TOUGH PARADISE: CURRICULUM PROJECT
Enrichment Activities for Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues
Created by Darlene Matson
General Description and Rationale
Our world is inhabited by people of varied place and culture. Bruce Springsteen's latest release called "American Skin"* reminds us of the fear and mistrust people experience in society today. Our planet is made up of diverse and interesting individuals, and as teachers we have a responsibility to share other cultures with our students to create a better understanding of people, past, and place, and develop an appreciation that will enrich us all.
Implementing creative activities and approaches with multi-cultural literature enhances student learning. In teaching Reservation Blues there are many pre- and post-reading activities that can extend student appreciation for history, culture, and place. The activities included here were created with the chronology of the story in mind but can be adapted or expanded to be used in any portion of the novel.
The student will be able to
1. Keep a response journal to readings or ideas expressed in class
2. Experiment with various writing genres
3. Identify places and measure distances on regional and U.S. highway maps
4. Apply irony and satire to a short, creative piece
5. Follow a recipe
6. Recognize how an author's use of stereotyping contributes to tone
7. Increase cultural literacy
Activities to Involve Students in the Reading
- Play a selection from the CD that accompanies Chasin' That Devil Music or "Me and the Devil's Blues" from Complete Recordings.
- Read a description of just what Coeur d'Alene mounts looked like decorated for the War of 1858 (from Burns, p. 290) followed by a reading of Alexie's poem "Horses" (from Old Shirts & New Skins)
- Read or excerpt Robert Johnson lore from "Stop, Look, and Listen..." chapter of Chasin' and from the Lomax interview with his mother (pp. 12-15). Explain the African origins of black dancers and how they as well as their musicians were "hellbound" (Lomax, 363-367).
- On an Official Highway Map of the Pacific Northwest, have students trace the highways Coyote Springs might have used from Wellpinit to Arlee. (And later to Seattle.) Create a travel itinerary for the group.
- Keep a list of stylistic repetitions and motifs (dreams, historical allusions, images) from chapter to chapter.
- Read selected Coyote tales from Lopez, such as "Coyote Creates the Earth," "Coyote Makes the Human Beings," "How Coyote Brought Fire to the People," etc.
* (the song that refers to Guinea native, Amadou Diallo, shot 41 times by New York police)
- Summarize or read portions from Burns describing the role of missionaries in Indian history, particularly from the chapter "The Jesuit and The Red Man."
- Clarify the allusions to Wounded Knee and Sand Creek with excerpts from Brown.
- Study the poems at the beginnings of Chapters 6 and 7 ("Falling Down & Falling Apart" and "Big Mom"); they are the only two songs/poems about women. Have students list their similarities and differences and discuss them.
- Have students cut out magazine pictures and label them for characters Coyote Springs meet in New York with regard to how Alexie generalizes New Yorkers.
- Have a student research the National Housing Act of 1934 and present the information to the class.
- Examine the author's use of the past in the present in a single chapter. For instance, why does he begin Chapter 9 with a flash-forward?
- List and locate passages from a given chapter that have ironic or symbolic names.
- Ask students to draw a caricature of "The Gentleman" that Alexie describes in Chapter 9. Discuss the classic devil figure in other works.
- Research the legend of "The Dreamcatcher." Design or sketch one and choose an accompanying passage from the novel to include or attach.
- Have students suggest meanings for the last chapter title. Is this a fitting title for the end of the novel? Does it fit with any of the motifs?
- Discuss the stereotypes in the novel. What might be their function and the author's purpose?
- Gather a number of recipes for fry bread and have teams in the class have a competitive "cook off." (Invite appropriate connoisseurs for evaluation, or just enjoy them yourselves.)
Response Journal Entries
- After hearing/reading Alexie's poem "Horses," create a repeat-a-word poem that expresses your anger or sadness over something.
- Thomas carefully defines (p. 48) the array of meanings for the two words that make up the band's name. Create a two-word name for your group of friends using a similar format.
- Write about a dream you recall. If you can't, write about a vivid childhood memory.
- Write about a friendship you created with someone from another reservation, state, country.
- In Chapter 4 the author integrates past with present in a basketball game. Describe your high school basketball team. Then add a historical player and describe a play.
- As Father Arnold write a journal entry about his feelings in Chapter 5.
- Create a broadcast interview "live" from KWHS with a fellow classmate. (Model pp. 156-160.)
- Compose "The Classroom's Ten Commandments as Given by Ms. Matson of the English Department of Wood River High School to the Students of Literature of the West" using a similar satirical approach as the author on pages 154-155.
- Alexie uses different writing genres in the novel to move the story along, changing the point of view: letters, a fax, news stories, journals, a note, an interview, a classified ad, and a resume (besides the songs at the beginning of each chapter). Revise a previous journal entry with the use of one of these genres.
- Describe your first-time experience in a large city.
- Is it a "small" world? a "big" world? Discuss the dynamics that make it appear so.
- Is there a price for success? Explain in terms of characters in the novel and people real life.
- Thomas will probably need a job in his new life with Chess. Create a resume that will help him get a good job based on his character in the novel.
- Write an epilogue to the novel ten years later.
Alexie, Sherman. Old Shirts & New Skins. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center,
University of California, Los Angeles. 1993
----- Reservation Blues. New York: Warner Books. 1995.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; an Indian History of the American West. New
York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 1971.
Burns, Robert Ignatius, S.J. The Jesuits and the Indian Wars of the Northwest. Moscow, Idaho:
University of Idaho Press. 1966.
Johnson, Robert. Robert Johnson: Complete Recordings. CD. Sony Music. 1998.
Lomax, Alan. The Land Where Blues Began. New York: Pantheon Books. 1993.
Lopez, Barry. Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter: Coyote Builds North
America. New York: Avon Books. 1977.
United States. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Mission and History."
Wardlow, Gayle Dean. "Stop, Look, and Listen at the Cross Road." Chasin' That Devil Music:
Searching for the Blues. San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books. 1998. 196-206.
Darlene Matson has been a secondary teacher in Idaho public schools since 1979. She currently teaches various levels of English composition and literature at Wood River High School in Hailey, Idaho. From 1979-1993, she also worked enhancing her teaching in the summer with the Upward Bound Program at the University of Idaho.