To prepare our eighth grade students for their interdisciplinary eighth grade trip to Taos, New Mexico, students read Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, which narrates the adventures of two priests, Father Latour and Father Valliant, who attempt to evangelize the peoples of New Mexico. To enrich this cross-curricular experience, our initial goal is that the students develop an appreciation for Cather’s novel. Not only will they have the opportunity to visit the church, homes, and missions of Cather’s characters in Taos while learning about this period in history, science, and religion classes, but also students will be able to witness individuals who risked their lives to share their faith. This will invite students to grapple with the idea of faith and their daily expression of their beliefs as they prepare for Confirmation.
In addition to developing an appreciation for the characters, historical period, and themes in Cather’s novel, students will learn to annotate and analyze a text. In class, students will close read and annotate the text for the author’s mechanical tools (what is said—elements of a story) and stylistic tools (how it is said—the author’s writing style). Students will acquire the essential skill of annotating a text to help them unpack Cather’s purpose in writing.
To bring Cather’s nineteenth-century characters to life, our eighth graders will collaborate in small groups to create a larger-than-life social media page “Páginas de Caras” (a spinoff of a “Facebook” page) about one main character from Death Comes for the Archbishop. Students will create conversations between their character and other characters, form a timeline of the character’s experiences, post statements about their opinions and themes, and gather photographs from Taos that the character might have taken (if a camera existed at the time). Students will compile and apply their “evidence” from their annotation and expedition to construct a compelling social media page to bring the character to life in the twenty-first century.
In short, students will acquire the tools to unpack a challenging text and think about the characters and themes within a familiar frame-of-reference, the social media page. The juxtaposition between contemporary technology and Cather’s nineteenth century narrative will encourage students to think critically about past and present forms of communication and self-expression.
Taffet, Amy, "Páginas de Caras: Willa Cather’s Characters in the Twenty-First Century" (2013). Understanding by Design: Complete Collection. 266.