I announce that today marks the beginning of a new unit, a unit around the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I let them know that we will now immerse ourselves in the reading of a central literary work in African American literature and that, just like we did with Ceremony, we will be addressing aspects of African American history that any reader must be aware of if they are to understand this novel. This sparks interesting questions. A noteworthy one is from a student who remembers we juxtaposed indigenous literature and mainstream literature when we read Ceremony. She asks if we are going to be doing the same with African American literature. I tell her this is an excellent question. I take this opportunity to explain that, although African American writers have definitely struggled to be considered part of the cannon, which is a different way of talking about mainstream literature, the structure of this novel can not be juxtaposed in the same way as Ceremony. I then add that there is one exception and that we will be addressing this immediately: language.
I give students a bit of background on Zora Neale Hurston: she was a struggling writer and artist, she was hired to do ethnographic work at different points, a large part of her ethnographic work consisted of her collecting stories and songs through personal interviews and recordings. My students needed a quick explanation of what ethnography is. Other students may not. I also let them know that she incorporated part of this work in her novels. In this novel we are reading, I let them know that Hurston chose to write the dialogue in the vernacular. "The what?" is the immediate response. I explain that the language they are expected to use in school and on school work is standard English, but that we all understand that this is not the way people speak all the time. I ask them to imagine texting their friend in standard English and they giggle. I tell them that the official term for the informal, local language a given population develops is vernacular and that they have their own vernacular. Somebody suggested that the vernacular is "street language." I say that that is a good way of thinking about it. I tell them that Their Eyes Were Watching God is partially written in Black English Vernacular so the spelling will appear different and it will take them a bit to get used to it, but that they will get used to it. I finish this by telling them that there are several reasons why an author may choose to write in a vernacular and that it is up to the reader to decide what the effect of that choice is, but that one thing that it definitely does for this novel is make Hurston's characters authentic.
Before looking at this new text, I want students to reflect on their own thoughts about the ideas and themes they will be reading in this novel. I have an anticipation guide for Their Eyes Were Watching God and distribute it at this point explaining this purpose. I give them about 10 minutes to answer the questions on this guide. This is not enough time for lengthy responses and I communicate this to students explaining that this is meant for quick reflection. I ask them to move quickly through these questions and provide short answers.
After about 10 minutes, we spend some time discussing their answers. I read each question aloud, one at a time, and ask for volunteers to share their response. This is a pretty informal conversation and students will disagree with each other. I make sure to allow all viewpoints to be expressed. The questions about gender equality/inequality are interesting because most students will state that women should be treated equally. It is difficult to find a teenager who will openly say that "a woman's place is in the home," though one or two will jokingly say they agree with this statement jut to get a rise out of peers. However, question #1 will spark more disagreement. Some will claim that women as treated as equals in today's society and some will claim that men still have more power in this society. Some of my students bring up the fact that we have not had a female president. During this entire time, I don't participate in the discussion because this is meant to be an opportunity for students to openly share their point of view. My job is guide the discussion so that we can hear different perspectives. For this, I invite students to share their response and then specifically ask for a response that disagrees with the one stated. Once in a while a student will express dislike for a particular opinion stated by making disapproving sounds and I have to remind them to be respectful of everyone's opinion. The only time I reveal my opinion is with question #3. I jokingly point my finger to them and say that I hope nobody dared to agree. I'm actually planning on deleting this question next time I use this. If there is a student who agrees with this statement, I'm sure that opinion will come through in other responses. Question #6 is interesting because students are aware of the term "cougar," which appeared in popular culture not long ago. In the past, this question may have sparked more disagreement. Now, students are more comfortable with the idea of an older woman dating a younger man. Through this type of discussion, anticipation guides also give me an insight into what is on students' minds, as you can see in this video where a student shares one response on her anticipation guide.
It is now time to take a look at Their Eyes Were Watching God. I distribute books. I ask students to go to page 2 and read the first dialogue. I ask them to describe the language. I am focusing their attention on Hurston’s choice to use the vernacular, which we discussed today. I suspect students will have a strong reaction. Their exposure to a variety of texts is limited and I would be surprised if they have had much experience with texts like this one. My suspision is confirmed when I hear the responses:
“It looks like texting.”
I tell them that this is the way Hurston chose to incorporate the vernacular and that she is actually considered to have the ability to do this masterfully. I let students know that it may be a bit confusing at first and that this may slow down their reading, but that they will soon get used to it and it will not be an issue any longer. I also point out that the parts that are not dialogue are not written in the vernacular and that these parts are considered to have been written masterfully. Zora Neale Hurston’s language is rich in strategies and figurative language. We are now ready to start reading Their Eyes Were Watching God.
I often opt to read aloud the beginning of a new text to help students engage with the language. However in this case I admit to students that I will slaughter the language if I try to read it aloud. I then reveal that, luckily, I have a recording of it and that we will hear a professional reading aloud the first chapter so that we can get a clear picture of the authenticity of Zora Neale Hurston’s characters. I play the recoding and we listen to the first chapter, which is very short.