It’s not every day that Upper School English students are asked to create visual, musical, physical, and metaphorical artwork. But that’s exactly what sophomore students were assigned recently as Creative Response projects.
“The Creative Response project is a short pause-point in our reading of the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi,” Upper School English Teacher and English Department Chair Rick Rees said. “We want students to tease out what they find in an image or scene—or maybe even put two parts of the novel in conversation—to clarify and deepen their thinking about the themes and dynamics coming through. We want them to use whatever creative expression they choose to connect more deeply with what they’re reading.”
Homegoing follows the parallel paths of two half-sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast of Africa to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Beautifully written and constructed, the novel gives students a deep view of history and society. English 10 classes have for a long time used historical novels for the Creative Response project. This year, the project is the same, but it is centered on the African diaspora from the 18th century to present times.
“Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing marks a new chapter for us," said Rees. "It emerged during a year-long examination of our English curriculum, grades six to 12, as we wrestled with how to create a more fully inclusive program and intentionally build up racial literacy, work that is continuing to evolve."
The result of this multi-faceted project? Drawings, paintings, musical pieces, embroidery, photography, graphic design, even culinary exhibits—the students’ work is wide-ranging and impressive.
“This project offers students other options to express ideas and themes in a way that's not only reading or writing,” said Upper School English Teacher Debby Schauffler. “If students are artistic or if they see themselves as more of a writer but would like to try something new, we've found that it makes them think about characters and scenes and situations in different ways. They are really thinking in a creative, metaphorical way about the book.”
The deep-dive into history, society, and life for those in the African diaspora was very intentionally planned by the Upper School English teachers. From the work, both the exploration and the results come at an important time in American history.
“The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests this summer just reemphasized to us the importance of this topic,” Schauffler said. “The book follows one woman in Africa and another who is enslaved in the United States and each chapter follows a different generation or family member. It is really accessible to a 10th grader because it's one character per chapter, which is super engaging, and allows you to get immersed in one person's life. The responses from kids have been very positive.”
Matthew C. '23 played violin for his project.