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Teaching the ScArlet Letter

Laura Sockol

Our experiences of texts are always shaped by the histories we bring to them. This is particularly true of the "big books" we have been reading for this class. Because these works are considered classics, many of us are not reading them for the first time. As we have discussed on the forum, this has a great influence on how we read the texts later in life. Some of our memories enhanced our pleasure when returning to the texts, either because we had such positive experiences the first time around or because we are surprised at the difference in our perspective at a later point in life. However, particularly when we began to read The Scarlet Letter, some of us expressed a reluctance to return to a text of which our memories were not so fond. Allison Reingold's earlier experiences left her believing that "it was the most boring, useless book ever to plague American readers" (Big Books). My own prior experiences with Hawthorne in the classroom left me similarly prejudiced. However, I wonder whether my opinion of Hawthorne and his works would be different had they been taught differently when I first encountered them. As an education certification candidate, I will likely have to teach The Scarlet Letter at some point in the near future. What about my earlier experiences shaped my dislike of Hawthorne? And how could I approach teaching this work to prevent this resistance and frustration in my future students?

In my high school classrooms, The Scarlet Letter was approached in two ways: as a lens through which to learn about and evaluate Puritan culture, and as a warning against hiding one's sins. One topic for our final essays on The Scarlet Letter in eleventh grade was to identify the "sweet moral blossom" of Hawthorne's tale (Hawthorne 41). I answered that "it is better to live truthfully than to hide sins," and I am certain that all of my classmates who answered the same question did the same. Although we may have pushed some cognitive boundaries by sympathizing with Hester Prynne, our interpretations were still molded by a rigid, Puritanical approach: we replaced the "Hester = Bad, Dimmesdale = Good" dichotomy of the town with the equally simple "Dimmesdale = Bad, Hester = Good." Our readings of the text were largely defined by binaries: symbolism, themes and characters were all created in opposing sets; man versus society, dark versus light, Hester versus Dimmesdale. This approach limited our ability to work with the text.

My goal in teaching The Scarlet Letter would be to have my students move beyond the obvious binary distinctions in the novel and work in the "grey areas" between. I would want them to be able to think about the dilemmas in the text from multiple perspectives and negotiate opposing arguments. I have thought of several activities that might help me reach this goal when working with the text in a high-school classroom.

Activity: Reading Hawthorne
One of the biggest problems I had with Hawthorne as a high school student, and a reason I think I was frustrated by the choice of The Scarlet Letter as a summer reading selection when I was thirteen, is the difficulty of parsing Hawthorne's language. I would want to give my students practice reading Hawthorne so that they become more fluent in the language that he uses.
One way I could accomplish this, while moving toward the goal of having students approach the text from multiple viewpoints, would be to have different students read the same segment aloud. This would be particularly valuable for working with sections of The Custom House and the first chapter. I would have students read these first sections of the text in-class, rather than as a homework assignment, so that we could discuss students' frustration with Hawthorne's language and ways of approaching the text to make Hawthorne more readable. By having multiple students read the same segment aloud, students could also be introduced to the idea interpreting the same text in multiple ways. We could discuss the different ways in which people choose to read the same words aloud and the changes in meaning that accompany such decisions. Hearing the differences between students literal "readings" of the text would provide a starting-point for introducing students to the concept of producing multiple readings of a text. While this activity would help the students develop fluency and strategies for navigating Hawthorne's sentences, it would also lay the groundwork for having students think about the text from multiple perspectives.

Activity: The Human Barometer
Although this is a common activity, I think it is particularly useful for approaching The Scarlet Letter. I would give the students in the class a moral dilemma from the text and give them two opposing viewpoints. Students would then physically place themselves on a continuum between the two points. Students at different points on the continuum would have the chance to explain why they chose to agree with the statement they did, and the other students would be free to change their position on the barometer in response to what other students say. Students who change position would then be encouraged to share why they originally chose their position and what made them change.
I think this activity would be particularly valuable for challenging some of the binary oppositions in the text. Because students are able to physically occupy the space between opposite ideas, they are able to explore and articulate the aspects of the plot that do not neatly fall at either end of the dichotomies. In addition, because they are able to change their position during the course of the activity, students will begin to challenge their own initial reactions and beliefs about the text and become more comfortable changing their minds and accepting different opinions.
Another way in which I could use this activity would be to have students assume the identity of a character in the novel and use this mindset to approach the barometer activity. Students would be assigned hypothetical identities such as "30-year-old married mother" or "14-year-old male, son of one of Boston's prominent citizens." In thinking about taking on these roles, they would be able to think about the intersection of individual interests and societal influences. I hope that this activity would reduce the tendency of students to see Hester and the other members of the community as in conflict with one another and help illustrate the fact that a community is not a unified body but a collection of individuals.

