I want to put the doll away

Alan Hale Sr. and Alla Nazimova as Torvald and Nora in a 1922 silent film version of “A Doll’s House.”

I’m going to spend today watching football and grading papers, which is a fall tradition for many of us in the teaching profession. One of the sets of papers that I’ll be grading are student essays about Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. We have just finished reading the play and I had them write about whether or not they thought that Nora made the right decision at the end of the play. This has always been one of the stronger essays in the class because my students always seem to have strong opinions about what she does, which is leave her husband after realizing that she’s been treated like … wait for it …  a doll her whole life and doesn’t know who she is.

The students have always done well in reading and understanding it and have always seemed to connect with it, which is something you don’t think of when you’re talking about a domestic drama that’s 120 years old. So, this should be one I keep in my “best practices” or be a gold standard or something, right? It is.

Except … I’m getting tired of it. This is a weird conundrum that I’ve never really had before. There are plenty of times where the students don’t like what we’re reading and teaching it is incredibly painful–I completely crashed and burned the one time I tried teaching a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne a few years ago–and I can easily scrap those and find something else.

But I’ve never had the opposite happen. It’s not that I don’t like A Doll’s House; it’s just that I’ve been teaching it in four classes a day for the last six years (plus, I read it in both high school and college). I’ve heard Torvald call Nora his little lark more times than I can count. But like I said, it works very well and if it ain’t broke … right? Thankfully, this “problem” is one that I have time to try and solve. Since I’m done teaching the play for this year, I won’t have to turn my attention to the Helmers and their domestic issues until next year. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore it until then, especially when it’s still fresh in my mind and I’m going back over what worked and what didn’t. I know that I will probably take it off of the syllabus for my advanced English class and either replace it with something else or expand our study of Twelfth Night, because that group struggled with it this year more so than in years past.

What I’m going to do with my general-level students is a little tougher because reading the play accomplishes three things: it introduces them to literature with a true sense of realism, it shows them that “We’re going to read a play” doesn’t always mean “I’m going to torture you with Romeo & Juliet,” and the essay at the end of the unit strengthens their argumentative writing skills. I’d hate to lose that because I’m sick of something. For all I know, this post could be for naught. I may have an amazing group of students next year who reinvigorate me and make me want to teach the play again, this time with gusto. I may wind up teaching an entire grade altogether and not have to teach it.

But for now, I need to consider where the middle ground is between “showing a rerun” and “reinventing the wheel.” Perhaps I still teach the play but change some of the ways we approach it on a day-to-day basis. Maybe I’ll supplement it with some poetry. Maybe I’ll look at an exciting way to do those weeks’ vocabulary and grammar assignments and treat A Doll’s House as something that we “have” to do (although I don’t think that’s going to work, but I’m just brainstorming here anyway). Maybe I’ll add another assignment to go along with the essay–updating it for a modern audience, writing a letter from Nora to the children five years down the road (okay, I just did that the other day), writing a sequel, rewriting it as if it were a typical Hollywood film in another genre (“For years, she was his lark, his squirrel, his doll. Now … playtime is over.”).

Okay, now I’m just being silly. A work of literature that you teach sometimes is like a favorite album–for instance, I just did a podcast about Counting Crows’ August and Everything After with my friend chelle and the two of us still love this album as much as we did twenty years ago. I can say the same about Born in the U.S.A., which came out nearly thirty years ago; or The Stranger, which is as old as I am. But sometimes a work of literature that you teach isn’t that loved and it’s only something you like, so it needs to become the Christmas music that you only load onto your iPod from December 1 until Christmas is over and listen to with gusto, which, since A Doll’s House takes place on Christmas, is appropriate. So hopefully I’ll be able to figure out how to make my annual stay at the Helmers’ pleasant again.

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