How to Teach The Old Man and the Sea to 7th Graders

411pakpjvdl-_sx326_bo1204203200_I teach two sets of 7th grade English to GATE students this year, so when I found a partial class set of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea in the back of the book room, I thought why not give it a go.  See what happens.   What follows is my advice for anyone considering using The Old Man and the Sea with 7th grade students.

Stress how they are acting like real college students, reading and discussing a college level book.  Stress how reading it now will give them an advantage over other students in high school and college.
Mean it.
It’s true.
Read the book aloud to them.  Tell them this is because there are not enough copies for everyone to take the book home, which was true for me.  Don’t let them take turns reading it until at least halfway through and then only if they beg.  The Old Man and the Sea looks easy to read, but you’re still a better reader than they are, and they know it and appreciate it.
Always stop for the day at a key point in the story.  If no one goes “Awww” when you stop for the day, you’re not at a key point.
Read no more than 15 minutes a day.  This will mean you’ll have to read the book for 8 or 9 days, that fish takes a long time to die, but too much time on any given day dealing with the details of how to fish and you’ll lose the students.  Explain to the students that whenever Hemingway writes about how to fish, he is really writing about how to write.
Don’t assign nightly homework activities.  They do not have these in college.  They just read and discuss in college.  And they write two papers.
Be brave and present as many high level interpretations to the students as you can.  My students we able to understand them all and to come up with a few interesting ones of their own.   When I told them some professors read the fish as a work of art and Santiago as an artist, they knew right away that the sharks were critics.  When I told them some professors see the fish as a mythical creature, they made all sorts of connections linking Santiago to Heracles performing his labors, his harpoon to the spear Odysseus used to blind the cyclops,  the strange creatures Santiago meets like the flying fish and the Portuguese Man-o-war with the fantastic creatures in Greek myths.  One came up with Scylla and Charbidis on his own.
When we talked about how some professors see the fish as Santiago himself, they remembered the times he called the fish brother and were able to figure out that the fish stood for Santiago when he was young and strong and that the sharks stood for all the hard times Santiago faced in his life.  They even got the Christ figure references in the end once I stopped and re-read them.  The idea that was new to me that they came up with was that if the fish is a great work of art, Santiago is an art thief who ends up destroying the artwork he worked so hard to get.  I’m still thinking about that one.
Don’t give them a big project or essay to do at the end.  Just a quick worksheet with a serious set of questions, all college level but not so involved that they need write more than one page to answer them.
Be sure you’re working with a high-level group of motivated students.  I’m not sure any of this would fly with a regular class though I’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried it.   My district is phasing out the GATE English classes in the middle schools starting next fall, so  Hemingway’s days may be numbered.
Since I first ran this post on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2012, my district has fazed out all GATE classes at the middle school level, along with the advanced math courses and Honors English at the high schools.  Apparently, someone did a study which the administration read and you know there’s no stopping and administrator who has read a study.

3 thoughts on “How to Teach The Old Man and the Sea to 7th Graders

  1. I remember my 9th grade English teacher reading Poe to us a little at a time. I loved it. So sorry they fazed out your GATE classes. When I taught, it was so much fun teaching the gifted classes.

  2. I would have dug that class. Our teacher rotated between old man and the sea and the pearl by Steinbeck. I got the pearl class. It was my first taste of lit crit and I enjoyed it and became a lit major in college. I remember reading Hemingway on my own but other than maybe one short story I was surprised to find that Hemingway/Steinbeck/Fitzgerald were rarely mentioned in college. They were all about Faulkner.

    1. I only recently found Faulkner. They come and go and it’s different depending on where you go to school. At SFSU, back in the 1980’s, Hemingway and Fitzgerald were still very big. I ended up focusing on Victorian England, but that’s another, three volume, story.

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