Uncovering Layers of Meaning

Teacher’s Reflection

I wanted students to understand how great and talented a writer Ernest Gaines is, and, in that attempt, I decided to create an assignment based on particular allusions present in A Lesson Before Dying.  Among them was a rather subtle excerpt taken from the novel for a group of students to decipher: “Twelve white men say a black man [Jefferson] must die, and another white man [governor] sets the date and time without consulting one black person. Justice?” I assigned two different student groups to this activity, but did not inform the groups that they were working on the same assignment.  In addition to the text, I gave both groups a printed copy of the timeline (Events and Dates in American History Timeline) that I reviewed on the first day of class.  The timeline attempts to establish some of the social context for life in 1948 Bayonne, LA.  Some of the events on the timeline include the Declaration of Independence, Dred Scott Decision, The Civil War, Reconstruction, and Plessy v. Ferguson.

The corresponding questions asked: 1) “Referring to the timeline of events in American History, what is the numerical relevance of Grant’s question in relation to the founding of the United States of America?” and 2)”What is the numerical significance of this question to FAITH?” I wanted students to make two significant connections to the text: the legal founding of America through the Declaration of Independence, and the Christian principles that are a part of its foundation/construction.

These students are rising secondary juniors and seniors attending a three week academy during the 2012 summer break.  The question was appropriately challenging and well within Tennessee state objectives for reading and studying literature at these grade levels.  Students must study writing techniques to identify, understand, and, hopefully, acquire in their appreciation of great writers.  Gaines demonstrates artistic brilliance with a sangfroid that might render his treasures invisible to the naked eye.  It is simply my honor to show them those components that I recognize.

The process was fairly logical.  To answer the question, students first had to determine the sides: they needed to realize that the twelve member jury and the governor are a single set of thirteen (13) men unto themselves, and that the black man is a set unto himself.  Thirteen should have linked them to the 13 Original Colonies of the United States at the time of the The Declaration of Independence, and to Christianity, also (Christ and his twelve apostles equal thirteen.)  In a previous lesson, I asked students to read Romans 12—living sacrifice—to uncover one of the hidden messages or themes that Gaines proposes in an understated way.

As anticipated, students had trouble understanding the directions. “What’s the total number of people?” “How many are together?” “How would you group these people?” were some of the ways that I attempted to reframe the question.   As obvious as the answer(s) seemed at first, students needed more hints, which might indicate a lack of instructional clarity or group familiarity.  Eventually, both groups answered “thirteen” and started on the historical aspect of the question, which was an equal challenge for both groups.


My point in recalling and posting this reflection is to share a hidden gem that I received: one student suggesting The Twelve Tribes of Israel.  A Twelve Tribes allusion harkens to the “eye-for-an-eye” justice of the Old Testament, which is really occurring in the novel, and which is currently a very contentious issue in America today, despite states having the legal right to enforce capital punishment.  I was captivated by this suggestion.  In fact, I am still stunned.  In some ways, her suggestion represents the totality of what Gaines might be proffering to readers.  Her suggestion allows for a discussion on relevant issues like capital punishment and the judicial system, in a way less daunting than what I’d initially thought.  (I tend not to read Spark Notes, Cliff’s Notes or other external sources for teaching ideas, and so, I have not yet checked to see what Gaines or other sources might say about this notion.)