This lesson plan's activities are based on Teaching Idea #1: "Misunderstandings and Stereotypes" for "A Dream in Polar Fog". For a detailed discussion of those themes in the story, and a list of related readings, please see the Teaching Idea.
Length: 2-4 45-minute sessions
Grade Levels: 11, 12, college
- Analyze the central themes and supporting details (CCS ELA R 2)
- Determine characters' perspectives on one another and trace the effects of those perspectives (CCS ELA R 4)
- Beginning students may benefit from defining the terms misunderstanding and stereotype in response to a question such as: "What is the difference between a misunderstanding and a stereotype?" More advanced students can begin with 2 below.
- Have students journal in response to the prompt: "Have you ever been misunderstood or stereotyped? Or, have you ever misunderstood or stereotyped another person? Write about one such experience."
- Divide the class in half. As they read the story, have half the students focus on John's misconceptions of Chukchi people, and the other half focus on the Chukchi characters' misconceptions of John.
- Have students share and discuss their examples in small groups made up of students from both halves.
- Ask students to share the specific words John and the Chukchi characters use in describing one another. List both sets of words, and ask students to identify the differences between the sets of perceptions. (Whereas the Chukchi people think they understand and are similar to John, John sees the Chukchis as entirely "other." John does not only misunderstand, but also stereotypes these characters.)
Have students discuss the following questions in small groups:
- What does John mean when he calls the others "barbaric" and "savage"? Are these descriptions accurate? What do they leave out? What do they reflect about John's worldview?
- How does the concept of Othering, and representations of "Others" as animal-like and child-like, relate to John's perceptions of Chukchi people? (Students might read and watch videos from this overview of Othering from the Arab American National Museum, and read a blog post from a personal website to help to explain John's attitudes and perceptions.)
- If Toko knew what John was thinking about him and other Chukchi people in this story, how might he respond? What emotions might arise, and what might he think and/or do?
- How do John's emotions shape his perceptions of, and actions towards, the Chukchi people? For example, what are John's feelings during the amputation scene, and what is he thinking about Kelena and the others? What are his feelings later, when they are traveling, and how are those feelings reflected in his treatment of Toko, Ovol and Armol'? What has changed, and what has remained the same? (Students might note that, even in a more benevolent mood, John still considers his guides "savages.")
- Fiction/Performance/Essay: After John awakens, he tries to explain something to Toko, but Toko doesn't know English, nor does John understand Chukchi:
He was muttering something. Quickly, hurriedly. His tone conveyed pleading, horror, promises, pain, rage . . .Imagine that, during the amputation scene, Toko and John actually could understand one another's languages. What would have happened then? Write a new version of the scene, in which Toko knows English, or John knows Chukchi. Work with a partner to prepare performances of your new scenes. After performing the scenes for the class, write a reflection: How did the ability to communicate help John and Toko? Which problems remained, despite the ability to communicate?
Without having understood a single word, Toko answered him.
"Just bear it for a little while longer. All will be well. This woman is saving your life, don't fear her..."
- Essay: John uses words like "barbaric," "savages," etc. to describe the Chukchi people. Why does he use those words? What do those words mean to him? How do they misrepresent the people being described? What words would you use to describe the Chukchi characters, and why?
Supporting English Language Learners (ELLs)
- Embed new learning in context: Students may not be familiar with the Arctic setting of this story; provide opportunities for them to learn about it from multimodal contextual resources before beginning to read. The following links from the Context tab may be particularly helpful to language learners:
- Activate background knowledge: John does not know the language of the people operating on his hands, nor can he make himself understood to them. If English language learners arrived not knowing English, or knowing very little, you might ask them to write or speak about their early experiences. More advanced students might draw upon their experiences to answer a larger question about the role of language in human interactions, such as, "Is it possible to trust other people when you do not speak the same language?"
- Scaffold language use: To support English learners' participation in discussion and activities, post relevant terms: misconception, stereotype, misunderstanding; characters' names; and vocabulary from the story: yaranga, shaman, savages, barbarism. Adjust this list based on ELLs' vocabulary levels, but err on the site of inclusion; even after English language learners understand a word, they may need support in using it.
Differentiating for Advanced Learners
Advanced students might also examine the story's restrained, seemingly objective, almost journalistic tone, evident in passages such as this one:
The shaman-woman's face was covered in perspiration. Sometimes she would wipe the sweat from her forehead with an elbow and sniff impatiently. Having finished with one hand, she moved on to the other.
Ask students to write or prepare a presentation in response to these questions:
- How does this tone influence the reader's perceptions of the characters?
- How does the narrator use his omniscience to shape the reader's understanding of characters?