Activity: The Believing/Doubting Game
Like the human barometer, I think this is another common activity that could be particularly useful for high school students reading The Scarlet Letter. I would specifically use this activity to address some of the binary distinctions frequently made with regard to the themes and symbolism in Hawthorne's work. To begin the activity, I would have students brainstorm ideas about symbols and themes in the work. In the standard high school curriculum, these commonly take the form of "X versus Y" statements. I might also have students use study guides, such as SparkNotes, as a source for these ideas. I would then have them practice Paul Elbow's practice of "believing and doubting" some students would criticize an idea and look for evidence that it was flawed, and other students would endeavor to accept it (Grayson). This game would be useful for thinking about the kind of statements, such as "light is used to symbolize good and dark is used to symbolize evil," that typified the way The Scarlet Letter was taught in my high school. There are many examples in the work where the use of light is not so clearly associated with good. However, the idea can also be a useful framework for approaching the use of light and dark in the text. By having students think about when they "believe" these statements and when they "doubt" them, and asking them to provide textual evidence for both positions, students would come to appreciate the way The Scarlet Letter resists binary distinctions.

Activity: Switch Debates
I would want to use this activity to challenge some of the assumptions that went unquestioned in my high school classes. Among these are the ideas that it is better to admit your sins than to hide them and that personal happiness is more important than community stability. I would have the students form small groups to go through the text and find evidence in support of their position in the debate. However, without informing the students beforehand, I would have the students "switch sides" halfway through the debate. I remember from my own experiences that, when we had debates, people would become very wedded to their group's position, even if it was not something they personally supported. This activity would help people challenge the belief that one side is "right" in a debate. Like the believing/doubting game, this activity would help students appreciate both sides of an argument. However, because the students would have spent a great deal of time preparing their argument for the debate and crafting their opinions, it will be more challenging for them to "believe" the other side.

Activity: Trials
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne challenges the idea of what constitutes justice. In order to illustrate this in the classroom, I would have the students enact a trial in which they would take on roles similar to characters in The Scarlet Letter. Although I would not want to use the exact case as presented in the book, I would have students "accused" of similar moral transgressions during the same time period. Other students in the class would take on other positions in the trial accomplices, victims, government officials, religious figures, etc. The rest of the class would compromise the jury. By acting out the process of casting judgement and assigning punishment (or not), the class would see the ways in which one's position in a society influences the way one interprets a crime.
Another interesting way in which to use this activity would be to have the students who make up the jury take on the role of a character in the novel. For example, in the case of a trial of adultery, students could be asked to assume the roles of Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale and Chillingsworth, and to debate the appropriate course of action from these viewpoints. This would help students see the story from multiple perspectives.

My goal as a teacher in facilitating these activities would be to have students move beyond the binary distinctions that are often delineated in Hawthorne's text and discuss and negotiate the space between "opposing" ideas. By taking on multiple viewpoints and being willing to challenge their initial beliefs about the text, I would hope to give them the skills and attitude necessary to interrogate the text at a more complex level. Instead of accepting the good/bad, society/individual distinctions that were made when I was first taught The Scarlet Letter, the students would use the text to challenge these clear-cut distinctions. Although not every student will come to love Hawthorne, I hope that this approach would leave students less frustrated with the work.

Works Cited

Big Books of American Literature Course Forum. 31 March 2006.

Grayson, Randall. "The Believing and Doubting Game." 2002. 31 March 2006.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Philadelphia: Courage Books, 1991.


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