Saturday, May 31, 2008

Using Suckow's "A Rural Community" in the classroom: my experience

This past semester I incorporated one of Suckow’s stories into my Introduction to literature class at Hawkeye Community College; I used "A Rural Community," and posted a link to the copy posted on our Suckow website. I also made print copies. I selected the story for two reasons: first, because I had enjoyed reading it so much the previous fall, when Michael, Barbara and I had read excerpts from it at our presentation at the Iowa Library Association. However, I needed a story that was available online, since it was not included in our textbook.

I made a point of scheduling the story around the same time that we read one by Willa Cather—“A Wagner matinee,” so the following comments on our discussion board were made about both stories. – My Intro to Literature page

Here is my writing prompt for the discussion board:
Willa Cather (1873-1947) and Ruth Suckow (1892-1960) were both important writers with roots in the Midwest. Willa Cather lived in Nebraska for only part of her life; however, she drew from those experiences for much of her writing. Ruth Suckow grew up in Iowa, the daughter of a minister. She attended Grinnell college, supported herself as a beekeeper, and lived in various communities around the state.Both women's stories describe life in the Midwest--small towns and farms alike. WAIT UNTIL you have read the stories by both women to respond to this posting. Comment on their use of: --Description--Dialogue (including their use of slang or the informal language used at the time)--Writing styleIn addition, notice both stories mention the use of passenger trains, a journey to see family, and a sense of reflecting on the past.What kinds of messages did you get from reading these two stories?

A sampling of student responses:
· The thing that I noticed about these two stories is that while they are both about a journey "Wagner Matinee" is about a journey from the simple the the sophisticated and "A Rural Community" is a journey from the sophisticated to the simple, and each is written in a style appropriate to the end point of that journey. "Wagner Matinee" is formal, urbane and sophisticated, with very little dialogue, it's actually kind of cold and the nephew seems to see his aunt's life from only one point of view, his own. "A Rural Community" is much more informal, with a great deal of dialogue that reflects the country roots of the story. It is warmer and friendlier than Cather's story and leaves you wondering who has the right point of view, Ralph who wants to leave and see the rest of the world, or his family who want to put down roots and build something out of the place where they are.

· Both these stories were somewhat related. The both came from Midwestern states both in about the same time area. The one thing that really stuck out was that they both arrived on trains. The story I really liked was Ruth's, (because) I felt that she had the biggest connection to her story how she felt what was going threw her head. She really did get taken away from the place she lives the stuff she loves to move out to the Midwest with her husband but in her heart she never wanted to leave so when she comes back its like she is over taken with joy and sadness of being back to where she loved to live. Now days people wouldn't do that it would call for a divorce if both couples didn't agree on where they wanted to live.

· A Rural Community was one of my favorite stories that we have read. I could see and feel the way Ralph was. I think the author did a fabulous job describing all the details. Perhaps it's my favorite because due to my past I can relate. I think the message is you can always go home again no matter where home is and no matter who's there to greet you. Your only obstacle is yourself.

· I thoroughly enjoyed "A Rural Community". Brought up as a foster son in a rural, mid west town and then returning to visit after many years the only family that he had ever known. At first I as the reader wondered how he would be taken as he doesn't seem to have kept in contact with them. You could tell that they didn't know much about the world around them except for what they needed to know in their own environment and how it would affect them. Their inability to understand how he could be happy and having a good life without having a wife and family and home demonstrates the difference in generation, as well as his education and wanderlust. By the end of the story I got the impression that his visit with his family somehow revitalized him, and gave him the courage to continue with his life, knowing that he was loved and did indeed have a home.

· To me these stories did a great job at showing life and times in the 1900s. I think they related to each very well, both with their own small twists, but many similarities. Both stories really talked about the scenery, the setting, made you feel like you were in that time period. To characters in both, their ties to where they are from mean a lot so it's very important indeed to them. I also got the impression in both that the family members seem to only be focused on the farm, or their inner community, anything around it is new territory to them. I enjoyed both, helps you appreciate the times and where we've grown as a nation.

Cherie's concluding thoughts: I gave students an opportunity to discuss the story in small groups, and provided them with a list of questions to help them cover the story. I found that most of them really liked the story, found the description of the small town and characters to be believable, and liked the use of dialogue and description. We were also intrigued by the use of trains to transport people across the country and the contrast of city life versus country life.

I was very encouraged by the way that most of my students could relate to the story; while one or two teased me that it wasn’t all that “short” of a short story, a number of them selected Suckow’s story as one of their favorites on the Unit test, and commented on one of the aspects mentioned above. I am looking forward to using the story again in the fall.

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