Monday, May 10, 2010

A Classic Interview: Amanda and The Color Purple.

Today is the first post of a new feature I am installing on my blog. Last week I asked if anyone was interested in being interviewed for their own guest post here! I was happy to see that I got a great response and with that in mind, I am hoping to make this a weekly feature here on A Literary Odyssey.

One of my goals that I wanted to accomplish by creating and maintaining this blog was to really learn to relate classic novels and literature to teaching. As an English teacher, it can sometimes be hard to make connections between these "old, outdated" pieces of fiction to the modern teenager.

So I was happy to see that my friend Amanda (who I have known for a few years) jumped on this opportunity to talk about an amazing project she did on The Color Purple. So, without further ado, here is her take on The Color Purple and connecting classics to teens!

Your Name: Amanda

Favorite Book of All Time:
Hmmm... Pride and Prejudice is a big one, although I'm very partial to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Looking for Alaska by John Green, and Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

Tell me a little about where you are in your life (career, school, etc):
Right now I'm a senior, going on super-senior, in college. My major is English Education, and I have a creative writing minor and just recently added on an ESL (English as a Second Language) minor. I student teach next spring, and I'm crazy-excited for it, especially since it'll be a nice break from being a waitress at Perkins.

Do you consider yourself to be an avid reader?
Most definitely. I don't usually have a lot of time during the school year, since reading a novel a week per class is typically the norm then, but during breaks and weeks where I finished the book for class early I love to pick up books my friends or favorite authors suggest to read. I've also discovered the joys of audio books, and since I tend to do a lot of driving I get even more reading done :)

Are you and avid reader of the "classics?"
I'll have to give this one a resounding "sort of." Similar to you, Allie, I'm kind of shocked at how little I had to read the "classics" in high school and college. In high school, I mostly took speech/writing classes, and a couple of drama classes, so I didn't read very much, and in college I had to take the basic survey courses because I have to pass my PRAXIS (teacher certification) exam and it'll cover more than I'll have time to read in the next few years even. However, I do try to read some of the "classics" on my own during those joyous breaks from school. Some of them I haven't gotten to yet, but I try to read at least one "classic" for every couple of non-classics I read.

Sometimes books that are called "classics" get a bad rap, why do you think this might be?
I think a lot of people associate the "classics" with one bad high school English class; they feel that the book will be over their head or that whatever their interpretation of it is, it'll be wrong. I think that sucks, and I wish more people could have the ambition and the time to read "classics" outside of school, because literature is what you make of it, and a lot of people don't get that.

If you could recommend one "classic" novel for everyone to read, what would it be and why?
Probably To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It was the first "classic" I read on my own, and I think it did a really great job of teaching me without preaching to me. There are tons of others I could recommend, of course, but if I have to pick one, I think that has to be it.

I understand you just finished teaching the novel, The Color Purple to a group of students online. Can you tell me a little bit about what you did?
Well, for one of my English Ed classes this semester, our class of 21 students was split up into groups of 2 (and one group of 3) to teach the novels The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Meyers, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. All of these novels deal with ideas of race, identity and discrimination in some way.

In pairs, each group taught its novel to students we "borrowed" from two very different, but both very impoverished, schools from around the state of Wisconsin. One school was in a mostly white rural town, while the other was a school in inner-city Milwaukee that was mostly Afri
can-American. Through our online classroom database called Desire 2 Learn (D2L), the students responded to our weekly questions and follow ups about the novel, as well as had discussions amongst themselves about their lives, their interests, and even about the novel.

This went on for 8 weeks before last Friday when the students came here to our campus to spend the day with us, meet each other face-to-face, and give their final projects on their novels. When they were here, they were grouped with
all of the students that had read their book, so there were many different kinds of projects, since there were two different pairs of teachers for each book. It made for a really fun experience.

I just read a bunch of their anonymous feedback forms yesterday, and for the most part their favorite
part of the day was eating in our buffet-style dining center, but a lot of these students used to feel as though they wouldn't be welcome in a college atmosphere, or that they weren't capable of going, and most of them seemed to change their minds through the day. They universally loved meeting the students from the other school and learning how much they really had in common, and even the students who didn't do so well on the online discussions really did a great job with the projects and presentations.

My favorite part was seeing the way these students connected our novel,
The Color Purple, to their own lives, especially the white students and the boys. When I started this project, I was terrified that my boys wouldn't find anything worth enjoying in this book - the main character is abused by every man she comes into contact with for the first half of the novel, and she's a lesbian. Not a whole lot of good role models for the boys. However, they seemed to still really enjoy the book and I'm incredibly grateful for that.

