A New Spin on an Old Text: The Catcher in the R(I)

(See what I did there?) 

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

…Well, too bad, Holden. In addition to flunking history, you must have flunked rhetoric, too, because I’d really like you to go into it, and the opening of your narrative has bothered me since the first time I read it when I was fifteen! 

Every time I teach The Catcher in the Rye, I feel like I have to put on my own set of emotional armor in order to weather Holden Caulfield’s defensive moroseness. Every year, I wonder why I’m still teaching this novel, and then, every year, students discover Holden’s sentimental, grieving center and I leave myself open to teaching the book again. But how can teachers tasked with taking students back to Old Pencey, the imaginary rye field, or the carousel keep written responses to a 70-year-old text fresh? And how can we make sour and sexist Holden relevant to students who no longer see him as an edgy icon but rather a dusty relic of the twentieth century?

This year, my department is trying to answer that question by taking a new approach to our whole Catcher unit. First, we shifted our study from third quarter, which tended to focus on literary analysis, to first quarter, which focuses on narrative writing. Then, my new colleague, Sarah Schriber, proposed that we structure our study of the novel in the style of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a podcast that moves through the Harry Potter series chapter by chapter, with each episode focusing on how the novel and the chapter illustrate a specific theme. 

Sarah created a group of topics to pair with each set of chapters on our reading schedule, and then, she crafted a list of opening and closing journal prompts for each chapter study. Students responded to the opening prompt (a personal question about the topic like, “How would you describe your family in three words?” or “Describe a moment when you told a lie? Why did you tell it? What were the consequences?”) before they began their reading, and they answered a closing prompt (“What does Holden’s family mean to him?” “Why do you think Holden lies as often as he does?”) after we finished discussion of the assigned chapters. 

Earlier this week, I skimmed students’ Google doc journals (they knew I was going to do this) to check on their progress and their thinking. I was moved by their honesty, vulnerability, and eagerness to call Holden’s bluff. The journal encouraged exactly the sort of expression and reflection (thanks, Write Like This!) that my colleagues and I were aiming for in this unit. 

So…as our ninth grade team began planning our unit assessments, I wondered if we could use those journals (rather than notes on already overdone symbols, conflicts, settings, or diction) as the foundation. The opening and closing responses brought to mind the personal connections analyses that so many of my colleagues here at Moving Writers are great at spotting online, so why not try something like that? 

Thus, a new assignment was born: students will select one topic from our journal prompts list and expand their existing reflections to create a personal connections analysis of The Catcher in the Rye. To help them gather their thoughts, I’ve prepared a brainstorming questionnaire, and next week, we’ll look at a few mentor texts, with special focus on Sam Sanders’s contribution to NPR’s American Anthem series about Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” (great to revisit, given the song’s importance to the Phillies!) 

We’re in the early stages of this “Same…but Different” experiment, so I’ll be sure to update you next month on our progress. In the meantime, if you’re looking for additional alternatives for literary analysis, check out some of Rebekah’s suggestions for new approaches in middle school, and the Poetry Rx project that my Class of 2022 IB students tried last year and the Class of 2023 just completed (it’s becoming one of my new favorites!).

How have you freshened up an old unit or an old text? What assessments would you like to revise next? Please share your reflections and ideas in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. 

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  1. This is such a wonderful idea! I love HP and the Sacred Texts and always thought its format would translate well in the classroom, but I could never figure out exactly how it could be incorporated. I teach Catcher next semester and will definitely use this structure for our whole novel study!

    Would you be able to share the list of opening and closing journal prompts you used? And potentially a student sample of a chapter journal prompt?

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