Making the Wright Connection

An Online Community for the Study of Richard Wright

Illinois AP students make Wright Connections

Posted on February 4, 2011 | No Comments

Pat Marshall,veteran Illinois English teacher, taught Wright to her AP classes this year. PORTA High School benefitted from  its Richard Wright Connection as the AP English Literature and AP English Language classes had not only new material added to their curricula, but  forged new connections between writers and artists as well.

The AP Lit classes have studied Wright’s Native Son since the inception of the class, but as a result of their teacher’s work at Kansas University, their study of Wright was significantly expanded this year.  Focusing on Native Son as a novel of conflicts rather than a protest novel, AP students explored Bigger Thomas’ conflicts as a character and as a paradox.   They connected the issue of the social culpability they saw with Bigger–that the very structure of society creates Bigger as a crinimal, at least when he murders Mary–with James Joyce’s portrayal of the city in Dubliners.  They began asking difficult questions of themselves:  when society comes into conflict with either the indiviudal or with whole classes of people, how is that conflict resolved?  Is it always at the expense of the individual or class?  How is this conflict created?  Is it created deliberately?  The class generated heated discussions of these issues, based on the literature they were reading.

The conversations continued when the class studied August Wilson’s Fences to the mix, an addition that wouldn’t have occured without the rich interactions at HBW Richard Wrght.  As they read the play in class, they found parallels between and amongst the characters in Native Son, Dubliners, Hamlet, and Fences.  They were struck  by the anger exhibited by many characters in the texts and theorized that the very real sense of powerlessness was likely the primary root of the anger.  Using excerpts from the works, the AP students benefitted from close readings of passages as they practiced their timed writing skills.

AP Language, on the other hand, whose primary focus is non-fiction, studied Wright’s Black Boy in conjunction with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Black Like Me, and excerpts from Oaludah Equiano’s slave narrative, Franklin’s autobiography and John Smith’s recounting of his colonial exploits. In this case, the focus was on the narrative structure of autobiography.  Students found the issue of the narrative voice a real challenge in terms of what the audience accepts and what it rejects.  Students began to question the purpose of autobiography; that is, an author likely has an agenda of some sort, beyond simply re-telling events from his or her life.  If that is so, how does one identify that agenda?  Once one has identified it, how does it affect the interaction between text and reader?  Is some varnishing of the facts to be expected?  accepted?  Does the good a text accomplishes outweigh the varnshing?  Can a reader ever take an autobiographical text at face value?  Black Boy was a particularly rich addition to this study, espeically in light of Hazel Rowley’s biography of Richard Wright.  Excerpts from her text, Richard Wright: The Life and Times, offered students insights into Wright and provided rich passages for the practice of timed writings.

Who is Pat?
Having just finished her 22nd year teaching, Pat Marshall is a proud member of the English department at PORTA High School in Petersburg, Illinois, holding two National Board Certifications. Apart from her obvious interest in Richard Wright, Pat performs as a founding member of the Renaissance ensemble, Pipe & Gambol; rides horses when the weather is accommodating; gardens excessively; and is fondly owned by a plethora of small animals–from chickens to chinchillas. Her husband, George, is a stay-at-home father who wrangles the farmette; ably assists in homeschooling their son, David; and is at the beck and call of Pat’s live-in mother, Lora Lee.

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