Tag Archive for Atonement

Non-Fiction: Letters of Note & Letter Writing

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In February of 2011 Catherine Field wrote an op-ed for The New York Times that argued the attributes of letter writing.  Using her mother-in-law as an example, Field suggested that while email provides immediacy, letters establish intimacy.  While true, consider the last time you actually received a letter.  Not just a birthday card but an actual letter.

Time taken on letter writing seems non-existent, yet we see evidence of correspondence everywhere.  President Obama reads 10 letters each day, often answering two or three of those in his own hand.  Carolyn Hax, a syndicated advice columnist for The Washington Post, responds to a variety of correspondence on a daily basis.   Most major publications allow for “letters to the editor” regardless of their format.  Still, how many of your students actually know how to craft a letter or even an email in a way that is both engaging and appropriate?

We’ve spent this entire week discussing how to use Letters of Note as a “textual” resource.  But the site itself is evidence that fan letters do get answered.  The exercise today uses the resources from of Letters of Note and the Maria Popova’s post on Brain Pickings, a resource we’ve highlighted in the past, about a high school student’s Symbolism Survey.

  1. Have students read Popova’s overview as well as original story from The Paris Review that provides a bit more background.
  2. Have students discuss what would motivate an author or any celebrity to respond to a “fan.”  Have them examine letters from fans at Letters of Note.  I’ve included a moving example below from a parent to Patrick Stewart in regards to her son’s love of Star Trek before Duchenne muscular dystrophy ended his life.
  1. Ask that students review responses to fan letters from Letters of Note. You will want to select examples in advance as some of them have language inappropriate for school.  I’ve included some examples below.  Consider having them SOAPSTone, etc.

Letter Project to a Living Author or Journalist

You might then assign students the task of constructing their own letter based on those characteristics necessary to engage a person in the public eye.  A person they believe has little chance of responding to them.  Now, that could honestly be anyone but you might want to theme your focus.  You could set limits making it a living author or writer you’ve studied.  Have them write to columnists at The New York Times or The Washington Post.  Consider having them write to Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper.  Think about having them write to David Sedaris, Jonathan Safran Foer, Amy Tan, Ian McEwan, Khaled Hosseini, Sara Gruen, Aravind Adiga, or any author represented in your course.  You might even have them write a documentary filmmaker if you’ve used any in class.  The end goal is to have students practice voice and to get a response. They should come up with a way to do this without many limits/parameters.  A “fictionalized” conversation with Hemingway simply won’t do.  They need to struggle with the idea that this could actually be read and that filling in space won’t suffice.  Finally, have them give you a copy and have them mail one.  I’d even suggest displaying the best ones with the student’s permission of course.

Non-Fiction to Pair with Coming of Age: Conflict

Ugh…junior high.  Even though I interviewed for a high school position, the first job offer I received was for 6th grade.  It was also the first job I rejected.  People told me I was a dumb naïve 22-year-old (which I very well might have been), but I remembered too vividly how horrible junior high and the early years of high school were.  We were all on a quest to understand ourselves and in the process created insecurities and anxieties, all of which came about because of envy.  While I’ve worked through (most of) my deep-seeded insecurities, I’m still surrounded by them through my students.  There is something about adolescence that perpetuates this sense of envy and usually serves as the largest source of conflict in high school.  Even though the students might not realize it, so many of their disputes and problems come from a type of envy they feel toward another.  The same is true of the literature that reflects this growth and initiation into adulthood.  When studying the conflict that arises in coming-of-age novels, students need to consider the root of it:  envy.  The below examples of non-fiction pair nicely with fiction because they pose questions about the nature and effects of envy and fighting. 

Excerpt from The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer, Arthur Schopenhauer.  A more challenging piece of non-fiction, Schopenhauer delineates the different types of envy and the cause of them.  Have students identify the various types of envy described by Schopenhauer and argue which type best correlates with characters from the fiction they are reading.  Natural connections with fiction can be found with Lord of the Flies, Hamlet, House on Mango Street, the Harry Potter series, and Atonement.

Excerpt from On Duties, Cicero.  Another challenging essay, Cicero evaluates the nature of fighting as it is born out of envy.  He ascertains that the way in which we treat others during battle reveals a lot about the character of the individual.  Even though this text deals primarily with war, this could be explored in a more figurative sense with the conflict between two characters.  Again, provide the essay and have students determine how Cicero would describe the moral fiber of the characters based on their knowledge of both the non-fiction and fiction pieces.  Consider pairing this with The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, Hamlet, and Lord of the Flies.

Non-Fiction to Pair with Coming of Age: Examine the Teenager

Image from Vivian Chen

Teenagers love themselves and all are, to some degree, self absorbed.  Seriously.  If I had a $5 Arby’s gift card for every time a student made some self-important comment I’d be rolling in Beef ‘N Cheddars.

But I don’t fault them.  That is the perk of being a teenager, right?  Living without consequence or fear or responsibility.  Yet, because of their narcissistic view, they often struggle to see the big picture because they struggle to see outside of their immediate lives.  This certainly causes a problem for interpretation.  As a teacher of teenagers, I feel it is my duty to make them more self-aware and ask them to evaluate who they are and what they believe and where these values came from, which will allow them to better evaluate a text.

Coming-of-age novels are typically brought into the classroom for students to relate to and learn from.  Reading a novel in this genre allows students the opportunity to place themselves in the situations and scenarios and consider how they would respond if they were the main character.  Yet, it is important for us to not just keep the self-exploration limited to the text itself.  For some students, it is impossible to connect to a character from the 19th century, regardless of the similar traits they possess.  Therefore, providing contemporary essays and articles about their generation as a supplement to the coming-of-age novel allows students a great opportunity to examine themselves and their values in the guise of fiction.

Below are a series of essays/articles that explore the current nature of the teenager and would serve as nice supplements to pieces of literature.

  • A Generations vanity NYTarticle by John Tierney-NYT: This article examines the lyrics of songs popular with contemporary teenagers and deduces that the narcissicism encourages a sense of isolation and loneliness.  This article might be a nice supplement to a song/text comparison, which allows students to discuss how music becomes an indicator of a group’s mentality.  Even though this article addresses the narcissistic nature of teenagers, due to its discussion of depression it can be appropriately be connected to pieces like Hamlet,  Catcher in the Rye, The Chocolate War, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
  • Demon Denim,” op-ed by George Will from The Washington Post:  This conversationally constructed opinion piece is a fascinating look at the moral degeneration of today’s teenagers and their inability to “grow up.”  Ask students to study the root of Will’s argument and evaluate the extent to which it is true today.  While it might not always align with the main character, consider pairing this op-ed with many of the pieces stated above as well as This Side of Paradise, Lord of the Flies, and A Separate Peace.
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death Postman,” excerpt from Neil Postman book:  Critic Neil Postman is known for his clear and often biting opinions.  In this piece he critiques the way in which culture has created an ill-informed society that has a difficult time thinking for oneself.  While this piece is centered around media, it can be used as a study of how teenagers are ultimately shaped by their environment and the manner in which they bend to fit into various cultures.  Ask students to examine the consequences of Postman’s argument and then compare and contrast it with the fictionalized characters in pieces like Never Let Me Go, Atonement, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.