The Costs and Benefits of Imperialism: Heart of Darkness (Day 1 of 3)

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SWBAT understand the cultural experience of imperialism as reflected in Heart of Darkness by reading and illustrating Conrad's prose.

Big Idea

Today we will begin looking at various accounts of western imperialism in Africa with one of the most significant literary texts written on the subject: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.


10 minutes

We will start class with ten minutes of reading time. I will read with the students during this time.

Transition to New Unit

I LOVE teaching Heart of Darkness and have really considered teaching the whole text this year. It is short and rich and I think I could have made time for it. However, due to lack of resources and some teacher-soul searching, I've decided I need to use my time differently.

I have always been a literature-centric ELA teacher. I love fiction, as most of us do, and the majority of my first eleven years of teaching, I've been able to build my class around literature units. This project, along with the collaborative process of implementing the CCSS in my classroom has led me to think long and hard about how my curriculum is organized. I am still pretty literature-centric and I don't think that will ever change, but I am much more mindful of the skills I am teaching and using those skills as the basis for my units of study.

I can totally justify teaching excerpts from Heart of Darkness as a part of a larger, skills-based unit geared towards informational text/analytical collaboration because the small sections I am using will provide students opportunities to practice analysis skills similar to those they are practicing with non-fiction. Conrad's style is semi-autobiographical, so it reads like non-fiction. I can't, however, justify teaching the entire text because there are too many skills that my students need to practice with non-fiction text. I would be too tempted to dive into the literary analysis of this text and would ignore what I need to be focusing on for the next few weeks.

As such, I will use this piece as a transition to the second of a two unit pairing meant to engage students in reading and analysis of informational text. The first unit of this pairing focuses on skills for reading informational texts, such as The Communist Manifesto. This second unit will focus on what to do with the information that you have learned through the analytical process. 

Heart of Darkness Overview Discussion

20 minutes

Learning from a big mistake I made last year when I tried to read only small excerpts from Heart of Darkness, I will spend a fairly significant chunk of time explaining the entire story and the historical, social and literary context of Conrad's novella before we dive into the text.

To do this, I will use a powerpoint that includes very modern images designed by artist Matt Kish. For copyright purposes, my slides don't include the images here, but I encourage you to get a copy of Kish's book and share these images with your students. It is a great way to analyze multiple representations of subject (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7) and, at least I hope, it is a great way for students to understand the underlying tone and message of Conrad's novel.

Once I've told the story of the book, I will ask students to retrieve their packets from yesterday's class and we will discuss how Europe went from industrialization and isolation to imperialism. I don't have a great deal of time for this conversation, but I will ask them to compare Marx's and Conrad's purposes and help me to brainstorm key concepts that are common to both historical events (i.e. supply and demand, the white man's burden, etc.)


Heart of Darkness Reading and Illustration Activity

20 minutes

For the actual reading of the text, I am going to try something a little different. The passages that we will read together (and the book as a whole) are so rich in imagery, that I am going to ask students to just listen as I read and illustrate what they hear.

This is a grand experiment that I hope will yield the following results:

  1. Students will understand that Conrad's description of Africa is meant to be metaphoric.
  2. Students will comprehend Conrad's anti-imperialist tone/attitude based on their understanding of the imagery he uses (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4 ).
  3. Students will understand that Conrad, like many of his peers, was against imperialism, but was still racist in his attitudes towards the natives of Africa.

I don't think we will get to all of these understandings in one day.Ultimately, I hope that they will begin to see the complexity of the experience of imperialism based on the experiences and details Conrad chooses to include in his writing (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6).

This reading, along with two primary sources, a poem and a current event news story will be the base texts for a seminar discussion next week. After I let the students illustrate what they hear while I'm reading, I will post the seminar question (what are the costs and benefits of imperialism?) on the board and ask them to draw some inferential conclusions based on what they heard (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1). I will then invite them to reread the text to see what other details stand out. I will ask them to write these observations down so they have notes for their seminar.

Wrap Up and Next Steps

5 minutes

Whatever time is left, I will remind students that they should be reviewing the actual written words of the text and adding to their illustrations over the weekend. I will also ask if any of them would like me to get a copy of the book for them to read =).