The Perfect Introduction to Charlotte Perkins Gillman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"

I have written elsewhere about the initial challenges I faced when I moved into teaching Common Core State Standards.

One of the biggest disruptions I experienced was in the teaching of poetry. For a couple of years, as I incorporated non-fiction text into my teaching, poetry sat on the back burner, unloved. After my essay, "How the Common Core Re-Mapped The Way I Teach Writing," was published last summer in EdWeek magazine, I was contacted by several English teachers who took me to task for dropping the poetic ball.

I'm happy to say that poetry has made a comeback in my classes this year, in perfect compliment to the multiple readings of text that I began during my conversion to a Common Core teacher.

I have begun to use poems to kick off weekly readings. Poems are the perfect opening: theme and imagery are right there in plain sight, and they help get students in the proper frame of mind to encounter longer, more challenging texts.

Preparing to teach "The Yellow Wallpaper" this year, I initially turned towards Emily Dickinson. I had used her poems last semester in a standard-level class prior to a reading of Edgar Allen Poe. I thought that themes of isolation and mental freedom, would compliment Gillman, too. After all, "the brain is wider than the sky" is just the idea that won't fit into the cramped, barred, yellow-wallpapered room in which the character in TYW finds herself.

A last-minute burst of inspiration encouraged me to seek out Sylvia Plath. There were a few reasons for this. First, she is American, and this is an American literature class. Second, she was modern--beating Dickinson by about 100 years or so. Finally, she, too, had struggled with mental illness.

My search led me to Plath's poem, "Tulips."  It proved to be the perfect introduction to TYW, letting students meditate on issues of madness and explore a writer's use of irony to convey a very deep meaning.

Day One

We began by reading for annotation. Building on a suggestion I found last fall (regretfully, I have forgotten the source), I asked students to create their own emojis for the following tools:  Notice, Wonder, and Connect.  You can see my emojis on the upper-right corner of my paper in the picture below.

I also gave students a very basic, guiding question. In this case, it was "Where is the speaker?"

We followed with a whole-class discussion. It was fascinating to see all the ideas that students shared. Some felt that she was in the hospital for a miscarriage, while others felt that it was a mental hospital. We focused in on the husband and child in the photo--like the tulips, they only seem to antagonize the speaker.

I could tell, by the time the discussion ended--especially as I focused on the mental aspects of the speaker's condition--that they were ready to begin TYW the next day. Unprompted, students were looking up details about Sylvia Plath's life, connecting them to the poem and to the discussion.

We closed with a paragraph-write: Why do you think the speaker is in this place?

Day Two

I could have moved on to TYW, but I wanted to take one more look at "Tulips." This time we read for imagery and figures of speech.

The second time through, we were also able to look at irony--yet another set up for our reading of TYW.

As our unit drew to a close, I assigned a cause & effect essay, asking students to evaluate characters we had studied in the unit.  I would say that "Tulips" was one of the most popular, proving the interest it held with my students.

For teachers looking for a nice, relevant introductory lesson before teaching "The Yellow Wallpaper," I just can't recommend "Tulips" highly enough!