Coketown to Mississippi

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Louise Loxton suggests a scheme of work for text comparison at key stage 4

Among the most enjoyable aspects of teaching a combined English language and English literature course at key stage 4 is the potential for comparison of texts from different social, historical and cultural contexts. This gives students broader cultural perspectives and allows for a variety of approaches by the teacher: there can be comparision of theme, relationships, genre and context.

To extend the most able students and deliver a solid basis from which the analysis of literature can be taken to further study post-16, we must provide the opportunity for the study of whole texts.

I have devised this scheme of work for use with my top set Year 11 class next January. The material can be adapted to suit a variety of teaching and learning styles to meet the different needs of individual students. For example, the presentation of the pre-reading response need not be writen. For students with learning difficulties, it would be important to provide guidance on plot and character through comprehension questions, sequencing, video, hot-seating and cloze exercises.

Pre-reading gives students a knowledge of the social, cultural and historical context of the text to be studied. Within the confines of a GCSE syllabus it could be difficult to read both texts in class. Students at my school will be asked to read their set text, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, over the Christmas holidays and they will compare it during the term with Dickens's Hard Times. The timescale for completing the activities and coursework is eight weeks. The coursework encourages independent study, group work and whole-class activity.

Louise Loxton is head of English and drama at St Mark's school, Bath


Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Encourage students to use a variety of sources for this research, such as video, internet, CD-Roms and stage productions, in addition to the more traditional resources available in the school or local libraries. Pre-reading responses can be oral, visual or presented on video or audio cassette tape.

The novel is set in the 1930s in the southern states of the US and deals with issues arising from slavery, segregation and civil rights.

* Investigate the treatment of black people before this period, from 1619, when the first black people were brought to America.

* Investigate civil rights issues from the 1930s to the present day.

* When was the Depression in America and what aspects of life did it most affect?

Pre-reading Hard Times

The novel is set in the north of England but Dickens and his family lived in the south.

* Chart the places where Dickens spent his life - including his travels overseas.

* When did Dickens's writing career begin ?

* Investigate the development of the trade union movement.


To ensure that students have a firm grasp of the plot, use a sequencing exercise to test and reinforce understanding.

Hard Times

Reassemble the sequence of events in each story to create a summary of the overall plot:

Book 1 Sowing

The novel begins in the "model" school of Thomas Gradgrind.

The search is now on for the real criminal, Tom, who, assisted by Sissy Jupe and friends, has escaped to America, never to return.

Thomas Gradgrind is patron of the school. He insists on the value of facts and sees the imagination as "dangerous".

Stephen Blackpool decides to return home but on his way he falls down a disused mine shaft and subsequently dies.

Gradgrind also teaches his own children, Tom and Louisa. Another girl in their class is Sissy Jupe, who comes from the circus.

Book 3 Garnering

Bounderby offers a reward for Blackpool's arrest.

Sissy Jupe's father disappears and Mr Gradgrind decides Sissy should move into his home.

A parallel story runs alongside the robbery. James Harthouse makes advances towards Louisa - she leaves Bounderby and returns to her family home.

Josiah Bounderby, a rich industrialist who intends to marry Louisa, does not approve of Gradgrind's decision to bring Sissy into the family home.

Tom robs Bounderby's bank and Stephen Blackpool, who has left Coketown, is under suspicion for the crime.

Louisa agrees to marry Bounderby simply to help Tom, who has a job at his bank. She is 18 when she marries Bounderby, who is 50.

The novel rapidly changes from a story of industrial life to a detective story.

Bounderby employs a middle-aged man, called Stephen Blackpool, who is looking for a way out of his unhappy marriage.

Book 2 Reaping

Louisa and Bounderby are visited by James Harthouse - a young gentleman.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

TJ Avery eventually ruins his relationship with the Logan children through false accusation; but the novel ends with Cassie fearing for TJ's life on the chain-gang.

The novel begins with the young children of the Logan family walking to school across the wide space of the plantations with their friend TJ Avery.

Cassie has her own experience of racial prejudice from Lillian Jean Simms, but she eventually gets revenge.

The Logans bought their first land from Mr Hollenbeck in 1887 and had to get a mortgage to pay for it.

Mrs Logan is threatened at school by members of the white school board and is sacked from her job.

The Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School was one of the largest black schools in the county.

Uncle Hammer arrives in his huge Packard car to support the family as racial tension increases in the area.

Miss Crocker is a teacher who does not like to be defied. She is strict but also quite unfair; she does not listen to Little Man's explanation for not wanting to take the book.

A steep learning curve comes for Cassie when she is treated as a second-class citizen at the Barnett Mercantile store; the children begin to realise the society they live in is unjust.

