Archives For Advanced Placement English

What better way to celebrate International Women’s Day 2013 but to pay tribute to Canadian author Margaret Atwood? Poet, novelist, lecturer, inventor, tweeter, and celebrity ice hockey goalie, Atwood’s achievements in each of these roles is accomplished with wit, grace, and aplomb.

Handmaid's tale

There are other earlier covers, but this one is my personal favorite.

My Advanced Placement English Literature class just finished reading her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel is set in the dystopia of Gilead, where in response to political and ecological upheaval, a quasi-Christian theocracy is organized in the eastern section of the United States. Astute Sparknote writers, graduates of Harvard, recognized many of the landmarks in the novel’s setting (the brick wall, the gymnasium) as that of their alma mater, an indication of Atwood’s wry sense of irony. In the novel, fertility is an obsession. Rituals and “ceremonies” are enforced; offenders and outliers are publicly executed or sent to labor in toxic waste dumps. The main character Offred, who had a daughter before the establishment of the Republic of Gilead, is valued only for her ability to reproduce.

Because of the mature themes, The Handmaid’s Tale is often taught in senior high school classes. The title is often suggested on the exam for the open-ended Question #3 on the AP Literature exam which means other schools assign the book. There are always plenty of copies available in the secondary market. Our classroom library has over 60 copies from a variety of library book sales and thrift stores. I have spent under $100.00 in adding this title to our curriculum; I’d like to think that Atwood might be pleased with this “ecological” way to have students read the text despite her loss of possible retail revenue. However, if one wanted a new copy, they are available at Amazon for $10.20 paperback or an audio recording by Claire Danes is available  at  for $24.95.

When we discuss the clothing that marks the different “castes” of people in Gilead,  I always use the endpaper story Atwood published in the New York Times Magazine published “When Afghanistan Was at Peace”

Six years after our trip, I wrote ”The Handmaid’s Tale,” a speculative fiction about an American theocracy. The women in that book wear outfits derived in part from nuns’ costumes, partly from girls’ schools’ hemlines and partly — I must admit — from the faceless woman on the Old Dutch Cleanser box, but also partly from the chador I acquired in Afghanistan and its conflicting associations. As one character says, there is freedom to and freedom from. But how much of the first should you have to give up in order to assure the second? All cultures have had to grapple with that, and our own — as we are now seeing — is no exception. Would I have written the book if I never visited Afghanistan? Possibly. Would it have been the same? Unlikely.”

Dutch Cleanser

The combination of the Dutch Cleanser girl with the chador is the inspiration for Offred’s clothing; the story and the visual always sparks a discussion on the symbolic effect of clothing.

My students always argue about the genre of The Handmaid’s Tale. This year there were a number of votes for political science book, others for a dystopian love story; no one said science fiction. Atwood would be relieved; she has always drawn the distinction between science fiction and her writing which she calls “speculative fiction”. Several of my students also read the other books Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood that are speculative fiction.

Here is Atwood with her take on the genre of specultive fiction.

The conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale ends in an allusion to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice:

“We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer; and when we turn to look at her we glimpse her only for a moment, before she slips from our grasp and flees.”

After we finished the novel, the class read Atwood’s poem Eurydice. I asked them what they thought.

  • “There is a sense of longing in both.”
  • “The language is so similar. There is the white curtain…the gauze.”
  • “‘It is not through him you will get your freedom’ is just like
    from and freedom to…that is Offred’s problem”
  • “We could have just read the poem! They’re almost the same!”

One other area of speculative fiction where Atwood has shared her thoughts is on the topic of modernity…and Zombies. In an interview on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, Atwood was quite clear on the limits of Zombie stories:

“No zombie story is ever told from the zombie point of view… they’re not narrative…they don’t have language and that impedes one from telling a story.”

