[Editor’s note: American-Chick-Lit is the pseudonym of a second-year teacher in a high school in the Bronx.]
Our school has tried to align the curriculum across subjects, and because of that, my English students have gone from acting out The Crucible to listening to slave song lyrics to reading our latest novel, My Ántonia. We’ve been trudging along from the 1600s to the 1700s to the late 1800s.
My Ántonia gets us as near to today as 1908. To me, it makes sense.
When we read about the witch trials of Salem, students were seeing videos and reading articles about these very events in their history class. The idea is to keep a similar timeline in both English and History courses, thus giving students a better context for the things about which they’re learning. It took lots of careful planning and collaborating from last school year through this summer, and we aimed to set this plan into motion in September.
However, here are the problems with teaching My Ántonia: “What’s a plain?” “What’s a prairie?” “What is a plough?” “Where is Nebraska?…In the middle?” “Then WHY would anyone want to live there?”
Here are some critiques: “Can we abandon this book, Miss?” “This is mad boring.” “There’s no action, no adventure, no sex!”
I’ve got to give them that one. While The Crucible had Abigail and John’s (albeit offstage) torrid affair, Antonia’s tale is lacking in the action aspect. However, as a former English major and avid reader, I encourage my students to admire author Willa Cather’s gorgeous prose.
So what if there’s no huge climax, I thought, Can’t you guys sustain yourselves on the vivid images of frontier life, of the stories of immigrants who were striving to fulfill their own American Dream? The details and beauty of My Ántonia are what has kept it in book rooms since, well, at least since I was in high school. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t get through classes by just depending on Cather’s realistic literary style.
Instead of breaking the book down to its tiny details, I aimed for the bigger ideas: immigration, the American Dream. Antonia’s family is a Bohemian bunch. They struggle in the harsh conditions, different culture, and difficult lifestyle they encounter in the American West. Even though land was being “given away” after the Homestead Act, Antonia’s clan had caught a raw deal when one of their own countrymen shortchanged them by selling them an overpriced sod house and shoddy farm.
But enough about them. Are you as bored as the kids yet? What about you? Where did your family come from? How did they get to the U.S.? When did they get here? How did they get here? And the big question, Why did they come?
This approach (the state standards like to call it connecting “self-to-text”) was the key to getting students to talk about this big idea of immigration. For one whole class period, we shared stories of journeys from Trinidad, Peru, Spain, Mexico, Jamaica, Nigeria, Puerto Rico, Israel, Dominican Republic, and then some. Students turned the questions on me, and I was caught off guard, but happy to share that my great grandparents had come through Ellis Island from Italian, Irish, and German cities of Naples, Salerno, Cork, and Hamburg. To me, African and island countries were exotic; to them, I was a mutt from countries they’ve hardly heard of.
Our stories spanned from great-grandparent immigrants to first-generation Americans. When it came to our families’ motivations for moving to the “Land of Opportunity,” the major reason many students gave was, well, opportunity. Parents wanted their kids to have better education, better job opportunity, a better life. This is where we had to bring it back to the book: Isn’t that what Antonia’s family wanted?
“Yeah, but they couldn’t even speak the language!” “Yeah, but the Mom hated it here.” Here, as if the Bronx is just a stone’s throw away from Nebraska plains and prairies. “Yeah, but it seems like Antonia’s the only one who’s gonna be able to get it all.”
We’ll see how Antonia fares, of course, as we plow through her (and her dear friend Jim, the narrator’s) saga. But next up for us is the big discussion about the American Dream. Will she achieve it? And can the events of Antonia inspire my students to achieve their own?