Archives For close reading

The best holiday scenes in novels are sometimes unexpected. While some of these scenes may seem incidental, the Christmas tree scene in Betty Smith’A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) is anything but ancillary. Smith uses the sentimentality of Christmas to highlight the novel’s theme of tenacity.

Smith’s protagonist is the 10-year-old Mary Frances “Francie” Nolan, who is determined to rise above challenging circumstances of poverty, social class, and her father’s alcoholism. Coming of age novels like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are good choices to use with students, but educators may be dissuaded from assigning the novel as a whole class read because of its length (443 pages). The reading level (Lexile), however, is 810, a reading level appropriate for readers grade 5 and up, although some of situations and language are more suited for grades 8 and up.

With all the attention to the practice of “close reading” to improve comprehension, it is possible to have students read a single chapter, such as this Christmas chapter (Ch. 27), independent of the novel. Sharing this chapter can help students appreciate Smith’s storytelling.

For purposes of brevity, the text has been truncated into sequential sections below along with four questions that educators can use.

  1. So what does Smith “say” in the opening of the chapter?

“Christmas was a charmed time in Brooklyn…You have to be a child to know how wonderful is a store window filled with dolls and sleds and other toys. And this wonder came free to Francie. It was nearly as good as actually having the toys to be permitted to look at them through the glass window. Oh, what a thrill there was for Francie when she turned a street corner and saw another store all fixed up for Christmas!…”

Possible responses:

  • The setting is in borough of Brooklyn; city streets
  • Toys (dolls and sleds) for Christmas were in the store windows
  • Francie did not have the money to pay for the toys she saw

2. What interesting or unusual words does Smith use is explaining Francie’s challenge ?

“There was a cruel custom in the neighborhood. It was about the trees still unsold when midnight of Christmas Eve approached. There was a saying that if you waited until then, you wouldn’t have to buy a tree; that “they’d chuck ’em at you.” This was literally true. At midnight on the Eve of our dear Saviour’s birth, the kids gathered where there were unsold trees. The man threw each tree in turn, starting with the biggest….If a boy didn’t fall down under the impact, the tree was his. If he fell, he forfeited his chance at winning a tree.”

Possible responses:

  • “Cruel custom” taking place on the “Eve of our dear Saviour’s birth”
  • “they’d chuck ‘em at you”
  • Forfeit; impact

3. How does the Smith play with language in the following section?

“Francie stepped forward. ‘Me, Mister.’

A spurt of derisive laughter came from the tree man. The kids snickered. A few adults who had gathered to watch the fun, guffawed.

‘Aw g’wan. You’re too little,’ the tree man objected.

‘Me and my brother-we’re not too little together.’ She pulled Neeley forward. The man looked at them a thin girl of ten with starveling hollows in her cheeks but with the chin still baby-round.

‘Two ain’t fair,’ yelped Punky.

‘Shut your lousy trap,’ advised the man who held all power in that hour. ‘These here kids is got nerve.’

The others made a wavering lane… a human funnel with Francie and her brother making the small end of it. The man flexed his great arms to throw the great tree. He noticed how tiny the children looked at the end of the short lane.

Possible responses:

  • “Aw g’wan” captures the dialect of the tree vendor; the man who held all power in that hour
  • “it was a human funnel”-metaphor
  • “a girl with with starveling hollows in her cheeks”-descriptive imagery

4. So, what does Smith want the reader to understand?

For the split part of a moment, the tree thrower went through a kind of Gethsemane. “Oh, Jesus Christ,” his soul agonized, “why don’t I just give ’em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ’em go? …..”But then,” he rationalized, “if I did that, all the others would expect to get ’em handed to ’em. They’d all wait to get ’em handed to ’em on a silver plate…I ain’t big enough to do a thing like that. I gotta think of myself and my own kids.” He finally came to his conclusion….”Them two kids is gotta live in this world. They got to learn to give and to take punishment….”