Outside of fiction, Atwood has also written about debt. Her non-fiction book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth came from her 2008 Massey Lectures. Not surprisingly, her interest in debt began in from her study of Victorian Literature. In an interview with Suzanne Ellis, CityLine “Margaret Atwood On Payback And The Concept Of Debt”  Atwood discussed how the Victorian stories that are on the surface about love and romance are really all about financial arrangements:

“In [Jane Austen’s] Sense and Sensibility, Marianne can’t marry the love of her life because he needs to marry a rich person. He doesn’t have any money. She’s devastated by that and gets a bad cold,” Atwood muses. “You start following the money in these novels and it takes you to the most amazing places. Where did Heathcliff get the money that he uses to buy Wuthering Heights, or I should say to gamble the owner of it out of it? How does he do that? We’re not quite sure but it’s something pretty shady.”

The book was made into a documentary and released in the spring of 2012. The New York Times critic A.O. Scott opens his film review with the premise of the documentary:

A glance at the headlines from Europe, the news from Washington or this month’s bills will confirm that we live in an age of debt. Debt, a concept at once straightforward and almost metaphysically complex, is a source of personal, national and global anxiety, and forms a link between the individual and the worldwide economic system.

While the film did not receive critical acclaim, Atwood’s ability to connect herself and link to the world through Twitter is often lauded.  She is an avid twitterer with 383,430 followers and over 15,000 tweets of her own. She links to political issues, comments on travels, and gives recipe advice:

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.06.17 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.07.07 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.08.58 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.09.56 AM

She also is the inventor of the “long pen”, a device that allows her to attend book signings from distances and sign books “virtually”. When she is tired of traveling to sign books, she can now meet her adoring public in virtual space and provide them with an authentic signature. Fortunately, I saw her before the “long pen” at a Barnes and Noble reading/book signing for her short story collection Moral Disorder. She was amazingly articulate; in the 40 minute talk, she never hesitated or once said “um”.

And just when you thought that Atwood could not be more accomplished, she starred in a video explaining “How to Stop a Hockey Puck” for the comedian reporter Rick Mercer. I put the video below. (Too bad her “Dance Party Video” was removed from YOUTube for copyright violations.)

So, on this International Woman’s Day, let’s hear a cheer for Margaret Atwood!

She writes. She tweets. She scores!

Student: “Is this another unhappy book?”
Me:*sigh* “Yes.”

Toni Morrison is on my mind. The Advanced Placement English Literature Class (12th grade) has just finished reading her novel Beloved; the Advanced Placement English Language Class (11th grade) is currently offering The Bluest Eye. These are most certainly not written from a happy Ken and Barbie point of view. These novels are complex and difficult reads because the Nobel Prize winning Morrison makes the reader uncomfortable…yes, even unhappy.

In an interview on Oprah,  Morrison explained how she began her first novel, The Bluest Eye:

“Things were going very fast in 1965, so I decided I wanted to write a novel that was not a warning but was just literature, and I wanted to put at the center of that story the most helpless creature in the world—a little black girl who doesn’t know anything, who has never been center stage. I wanted it to be about a real girl, and how that girl hurts, and how we are all complicitous in that hurt. I didn’t care what white people thought, because they didn’t know anything about this. This was the age of ‘black is beautiful,’ and, well, yeah, that is certainly the case; however, let us not forget why that became a necessary statement.”

The Bluest Eye is set in Post-Depression America, 1941, in the author’s hometown of Lorain, Ohio.  Eleven year-old Pecola Breedlove, a black girl, longs to be a white child with blonde hair and blue eyes. In a particularly graphic scene, the reason the book is so controversial, she is raped and impregnated by her own father.  Much of the book centers on the ideal of beauty and Pecola’s inability to accept herself. She is exposed to the perfect life portrayed in the Dick and Jane series of reading primers at school which increases her conflict about her self-image as seen in an excerpt from The Bluest Eye:

 “I destroyed white baby dolls. But the dismembering of dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls. The indifference with which I could have axed them was shaken only by my desire to do so. To discover what eluded me, the secret of the magic they weaved on others. What made people look at them and say, ‘Awwwww,’ but not for me.”

