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Narrative Structure and Perspectives in Toni Morrison's Beloved
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This lesson invites students to investigate the values implied by narrative choices in a complex text. Students first respond to the complicated narrative structure of Toni Morrison's Beloved by visually representing the novel's non-linear organization. The different student representations of Book 1 (ranging from the symbolic to the chronological to the abstract) then give rise to a discussion on the centering and marginalizing of details from the text—both in literal and figurative senses. Next, students are guided through close readings of the three different accounts of the infanticide that Sethe commits, with the goal of making evident the ways in which identity and bias shape how characters, authors, and readers see and choose to represent the world. The ideas of this lesson can be adapted and applied to complex works by other authors, such as William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Barbara Kingsolver.
From Theory to Practice
In "A Hot Thing: Working on Toni Morrison's Beloved," Raymond Pultinas says of reading Beloved with high school students: "It is hard work: she expects us readers to work, to collaborate with the texts, and this entails teaching students about what work is when you read-or, rather, what kinds of work are possible with a book, a book that you can still dig" (60). In With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students, Carol Jago offers several suggestions for guiding students through texts of such difficulty. When texts are structurally challenging, she observes that it is "unrealistic to assume that [most students] can be assigned [such works] ... and figure out the structure for themselves. ... If [teachers] don't offer up some guidance-a kind of reader's map-too many give up" (40).
Part of providing that "reader's map," Jago asserts, is to provide instruction in close reading-to "take time in class to show students how to examine a text in minute detail: word by word, sentence by sentence" (54). This lesson, which moves from response to analysis of story structure to close reading and back again to response, heeds Jago's call for teachers to "go beyond encouraging responses from student readers to push them to understand exactly what the author has done with words and sentences, syntax, and diction that elicited such a response" (56).
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
Materials and Technology
- Teaching Racially Sensitive Literature: A Teacher's Guide (optional)
- Large sheets of paper and markers (or access to Internet-based computers with printing capability or magazines, scissors, glue/tape)
- A class set of Toni Morrison's Beloved (Vintage, 2004)
- Overheads of passages for modeling close reading
- (Optional) Additional support activity on perspective and narration
- Prior to Session One, students need to have read Book 1 of Beloved. Read the "Teaching Racially Sensitive Literature: A Teacher's Guide" and decide which activities or approaches would be appropriate for Beloved and the students who will be reading it.
- Acquire enough large pieces of paper (3' x 3') and class sets of markers (or other art supplies/Internet access) for the number of groups you will have in class.
- View this sample student representation to get a sense of how students might respond to the task. In this example, students organized key events and scenes around the physical and symbolic image of water.
- Between Sessions One and Two, mount student work on the walls for the gallery walk.
- Test the 3-Circle Venn Diagram for Beloved on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the Technical Support page.
- Prepare overheads of the selected passages for close reading (see Teacher's Guide to Passages from Beloved for a list of passages).
- If you are unfamiliar with the terminology and processes associated with close reading of text, consult Close Reading of a Literary Text.
- represent a section of the novel visually, using an organizational method of their choice.
- present and discuss their visual interpretations.
- analyze three connected sections of the novel, focusing on the relationships between language and meaning.
- synthesize their understanding of the three sections in a brief written response.
Session One: Representing Book One of <em>Beloved</em> through Images
- Begin the session by asking students to share their initial reactions to the complex structure of Book 1. This can be done either verbally or as a quick-write in the first few minutes of class.
- On the chalkboard or overhead, record students' observations on how the story is told. Students typically note that the plot shifts quickly between past and present; the author frequently uses what seem to be "digressions" from the main storyline; and they, as a result, feel a sense of confusion.
- Take this opportunity to share with students an excerpt from the forward to Beloved, in which Morrison states:
I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book's population—just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense. (xviii)
- Use Morrison's statement of intent to assure students that their sense of confusion is both purposeful and correctable through the activities in this lesson.
- Inform students that their first task for responding to Book 1 will be to give the text a sense of organization by representing the key events of Book 1 solely through images. Emphasize to the students that the objective here is not to produce "works of art," but instead to review major events and the means by which Morrison organizes them. Because the success of this activity stems from the generation and exploration of the variety of means of representing Book 1, teachers should resist the urge to provide examples or instructions with too much detail.
