. The guilt sears my head with the image. White, chemical, smoke blurs everything, but it’s sharp smoke, painful smoke, a signal to the world, visible to only a few. I hurt, I seek comfort within, father what did I do? All the pain vanishes, except the pain in my heart, it amplifies a hundred fold, the shame I brought my father hurts more than anything, what will he say? What did I do? The whole city must be listening to this pain in my chest, this silent pain. And inside I hear my voice taken from me, my soul lost in the shambles of who I once was, and now, am no more. All the good in the world has been locked away, all that I loved is tainted with the image of this terrible weight I now carry. All happiness is now a silent reminder of how much I no longer deserve to feel warmth in my cold soul.
Reach out to me, please beg for me, allow me to grow once more. I’ve sold myself without a price, I have served a master who despises all else. There I see the shame running across my hands like a lake of fire and brimstone. Oh forgive me, Oh Father, what have I done?"
Keeping up with our theme of family and fear, we read the following poem, Sestina of Youth and Age, before reading chapters 13 and 14. We focused on the disconnect and misunderstandings different generations feel toward each other.
Sestina of Youth and Age
by Frank Gelett Burgess

My father died when I was all too young,
And he too old, too crowded with his care,
For me to know he knew my hot fierce hopes;
Youth sees wide chasms between itself and
Age—How could I think he, too, had lived my life?
My dreams were all of war, and his of rest.
And so he sleeps (please God), at last at rest,
And, it may be, with soul refreshed, more young
Than when he left me, for that other life—
Free, for a while, at least, from that old Care,
The hard, relentless torturer of his age,
That cooled his youth, and bridled all his hopes.
For now I know he had the longing hopes,
The wild desires of youth, and all the rest
Of my ambition ere he came to age;
He, too, was bold, when he was free and young—
Had I but known that he could feel, and care!
How could I know the secret of his life?
In my own youth I see his early life
So reckless, and so full of flaming hopes—
I see him jubilant, without a care,
The days too short, and grudging time for rest;
He knew the wild delight of being young—
Shall I, too, know the calmer joys of age?
His words come back, to mind me of that age
When, lovingly, he watched my broadening life—
And, dreaming of the days when he was young,
Smiled at my joys, and shared my fears and hopes.
His words still live, for in my heart they rest,
Too few not to be kept with jealous care!
Ah, little did I know how he could care!
That, in my youth, lay joys to comfort age!
Not in this world, for him, was granted rest,
But as he lived, in me, a happier life,
He prayed more earnestly to win my hopes
Then ever his own, when he was young!

He once was young; I too must fight with
Care; He knew my hopes, and I must share his age;
God grant my life be worthy, too, of rest!
After reading chapters 15 and 16, I decided that because the book is a little slow moving, the students needed something entirely different for a day to give their minds a break and let them refocus when we returned to it. So, I introduced "Fairy Tale Friday." I'm always monitoring and adjusting! I gave my students an assignment to work in pairs and complete and publish a fractured fairy tale in four weeks. I shared a few of my favorites with them before they got started.

Before we read chapters 17-19, I shared a recent news article with the students. After reading the article, we discussed elements of a new term we have coined called "differentism" here in the US. We focused on people's fears of anyone different from them, using the current election for president (Obama, H. R. Clinton, Romney, Huckabee, etc.) as a nice springboard.

We also noticed that chapter 18 is the beginning of a new book, and we noted that book 1 is about Kumalo, and book 2 is about Jarvis. Books 1 and 2 deal with the social disintegration theme.

Before reading chapters 20-21, we had some students perform monologues. I have been having a few students do it everyday. It is fun to see all the different takes they have on what is happening. I made sure that the students knew that the writings that Jarvis reads from his son are actually the life writings of Alan Paton. We also read "On Children" to further clarify the family questions we have been talking about throughout the novel. I made sure to point out that Jarvis and Kumalo both have no control over what their sons do-children follow their own path. It does help to have good parents, obviously, as the poem says:
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
I also brought out the following questions:
  1. Exactly what does the following line mean? Can parents raise their children without giving them their thoughts?
    You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
  2. Is it important for parents to instill values in their children? If so, when should such education cease? Can parents really seek to be like their children?
    You may seek to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
  3. What does the following line mean? Is the past a burden? Is it necessary to understand the past?
    For life goes not forward nor tarries with yesterday.
Finally, I read the students the Gettysburg Address, so they would understand the significance of James Jarvis' fascination with it. I particularly highlighted the following section, which seems to issue a "call" (back to the heroic quest) to Jarvis to finish what his son has started:
"The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom..."
Now, although I had carefully planned my unit so that we read just one or two chapters a day, with plenty of time for enrichment, I lost a day here to testing, which frequently happens in May. So, I had to have the students take a reading day to read the next four chapters, 22-25.