The other book, Beloved, is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who crossed the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati in January 1856 with her four children. Confronted by a slave catcher, Garner killed her daughter rather than have her returned to be a slave. In the novel, Sethe escapes with her newborn daughter, Denver, to meet up with her other three children, one of them the already-crawling? toddler who is known as Beloved. Sethe has 28 days of freedom where she is able to love her children for the first time:

“I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide. Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon-there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to. You know what I mean?”

Soon after, the plantation owner School Teacher and a slave catcher arrive to claim their property, Sethe and her children. In an act of savage desperation taken in order to keep her children from a life of slavery, Sethe uses a saw to slice open the toddler’s neck , but she is prevented from killing her other children. In addition to this gruesome scene, the novel is also rife with rape, mutilations, and the supernatural. These elements  make its choice for a school curriculum as controversial as The Bluest Eye. However, both texts are often listed on the Advanced Placement Open Essay list, an indication that these books are exactly the kind of complex texts students should be reading. The demanding Advanced Placement prompts from past years are not answerable with less weighty books.

Teachers themselves struggle with complex and demanding texts, and the English Companion Ning often features posts from teachers who are looking for information on a topic or lesson plans on a text. There are always several posts about the use of Toni Morrison books in the high school curriculum. Many of these posts discuss the controversy these books cause for teachers who want to teach Morrison’s complex and compelling literature while addressing the concerns of  parents about the appropriateness of each novel’s content.

One teacher posted:

“I think it’s funny how we sometimes find things more shocking as adults than as kids.  I read The Bluest Eye in 11th grade and never thought about it being objectionable or age-inappropriate.  I actually read quite a bit of Toni Morrisson in HS.  As an adult, I think The Bluest Eye should be taught.  That said, any book with sensitive subject matter does need to be introduced in a thoughtful, open, and contextualized manner.”

While another offered a very balanced approach:

“Just want to mention that it is the parents’ responsibility to train up their children. It is not the responsibility of the school or the state. I worry that we teachers tend to forget that, making our relations with parents far more adversarial than they ought to be. Why not let the parents choose the appropriate novel for their child? Focus the classwork on skills that can be used with any novel, on practicing the thinking that will help students get through tough texts more independently, rather than on specific-novel content.

That said, strong instruction and discussion on what distinguishes great literature from not-so-great literature — literary fiction from commercial fiction, will help students see the difference between the great novels we English teachers want them to read and the … um, lightweight? novels they want to read.”

Morrison novels are demanding. They do not depict happiness. Their settings depict a world in stark contrast to the world of Ken and Barbie. While Ken and Barbie as fictional characters are perfectly formed, coiffed representatives of all that is perfect in the world, they have have not been marginalized as the fictional characters who people Morrison’s work; they have not experienced rejection, brutality, pain or suffering.

In the Oprah interview, Morrison attempts to explain a human’s want for acceptance by others but more importantly, by the self:

“I think a lot has changed since the ’60s in terms of self-image. But there’s still a lot of pain young girls feel because the bar is always being raised. The stakes are always higher….We don’t have the vocabulary to tell children what to value. We do say, “Oh, you’re so beautiful. Oh, you’re so pretty. Oh—that’s not really what we really ought to be saying. What do you tell a child when you want to say, “You are good, and I like that. You are honest and I like that. [Y]ou are courageous. I really like that. I really like the way you behave. I like the way you do yourself. Now. The way you are.’ That’s the vocabulary we need.”

Morrison’s admits that when she first started writing, she was writing for a different audience:
 “I guess I was just that arrogant. Nobody was going to judge me, because they didn’t know what I knew. No African-American writer had ever done what I did—none of the writers I knew, even the ones I admired—which was to write without the White Gaze. My writing wasn’t about them.”
 Morrison’s  The Bluest Eye and Beloved unapologetically stand in stark contrast to the world of Dick and Jane or Ken and Barbie. Her writing has received national and international praise for exactly that reason.