My first attempt at teaching The Red Badge of Courage: it is what it is

IMG_1852

My resources, my reservations, and my main reason to teach this book again

Right now, at my new teaching position at a rural high school in Missouri, one of my junior/senior level electives classes is reading The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. If you’re unfamiliar with The Red Badge of Courage, it’a a Civil War novel first published in 1895 that explores the effects of war on a young man named Henry Fleming.

According to this Glencoe Literature Library Study Guide, “The Red Badge of Courage is a profile of an inexperienced young soldier undergoing his first experience of battle. ‘The youth’ in the novel, Henry Fleming, makes a journey of self-discovery. But what he learns, and whether he learns, from his experiences is a point that is still debated.” In other words, The Red Badge of Courage is a novel that focuses on the psychological effects of war as much as it focuses on warring itself.

Before I started the unit, I consulted a private teachers’ Facebook group to get some ideas. Instead, I learned that many teachers aren’t crazy about the book. At all. For example, the sentiments below are actual teacher opinions about Crane’s novel.

I need suggestions for an alternative text to Red Badge of Courage. I tried to read it/listen to it and it was AWFUL.

It is suggested to do Red Badge of Courage, but I tried to read it and listen to it on audio, and I just couldn’t. It is not interesting…

This is the only required reading that I did not complete in high school. I. Could. Not. Stand. It.

Red Badge of Courage. Gag me with a spoon.

“Ouch. Really? Is it that bad?” I thought when I read those comments.

Yes, it is dry and monotonous at times.  Those chapters where Fleming waits for directions, waits for battle, waits for any indication of progress in the war, do get long. However, as we learn from Fleming, that’s part of the war experience. The Civil War experience, to be exact. And yes, the Civil War was a long time ago, so maybe the book’s monotonous chapters and the book’s antiquated language and style (it was first published in 1895, after all) turns off these teachers.

And those teachers can have their opinions, for sure. But this little book–there are 24 chapters each about five pages in length–has merit if you look for it.

After all, there’s a reason it’s never been out of print:  the book is not merely an account of war, but an account of how untested people deal with self-doubt, confidence, fear, and ultimately, courage.

chris-chow-YEZVoBxezW4-unsplash
Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

Since this is the first time I’ve taught the novel, I realize I’m just “feeling my way.” In other words, I don’t pretend to have this figured out. In fact, my first experience with teaching the novel leaves much to be desired. However, I thought I would still share the handful of resources I’m currently using or plan to use in the next couple of weeks or so.  Plus, I’m secretly hoping that, if you’ve taught this novel before, you’ll share some tips and ideas in the comments below! (See what I did there?!)  Here are the resources I’m using, listed in no particular order:

1. Narrative Journal Prompts:

I currently use these writing prompts as bell work assignments. Journal prompts can become tiresome, though, so we don’t do these everyday. Students respond by writing a paragraph. We discuss them briefly as a warm-up to listening to the next two chapters of the book.

2. The Red Badge of  Courage (Reed Novel Study Guides)

This unit plan is a fairly standard one and is aligned with Common Core State Standards. The focus is definitely on reading comprehension and vocabulary building. Writing exercises are scant and only require limited creative or analytical thinking. Although this unit plan is a full 67 pages long, I’ve only used about ten of those so far. I will, however, use its summative activities as part of a final assessment, to which I’ll add a reflective essay requirement.

3. Taking Fire TV Series

This Discovery Channel series, which I discovered in doing some online research, has probably done the most in causing my students to appreciate The Red Badge of Courage.  Here’s the description from Amazon Instant Video listing:

Taking Fire is the definitive collection of modern war stories, told by the men and women who fought on the front lines of Afghanistan. Illustrated with real combat footage shot on helmet cameras and handy cams, this series plunges viewers into the heart of the action, giving a visceral experience not witnessed in news reports or traditional documentary portrayals of war.

Taking Fire follows the experiences of rookie recruits of the 101st Airborne division. Shot with helmet cams and other video cameras, viewers watch the daily activities—from mundane chores to real-life skirmishes—of these young men. It’s not difficult to see that these activities are similar to the experiences of Fleming, referred to as “the youth” in Crane’s book.

As we watch  Taking Fire, it’s easy to appreciate a modern-day connection to The Red Badge of Courage. The soldiers in Afghanistan looking for land mines, waiting for action, and fighting boredom share the same concerns and emotions as Fleming does in the novel. They experience the same fears, the same guilt, the same self-doubts that Henry does. I love how Taking Fire has given The Red Badge of Courage a shove into current day concerns and emotions.

IMG_1947
I asked students to make a case for watching Taking Fire alongside reading The Red Badge of Courage.  This is one of the responses. Two more follow below:

IMG_1948

IMG_1949

Stephen Crane’s characterization of Henry, the young recruit, rings as true today as it did during the Civil War —and we have Stephen Crane and the Discovery Channel, as well— to thank for that. Because it relates so naturally to The Red Badge of  Courage, I have decided to watch twenty minutes of a Taking Fire episode about every other day in class…after we listen to our audiobook. (Let’s be real: saving the video for after the book is also partly a reward for digging into the book and its antiquated language and verbose descriptions.)