At this point in the text, Chapter 27 is not an incidental Christmas event; instead, it stands as representing the novel writ large. Smith choses to use the internal monologue of a man heaving the last of unsold trees at two small children in a perverse act of charity on Christmas Eve to represent all the challenges Francie faces in the novel:

“As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, ‘It’s a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!’

But Francie does not buckle:

“Francie saw the tree leave his hands. There was a split bit of being when time and space had no meaning. The whole world stood still as something dark and monstrous came through the air. The tree came towards her blotting out all memory of her ever having lived. There was nothing-nothing but pungent darkness and something that grew and grew as it rushed at her. She staggered as the tree hit them. Neeley went to his knees but she pulled him up fiercely before he could go down. There was a mighty swishing sound as the tree settled. Everything was dark, green and prickly. Then she felt a sharp pain at the side of her head where the trunk of the tree had hit her. She felt Neeley trembling. When some of the older boys pulled the tree away, they found Francie and her brother standing upright, hand in hand.”

Students cannot help but admire Francie’s tenacity in confronting the physical force of the tree. Her determination is so powerful that she stands for two, “pulling him [Neeley] up fiercely” and standing “hand in hand”.

Film still from the Christmas tree scene from the film "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"

Film still from the Christmas tree scene from the film “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945)

Francie wins the great tree and as she drags the enormous prize home with Neeley, they are cheered on by well-wishers from the neighborhood.

Smith closes the chapter by reminding the readers that this victory for Francie’s will be short-lived; the challenges of poverty will still be with her:

“There was no money to buy tree decorations or lights. But the great tree standing there was enough. The room was cold. It was a poor year, that one-too poor for them to buy the extra coal for the front room stove. The room smelled cold and clean and aromatic. ….. she sat there and enjoyed the smell and the dark greenness of it.”

True to type, Chapter 27 shares what all Christmas stories share, a miracle…with its element of mystery:

“Oh, the mystery of a great tree, a prisoner in a tin wash bucket in a tenement front room!”

In reading this chapter, students may want to continue to read about Francie, who will, unlike the great tree, not be a prisoner of the tenement…her determination stands.

The English I Honors teacher in my department recently suffered a serious concussion; no reading or writing for several weeks. Her classes must go on, however, and the new unit on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is next in the curriculum.  A long term substitute is scheduled for next week, and the students could easily read the novel before her arrival.

Moreover, there is a packet of information and worksheets in the file cabinet with background information on the 1930s and the author, John Steinbeck. The practice of providing such a lengthy introduction, however, is associated with “over-teaching”, a practice now discouraged in the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. In statewide tests students will have to meet the standards of the Common Core, and they will encounter texts from many different sources. The recommendation is that students should practice “close reading” where they can independently mine the language of the text for meaning:

“Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally” (ELA Common Core)

The 9th graders could be staggering indeed; they have just completed a unit on Greek tragedy using Oedipus the King. Some students might suffer whiplash in the jump from 5th Century BCE Ancient Greece to 20th Century California in the Salinas Valley. There needed to be a powerful “bridge” to prepare students for this leap in time and ensuing debate between free will and fate.  What could be accomplished without the teacher directed lecture, especially if the teacher is not available? What format could saturate students in an environment of the 1930s?

A few minutes of research on YouTube provided an answer; I could have a substitute show students several versions of the Bing Crosby’s song recording of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s anthem for the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

The historical accuracy of some of the photos in this first rendition may be questionable, but the message of an average man’s struggle to find employment in the early 1930s is made very clear. The second version below is a sing-a-long-version that is particularly good as a karaoke opportunity. After watching the first version, all students sang along, some with more gusto than others, following Crosby’s cadence in the second version:

After singing, the students reviewed the lyrics:

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”

lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Why don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

These lyrics provided students an opportunity to “close read” the context of the Great Depression, particularly in the lyrics “Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell” and “Half a million boots went slogging through Hell.” While they understood that after the stock market crash there were unemployed men who had helped in the building of railroads and towers, more than one student made the connection that there are currently soldiers who have returned from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan who have not found employment either. Their brief discussion was enough to set up Steinbeck’s tale of Lennie and George, who share a dream of finding employment to be independent farmers raising rabbits.

