This will be the first unit of the new school year in a freshman, co-taught classroom. The student to staff ratio from year to year in this class is approximately 13:1. Students in this class present a range of reading and writing abilities as well as learning disabilities that complicate their interactions with course content. Approximately ⅓-½ of the class receives special education services for learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, or other health impairments. This is the only general education course with special education support in the English curriculum. Some skills, such as independent reading, still need to be developed by many of the students in this class. Their grade levels range from 9-12, but they are predominantly freshmen. Students in this district are 95% white. 11.5% of students in this school receive special education services. 13% are from low income homes. The school has a 93% graduation rate as of 2018 (“FREEBURG CHSD 77”).
Introduction to Content:
The major focus of this unit will be the exploration of the themes of racism, poverty, and identity found in Sherman Alexie’s novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This unit will encourage students to examine the issues presented by the main character’s journey from a poverty stricken, dysfunctional Indian reservation to a school in a wealthy, seemingly ideal white community beyond the reservation gates. Throughout the novel the main character, Junior, moves between these two worlds and ultimately learns that there is much to appreciate about himself and each of the communities he inhabits. He also deals with addiction, heartbreak, loss, death, and other issues that impact young people.
The text presents a wealth of opportunities for students to connect with the novel’s themes in unique ways. Freshmen students in this district find themselves in a new school for the first time in many years — most attend the same school from 4th-8th grade. Additionally, this high school combines students from six fairly distinct communities. Some students live in severe poverty, while others are well off; however, compared to the whole school poverty has been overrepresented in this class most years. Eric Jensen, writing in Education Leadership, cites previous studies showing “low socioeconomic status and the accompanying financial hardships are correlated with depressive symptoms” that may lead to poor motivation and performance in the classroom (Jensen). Several of the communities are small towns, while others are villages with no more than a single stop sign. Many students live in rural areas with little daily interaction with the surrounding communities. Very few students have frequent interactions with people from a background other than theirs. Approximately one half of students in this class each year are special education students. Several will take this class as their first class outside of a special education environment. Junior’s journey has parallels to their path from a special education class to their first general education class. These aspects of student demographics offer an abundance of opportunities for students to engage with this text at a meaningful level. Even students who are more like the well-off students in Reardan, Junior’s new school, the novel will provide them with an idea about the challenges their classmates are facing.
The themes and plot of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are relevant to these students for several reasons. First, the themes of this novel expose universal truths about the experiences of being a teenager including alienation, finding a peer group, embracing new challenges, and other aspects of growing up. Although Junior is Native American his experience will be familiar to students from all backgrounds. Additionally, plot includes episodes dealing with issues related to family, friends new and old, sports, romance, heartbreak, and other events that are familiar to high school students. Finally, the author’s background as an Indian, a survivor of abuse and alcoholism, and growing up with a disability give students insight into the lives of individuals facing these challenges. Perhaps most importantly, the theme of racism is a hot button issue. While much of the discussion about racism involves white, black, and brown communities’ interactions with each other, the Native American experience is often forgotten. Through gaining an understanding of the characteristics and impact of racism in the specific context of whites and Indians as in the novel, broader understanding of how racism manifests and impacts minority groups can be extrapolated and applied to other non-white groups. When reading Alexie’s Indian Killer after reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I wondered how the former have been received if the racial issues of Indian Killer involved blacks and whites. It seems to me that using Indians makes the subject less contentious and easier for white readers to engage. The history of white oppression of Indians seems less contentious than the oppression of African-Americans. One aim of this unit is that sympathy for Junior could be applied to members of other minority groups. Also of note are the recent allegations of sexual harassment and professional misconduct against Alexie. It is worthwhile to examine the challenges of engaging with this text in light of these revelations. It is also important that teenagers understand that such power dynamics as described in the allegations against the author are inappropriate.