On his first day at school, Little Man discovers the attitude of the white people towards black people: he reads inside the cover of his textbook that he has only been given the book once the white students considered it to be in poor condition.

As time passes the Logan children discover more injustices of life for black people in the southern states of America; they learn about the "night riders" and the "burnings".

One day Mr Logan returns unexpectedly with a Mr Morrison, a gigantic man who has lost his job; Mr Logan offers him a home and work on his land.

As the children continue at school Little Man is amazed to discover that the Jefferson Davis school for white children has a school bus, whereas they have to walk for miles in the mud.

Cassie and her brothers plan revenge - they overturn the white school bus.

Big Ma worries about Cassie after the episode at the store and in the street in Strawberry; Cassie tries to explain the two incidents to her Mama.

Narrative structure and viewpoint

Use these questions as homework tasks to extend the more able student. Less able students can be guided through them using various teaching and learning styles, such as group work, brainstorming ideas on large sheets of paper to assist whole-class discursive feedback; the use of video to examine dramatic tension; hot-seating characters to understand motive and personal response to situations; and activities to examine style, word and text-level analysis.

* Hard Times is divided into three separate books. Explain the significance of the title of each book.

* Each book in Hard Times deals with different political and social issues. Explain what these issues are and how they link together in the novel as a whole.

* How does the narrative structure of Hard Times assist the dramatic tension in the novel?

* Dickens's social comment is implicit in his characterisation and the events in the plot. Pick out five examples in Hard Times where we can emphatically hear the writer's voice.

* Both stories build up to a moment of dramatic tension. Identify the moment of dramatic tension in each novel.

* The plot of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is revealed to us through the eyes of young Cassie Logan. How does this personal narrative style affect us as readers?

* Some chapters in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry include a flashback style of narration. Identify these chapters and summarise the flashback scenes. How do the flashbacks affect our reading of the story as a whole?

* As we read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry we become emotionally involved with the injustices endured by the Logan family and their friends. Describe two techniques used by Mildred D Taylor to engage us with her characters in this powerful way.

* How does the writer of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry create the sense of an oral tradition in her narrative style?

* Both writers are social commentators. In your opinion, whose comment is the most effective?


Use these questions on theme in each novel either for an extended written comprehension exercise or class discussion.

Main themes in Hard Times include education, money and family.

Main themes in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry include segregation, slavery, civil rights, racism, revenge, resistance, risks, faith and families.

* Choose similar themes from both novels and compare the writers' treatment of these themes.

* Choose one theme from each novel and explain how it links with another theme from the same story.

* Both novels deal with the idea of individuals being social outcasts. List the social outcasts in each novel. How does the writer present these characters? Does the writer empathise with the character, or present the character as one to be judged and condemned ?

Speaking and listening

These tasks can be used for EN1 assessments. Students work in pairs, groups or individually.

Explaining, describing and narrating

* Conduct an interview between Josiah Bounderby (Hard Times) and Tom Gradgrind when Tom first seeks a post at Bounderby's bank.

* Imagine you are James Harthouse (Hard Times). Try to woo Louisa Gradgrind when Bounderby is at work.

* Imagine that you are Cassie in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry telling your Mama about the unpleasant events you experienced at the store and when you met Lillian Jean Simms in the street. What would you say ?

Discussing, arguing and persuading

* You are Mr Jupe in Hard Times. Attend an interview with Mr Gradgrind and persuade him to accept Sissy at his school.

* Throughout Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry black people are victims of violence and injustice. "Black people are constantly under threat" - discuss in groups of four or five.

* In 1963, civil rights supporters marched on Washington in the biggest demonstration the city had ever known. As Uncle Hammer or Mr Morrison in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, give a speech to the local community about how you should support each other and conquer the "night riders" in their "burnings" of your properties. Give some strategies for emergencies.

Wide reading assignment

Depending on the ability and nature of the teaching group, these assignments can either be issued at the start of work on both novels or at the end of the period of class study. Encourage students to make use of the bullet points (as with SATs at KS3 and the examination questions).

Foundation tier

Through the comparison of the characters of Miss Crocker (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) and Mr Gradgrind (Hard Times) what do you learn about the different types of schools in the novels?

In your answer you should include:

* how the teachers speak to students

* student behaviour in class

* resources - what books the students use.

Higher tier

To what extent are the charactersMiss Crocker and Mr Gradgrind used by the writers to attack the evils of the societies in which the novels are set? In your answer you should include:

* an analysis of the term "caricature"

* the ways in which the writers present the problems of each society.

* the use of character to support the writers' social comment.

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