Once the background was established, students could then read the novel independently, the way the Common Core recommends in the reading standards. Additionally, the long-term substitute can now complete the leap from classical to contemporary tragedy without having to dwell on historical context. The only downside might be getting rid of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”… a song-worm now in their brains!

Saki

Author H.H. Munro also known as Saki

H.H. Munro was the NYTimes crossword across clue last week, and as it so often happens, I just happened to be talking about H.H. Munro to the sophomore English class these first days of school. Just name dropping Saki, his pseudonym, caught their attention.
“What kind of a name is that?” they asked.
When I told them he might have been referring to the Saki monkey, a small South American primate, they concurred that he had chosen a cool pen name. 

Saki’s short stories open our World Literature course which complements the Modern World History course offered the same year. Our students will be reading complex texts required by the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and  complex texts are those that meet four criteria:

1) Meaning: Multiple levels of meaning (such as satires, in which the author’s literal message is intentionally at odds with his or her underlying message).
(2)  Structure: Complex, implicit, and (particularly in literary texts) unconventional structures.
(3) Language: Figurative, ironic, ambiguous, purposefully misleading, archaic or otherwise unfamiliar language
(4) Knowledge Demands: Everyday knowledge and familiarity with genre conventions required; cultural and literary knowledge useful.

Saki’s work meets the CCSS criteria above, but I have learned that the practice of close reading never follows the lengthy tortuous path suggested by Common Core developers who have no classroom experience. My students stray.

The text selected was “The Interlopers”. (SPOILER ALERT For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story and want to read it before I reveal the plot twist, link to the text. There is also an audio-text.)

To prepare students, but careful not to “overteach” before reading, I gave students slips of paper with 25 words from the story. The slips including some of the more difficult vocabulary (languor, succor, marauder) and some plot details (woodland, feud, detest). Some of the students sorted the words alphabetically, but others grouped words that shared some commonality. After a few minutes of discussion, we joined together to predict what the story would be about using the grouped words; there would be a dispute in the forest that was linked to some feud, just like the feud in Romeo and Juliet.
Then we read the story.

Thirteen minutes later, some heads shot up. They had reached Saki’s iconic last word…”wolves!”

“Wolves!” one student questioned, “does that mean they die?”
There was much stirring. Some seemed surprised; others seemed confused.
In contrast, I thought the ending was obvious. Two men, trapped under a tree, end a bitter feud over forest land only to eaten by wolves.

Several, but not all, of my students thought differently.

“They weren’t rescued?” asked Kailey, “but one of them said he had men that would be there to rescue them in the forest.”
“He was bluffing,” responded Logan. “He was trying to scare the other guy when they first met.”
“But there was a gun,” pointed out Stephan, “one could have used the gun.”
“They had their arms ‘pinioned’,” I responded, trying to slip in another vocabulary word, “pinioned means to tie up the arms of…”
“They could have wriggled out when they saw the wolves,” insisted Stephan, “the rush of adrenaline would make them so strong, they could un-pinion their arms.”
“But there is no evidence to show that,” I responded. “The last word is their last word because the wolves come upon them.”

I had thought the story was straightforward. There were no flashbacks, and no change in setting. This was, according to Aristotle, a story that demonstrated unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action.

Yet the conversations in the room showed the text’s complexity. Saki’s The Interlopers has all the elements suggested by the CCSS. There is the figurative language in the character Ulrich’s statement, “We have quarrelled like devils all our lives over this stupid strip of forest, where the trees can’t even stand upright in a breath of wind.” There is the ironic wish, “If only on this wild night, in this dark, lone spot, he might come across Georg Znaeym, man to man, with none to witness – that was the wish that was uppermost in his thoughts.” There is also the multiple meaning in the revenge sought by man and the revenge exacted by Nature. Our close reading should have been “textbook”. The evidence proved the characters’ demise…or did it? I began to consider the renegade students’ position.

