Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Teaching The Old Man and the Sea by Earnest Hemingway

He was an old man who fished
alone in a skiff in the Gulf
Stream and he had gone
eighty-four days now without
taking a  fish.
Opening to
The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway
I wonder how many teachers use certain novels solely because they happened to find a set of books in their school's book room.  I've been teaching both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and A Midsummer Night's Dream for just that reason.  Both are classic works that work well, or well-enough, with my 7th graders. 

And I like them, too.

But I didn't really choose them.  They sort of found me.

I'm at a new school this year with a new book room that happened to have a box full of Ernest Hemingway's, The Old Man and the Sea.  I'm always trying to up the ante with my class, I teach two sections of GATE level English/history this year.  My new school has a college focus, so I've been thinking we should be reading more college prep books.  I've no plans to excise S.E. Hinton from the reading list, but I would like to add a title or two that would better prepare my students for both high school and college.

Enter 26 battered copies of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. 

By the time I finished my Bacherlor of Arts Degree I'd read The Old Man and the Sea upwards of five times.  It was a favorite of mine even before college, certainly a favorite after  I took the infamous five unit Hemingway class that read his complete works in a single semester.  Loved the book, loved the class, but I haven't read much of Hemingway afterwards.  It would all be re-reading for me.

I had a few reasons to hesitate before using The Old Man and the Sea with my 7th graders.  Just how sad is the book.   We stopped using John Steinbeck's The Pearl a few years ago because it just left us all so depressed.  How would Santiago's story compare?   We've had a long run of novels with male lead characters this year, Santiago will make four in a row.  Because my students do so much free reading and read so many books with their small book clubs, that's not a big problem, but it's a problem.   Is the writing something the kids will be able to access and to enjoy?  Just how much of a fish story is it? 

So, I re-read the book the Saturday before mid-winter break, and I loved it.  It's a marvel of economy, rich with imagery and with possibilty.  The story of Santiago's struggle to bring in one last big catch can be interpreted to fit the bill for any particular reader.  I tend to read Santiago as Hemingway describing what it's like for him to try and create his art, but it could be anyone who ever tried to do something great.  Almost 30 years since the last time I read it, The Old Man and the Sea still moves me.   And the writing still knocks my socks off.  But what will my students make of the fish?

I'd really like to find out.  I've a few ideas.  They will probably pick up on how the fish represents Santiago's dreams.  They may find it represents Santiago's own life.  I think both of those are correct interpretations, so I won't push my own on them.  They're likely to encounter this book again at some point.  When they do, they'll find more in it, just like I did. 

I would have sworn that Santiago died in the end.  I was sure of it.  But it's not so.  He does lose the fish, which is depressing, but he ends up in the care of Manalito who defies his own father to take care of the old man.  Sounds to me like a decent finish for a decent man.  There is no hint of impending death at the end of the novel at all.  My students are likely to create a happy future for Santiago, and there's nothing in the text to imply this is an incorrect interpretation. 

There are no girls in the story, there's no way around that.  But we do have Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and A Midsummer Night's Dream still to go and there are lots of books in my book club library with female protagonists. However, I will probably skip The Call of the Wild this year.

As for the writing--there is a lot about fishing, no way around it.  My plan is to read the book to the class, a chunk at a time.  I think we can do the whole thing in two weeks; it's just over 100 very quick pages.  Then we can write some parodies.  Hemingway has one of the most identifiable writing styles in the English language.  Even his detractors recognize his handiwork immediately.  This is precisely the sort of background knowledge I'd like to build up in my students.  It's also one that can be lots of fun to make fun of.  You're probably thinking of something right now and that is good and you are doing it in the good place where things are good and you are good.

I know that there is enough in a book like The Old Man and the Sea to occupy a semester, but I'm always a bit afraid of overkill.  I'm sure some students will hate the book.  Even a sure fire hit like The Outsiders has an occasionaly detractor.  We can  read it in two weeks, figure out what the fish really is, write a parody and then move on.  When they next encounter the story, they'll have a leg-up on their classmates, and if it all falls flat, I can tell them that this unit we just finished was my own personal 18 foot fish and they were a bunch of sharks who picked it apart until nothing was left.

We start reading it today. 

Wish me luck.


Amanda said...

I wish I had read this in a high school class. This remains one of my favorite books ever. I read it for the first time in 2001. My cousin had scared me off of it for years, telling me how boring it was, but when I read it, it was the very opposite of boring. I adored it and have since read it several more times. I've been getting the urge ot go back and reread again, so that'll probably happen soon, maybe after Jason and I get back from our Caribbean cruise - might be appropriate then. :D

Jim Randolph said...

The parody idea is brilliant. It works for both the kids that love it and the kids that were less than thrilled with it. And it avoids the whole Wikipedia/Cliff's Notes problem. They have to actually engage with it to do a proper parody. I agree with Kelly Gallager in his slim book Readicide where he says it's still important to teach a few classics and it's not about whether you "like" it or not, it's about engaging with a classic. He does 1984 and says like it or hate it, you'll learn a lot and never think about government the same way again. I think reading it aloud and doing the parody is a great way to do a classic without beating it to death. Have fun

Rob said...

Sounds like your students are lucky to have you!

Trisha said...

Serendipity is a great way to decide what to teach. :)

Emma said...

Wonderful! When I studied in France, I also had to read it when I was in 6th or 7th grade, I think also 7th grade, and I enjoyed it. The only funny thing is that I didn't remember it being presented as written by an American writer, and it's only later that I realized Hemingway was not French... shame

Gavin said...

James, I think you've made a brilliant choice and now I want to read The Old Man and The Sea again. Can't wait to hear what your students think of it. You will tell us, won't you?

Lu @ Regular Rumination said...

I've never read Hemingway, but that is probably something I should change soon. I hope you'll keep us updated on how your class likes it and how they do.