Teaching the texts of William Faulkner in a high school English classroom is certainly up for debate- particularly in an urban setting. Some believe that the Faulkner classics are not applicable to the youth of America; some people assert that students of color, especially with the conflicts surrounding communities in Ferguson, Missouri, and the murder of Trayvon Martin, take offense to how the South engages in conversations of race and power.
In neighboring districts, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned from their Advanced Placement (AP) reading list. Faulkner’s classics have not reached this eradication stage; many people are of the assumption that Faulkner’s works exacerbate some of the negative themes associated with race and the American South. It seems, however, Oprah Winfrey’s promotion of Faulkner’s works in her national Book Club Campaign some years ago has encouraged renewed interest in Faulkner.
This popularity, now sustained for more than a decade, raises the questions: Why, in spite of the possible backlash, should English teachers consider adding Faulkner’s works to their curricula? Is having the endorsement of one of television’s most popular personalities enough? Is there more? To better explain why I chose to teach Faulkner, I have outlined an activity that I used to teach The Sound and Fury and the responses from students on how reading Faulkner takes, “time and lots of discussion.”
From a personal perspective, I entered uncharted waters with my International Baccalaureate (IB) Higher Level English students; I entered these choppy waves and currents with extreme caution and hesitancy—but I did it. Teaching the IB curriculum requires that I teach from the recommended texts. Some might ask if IB really offers teachers a choice. The answer is yes, however, with some limitations. Then, I hear this all time from folks, “Well, then if you have other choices, why in the world would you choose to teach William Faulkner? Faulkner is so difficult and he does not seem to have a ‘place’ in our current curriculum.” While my follow-up comments have to be precise and relevant, I typically make reference to my former students who have shared Facebook messages or my students who have just finished their first year as college students; their messages are often filled with thanks and gratitude for exposing them to this style and difficulty of literature. The following scenario, which occurred in the Little Rock, Arkansas Airport, is typical of the responses that I receive when I say that I am teaching Faulkner to high school students.
Lady in the airport: “Sir, what book are you reading?”
Me: “I'm reading William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!.”
Lady in the airport: “I hate to be rude, but is this the only book you could find to take with you on a flight? Faulkner’s books are really difficult to understand and . . . I mean . . . it can't be enjoyable reading his books. Can it?”
Me: “Yes, I find his books enjoyable. I am a high school English teacher and my students are going to read The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! this year. I am really trying to expose my students to various works of literature as many of my students are college bound; I think they will benefit from these challenging texts…”
Lady in the airport: “I will certainly add your students to my prayer list. . . . Good luck, sir.”
After conversations with colleagues and with comments like these from the opinionated lady at the Little Rock Airport, I certainly had my doubts about teaching Faulkner. Was this lady right? Were his works going to be too difficult for my high school seniors? Regardless of my doubts, I was determined to teach Faulkner. Thus, I started the brainstorming process of how I would get started and what activities / strategies I would use.
During the brainstorming process, I discovered that since The Sound the Fury was printed in 4 distinct sections, I would need to discuss how each section provides relevancy and connections to the others. I also realized that tackling this beast of a text would have to involve full class participation. How would I make that happen? What would that look like? Finally, I needed to consider how well my students could use the text to respond to questions on the IB and AP examinations? Then I started on this adventure of “putting together the The Sound and the Furypuzzle.”
First, I gathered all the materials needed to complete this group project: 11x16 construction paper, copies of the first page of each section of the text, and tape. Next, I placed the copies of each section: Benjy, Quentin, Jason, and Dilsey in the corners of the construction paper. Maybe more of a visual might help: Benjy was in the top left corner; Quentin was placed in the top right corner; Jason was placed in the lower left, and Dilsey was placed in the lower right corner. Since the paper was so large (I did this intentionally), there was considerable amount of space in the middle. I completed five of these visuals for each class as I planned to divide the class into five groups of five students. Of course, like all teachers, I had to devise a ‘plan B’ if this activity failed. So, I thought, and I thought, and I thought. . . And there I was—nothing for a “plan B.” I thought, “Well, if this does not work, then I will just begin discussing the important aspects of ‘Benjy’s’ section and chalk this up as a failed activity.”
First, I asked the class to complete a T-chart. On the chart was “This is What I Know about the South” and the other side was “I Really Do Not Have Any Knowledge of the American South.” I gave them about three to five minutes to complete. After they completed this activity, I asked them to place the T-chart in their binders as we would revisit this later. Then, I started to get nervous. Would this work? How will my students react?
I asked each group to read the passage in the top left corner first (Benjy’s Section), and as they read, to annotate the passage and try to figure out what was going on. They had two to three minutes to complete this activity. I then asked one student per table to share out loud the group’s findings. Well, of course, I heard the groans and the complaints, “Dr. McDonald . . . this makes no sense,” “Dr. McDonald, why would you have us read only the first page of the section. . . . ” My anxiety level raised another notch! After hearing all of the complaints, I asked them to simply report their findings, and they did.
Here is what some of the groups said:
- It takes place in the South
- People are chasing a ball or playing a game
- Choppy sentences
- Difficult to follow
We repeated this annotating and reporting process for the other 3 sections. After reading Quentin’s section, the complaining lessened, and students continued with great discussions. When we finished reading and discussing Dilsey’s section, the time came for my students to meet their first real challenge: they had to make connections among characters that I had talked about earlier; they had to put the puzzle together.
With time remaining in our fifty minute class period, I asked the groups to record in the blank space of the construction paper the common elements of each first page. In just a few minutes of concentrated reading, thinking, and sharing, they saw the following essential elements and themes:
- People are oppressed
- Race is an issue
- Role of women—not good
- Conflict and lots of it
- Differences in social class
- Challenges: mentally, socially, and physically
The list my students created was phenomenal. After our class discussions, I shared some points they missed, e.g., that Benjy and Luster are looking at a golf course. Lightbulbs began to go off with students. Throughout my classroom, I heard comments like, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh that was the ball and that was why the flag was mentioned.” I just let them go because their excited and enriched conversations told me they were engaged and ready to begin their journey with Benjy and others in The Sound and the Fury.
For the last few minutes of the class period, I asked my students to take out the T-chart they completed earlier. I asked them to evaluate their level of knowledge of the American South and perhaps think about how Faulkner might change or enhance their views. Many students had their initial thoughts, positive and negative, validated; others were ready to give the South a “chance to redeem itself.” Prior to the final bell, I asked them to have the first twenty-five pages read for our next day’s discussion.
While this was only a 1 day activity, my students would return to their “puzzle” after reading each section in its entirety, and each day the conversations became more fruitful as the puzzle came together. Needless to say, I was quite pleased that my “leap of faith” had worked and that I did not have to resort to my plan B.
Even though I used this activity for The Sound and the Fury, I am confident that it can work for other texts. The key for my success was based on student engagement and my willingness to be the facilitator—not the teacher with all of the expert ideas and comments. Empowering high school students to own their thoughts both on and off paper is crucial to preparing them for their next chapter in life. If you are a teacher of literature, I strongly encourage you to engage your students in this activity; I challenge you to be that teacher who allows his/her students to think openly and to put together a literature puzzle.
Dr. Brian McDonald taught all grades and levels of English at J.P. McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Currently, Dr. McDonald is the Coordinator of International Baccalaureate Program and Advanced Studies in The School District of Lancaster.