“See,” insisted Kailey, “look at the text, Georg says he has seven men out with him before the tree fell. These seven men would hear their screaming.”
“Yes, there would be screaming. Their last words were, ‘AHHH!!! OUCH!!! THAT HURTS!!'”Jay yelled.
“But that does not mean they were definitely eaten,” corrected Kai, “this guy Saki wants you to make up your mind.”

Which is true. Saki does not end the story with screams of pain or with tales of rescue. He trusts the reader to use evidence to make up his or her own mind. Several of my students did not want to see Ulrich and Georg meet their demise, especially when they had settled their long standing feud.

The class discussion continued with each piece of evidence for the “eaten by wolves” side being countered by evidence from the “escaped with their lives” side. The students were definitely close reading, but they were exploiting Saki’s ambiguity to defend their differing positions. A case could be made for both.

Yes, they understood the importance of irony in the story, and yes, they were familiar with plot twists, but they still held out hope. Saki had made them care for these characters in the 2100 words of this short story. He had given just the right amount of contradictory information to leave room for just a sliver of hope. A 99 and 44/100’s sort of hope.

Did they hold out hope because of their youth? Aristotle suggests that, “Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope.” Yet, Aristotle is also credited with saying, “Hope is the dream of a waking man.” 

In retrospect, Saki himself would probably have enjoyed their commentary. I discovered too late for the discussion that Saki has been quoted as saying, “A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation.”

Continue Reading…

“Want to know the shortest poem in the world?” I asked my Advanced Placement students when they were overwhelmed with the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton. I wanted to use a related poem to demonstrate a close reading, one of the skills students should have in according to the Common Core Standards for English/Language Arts, but they needed a little fun.

“It’s called Fleas.”

I wrote the poem on the board:

Fleas

Adam
had’em

That’s it. Three words…actually two if you consider the contraction “had’em” as one word.

The poem attribution is generally given to Ogden Nash (1902-1971) although there are some who credit Shel Silverstein (1931-1999). An article by Eric Shackle, however, found the originator of the poem was Strickland Gillilan (1869-1954). The article notes:

“At last, after searching dozens of websites, we discovered the identity of the mystery poet. It was revealed on a US National Park Service website describing Mount Rainer National Park, in west-central Washington state. The Mt Rainier Nature News Notes of July 1, 1927 contained this brief item, tucked away as an end-of-column filler:

‘THE SHORTEST POEM
We like poetry but we cannot stand it in too large doses. The following, which according to its author, Strickland Gillilan, is the shortest poem existing, deals with the antiquity of “bugs”. It runs thus: Adam had em!'”

Authorship clarified, I asked my students, “So, what could you write about this poem?”

They stared at me. Surely I was joking…what kind of discussion or essay could a poem of this length generate?

After several minutes, however, here is what they came up with structurally:

  • iambic (duet?)
  • rhyming couplet
  • rhyme (am/em)
  • perfect internal rhyme (ad)
  • there is contraction
  • no punctuation
  • uneven number of letters; shorter first line

Here is what they came up on the topic of fleas:

    • Scientists have discovered that fleas probably fed on dinosaurs
    • Fleas feed on warm vertebrates’ blood
    • Fleas need Adam; Adam does not need fleas

Here is what they came up with figuratively:

  • the name in the first line establishes context
  • literary allusion: Adam from the Bible, the first man in literature
  • Eve was not mentioned, so the setting may be earlier than Genesis 2:20
  • the tone is casual and comical
  • the mood is humorous
  • Adam has fleas; the fleas don’t have Adam
  • the title is critical to the understanding of the message

Unanswered questions they had on the poem:

  • Could there have ever been just one flea?
  • Does Adam bathe?
  • Is the past tense verb “had” mean that he has cleaned up his act?

adam

Their conclusion?