I posted an enlarged think chart for each chapter on the white board. The students were supposed to read the chapter silently to themselves, and then answer the following questions. We talked about all of them at the end of class. This actually worked pretty well, because my read ahead group took the day to do personal reading, while the people who were a little behind got to catch up, then we all got together at the end.

Chapter 22 - What do you think about the trial? Is it a fair trial? Do you think Absalom will be found guilty or not? Note that in South Africa, the judges are treated with great respect by all races, but though they are just, they often enforce unjust laws created by the white people. How does this trial compare to the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, if you are familiar with that book?

Chapter 23 - Does anything in this chapter remind anyone of some of the scandals that have happened recently in the US? Today, many companies in the US have stock sharing, so that employees get shares of stock and an ownership in the profit (and tanking) of their companies. After reading this chapter, why would this be a good thing? Note that the news of these new gold mines completely eclipses news of the Arthur Jarvis murder trial, demonstrating that white South Africa, in general, cares much more about wealth than about its dire race problems.

Chapter 24 - Do you think Arthur Jarvis was correct in what he says about his upbringing? Was James Jarvis justified in his reaction? Pay particular attention to the things Arthur says about his children and his expectations for them.

Chapter 25 - Does this unexpected meeting with Kumalo and Jarvis go as you would expect it to? In what ways does Jarvis show compassion for Kumalo? Because this meeting is told from Jarvis’s point of view, it gives us a new perspective on the story. When Jarvis answers the door and finds Kumalo, he sees only a frail black parson, although we immediately realize that it is Kumalo. This disconnect between the two characters mirrors the distance between South Africa’s white and black populations. It may even be said that by seeing Kumalo through Jarvis's eyes, we finally really SEE him. We realize that the search for Absalom, its horrible conclusion, and the trial are taking a horrible toll on Kumalo. Paton makes these two stories intersect in a manner that reinforces not only the distance between whites and blacks but also the nature of their conflict—that blacks are weak and powerless whereas whites are strong and powerful.

The next day we read chapters 26 and 27. Chapter 26 is a meditation on the complicated relationship between words and social change. Stephen's brother,John Kumalo, speaks beautifully, but he does not demand radical change in the circumstances facing the black population. As Msimangu explains, John is too attached to his own possessions and social position to put himself in real danger. We spent a lot of time talking about some of history's greatest orators (Hitler came up quite a bit) and talking about the merits of words versus action. We talked about what is necessary beyond words to bring about social change. We came to a consensus that social protest does not have meaning without the good intentions and methodical planning necessary to see it through. Our focus for chapter 27 was foreshadowing. I told the class that Gertrude and Mrs. Lethbe's conversation foreshadows something that will happen later in the book. I had the students free write about what they thought that it would be.

At this point I gave the students a new assignment. They had to do a thoughtful analysis of a character from the novel and design (or find) a mask based on that analysis. I also had them make one for themselves. This turned out to be a really fun and interesting assignment. I loved reading what the students came up with about both the characters and themselves.

"Absalom Kumalo:

...As a young child, Absalom was taught strong principles which represent the metal aspect of the mask. But, metal can be bent to create an entirely different object, which is what happened to Absalom when he went to Johannesburg. Due to the cutting and bending of the metal, or his principles, Absalom is now vulnerable...The two dragons on top represent Absalom’s past and what he has now become. I mentioned before that the dragons act as though they are enemies; this is because Absalom’s present state is basically the complete opposite of Absalom’s past."

We next read chapters 28 and 29. Chapter 28 is the verdict chapter. We mainly focused on the unfairness of the judges justice. He could have given Absalom mercy, but because of fear and prejudice, he does not.

