|Know Before You Go: Anticipating and Previewing Difficult Texts such as The Bluest Eye
by Lorri Horn
Santa Monica High School
Santa Monica, California
To help students though difficult text they read as homework
Reading at home is an essential part of a language arts curriculum, but it is often a lonely and bemusing experience for our students who are at varying achievement levels. Occasionally I give pre-reading or anticipation guides to my students to help them with particularly challenging reading -- sometimes providing guides to all students, sometimes only to students I anticipate will struggle with the text. In the case of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (Plume Books), there are two chapters for which I give all of my students guiding questions. These guides help them prepare for and make their way through the challenging ideas and language of this rich novel.
Activities and Instruction
Anticipation Guide for Pages 81-93 of The Bluest Eye
- The chapter whose heading is "Seethecatitgoesmeowmeowcome / and playcomeandplaywithjanethe / kittenwillnotplayplayplaypla," poses challenges for students both in terms of unfamiliar language and in terms of complex ideas. Rather than have them read it cold at home and then rely on me to point out all that is important in the chapter the next day, students grapple with some of the important ideas from the novel before they ever read the chapter.
- I preview their reading and come up with questions based on important points I think they should notice and think about. I ask students to answer the questions on their own in class. Then we go over them and share our responses as a class.
- I ask students to keep our questions and discussion in mind as they read the assigned chapter at home that night.
- Our discussion of the reading the following day is shaped by these discussion questions.
Pre-Reading for the Soaphead Church Chapter
- Page 81 opens a new chapter. The chapter heading is "Seethecatitgoesmeowmeowcome / and playcomeandplaywithjanethe / kittenwillnotplayplayplaypla." Make predictions about what you think is going to happen in this chapter.
- What, if anything, do you know about the following cities: Mobile, Meridian, Aiken, Baton Rouge? Morrison names them in the opening of this chapter. What might you guess is important about them given what you've read so far in the book? (Why might Morrison list names of cities?)
- Why do women straighten their hair? What might it mean to "worry about the edges of [one's] hair"?
- What do you imagine the following clause might mean? "[T]hey do not have lovely black necks that stretch as though against an invisible collar..."
- What does the word "funkiness" mean? What are the different connotations of "funk"?
- Why do some people like to clean and organize when they have problems in their lives? Do you do this? Does it help? If so, why?
- What do people like about cats? What qualities do they have that are good?
- What do you expect might happen to a child whose mother meets his physical needs (gives him clothes, food, shelter, etc.) but never expresses love or tenderness? How would he look? How might he act?
- "She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud." What distinction is being made here? What do you imagine is going on in the book when this line comes up? How do you feel about this statement?
- What are possible implications of "snowflakes falling and dying on the pavement"?
Likewise, as we prepare to read the challenging chapter about Soaphead Church, I provide students questions and key concepts to think about page by page. (This chapter's title is "SEETHEDOGBOWWOWGOESTHEDOG / DOYOUWANTTOPLAYDOYOUWANT / TOPLAYWITHJANESEETHEDOGRUNR.") Students use the following guide and read the notes on each chapter at home before they read the chapter itself. Some students opt to read the guide after the chapters so as not to "spoil" the plot events. Either way, the guide gives students access to what might otherwise be a chapter well outside of their "zone of proximal development," without babying them.
In this chapter we meet a new character, Soaphead Church. Here are some background facts about the chapter to help you as you read. I suggest you read these over first so you know what to look for and then read them again as you encounter them on each page.
- We meet Soaphead Church, a man who loves things but can't stand contact with people.
- A "misanthrope" is someone who hates mankind.
- "Antipathies" means things you hate.
- "Fastidious" means paying careful attention to detail; "scruples" are uneasy feelings arising from one's conscience that hinder (prevent) action.
- Soaphead starts off as a priest for the Anglican Church.
- He later becomes a "'Reader, Adviser, and Interpreter of Dreams.'"
- Soaphead Church is a pedophile, which means that he is an adult who is sexually attracted to children.
- Soaphead Church is a light-skinned black man who was raised in a family proud of its mixed blood.
- His family has always been academically and politically ambitious, and always corrupt.
- His family has always tried to marry other light-skinned people, and, if unable to do so, they have married one another.
- Soaphead Church's father was a cruel schoolmaster and his half-Chinese mother died soon after he was born.
- Soaphead married a woman named Velma, but she left him two months afterward.
- The reference to "Beatrice" is an allusion to a character from Dante's Inferno; Beatrice is Dante's great love who shows him the way to heaven.
To Consider Overall as You Read
So far, reading this book, we've noticed how Morrison helps us to feel sympathetic toward characters we might otherwise despise (Cholly, Mrs. Breedlove). As you read this chapter, try to notice how you feel about Soaphead Church. Why do you think this is?
Come to class tomorrow with three questions based on this section's reading.
Teachers can use such anticipation guides and pre-reading questions with any book that requires a student to stretch. Not all students require them with any given book, but all students can benefit from them at one point or another. They take time to compose, but once written, such pre-reading guides help students get through challenging texts better on their own.
Lorri Horn has taught AP English at Santa Monica High School in California for the last six years of her 13-year career. She chaired the English department for five years, and is a 2003 National Board Certified Teacher. Her article about teaching in a time of scarcity appeared in Phi Delta Kappan (April 2004).