  • Close reading three words yields a fun discussion;
  • Concise poetry captures the relationship between ancient man and an ancient insect pest.

Fleas– the world’s shortest poem!

Connecticut had an average of over nine inches of rain this June, a mixed blessing. The cool temperatures and constant downpours had a direct impact on the dress code, and the beach attire favored by high school females (and appreciated by young high school males) was not a distraction. Furthermore, the temperatures in the classroom were cool, and the dark skies meant that lighting in the classroom was ideal for showing films to wrap up the year.

The weather, however, did dampen opportunities to teach one of my favorite poems by William Wordsworth, The Tables Turned. The poem is a plea to the reader to throw down the books with poems that try to capture nature, the art that mimics nature, or the science that tries to explain nature:

The Tables Turned

AN EVENING SCENE ON THE SAME SUBJECT (1798)

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

When I teach the poem, I do what is now called “close reading”, a strategy favored by the Common Core State Standards, by having students pay attention to particular images, text structure, and word choice in order to determine an author’s purpose. The process can be a bit tedious, but in this case, I want them to feel a little hostile about “dissecting” the poem.

“What does the poem mean?” I will press them, “What is Wordworth’s purpose?”

“Nature is good?”  (Maybe)

“Poems can make us appreciate nature?” (Perhaps)

“We cannot capture Nature in books?” (Possibly)

“We should ditch our books and go outside?” Absolutely! 

And to the delight of everyone, I instruct my students to close up their books and go outside so that we can “let Nature be your Teacher”. That is the entire lesson. A poem, an analysis, and a trip outdoors that obeys the author’s intent.

Hopefully, next June will give us the day when the  “sun above the mountain’s head/A freshening lustre mellow” lets us upend the tables and go outside to engage with Nature in order to “watch and receive” and leave close reading overturned.

Here is an educational policy riddle: How much background knowledge does a student need to read a historical text?

According to New York Engage website: None.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are being implemented state by state, and there is an emphasis from teaching students background knowledge to teaching students skills, specifically the skill of close reading.

The pedegogy is explained by The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC):

Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (PARCC, 2011)

There are many lessons that strongly advocate the use of close reading in teaching historical texts on the EngageNY.com website, including a set of exemplar lessons for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address promoted by CCSS contributor and now College Board President, David Coleman. The lesson’s introduction states:

The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading–that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.

Photo of Lincoln delivering Gettysburg Address- (www.wikipedia.org)

Photo of Lincoln delivering
Gettysburg Address- (www.wikipedia.org)

The lesson plan is organized in three sections. In the first, students are handed a copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and perform several “cold” readings, to themselves and then with the class.

Lesson Plan SECTION 1 What’s at stake: a nation as a place and as an idea

Students silently read, then the teacher reads aloud the text of the Gettysburg Address while students follow along.

  • Students translate into their own words the first and second paragraph. 
  • Students answer guiding questions regarding the first two paragraphs

Please note, there is no mention of any historical context for the speech. Students will come to this 273-word speech without the background knowledge that the Battle of Gettysburg was fought from July 1 to July 3, 1863, and this battle is considered the most important engagement of the American Civil War. They will not know that the battle resulted in “Union casualties of 23,000, while the Confederates had lost some 28,000 men–more than a third of Lee’s army” (History.com). They will not know how the Army of Northern Virginia achieved an apex into Union territory with “Pickett’s Charge,” a failed attempt by General George Pickett  to break through the Union line in South Central Pennsylvania, and that the charge resulted in the death of thousands of rebel soldiers. They will not know how the newly appointed Major General George Gordon Meade of the Army of the Potomac met the challenges of General Robert E. Lee by ordering responses to skirmishes on Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, and in the Devil’s Den. They will not know that Meade would then be replaced by General Ulysses S. Grant in part because Meade did not pursue Lee’s troops in their retreat to Virginia.

