Monday, April 23, 2012

How to Teach The Old Man and the Sea to 7th Graders

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 teach two sets of 7th grade English to GATE students this year, so when I found a partial class set of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea in the back of the book room, I thought why not give it a go.  See what happens.   What follows is my advice for anyone considering using The Old Man and the Sea with 7th grade students.  

Stress how they are acting like real college students, reading and discussing a college level book.  Stress how reading it now will give them an advantage over other students in high school and college.

Mean it.

It's true.

Read the book aloud to them.  Tell them this is because there are not enough copies for everyone to take the book home, which was true for me.  Don't let them take turns reading it until at least halfway through and then only if they beg.  The Old Man and the Sea looks easy to read, but you're still a better reader than they are, and they know it and appreciate it.

Always stop for the day at a key point in the story.  If no one goes "Awww" when you stop for the day, you're not at a key point.  

Read no more than 15 minutes a day.  This will mean you'll have to read the book for 8 or 9 days, that fish takes a long time to die, but too much time on any given day dealing with the details of how to fish and you'll lose the students.  Explain to the students that whenever Hemingway writes about how to fish, he is really writing about how to write.  

Don't assign nightly homework activities.  They do not have these in college.  They just read and discuss in college.  And they write two papers.

Be brave and present as many high level interpretations to the students as you can.  My students we able to understand them all and to come up with a few interesting ones of their own.   When I told them some professors read the fish as a work of art and Santiago as an artist, they knew right away that the sharks were critics.  When I told them some professors see the fish as a mythical creature, they made all sorts of connections linking Santiago to Heracles performing his labors, his harpoon to the spear Odysseus used to blind the cyclops,  the strange creatures Santiago meets like the flying fish and the Portuguese Man-o-war with the fantastic creatures in Greek myths.  One came up with Scylla and Charbidis on his own.  When we talked about how some professors see the fish as Santiago himself, they remembered the times he called the fish brother and were able to figure out that the fish stood for Santiago when he was young and strong and that the sharks stood for all the hard times Santiago faced in his life.  They even got the Christ figure references in the end once I stopped and re-read them.  The idea that was new to me that they came up with was that if the fish is a great work of art, Santiago is an art thief who ends up destroying the artwork he worked so hard to get.  I'm still thinking about that one.

Don't give them a big project or essay to do at the end.  Just a quick worksheet with a serious set of questions, all college level but not so involved that they need write more than one page to answer them.  

Be sure you're working with a high-level group of motivated students.  I'm not sure any of this would fly with a regular class though I'd love to hear from you if you've tried it.   My district is phasing out the GATE English classes in the middle schools starting next fall, so  Hemingway's days may be numbered.  

But it sure was cool.


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Excellent advice. And very timely for me. I'm giving out copies of Because of Winn-Dixie for World Book Night and I've decided to hand them out to choice second graders (no books at home; not totally committed to reading) at my school. My plan is to do a little book study with them, much as you have outlined here, with me reading aloud and stopping at tense moments.

We'll see how it goes.

Jim Randolph said...

I would have loved your class! We had a 9th grade teacher who rotated doing something similar with The Old Man and the Sea and The Pearl. I was in The Pearl rotation. I liked it because I'd already been a reader, but he did kinda what you're doing and showed us how to take the book apart and find different meanings. Probably part of the reason I went on to become a lit. major in college.

Alyce said...

That sounds fantastic! I still remember the first time I read Old Man and the Sea. It was in high school, but it was quite a memorable book. I'm curious to see what my son's middle school programs will be next year. Oregon school struggle with funding, so availability of advanced classes is ever-changing. His current fifth grade teacher is awesome. She put together a reading club within the class for the advanced readers and had them discussing deeper meaning and symbolism in the stories.

Serena said...

I think that more schools need to do these kinds of discussions with students. Students are smarter than we give them credit for.

Bellezza said...

Or, you could just read them a different Hemingway. Kidding! I love him so much, but The Old Man in The Sea, when I was in high school, was like watching paint dry. I think you are brilliant to read it out loud as you did, and to have lots of discussion. They must be involved when there's not much to relate to as a seventeen year old. At least I didn't have a lot that understood old men then.

Chrisbookarama said...

I wish you had been my teacher. We did this one in 10th grade and it was torturous. I'm not a huge Hemingway fan though.

Thomas at My Porch said...

I want to be in your class. When I first saw the title of your post, I thought about how much I would have hated the book if I had had to read it in junior high...or high school...or even college. I loved it when I read it a few years ago, but when I was younger I would have been bored by it. The fishing element alone would have turned off my young gay self. But the way you describe teaching it makes me think the young me might have gotten hooked nonetheless. (pun intended)

C.B. James said...

Deb, Best of luck with Winn Dixie. I remember liking that book quite a bit.

Jim, I seldom ever find out what my former students do in college. I did produce one theater major after a class production of MacBeth.

Alyce, I may lose my advanced classes next year, myself. At this point they're being cut in half. I' hoping to hold on to at lesat one.

Serena, Many of them are. Many of them aren't. But you should still read great books to them, if you ask me.

Bellezza, I think that problem with the book is a reason why they should read it. Teachers should make their students read books about people they have nothing in common with. That way, maybe we'll find things we have in common.

Chris, I decided to take a chance. I could well have turned out to be torture.

Thomas, I hesitated about doing this for just those reasons. But, in the end, I figured that at least my students would enter the college bookstore and see an author's name they recognized. Even that little leg-up would be worth it.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

People they have nothing in common with? I don't know if that is such a good idea. The Little Professor is going to teach a course title "Relatable Literature": "I guarantee that students will be able to completely identify with all events, characters, and ideas in each and every text."

There is some vague evidence, which I choose to ignore, that Prof. Burstein is joking. I suspect that the implied frustration is not a joke, at least.

Vasilly said...

Great advice! If I didn't already love reading when I was a teen, I would have hated it with all the reading activities I had to do in school. I wish you had my teacher during those years.

I hope you're enjoying your weekend.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

By the way - should have mentioned this previously - great, great post! Submit this one for an award when award season comes around.

christina said...

I'm a little late on responding to this because it had been starred for a "later day". Obviously it seems that later day has come but I'm still holding on to the starred tag because it is inspiring. I love seeing classics taught in such an enjoyable manner to kids. Thanks James.