Accent + Diction = Mark Twain's Dialect
Lesson 2 of 8
Objective: SWBAT apply their knowledge of language and context clues to understand the wording of Mark Twain's writing.
We open class today with a welcome to "Be Electrific Day," Thomas Alva Edison's birthday, and I also share Edison's notable quote, Genius "is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration," hoping students will grow to feel the same way about their work in American Literature.
As always, the Daily Holiday serves to draw students in, building student ownership and a sense of community in the class.
In order to prepare for our look at Mark Twain's "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," I ask for students to take a few moments and, in their notes, write everything they know about Twain, either prior knowledge or from the biography reading they completed over the weekend. Students then share their ideas to the class. I ask a volunteer to write the list of ideas on the board, allowing me to circulate the room looking for string examples on their notes, and encouraging students to share. By sharing their notes, students demonstrate their ability to cite strong and thorough textual evidence. Once a list of biographical details is compiled, I ask students to share what conclusions they can come to about Twain, as an author, drawing inferences from the reading (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.1). We review author's biography in order to provide context for Twain's writing, and to provide students practice with identifying the main idea in non-fiction texts. This is practice for the unit exam, on which students will be asked to make these connections between literary and non-fiction texts on the unit exam, drawing evidence from literary and informational texts to support analysis and reflection (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.9).
Mark Twain, while noted as a humorist (see above), is also well-known for his use of dialect in his writing. Given that transcribing informal speech patterns can often result in numerous irregular spellings, words shortened with apostrophes, and slang terms, creating a "difficult text" for students to decode. Because of this difficulty, I provide students with an exercise in translating dialect. To begin, I ask them to "translate" the definition of dialect given in their textbook: "a distinct form of a language as it is spoken in one geographical area or by a particular social or ethnic group.” We break that definition down, ultimately into:
How people speak
in a place or
I share with students that, for the more mathematical among them, dialect can be looked at as an equation: accent (the way words are pronounced) + diction (the words used) = dialect.
From there, we look at the introduction to the character, Jim Smiley in the story, which is also the first item on the dialect guide: "There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley, in the winter of '49 or may be it was the spring of '50 I don't recollect exactly, somehow, though what makes me think it was one or the other is because I remember the big flume wasn't finished when he first came to the camp; but any way, he was the curiosest man about always betting on any thing that turned up you ever see, if he could get any body to bet on the other side; and if he couldn't, he'd change sides."
I ask students what the meaning of "curiousest" is here, especially looking of anyone identifies "curious." We look to the rest of the passage, and ask if "curious" makes sense for someone who is doing unusual gambling behavior, and I guide students to "strange" as the meaning here. I also ask students to explain "betting on anything that turned up" (any opportunity) "you ever see" (possible, you can think of, etc.).
In order to determine the meaning of dialectic words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4), students are identifying Twain's use of figures of speech and figurative language, especially hyperbole, idiom, and simile (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.5a). Being able to understand Twain's use of dialect not only provides greater understanding of the story itself, but also greater understanding of Twain's humor and a richer experience in reading. I encourage students to tackle these dialectic expressions on their own in order to avoid violating one of the cardinal rules of comedy, "Don't explain the joke." Additionally, I encourage students to take on difficult texts on their own, as they can often discover a personal connection I may not have addressed if I had simply addressed it to the whole class. Additionally, students should feel a sense of accomplishment decoding difficult texts, one that provides momentum as we move forward.
In order to provide students with a deeper understanding of the structure of Twain's "Jumping Frog," I explain what a frame story is: one narrator starting the story, then "handing the story off" to another narrator who tells the main narrative. We brainstorm examples, including those where the narrator remains the same and the frame serves as flashback ("The Catcher in the Rye", "A Separate Peace"), as well as those where a different narrator takes over ("The Scarlet Letter", "The Canterbury Tales").
To model the frame, I show students the first five minutes of "The Princess Bride," in which the Grandfather begins telling the story to the Grandson, slowly turning the narration over to the perspective of the characters. These scenes demonstrate the structure of a frame story, with one clearly modern (well, 1980s) story giving way to a classical fairy tale setting. The transition helps student see how the frame narrator gives way the main narrative.
For students to analyze how Twain introduces his narrators and structures each story in order to create humor and a Regional setting (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5), I read the first four paragraphs of "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" to the students. In order to provide them with a relatable moment, I ask if they've ever had a friend play a prank on them, because that's what the unnamed narrator from the East is having done to him. I also ask if, upon finding out they were travelling somewhere, has every had a friend say, "Say hello to my (sister, aunt, grandmother, third-grade-crush, etc.) if you see her. This is effectively what the scenario the narrator finds himself in, as well.
We then refer back to the passage they decoded earlier (see above), and draw conclusions about the characters from their descriptions: the unnamed narrator is somewhat gullible, he's not "at home" in a mining camp; Simon Wheeler is not a "book smart" man, he firmly believes in craftiness as a means to success.
With two minutes remaining, I remind students of the homework posted on the board: read "Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and complete the dialect activity, due in two days, to provide time for students to address dialect struggles and story structure.