Instead of referencing any of this historical background, the guding questions in the lesson’s outline imagine the students as blank slates and mention another historical event:

A. When was “four score and seven years ago”? B. What important thing happened in 1776?

The guiding responses for teachers seem to begrudge an acknowledgement that keeping students bound to the four corners of a text is impossible, and that, yes, a little prior knowledge of history is helpful when reading a historical text:

This question, of course, goes beyond the text to explore students’ prior knowledge and associations. Students may or may not know that the Declaration of Independence was issued in 1776, but they will likely know it is a very important date – one that they themselves have heard before. Something very important happened on that date.  It’s OK to mention the Declaration, but the next step is to discover what students can infer about 1776 from Lincoln’s own words now in front of them.

In addition, there are admonishments in Appendix A of the lesson not to ask questions such as, “Why did the North fight the civil war?”

Answering these sorts of questions require students to go outside the text, and indeed in this particular instance asking them these questions actually undermine what Lincoln is trying to say. Lincoln nowhere in the Gettysburg Address distinguishes between the North and South (or northern versus southern soldiers for that matter). Answering such questions take the student away from the actual point Lincoln is making in the text of the speech regarding equality and self-government.

The lesson plan continues:

Lesson Plan SECTION 2  From funeral to new birth

  • Students are re-acquainted with the first two paragraphs of the speech.
  • Students translate the third and final paragraph into their own words.
  • Students answer guiding questions regarding the third paragraph of the Gettysburg Address.

Please note this does not provide the context of the speech that was given that crisp morning of November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the National Cemetery on a damp battlefield that only months before had been dampened red with the blood of tens of thousands of soldiers from either side. The students would be unaware that Lincoln had taken the train from Washington the day before and was feeling slightly feverish on the day of the speech. There is some speculation that he may have been suffering from the early stages of smallpox when he delivered the speech reading from a single piece of paper in a high clear voice. The students would not know that Lincoln’s scheduled time at the podium followed a two hour (memorized) speech by Edward Everett, who later wrote to Lincoln stating, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” The students would not know that many of the 15,000 crowd members did not hear Lincoln’s two minute speech; the 10 sentences were over before many audience members realized Lincoln had been speaking. The students would not know that this speech marked Lincoln’s first public statement about principles of equality, and they would not know that he considered the speech to be a failure.

Lesson Plan SECTION 3  Dedication as national identity and personal devotion

  • Students trace the accumulated meaning of the word “dedicate” through the text
  • Students write a brief essay on the structure of Lincoln’s argument

The lesson provides links to the five handwritten copies of the text, in the “Additional ELA Task #1: Comparison of the drafts of the speech” so that students can see drafts of the speech and the inclusion of “under God” in the latter three versions. There is also an additional Social Studies task that incorporates the position of respected historian Gary Wills from his book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Worlds that Remade America. This activity suggests students use excerpts from Wills’s book and an editorial from the Chicago Times (November 23, 1863) to debate “Lincoln’s reading of the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution”. One excerpt from Wills’s book includes the statement,”The stakes of the three days’ butchery are made intellectual, with abstract truths being vindicated.” Finally, here is information about the battle itself; the battle lasted three days and soldiers died.

The enterprise of reading the Gettysburg Address without context defeats PARRC’s stated objective of having the students “arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole”. The irony is that in forwarding their own interpretation of the speech, David Coleman and the lesson plan developers have missed Lincoln’s purpose entirely; Lincoln directs the audience to forget the words of the speech, but never to forget the sacrifices made by the soldiers during that brutal conflict:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Lincoln wrote and delivered the Gettysburg Address to remind his audience “that these dead shall not have died in vain”. Analyzing the language of the address isolated from the Civil War context that created the tone and message is a hollow academic exercise. Instead, students must be taught the historical context so that they fully understand Lincoln’s purpose in praising those who, “gave the last full measure of devotion.”

“It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

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