Although our quarter-block schedule disrupted much of my best work with junior and senior high school English courses, it did afford me the opportunity to refine the units and learning tasks as I taught them a second time each semester. I’ve found that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and several other resources connect well to concerns about culture, justice, and humanitarian aid in the modern world, inviting a host of questions that left my students more thoughtful about complex issues.
Even though Things Fall Apart technically rates via Lexile levels as a novel for grade ranges from six to eight, the critical questions, related resources, and learning tasks that a teacher brings to the text can more than suffice for grades eleven or twelve.
One part of enriching the complexity Things Fall Apart involves reading it in comparison to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and then setting both works into critical dialogue with Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.'” My students enjoyed the intensity of Achebe’s critique of Joseph Conrad’s colonialism and approach to the novella. Although my sample size has been relatively small over the years of engaging in these pairings, I have found that students who read Conrad first tend to question some of the criticisms that Achebe levels against him and Heart of Darkness. However, students who read Achebe first and then Conrad, as we did this quarter, seem to side wholly with Achebe.
In my initial version of this post, I had left out the rich connections readers can explore with William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” connections that also work well with Achebe’s rich and imaginative synthesis between the best of western canonical literature and his critical realism about the modern world and his close considerations of the proper role of Nigerian culture and history in that world.
An additional treat for the class involved watching and discussing a segment from the New York State Writers Institute’s interview with Achebe: “Nigerian Author Chinua Achebe in 1998.” Although Achebe starts the segment discussing how he’s seen as a troublemaker, most students were impressed and surprised by his gentle discussion approach, which seemed in stark contrast to his essay on Conrad. Achebe basically explains that he’s seen as a troublemaker because he looks closer and more realistically at the conditions of the Nigerian people and their rich, complex cultural experiences. While listening to Chinua Achebe thoughtfully discuss topics such as “Who is an African?” I often wish that he were alive today to help us discuss our deepest concerns about conflicts concerning race, ethnicity, culture, identity, and ethics.
Speaking of troublemaking, I also have students watch, discuss, and reflect upon Nigherian American author Luvvie Ajayi Jones” 2017 TEDWomen talk on “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. She begins her talk by referring to herself as a troublemaker, and I can’t help but think she’s connecting with the style and legacy of Achebe’s version of troublemaking. Indeed, Luvvie Ajayi Jones engages in looking more closely at several areas of injustice while also sharing several inspirational themes concerning risk taking and becoming a better person. The sidetrack for my own reading was following trails to other important Nigerian authors for further reading, yielding one delightful page from Culture Trip on “From Achebe To Adichie: Top Ten Nigerian Authors.“
In my fourth-quarter return to the unit, I was thinking over the problem of blind spots in our personal, cultural, and global topics–something my social studies colleague Ryan and I had been discussing quite a bit in the second part of the year. In light of that goal, I had layered in some exercises through the quarter with the OpenMind organization (with its “Evidence-based tools to foster empathy and mutual understanding across differences”). I also brought in Poverty, Inc. as a brief concluding study of how well-intentioned humanitarian aid to other countries can have unintended negative consequences.
Poverty, Inc. worked well in conjunction with how many students were studying economic concepts in their government/econ course. As is often the case, they suspected that I was conspiring directly with their social studies teacher. Based on a related study guide, I had a hardy list of relevant concepts for students to consider as part of the reflective pre- and post-viewing work, including terms such as agricultural foreign aid subsidies, colonialism, Haitian entrepreneur, rule of law, paternalism, the Marshall Plan, and social entrepreneurship. Here at the end of the quarter, and the end of the senior year, many students were putting together thoughtful understandings of global challenges. All of which, I appreciated because I have too often found students apathetic or just oblivious to such concerns.
For me, I also found my own widely varied educational experiences coalescing in this final quarter. I once was an animal science student taking ag science and economic courses at Colorado State University. I met a professor or two who helped me understand the complexities of international agriculture. At that same university, after several years, I found myself moving into a liberal arts emphasis, switching to an English major and tutoring students from other countries as part of an international student organization. Some of my liberal arts courses explored cultural and world diversity, with glimpses of different ways of life than I had grown up in.
Looking back, I sometimes wonder whether I should have focused my life a bit more at the time, but I think these last few weeks have shown some ways that very diverse considerations of knowledge and ethics can have a surprisingly powerful way of coming together.