Digging into Voice — The Poisonwood Bible

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For the next few weeks, we are learning the skill of close reading, what I consider to be the act of picking a

part language in order to reveal meaning.  Today, we dug into Ruth May’s first chapter in The Poisonwood Bible, uncovering her voice by noticing figurative language, diction, syntax, selection of details, and tone. After today’s classes, I am wondering how we can move past identifying her voice as “childish” in order to develop the overall meaning of her chapter. Her presence in the novel.  Does she innocently and matter-of-factly tell us the truth?  Or are her observations and re-tellings of what she’s heard sifted through her filter of misunderstandings?  Why does any of this matter?

The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite novels to re-read and teach.  I hate Nathan each time I re-read — and I try to empathize with the pain of his survivor’s guilt.  I come close, but then Ruth May dies, and I focus my empathy on Orleanna.  The changing point of view in each chapt

er reveals so much more than character traits and plot because we see the story through five pairs of eyes, the eyes of imperfect women and girls trying to make sense of life and their role in the village.  Yet they make little sense of things while living in the village; they must leave it in order to look back and cycle through their memories, each under their

own misperceptions.

Tonight, the students and I are close reading an excerpt from Rachel’s first chapter, analyzing her voice and


how it reveals meaning.  Her first sentences — “Man oh man, are we in for it now, was my thinking about the Congo from the instant we first set foot.  We are supposed to be calling the shots here, but it doesn’t look to me like we’re in charge of a thing, not even our own selves.” — suggest an irony about her observations, her understanding of the situation that the other members of the Price family do not recognize.   Why is it important that we notice Rachel’s use of malaprops, even when her sisters do not? How does Rachel’s vanity filter distort her observations? What can she tell us that Ruth May cannot?

Our practice in close reading this novel hopefully will help us understand why we read literature, priming our pump, so to speak, for our PBL challenge — Why should AP World students read literature?


Why Literature?

I love literature, reading literature, talking about literature, watching literature on the big and small screens. I especially love teaching literature; I love working with students when they discover how authors create meaning.

Today, I began my 15th year of teaching standing in front of an AP Lit class, thinking about how we tear into literature, how we look for patterns in language and symbols, and how we use these ideas to examine a text’s significance.

Preparing for today, I grappled with the controversy surrounding Advanced Placement courses or more specifically, the controversy with the battery of standardized tests in May.  Like the majority of those in Advanced Placement courses, our students want the AP course on their transcript and would be thrilled to earn a 4 or a 5 on the exam.  I want our students to instead find their joy digging into a literary text, putting together the puzzle pieces left by the author.  And I wonder what would happen to scores if we concentrated on reading, analysis, and writing skills and not on practice tests and timed writings. I do not have the courage to try this, not yet.

This year I have the courage to “PBL” our AP Lit curriculum with driving questions that will lead to action.  This year our AP Lit students will wrestle with “Why Literature?” while tackling literary analysis and its place in the “real world.”  For this unit, Identity and Culture, my seniors will figure out how to persuade AP World Studies students that reading literature can reveal cultural values.

I’ll keep you posted.