I also like the idea of comparing a TV series to a book… an important learning standard that requires students to access literature through various media. Noticing similarities and differences between the written page from more than a century ago to a contemporary high-tech televised war experience should lead to some rich discussions and critical thinking opportunities.

And yes, there is The Red Badge of Courage, the movie. It was made in 1951 and was filmed in black and white. I’m not planning on showing it because Taking Fire seems a better, more relevant fit.

4. The audiobook on Youtube.

Yes, I have occasionally read chapters aloud and have asked students to do a sort of reader’s theater activity while I read (where certain students read especially memorable lines). However, most of the class seems to enjoy the audiobook version more.  Here’s the link to the audiobook on Youtube.

5. Civil War Soldier Diaries

I hope to design an activity where students, at the completion of our reading the novel, explore the diary of an actual Civil War soldier. This will be a good opportunity for students to access and use primary sources, as well give them additional insights into the lives of young soldiers. Perhaps these diaries can be correlated to the experiences of Fleming as an additional part of a reflective summative assessment. There are numerous websites for this type of work. I plan to explore these other sites as well to find more diaries and journals:

6. LitCharts

I have a membership to LitCharts, and printed out the study guide to the novel at the beginning of the unit. The study guide includes a plot summary, detailed analysis, theme discussions, quotes, and character notes. Having this on my desk as we read, listen, and discuss helps me teach better and with more confidence. That’s because I occasionally struggle with comprehending as we listen, since I must also be continually surveying the room, making sure people are following along, staying off their phones, and participating. Having my LitCharts study guide handy is a good thing.

When you teach a novel for the first time

It’s always difficult to teach a novel for the first time, and as I wrote earlier, I don’t claim to be an expert on The Red Badge of Courage. In fact, for me, the most difficult aspect of teaching a novel for the first time is facilitating whole-class discussions. It takes me at least two to three teachings before I am able to spur meaningful discussions that blossom organically during a class period. This is my main deficiency with this particular text, at this point, and I’m aware of it. But I trust that better discussions will evolve with time. Next semester’s class will definitely have a better Red Badge of Courage experience.

To sum up this post, despite the fact that The Red Badge of  Courage doesn’t receive much attention or respect from some teachers, and despite the fact that it’s my first time teaching it, I think I’ll stick with this book. It’s one I want to spend more time learning how to teach. I believe this book’s exploration of self-doubt, confidence, fears, and courage merit readers’ attention.


Thanks for reading again this week! I’ve taught Chasing Lincoln’s Killer in the past, so I’m game for Civil War-era books, but have you ever taught The Red Badge of Courage? Got any tips or ideas?  I’m game for your thoughts. Follow my blog, like this post and leave a comment about your experiences with this novel.

 

 

My Seventh-Graders Told Me This: Everything’s Gonna Be Okay

The future of the country is in good — albeit small — hands.

 

gianandrea-villa-36340
Photo by Gianandrea Villa on Unsplash

Just when you think the country is spiraling out of control due to natural disasters, political upheaval, and lone wolf violence, you read some words written by twelve- and thirteen-year-olds and you realize that kids will carry us through. In short, everything’s gonna be okay.

I  just finished reading some first drafts written by my seventh-grade students. These drafts will grow into essays they will submit in a couple of weeks to an essay contest sponsored by our local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

Each year has a different theme and this year’s is “America’s Gift to My Generation.”  What are these gifts, as determined by my students? Here are some my students wrote about:  freedom,  the ability to make choices, security, free speech, education, medical technology, optimism, diversity, the opportunity to seek meaningful work, the Bill of Rights.

These gifts make me hopeful. My students could have written about video games and unlimited data, but they didn’t. To know that Sarah values her education, Eric treasures the freedom to speak out, and Kaila cherishes being secure, makes me realize that the future of the United States is in good — albeit small — hands.

A cynic might say, “Well, what would you expect? The kids want to win the veterans’ contest. Of course, they’re going to write about freedom, for example.”  And to the cynic, I respond, “You’re exactly right.” My students know their audience. They know what’s appropriate (most of ’em anyway). That speaks well of their judgment and foresight, and again, I am encouraged.

I’m also encouraged because my students are diverse. Some occupy the lowest rungs on the socio-economic ladder; some rest comfortably at the top. Some have the latest Smartphone; others are living the digital divide. Some ask to borrow scissors and glue-sticks to take home for a class project; others have all these supplies at home plus full bookshelves.

However, despite their various circumstances, these first drafts reveal that deep down my students know what’s important and worth writing about. They understand priorities.  They know that being an American provides advantages that millions in other parts of the world simply don’t have. More importantly, my seventh-graders — tomorrow’s leaders — know whom they should thank for those advantages: our veterans.

Next week, we’ll start revising these first drafts. They’ll become more focused, more eloquent, more concise. These short writings will blossom into hopeful messages that confirm our future is secure.

Our local VFW post will generously award three students with recognition and cash prizes during our Veteran’s Day assembly in November. When that happens, I’ll share with you the gifts the winners wrote about. Until then, no matter what happens in the meantime, trust my seventh-graders. Everything’s gonna be okay.

Thanks for reading. If you learned something from this post, click like and share it on social media. Most importantly, leave a comment so I can know your thoughts on the subject. Also, follow this blog for more ELA teaching reflections and information about writing contests for students, including the VFW contest mentioned above.