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How to Make Fiction Relevant

Updated: Jun 6

To wrap up my unit on Things Fall Apart, I’m doing what I believe Chinua Achebe would have wanted. I saw him speak in Philadelphia on a tour for the 50th anniversary of the publication of the novel. When a student in the crowd asked him about the lessons of the novel he responded: “I don’t want you to get any lessons from this book … I want you to get that it is a story of people just like you – their name sounds different, they dress different, they have different customs, but they are still people.” In other words, there’s no reason to be afraid. He wants his reader to see the complexities and flaws of his own culture and ours. At one point he said, “Africans have bad customs, like everybody.”

So for a final writing activity, I gave my students the option to write on a topic from the novel and then connect it to a recently published essay on that same topic. This way, they still demonstrate their understanding of the story and also think about its relevance, its relation to the world we now live in. We didn’t read or discuss the essays in class, so it’s up to them to discover the connection on their own. I also gave them the option to find their own essay to write about.

In the unit, we covered the topics of family, gender, custom, repression, religion, colonialism, ancestors, and proverbs. I provided essays on gender, colonialism, status, fame, wealth, religion, language, and family from The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Yale Review, NPR, National Geographic, and Achebe himself.

Too often, students rely heavily on class discussions when they search for the right phrases and expressions that show their independent interpretation. We want them to think for themselves, so we must challenge them by leaving a little room for them to fill in the gaps between the world of the novel and the world they live in. We must give them the opportunity to walk away from a novel with a new view of their world, and dare I say, a desire to improve it.

Achebe would want our students to explore what he called “a special truth that you may call the truth of fiction.”

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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