The following Common Core learning standards will be addressed daily. Beneath each standard is a description of the learning activities that will meet those standards/objectives.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.1 – Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Daily study questions will be used to promote in-depth comprehension of the text. Example questions include:
- What stereotypes have you heard about Native Americans?
- Did Junior’s make the right choice about the family dog? Explain your answer.
- Why does alcohol play such an important role in life on the reservation?
- How is Rowdy’s name also descriptive of his personality?
Classroom discussions will check for understanding and expand upon the ideas generated by students in their individual assignments. Students will be expected to cite explicit textual evidence to justify their responses.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.”
Students will periodically reflect on the development of the novel’s major themes of poverty, racism, and identity. Students will be provided with a plot diagram to trace the development of the plot and prepare for their summary.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
Students will write arguments periodic writing activities. They will be expected to cite textual evidence to support their ideas.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.6 – Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.
To help students understand the author’s point of view, especially about white characters in the novel, the historical background of the Spokane Indians will be provided. As the unit progresses, students will analyze other works of Alexie as well as those by female Indian writers. These materials will be used to gain an understanding of the despair felt by many Indians, the dysfunctional family lives of Indians, and how these two phenomena can lead to addiction and abusive relationships.
Pedagogical practices for this unit are grounded in what Sheridan Blau, writing in the Literature Workshop and paraphrasing the earlier research of Robert Scholes describes as, “reading, interpretation, and criticism” (Blau 51). These practices will require a daily combination of writing, speaking, and of course, reading. Due to the suggested age and reading level of the book, very little scaffolding should be needed. Audio, screen readers, and other assistive technology will be provided for students as required by their Individualized Education Plans.
Nightly reading assignments will be comprised of a small reading selection from the text with several study questions to develop comprehension. During class the next day, students will work in groups of 2-3 to refine their answers and share their interpretations with the whole class. These interpretations will raise additional questions from the teacher and other students to deepen understanding of the novel’s themes. As Blau argues in the Literature Workshop,
“Reading is, and needs to be in classrooms, a social process completed in conversation. Students will learn literature best and find many of their best opportunities for learning to become more competent, more intellectually productive and more autonomous readers of literature through frequent work in groups with peers” (Blau 54).
Working in small groups who will share their answers out of the whole class allows for more individual participation and should in turn promote wider understanding of content.
At critical portions of the novel supplementary materials such as poems, author interviews, poems, and news reports will be used to deepen understanding of the events of the novel. Supplementary reading materials for this unit were selected to give context to the story, address criticisms of the book, and consider the merits of the author and his works considering the allegations mentioned earlier. Close reading activities including re-reading and direct instruction by the instructor will be used to develop understandings for interpretation and criticism. These approaches have been shown to develop comprehension for struggling students. Blau, for example, argues “rereading is the most powerful strategy available to all readers for helping themselves read more profitably, especially when they are reading difficult texts (Blau 142).” Together, these approaches should develop high levels of comprehension of the plot and themes of the novel.
Writing will be heavily emphasized throughout the unit in the form of nightly comprehension assignments, periodic reflections, a novel summary, and a culminating essay on the themes and events of the novel. This practice reflects the widely held belief by humanities teachers that “the only knowledge you truly possess is knowledge you have somehow made (Blau 151). Writing assignments allow literature students to create knowledge. These assignments will allow students to create knowledge based on what they have read. It will also allow them to refine their thoughts before sharing them with their peers.
While nightly comprehension questions are a rote exercise the reflection activities, commonly called journaling, require some explanation. While some teachers and students might prefer journals as a free mode of expression guided only by student interest, journals for this unit will be used as a log for students “to record the questions, confusion, and difficulties they experience in reading… so that these problems can be addressed in class” (Blau 154). Expectations for journaling will be taught by anonymously comparing student responses after the first writing assignment is given. This practice combined with additional classroom management techniques should foster high quality responses from most if not all students.