- Give students time to begin the process of re-representing by asking them to form groups and distributing paper and markers. (Alternatively, for the sake of time and student ease, students may represent the main events of Book 1 through found images on the Web or in magazines).
- Students should refer to their texts as necessary, but direct quotations or citations are not necessary for this activity.
- Confer with each group as it prepares its representation. If students seem to be having trouble, guide them by suggesting that their representations can focus on the literal, the abstract, the figurative/symbolic, the chronology, or a pivotal scene.
- Students need to complete the representation by the end of the session for presentation and discussion in the next session.
Session Two: A Gallery Walk
- Prior to the session, display the different groups' posters on the walls of the classroom.
- Begin the session by providing students the Gallery Walk Focus Questions. Go over the questions with students to establish expectations for the activity.
- As groups view each other's depictions of Book 1, students should use the Focus Questions to compare what has been emphasized and what has been omitted between their own posters and those of their classmates.
- After students have had time to complete the gallery walk of their classmates' work, have them return to their seats for presentations.
- Ask for a group to volunteer to share its poster to the class first. The group should explain the rationale behind artistic decisions and answer questions from the other groups.
- As part of the presentation process, the teacher should facilitate discussion, emphasizing differences among the various posters and asking why each group prioritized certain events at the expense of omitting others. In preparation for Session Three, the teacher should pay special attention to the representation (or perhaps even omission in some instances) of the infanticide that Sethe commits.
- Have the other groups present until every group has had a turn.
- Close the session by thanking students for their work.
- Ask students to prepare for a discussion of the infanticide in the next session by reviewing the three representations from the text (Schoolteacher's is found on pages 175-177; Stamp Paid's, 183-185; Sethe's, 192-193).
Session Three: Subjectivity and Representation in <em>Beloved</em>
Suggestion for differentiation: If you feel students may not be ready for the level of abstract thinking required for the activity in Session Three, consider engaging students in this additional activity that approaches the same concept from a more concrete perspective.
- After reviewing the discussion from the previous session on ways in which values and priorities shape how a story is represented, tell students they will be looking closely at the three different depictions of the infanticide Sethe commits (Schoolteacher's, Stamp Paid's, and Sethe's own account).
- Place an overhead of Schoolteacher's depiction on the projector and model a close reading. If students are already well-versed at close reading, serve as facilitator. Use the Teacher's Guide to Passages from Beloved to focus the elements of language you call to students' attention.
- Beyond paying close attention to the author's stylistic decisions in each passage, you will also want to ask the class why each character views the scene the way he or she does. Specifically, ask what preconceived biases does the description reaffirm? (Schoolteacher sees dehumanization; Stamp Paid sees culpability; Sethe sees an act of love. See the Teacher's Guide to Passages from Beloved for additional details.)
- Assign pairs of students to engage in a close reading of one of the other two passages. Students should be encouraged to annotate the text as they perform their close readings.
- Each pair should be teamed with a pair that performed a close reading of the other passage to form a group of four students who have analyzed both sections of text. Instruct each pair to take notes on their groupmates' close readings.
- Using the 3-Circle Venn Diagram for Beloved, allow students to compare and contrast elements of language such as detail, word choice, figurative language, and so forth, as they contribute to tone and overall representations in the three excerpts. Have the students print four copies of their finished diagram.
- As homework for the next session, have students write paragraph responses to connect values and identity with the ways in which a narrator recounts an event.
- Students are often interested in exploring the historical basis for Sethe's character—Margaret Garner. Historical texts provide a similar opportunity to compare the different ways Garner was viewed by her contemporaries—a modern day Medea, a cause celebre for the abolitionist movement, or a criminal guilty of destruction of her owner's property.
- The ideas in this assignment are rich enough to merit extension into a longer paper at the conclusion of the novel.
- Apply similar close reading techniques to the two scenes in which Sethe leaves her home to face the community—the first after killing her daughter, the second after the ghost leaves.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Observe students as they work in groups to represent Book 1. Provide guidance to those that seem to need additional support.
- Use the Written Assignment Rubric to provide feedback to students regarding their written responses.
- Use these Reflection Questions to encourage students, either in class discussion or in writing, to reflect on how the activities in this lesson helped build confidence out of their initial confusion.
Thank you so much!
Thank you so much!
Thank you so much!