How would I go about teaching Under the Feet of Jesus?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Much of this is dependent on the contextual factors surrounding one's teaching condition.  Age, duration of lesson, and reading level are all aspects that must be taken into account.  Very similar to Under the Feet of Jesus is an experience I have had in teaching the works of John Steinbeck.  The lesson plan has to focus on both the work itself and the realities of the social context that find their way into the work.  In some regards, one is teaching history/ sociology as well as literature.

One essential part in teaching the book is for students to keep a "good writing log."  This can be a three columned log in which students find examples of good and compelling writing.  Students need to be able to richly interact the text, recognizing what they consider to be powerful examples of writing and be able to explain on the log why they think the sentence featured is such good writing. Viramontes's writing style is both literary, but also historical and spiritual in scope.  This makes the identification of effective writing moments powerful for students who are able to explain why a particular part of the text strikes them the way it does.  In teaching the book, this element has to be a significant part of the teaching plan.

I would also suggest that there is a particular lyricism in the book that lends itself to being read aloud.  There might be an advantage to reading the book aloud to students.  The development of Estrella as a girl whose voice is forgotten, one who is "silent with rage," and then emerging into a force that is both of the world and almost transcending it is a progression that lends itself to the read aloud method.  There are moments in the text where reading it aloud can grab students' interest and not surrender it easily:  "...she stepped forward and the glass doors split open before her as if obeying her command. . . . Estrella parted the doors like a sea of glass and walked through."  There is a majesty in the line that, if read aloud, can initiate thought within the student and even discussion in the class. When Viramontes articulates the plight of the migrant worker, the forgotten voice in American society, it seizes the mind and imagination:

 He had given this country his all, and in this land that used his bones for kindling, in this land that never once in the thirty years he lived and worked, never once said thank you, this young woman who could be his granddaughter had said the words with such honest gratitude, he was struck by how deeply these words touched him.

This might be where reading aloud could be a significant aspect in teaching the book to students.  It transfers the love of literature by making it publicly shared.

Finally, I believe that there has to be some time devoted to the work of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.  Students have to understand the background of the context of workers like Estrella's family.  In being able to fully understand this historical and cultural context, a greater appreciation for Estrella's progression and growth can be evident.  Through this, a fuller understanding of the meaning behind the sentiment in the mother's statement of “We have to look out for our own.”  Studying Chavez and the migrant worker movement of the 1970s is of critical importance to gaining more insight into Under the Feet of Jesus.

In the end, teaching a book like Under the Feet of Jesus is going to work if the teacher seeks to transform what exists in student understanding to what can be.  There is a transformative element to the work and being able to illuminate this in the minds and hearts of students is essential in order to develop a love of literature.  I believe that this mentality is critical in teaching Viramontes's work.

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