Teaching Octavia Butler: In Her Own Words

Science fiction writer Octavia Butler passed away seven years ago last month. Her most famous book,Kindred, tells the story of Dana, a black woman who time travels from 1976 to the pre-Civil War South. She meets a young white boy named Rufus, who also happens to be Dana’s ancestor.

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I just started Kindred with my ninth graders. Octavia Butler is the only writer of color, and one of two women writers, in our curriculum this year.

So it was important to me that she have a legitimate space in my class, and that we face the subject of Kindred — the legacy of slavery — explicitly.

To start, we read her obituary in The New York Times, which quotes from various interviews with Butler.

To the LA Times in 1998, she said:

I’m black, I’m solitary, I’ve always been an outsider.

One student admired Butler’s openness and ownership of her differences. Another student said Butler calling herself  “an outsider” even in 1998 made him “depressed” that she would still be made to feel this way so recently.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2000, Butler noted:

“The only black people you found [in science fiction] were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in because I’m me, and I’m here, and I’m writing.”

Several students saw this as Butler working deliberately to fix a problem she saw, and said that they too, had noticed the lack of diversity not just in their reading, but also in the TV shows and movies they watched.

I think her saying, “I’m me, and I’m here, and I’m writing,” shows such a strong affirmation of her own existence — a refusal to be an invisible minority.

Finally, we talked about the observation that ends the article:

“We are a naturally hierarchical species. When I say these things in my novels, sure I make up the aliens…but I don’t make up the essential human character.”

We discussed what it means to be “hierarchical,” and whether humans are naturally competitive, or predisposed to oppress anyone who doesn’t conform to the majority group. Some students who weren’t sci-fi fans also said Butler made them want to discover how she used the genre to make statements about the real world.

I can’t say that I’m a sci-fi fan either, but I’m loving the discussions we’re having. Reading Butler’s reflections  turned out to be a great way to start the unit — she got us talking and thinking critically about race, class and gender before reading a word of her book!

Teaching Strategies: Chalk Talk

I’ve received several requests to explain the Chalk Talk activity from my post on teaching Catcher in the Rye.

This year, I’ve also used it to discuss The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, and Great Expectations — but it can work for any subject, as long as you’ve got a board and chalk or markers.

I first learned to Chalk Talk in a course called Theater in the English Classroom I took last summer. Thanks to my teacher Angela Brazil for this strategy!

Here’s what to do:

1. Write your topic on the board.

In my theater class, the word was “Revenge.”

For Catcher, I wrote, “Holden: typical teen or mentally disturbed?”

2. Invite students to respond to the topic — with definitions, quotations, questions, even pictures.

What happens next is fun and refreshing to watch: a group of students will rush to the board, eager to share their ideas and respond to each other.

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I look for students who hang back and invite them to add their thoughts, too. Everyone participates in some way, even the quiet kids. I also appreciate how this activity helps push our thinking further than usual if we begin class with it.

3. Once everyone is back in their seats, we reflect on what they’ve made.

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Then, I ask questions such as:

What do you see that you like?

What do you notice?

What did you add?

I also comment on these questions, and relate them to new questions for us to discuss.

4. You can go anywhere from here, including introducing a text, going back into a text, and asking students to write more on the topic.

Now, each time I announce a Chalk Talk, my students say or whisper, “Yessss!”

It’s no surprise, of course: kids are itching to express themselves, and writing on the board is an irresistible impulse.