At the end of the unit students will complete two writing assignments: a plot summary and a critical analysis of a theme or character from the novel. To complete the summary, students will complete a plot diagram using a handout I will provide them. The diagram will be completed during periodic review activities in class to ensure students have the basic sequence of events on their diagram. The culminating writing assignment is a four-paragraph character/theme analysis. Due to the timing of this unit and student readiness a character analysis essay will be challenging, if not impossible. Students have presented such a varied degree of writing skills over the course of my four years teaching this class as the special education teacher I cannot say for certain if this assignment is possible without extending the unit by several weeks. Given that essay writing is such a critical skill I am reluctant to close the door on the possibility until seeing students’ work in the first few weeks of the unit. At the very least, I would like to use the essay as a diagnostic tool for assessing growth over the course of the year.
Having assigned this book for several years as an independent reading opportunity with great results, I expect student motivation to be high. For starters, the story begins with the protagonist describing birth defects that created lifelong challenges for him. The author’s description is equally sad and funny, and readers quickly become invested in Junior’s story. Additionally, the plot mostly centers on Junior leaving the reservation to attend a new high school. For many students in this class they are in the middle of a similar journey. Over the course of the novel, Junior deals with being an outsider, misunderstood, threatened by peers, abandoned by peers, confused by romance, traumatized by deaths in the family and celebrated for academic and athletic achievements. This all occurs at a pretty fast pace and is told with humor and authentic language that has shown to engage even the most apathetic of readers.
Students will complete formative assessments through comprehension quizzes created from their study questions. Students will create a 200-word written summary using their plot diagram at the conclusion of the novel. Summaries will be expected to display appropriate grammar and basic writing skills. They will also need to identify and describe each part of the plot clearly, describe the main conflict of the novel, and discuss at least one theme. This writing exercise will provide a helpful review for their unit comprehension test and prime them for their character/theme analysis essay. Additional summative assessments will include a unit comprehension test and a character/theme analysis essay.
Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Little, Brown, and Company, 2007.
Alexie, Sherman. “Why the Best Children’s Books are Written in Blood.” The Wall Street Journal, 9 June 2011, blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/06/09/why-the-best-kids-books-are-written-in-blood/. Accessed 10 June 2019.
Alexie, Sherman. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir. 1st ed., Little, Brown, and Company, 2017.
Associated Press. “Sherman Alexie Apologizes Amind Allegations of Sexual Misconduct – PBS
English Language Arts Standards>> Reading: Literature> Grade 9-10 | Common Core State Standards Initiative, Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2019, http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/RL/9-10/. Accessed 9 July 2019.
Newshour.” Sherman Alexie Apologizes Amind Allegations of Sexual Misconduct, Newshour Productions LLC, 20 June 2019, www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/sherman-alexie-apologizes-amid-allegations-of-sexual-misconduct. Accessed 20 June 2019.
Berman, Matt. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian Book Review, Common Sense Media, 20 June 2019, www.commonsensemedia.org/book-reviews/the-absolutely-true-diary-of-a-part-time-indian. Accessed 20 June 2019.
Blau, Sheridan. The Literature Workshop. Heinemann, 2003.
Burke, Jim. The English Teacher’s Companion. 4th ed., Heinemann, 2010.
Gross, Terri. “Sherman Alexie Says He’s Been the “Indian DuJour” for a “Very Long Day”” National Public Radio, 20 June 2017, www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=533653471. Accessed 20 June 2019.
“FREEBURG CHSD77 – District Overview”. Illinois School Report Card. Accessed June 25, 2019
Harjo, Joy. For Keeps – by Joy Harjo | Academy of American Poets, Academy of American Poets, 2013, poets.org/poem/keeps.
Harjo, Joy. Remembering – by Joy Harjo | Academy of American Poets, Academy of American Poets, 1982, https://poets.org/poem/remember-0
Jensen, Eric. “How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement.” Educational Leadership.May 2013 vol. 70, no. 8. Pages 24-30. ASCD. 2013. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educationalleadership/may13/vol70/num08/How-Poverty-Affects-Classroom-Engagement.aspx