Chapter 29 has several more images from the story of Absalom and the Prodigal Son that we discussed earlier, i.e., Absalom pleading on his knees and John Kumalo's reference to the fatted calf. We also spent a lot of time discussing the two monetary gifts at the end of this chapter and the significance of each. The students had a lot of opinions about which gift was the most valuable, despite the great disparity in their sizes.

We finished off chapters 30-36 with a lot of talk about the changes that both sides have to be willing to make for real change to happen in society. We had a very good class discussion about compromise and what it really means. We also talked a lot about Jarvis' grandson being a "bridge" between the two communities. During the final chapter, we pulled out all of the biblical allusions from Kumalo going up in the mountain and sacrificing his son. To finish off the unit, I gave my students this essay test, which most of them did amazingly well on. The following is one student's essay:
  1. "There are a few ways in which his political views are reflected in Cry the Beloved Country (CTBC). The first way is his hatred of crime. It is reflected in the book because the whole plot revolves around Kumalo’s son and the murder he committed. It is very emotional at times, and is quite thought provoking about how many people crime affects. The second way is in the degradation of native society. He talks mainly of how people are going to the slums more and more, and how sometimes people just leave each other, and never come back. It is perfectly represented by his entire chapter on the slum life, and how Gertrude became what she became, and left her brother when they were going to return. The final view that is reflected is on how to change it. He talks of how people must work together, or change will never come. Like in the book, when Jarvis and Kumalo work together to make a better life for the village, he stresses the importance of worthy goals that arise when working together. Overall this article reflects the entire nature and goal of CTBC.
  2. I think that it compares quite nicely with the final chapters. In the final chapters, the reader sees that Jarvis has become an advocate of the black people, and now is doing his best to care for them. The reader sees Kumalo on the road to recovery by teaching Zulu to the young master. It almost seems like one of the moments when, “All humanity will join together to celebrate one of the outstanding human victories of our century.” As he said in the speech, and as I inferred in the previous paragraph, it seems that only by working together can the world be a better place, just like it started to become in the last chapters of the book. In the speech, he talks about freeing the world from the horrors and injustice of poverty (among other things), and it seems that in the last chapters this hope is shouted at the reader, yelling “Yes! Yes, we can do this, yes, we can make this reality! To the people out there that want this to stop, here is the hope we can look for!” Yes, it seems this whole speech reflects the hope seen in the last chapters of Cry, the Beloved Country.
  3. There are a few main changes to the South African government that seem to be important enough to mention. The government finally recognized the evils of apartheid, and state in the preamble that they know that it was wrong, and that they are changing for the better. Now, instead of trying to be better than others, they unite in their diversity, which is a big change from that of the CTBC setting. The government now promises to improve life for everyone. In CTBC, Paton almost yells to the reader of his desire for these changes, reflected in the description of the slums, of the death of Young Jarvis, and the young mother, now wife of Kumalo’s son. He states the injustices bluntly, and makes sure that everyone knows his desire for change, which the preamble has now so perfectly addressed. Yes, it now seems that almost every issue that CTBC wanted changed has done so. And all for the better."
Probably the coolest thing that happened during the last part of the unit was during one of the days when we were talking about how both groups were going to have to change. All year I have been bringing in music and modern poetry to present themes from literature. As we discussed change, one of my students said, "Mrs. Tyler, this reminds me so much of the John Mayer song, Waiting on the World to Change." Luckily, I had access to that song, so I was able to pull it up, and we listened to it right then and there, and it added a lot to our discussion. Yeah! They ARE making connections after all.

Me and all my friends
We're all misunderstood
They say we stand for nothing and
There's no way we ever could
Now we see everything that's going wrong
With the world and those who lead it
We just feel like we don't have the means
To rise above and beat it

So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change
We keep on waiting
Waiting on the world to change
It's hard to beat the system
When we're standing at a distance
So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change

Now if we had the power
To bring our neighbors home from war
They would have never missed a Christmas
No more ribbons on their door
And when you trust your television
What you get is what you got
Cause when they own the information, oh
They can bend it all they want

That's why we're waiting
Waiting on the world to change
We keep on waiting
Waiting on the world to change

It's not that we don't care,
We just know that the fight ain't fair
So we keep on waiting
Waiting on the world to change

Waiting on the World to Change - John Mayer