Today we move on to another modernist story. We just finished reading Ernest Hemingway's short story "The End of Something" and students reported appreciating the experience of reading a story that leaves it up to them to infer what exactly happens. They actually requested more of this type of texts. I'm taking advantage of the steam and giving them a second story by Hemingway, titled “Hills Like White Elephants.” This way, I can be sure to get their commitment to read the story with interest and I will just have to worry about getting them to analyze it within the context of modernist literature.
Note that this story is about a couple who recently found out is pregnant and are trying to decide if they want to keep the baby or have an abortion. I can imagine this sensitive topic making some students uncomfortable, though I have never experienced that situation. When I use this short story in class, I use it with eleventh graders, and we use it to practice reading and writing standards and not to discuss the actual topic of abortion. Just keep in mind that this topic is addressed.
To read this story, we are using the same approach we did with “The End of Something.” I remind students of the notes we took on modernist literature. Like in other modernist stories, the author suggests part of the story and leaves it up to reader to fill in the rest through inferences. Students will have to work at paying close attention to the details Hemingway provides in order to make accurate references, skills addressed in CCSS RL.11-12.1. To illustrate this on their paper and arrive at an understanding of the story, students highlight significant information in the text, infer the rest and write their inferences on the margins. They do this one step at a time. I remind them of this process and explain that the first thing they are doing today is reading half of the story and highlighting significant information.
I distribute the copy of the story and ask students to read the three lines in the first page and the entire second page, which on my copy are numbered as pages 642 and 643. Students read this first part in silence and highlight the text. Specifically, they are to highlight the details that a reader is supposed to take special note of in order to draw inferences, as CCSS RL.11-12.1 dictates. I suggest they begin to make inferences on the margin, but I do let them know they will be discussing this part of the story, which will help them make all the inferences needed to make sense of this story and they will get time to write these on the margin later in the period.
I interrupt students reading and ask them to engage in a discussion about what they have read. One student says, “I don’t know what I just read.” I giggle, but let the student know that she is likely not the only one that feels like this and that this just means that their discussion will be guided by questions. Students are to ask questions about things they are not sure they understand and work together to come up with possible answers. I am hoping that these questions will lead students to do what CCSS SL.11-12.1a refers to as "come to discussions prepared...explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts...to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas." I remind them they have held discussions in this class before about texts they were confused about and have successfully helped each other clarify obscure parts of a text. Students begin to discuss and I listen in. They start talking about the relationship between the American and Jig. Some of the questions and comments I hear are: “Are they fighting?” “They’re drinking too much.” “What are they about to do?”
The purpose is to help them gain better understanding of what they have read so far. These three students holding a discussion are working together to make sense of the story.
I then give students an opportunity to speak with me and ask me questions, though I tell them that I will not be giving them any answers. This frustrates them, but I clarify saying that I will guide them to arrive at plausible answers. They have lots to ask and as they begin to ask me questions, I bounce the questions back to the group and guide the discussion.
My students are inexperienced readers. A text like this one demands that they stick very close to the language to make sense of it, which makes this a great text to use with my student population. This discussion confirms this need because I find myself reminding them of the need to cite the text to back up their working theories of what is going on in this story. Their first question is general: What are they about to do? When I bounce this question back to the group some suggest they are going somewhere, but are not able to specify where. A student says that the characters are drinking too much so maybe whatever they are talking about is just nonsense. This prompts a discussion about the possibility that they are alcoholics and I ask them to back up that conclusion with evidence from the text. Someone points out that the text says that they order beer and then absinthe and then something else. Another student reads the line, “That’s all we do, isn’t it-look at things and try new drinks?” I ask the class if this conclusion is convincing? In previous lessons I have explicitly asked students to play devil’s advocates, meaning that they should challenge weak arguments. I have used the phrase, “Find the weak spot in the argument and punch a hole through it.” I hope that someone will be prompted to do this. Someone does. A student says that maybe they are just having a good time drinking the day before they do whatever it is they are about to do. We have not arrived at the place where they figure out that they are planning on getting an abortion. Other students support the possibility that they are drinking a lot, but that does not mean that they are alcoholics. I bring them back to the question asked earlier regarding what the characters are about to do. They feel like they are stabbing in the dark with this question. One group was entertaining the idea that this operation referred to a plan to commit a criminal act. No one figured out that the operation referred to a surgery. Many were not able to formulate a guess. As they were trying to come up with answers they were referring to the text. Specifically, they asked questions about what the characters were trying to communicate to each other. I let them struggle with this question because it is good for them to work at drawing conclusions, even though they did not arrive at one today.