Mudbound, Skype, and Hillary Jordan

No More Guessing on Author Intent in Mudbound – Susan Barber

After falling in love with the novel Mudbound last summer, I decided to make it this year’s summer reading. Mudbound has so many great teaching points from point of view, narrative perspective, characterization, symbolism, and themes that one could spend months uncovering the layers of meaning. Oh, and did I mention the story is high interest?  Students came to class on  day one anxiously awaiting discussion; they enjoyed the novel so much there were few complaints about having summer work.

I connected with Hillary Jordan last year on Twitter and was excited to have the opportunity for my class to Skype with her last week about Mudbound. She was so gracious, energetic, and just plain fun to talk to.

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Procedure

In preparing for our discussion we did a few things. After completely unpacking, discussing, and working on our Mudbound Sparknotes project (thanks for this idea, Beth Whinnem), we had a final Socratic type discussion with Socratic Seminar Questions created by the students. From these questions students created a list of questions for Hillary. We wanted a variety of questions and roughly categorized questions with initials. These questions served as a prompt and a guide, but we also discussed the art of follow-up questions and comments.

Teaching EQ not just IQ

I also wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to teach emotional intelligence or soft skills. We had a designated student to introduce our class and tell a little about us; we also designated a student to end with thanks and appreciation from our class. We discussed the concept of being active listeners which involved jotting down notes or further questions but stressed that this was a conversation and not a note-taking lecture. Finally, students are sending formal thank-you notes; people still hand write notes, right?

The Call

We Skyped with Hillary Jordan for about 45 minutes this past Thursday and had a fantastic experience. Students were fully engaged learned so much. My students were completely blown away to find out the the novel took over six years to write the novel; this gave them a whole new perspective on revision. They also loved hearing about her choices in scene construction, character voice, and overall plot development. Many have opened the book again to reread scenes and characters with a fresh set of eyes.

As we left the media center, I overheard comments of “What did you think about . . .” and “I was really surprised when she said . . .”  We continued the conversation the next morning in class as students were eager to unpack ideas and thoughts after having time to digest our conversation.

A Teacher’s Reflections on Skyping with an Author Her Students Really Admire – Karla Hillard

Last Thursday, my students and I had the pleasure of Skyping with Hillary Jordan, author of award-winning novel Mudbound and her more recent, futuristic novel When She Woke.

My students had been assigned Mudbound as summer reading, and by their own admission, many of them were less than enthused by the connotation of the title, and several more had broken the “don’t judge a book by its cover” commandment.

Long story short, their reading experience was satisfying and redeeming. Students buzzed with excitement about Mudbound’s shifting narrators, familiar themes, surprising moments, and sheer readability. They kept turning the pages and felt rewarded for doing so.

They felt even more rewarded when they learned that Hillary Jordan – the real writer of this actual book that they enjoyed first as readers agreed to speak with our class one afternoon.

Before I offer a bit of what I noticed and my teacher takeaways, I must first say Hillary Jordan is an awesome person. She gave up her time willingly to hang out on a videoconference with a room full of fifty-some teenagers. She is smart and funny and so down to Earth. And she was completely willing to deal with our wonky audio and answer my students’ questions.

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Here’s some of what I noticed:

       Students’ questions were good. They were thoughtful and mature and seemed to come from a place of genuine curiosity about her work. (You can check out their questions here.)

       We had to adjust to our technical glitches, despite the test runs and preparation. And you know what? Everything worked out fine, and my students handled it like pros. I ended up typing out each question in Skype’s chat function, but each student whose question was asked still had a chance to step up to the camera and wave “hi” to Hillary.

       Getting insights about writing from a real, live, and available writer enriched our classroom conversations about structure, voice, and themes.

       Students were students in the best possible way. They enthusiastically responded to Jordan’s anecdotes about her characters, the personal connections to her story, her path to becoming a novelist, and her quips about writing in different voices. They would give her a thumbs up, wave their hands to respond to questions, and give her the universal heart hand sign. It was wonderful watching this time in class unfold.

Here are a few of my teacher takeaways:

  1.     Reach out. You never know who will say yes on the other end of a simple email.
  2.     Just go with it. Even if you’ve tested your technology multiple times, and you’re still not sure it will work; even if you’re squeezing chairs into a science lab, and you’re not sure everyone will fit; even if you end up bad sound and the author can’t hear you — show your students you’re willing to think on your feet and adjust as necessary because the experience is valuable.
  3.     Encourage students to “be down.” Being open and willing to participate in classroom experiences can open doors to authentic learning, and I believe, create lasting, meaningful impressions.

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Karla Hillard teaches AP Literature and helps lead the STEM Academy at her high school in West Virginia. She is a creative, energizing teacher who spends her free time with her family, writing, and building the WVCTE. Follow her on Twitter and learn more about her class through her class blog.

Susan Barber teaches AP Literature and is English department chair in the Atlanta area. Her teaching style is characterized as relational and relaxed balanced with high-level learning. Follower her on Twitter and learn more about her passion for the next generation on her personal blog.