Had you read The Color Purple before? If so, did this experience change your perspective on the book?
I actually hadn't (which shocked most of my classmates, as I have a really pathetic obsession with the color purple - the literal, physical color), but two of the other ladies teaching the book had, and they said it made a huge difference. They had both kind of hated the book before, but really learned to love it now that they were older, and were looking for interesting parts to teach to our students. I loved it, too, but I didn't have a past experience to compare it to.

I noticed that another group in your class had to teach Fallen Angels, which is more of a contemporary YA kind of book than The Color Purple. Do you think your students benefited more from a teaching of a "classic" in place of something more modern?
Yes and no. Yes because it made it really easy for us as teachers to find resources to help them when they were lost, and also because it was something that had a lot of really timeless themes. However, those many wonderful resources were used to plagiarize a couple of final projects (I just graded those today, it hurt to have to give such low grades to students who did so well on the discussions). Also, I do think Fallen Angels has potential to be a "classic" sometime soon. It's worth noting that these students clearly needed help with the subject - one of the students reading Fallen Angels actually commented that Vietnam was "like the first war we were really in."

What did your students think of the book when they were finished? What were parts that were really significant to them?
We got some mixed reviews at the end of the novel. Almost all of the students said they really enjoyed the book, and that it was much more fun to read than the kinds of novels they usually read in English classes. They were also all really excited about the ending, because they weren't expecting anything happy at all to come from this book right from the beginning. However, a couple of them were still a bit iffy about it. The lesbianism in particular seemed to give a few students a hard time, and they tried to explain it away a bit.
I was surprised by how many of them cited the scene where Celie finally stands up for herself to Mr. ____ as their favorite scene, and the scene near the end where they seem to be like friends as their next favorite. I was really excited about the first, because many of these students have been through harder times than I ever have even, and it's good to know that they won't let themselves get walked all over the way Celie did. However, I was surprised by their happiness over the blossoming friendship, because many of them truly despised Mr. ___ for most of the project. Mind you, many of them truly believed that Celie was a slave, and that her Pa sold her to Mr. ___. That took more than a few weeks to remedy.

When I was teaching English, I was always amazed at the insights my students had about what we were reading compared to what I thought!
It is always pretty amazing. One student mentioned that Celie and Shug started being friends because they had both been with the same man, and that girls tend to band together when they have that kind of shared experience. While I've experienced that firsthand, it didn't cross my mind in the slightest. Sometimes, I think it just helps to step out of our academic, grown up minds and remember what things were like when we were teenagers.

Would you like to teach the novel again to a different group of students (perhaps a group that couldn't relate as well)?
I think it would be really helpful to see how other students react to this novel. I couldn't relate as well as some of my students this time, which was almost weird for me. At the same time, I think it'd be really interesting to see the insights a student who has less in common with the main characters could make. I'm always really impressed with the connections my students make.

Since you're a soon-to-be, if not already educator, what do you think the value is of teaching books like The Color Purple in schools today? Are these "older" titles still relevant?
Oh, incredibly relevant. Like I've said, my students found a ton of connections to their own lives, which helped them to connect with each other as well. It's also helpful to teach this novel, and other "classics," to show students that the pains, the tortures, the insufferable horrors that they've been going through in their adolescence have happened before, happened to all of us, and we all survived - and some survived worse things too. The human condition is something that we need to teach our youth, and nothing more adequately shows us the human condition than the literary classics we teach.

Any last thoughts?

This project taught me a LOT about teaching literature to high schoolers, most importantly that I need to remember not to underestimate them. It also taught me a lot about reading the classics - they can speak to anyone at any age, even after all these years. My students (after they realized that this
DIDN'T take place during slavery) learned a lot about themselves and literature from this novel, and I think they really grew as people - and really, what more can a teacher ask for?

Amanda also pr
ovided me with a link to the article that was written about this project. If you are interested in learning more about what she and her classmates did, go here to read all the details.

This was a great project and was such a great way to highlight a wonderful book.

If you are interested in being interviewed and having your own guest post on the classic piece of your choice, please e-mail me
(my e-mail is on my profile page). I would be happy to have you!


  1. A lovely and very thoughtful post! It sounds like a great project and this post made me smile because of all the enthusiasm it expresses on teaching :)

    I haven't read "The Color Purple" and had never heard of it before, maybe I should read it. This post certainly made me curious.

  2. Wow this sounds like an amazing project! I really admire Amanda for doing it.

  3. Thanks :D It was a ton of fun, but a lot of work.