Introduction to Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony

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SWBAT tackle a complex text with an interactive strategy. SWBAT understand a cyclical narrative structure, typical of Native American literature.

Big Idea

Colors interact to reveal an interesting narrative structure.


Students are introduced to Leslie Marmon Silko’s best-known novel, Ceremony. Ceremony is a complex novel in terms of language and structure. When I attempt to assign this to my students, I do it cautiously and with the understanding that they will need a lot of support. My plan is for students to read only a part of it, just enough to give students a good experience interacting with a central piece of Native American literature.


10 minutes

I introduce this novel to students by stating that this is a central piece of Native American literature. I point out that the author is Leslie Marmon Silko, same author of the story poem they have just finished working with. This novel is one of my favorites and I reveal this to students. This does not necessarily lead them to love it, but it does send the important message that I have a personal connection to the materials I choose for my curriculum, a fact students generally appreciate.

I give students brief background knowledge of the story. I tell them that the main character is a WWII veteran who has recently come back home from the war. I ask them to bring to mind the issues that have historically affected Native American communities, which we studied in the previous unit. At the same time I ask them to consider what it means for a young Native American to choose to join the U.S. armed forces. They will not read enough to learn that the main character’s trauma will be cured with a ceremony, meaning that his cultural roots will be the only thing powerful enough to combat the damage caused by joining an army of the government that has done his community much harm. However, they will be prepared to understand his trauma illustrated in the beginning of the novel.

I also remind students of the elements of Native American literature that we discussed in the previous unit as illustrated in this “JUXTAPOSE MAINSTREAM LIT AND INDIGENOUS LIT” chart. Specifically, I remind them that a cyclical structure was difficult for them to describe or imagine. I let them know that Ceremony is going to give us an excellent opportunity to see what this type of story structure actually looks like. I think this establishes a frame of mind that will help them make sense of the story. 

Getting to Know the Novel

10 minutes

I ask students to turn to the first page of the novel and ask them to describe what they see. They will soon say that it looks like a poem. I ask them to flip a few pages to where the narrative begins and point out that this is the “look” we are used to in a fiction novel. Like we have discussed, I explain that Silko does not follow a traditional form but rather mixes a mainstream narrative with Native American poems and stories. We go back to the first poem, the one about Thought-Woman, and I read it aloud. I ask students to identify what this poem is communicating. Several students volunteer to speak and together they are able to say that this poem is about a woman who created the universe, along with her sisters, by thinking of things that would then just appear. I ask them what this story may remind us of. They look at me a bit puzzled so I add that this story sounds like a story we are familiar with. Someone will soon hesitantly say that it sounds like God. I agree with this and explain that this sounds like what we call a creation story, which is a story that attempts to explain how the world was created.

We move on to the second poem, which I also read aloud. I also ask them to explain what this poem is trying to communicate. Again, several students share their thoughts and together, we identify the idea this poem communicates, which is that stories are powerful. Today, my students also said that there is an example of a criticism on colonialism in the third stanza. I praise them for that connection and we talk about how this poem is suggesting that stories and storytelling is a way of responding to this attack on their identity. We then move to the next poem, which is only five lines long. What they are able to perceive here is how the idea of a cure suggests that someone may be in trouble and in need of a cure. They arrive at this question: Who will need a cure? I praise them for that question and ask them to keep it in mind as we read the story. This question sets the right frame of mind to begin reading about Tayo, the main character, who will be in desperate need of a cure, specifically a cure that will come in the form of a ceremony. I then move on to the next page, read the single word “Sunrise” and tell them that we are now ready to read the narrative.

Color-Coding the Text

20 minutes

For this activity, students need a copy of the beginning pages of the novel, one they can write on. They also need a set of colored pencils. I provide these for my students. I tell them that we are about to see a clear example of a cyclical structure of a narrative and that we are going to color code it to highlight this. I choose to engage students in a color-coding activity because this will give them a good visual of what a cyclical structure is. It will also help them navigate the complex language and style of this text, as I explain in the reflection. I read the first paragraph aloud and ask students to just follow along as I read. I project this first page on the board. I then ask them to tell me the first event we learn about in this initial paragraph. They easily suggest that the first event is Tayo not being able to sleep. I ask them to select a colored pencil and to use it to underline the words that communicate that. I also ask them to use the colored pencil to start a key at the top of the page. What I mean by this is, I want students to help themselves keep track of the events they will be color-coding. The events will repeat and they will be marking information about the same event in the same color. I use the same colored pencil I selected to write, “Tayo can’t sleep” on the available space at the top of the page and ask students to do the same. I then ask them to identify the next event we learn about. At this point they begin to jump around in the paragraph to identify all the different events. As they do this, I continue to make the point that this narrative is not linear and it is a good example of the elements of Indigenous literature they have on their “Juxtapose Mainstream Lit and Indigenous Lit” chart. We end up identifying the following events in the first paragraph: Tayo can’t sleep, with the Japanese at war, with uncle Josiah, and Laguna voices.

In this video, we are color-coding Ceremony.

Once we finish color-coding I ask them to take a look and to notice that these events take place in different settings at different times and that the narrative jumps from one to the next and back to another one. I make it clear that what I am trying to show them is that the structure of the story is not linear. Silko chose to tell this story in a cyclical structure.


15 minutes

I ask students to do the same to the next few paragraphs, up to ¾ of page 7, and to be ready to incorporate an additional color because new events will be introduced. I let them work in silence answering any questions they may have. In these next paragraphs, they are introduced to the character Rocky. As I walk around while they work, I make sure they have captured the events that involve this new character in their color-coding. By the time they get to the bottom of page 6, I expect confusion. This will be addressed tomorrow.