Looking at the world through teen eyes must be challenging. I remember my elders saying they would not want to be a teen of my generation, and the reality of today’s young people seems even tougher. While the dreams of Max Warburg and August Wilson’s Cory Maxson are very different, their stories allow teens to explore the choices they must make to overcome adversity.
In developing this guide, I decided to look at challenges in the African American community very specifically from August Wilson’s perspective. The view of protagonist Troy Maxson is not very flattering. He is egotistical, oppressive and maybe even a little ignorant. But this is balanced by his quest for manhood, which shows him to be as sensitive as he is hard, as compassionate as he is cruel, and as loving as he is spiteful. Very conscious of the urban teens this guide is being developed for, I wondered if it is courageous developing a character who is not the best role model for the black community. It made me rethink the idea of community. Max’s community encompasses young people. Like Max, our teens may face illness, if not their own, that of a parent or family member. Our teens have to make decisions about their futures. Some teens face oppression because of their religious convictions or sexual preferences. What you will discover is that this guide very frankly targets whether it is courageous to expose the ugly side of life. I want to challenge your students to look at the things in their communities that need to be brought to light. I hope the process will be cathartic, and will be the foundation of change, whether their community is their circle of friends, their home, school, church, ethnic group, or nation.
The guide itself is designed as a collection of selections. You should pick activities that work with your students, and add the best of your own repertoire in order to personalize it. In addition to English Language Arts curriculum connections, you will find cross-curricular links to history and art. Because the play is set in the 1950s, you may want to provide background about the prominent sports players of the time, and early civil rights history. You may also want to trace how African Americans migrated from the South to northern cities.
This guide is also designed to challenge your courage. Troy Maxson uses language we do not condone in our classrooms… he uses the word “nigger” loosely, sometimes in a familiar way, at other times he uses it disparagingly. Maxson’s grammar is non-standard, and he would likely struggle in our English classrooms. Having a discussion about Maxson’s language is worthwhile throughout the text, and is touched upon in many of the guiding questions. Many outside resources are suggested to help you through this conversation, which can become quite heated. I have found that an honest conversation helps students to at least shape why they choose the words they use, even if you don’t convince students to modify their language. And sometimes, one or two students will vow not to use words that others find offensive.
Another note about the language in this text… You will find that most of the language is very accessible by your students. There is a handful of suggested vocabulary words, most of which are found in Wilson’s notes and stage directions. Instead of vocabulary exercises, there are pointers to figurative language for most scenes. The rich language of this play is not limited to the selected examples. Though the guide asks you to look critically at the characters’ use of dialect, it is a wonderful contrast to explore the richness of the words they use.
Teaching Fences can be accomplished in as little as two weeks, or developed over three weeks. I have found that this is a memorable text for urban teens, and many go on to write about it in essays and in response to prompts they encounter in subsequent years. I hope you find your experience with Fences positive and rewarding.
A Shared Vision for Learning:
How The Max Warburg Courage Curriculum, Inc. supports
the Boston Public Schools’ English Language Arts Curriculum
The Max Warburg Courage Curriculum, Inc. shares the Boston Public Schools’ belief that learning is an active, constructive, creative and collaborative process. The curriculum guides for The Courage of My Convictions, our ninth grade ELA program, provides teachers with effective approaches, using the featured texts, to help their students develop as independent learners.
The three citywide learning standards for BPS are infused throughout the guides. The activities presented in both guides present students with opportunities to think, question, and communicate to make meaning of their world and experiences; to gain and apply knowledge by pursuing ideas and experiences, and applying this new knowledge in real life contexts; and to work and contribute in meaningful, purposeful ways.
The Boston Public Schools have articulated the following habits of mind and work as being essential for effective learning, and for students’ success in school. The Max Warburg Courage Curriculum, through our The Courage of My Convictions program, is committed to promoting and advancing these habits among ninth grade students.
Curiosity and Critical Thinking: Students listen attentively, observe carefully, and ask thoughtful questions until they understand; they look for good evidence.
Respect for Diversity: Students recognize and value racial, ethnic, cultural, age, gender and individual commonalities and differences; they respect other people’s points of view.
Consideration and Compassion: Students treat themselves and others with care and respect; they build trusting relationships; they help, care for, and share with one another.
Collaboration: Students work well with others, give and accept constructive criticism, try to be fair, and try to solve problems in a reasonable, peaceful manner.
Self-Direction: Students check their own work, invite the critical response of others, and make appropriate adjustments.
Perseverance: Students work hard until the job is done right, and are patient when the answers do not come quickly.
Initiative: Students try new things, take reasonable risks, and reflect on their successes and mistakes.
Courage: Students stand up for their rights and the rights of others in a positive manner that shows self- respect and respect for others; they resist harmful pressure.
Responsibility: Students demonstrate personal responsibility and pursue important goals for themselves and their schools.
The Max Warburg Courage Curriculum’s curriculum guides are rooted in our understanding that people learn best by doing. The instructional and learning activities support the BPS approach to teaching English Language Arts through the workshop model. In short, the workshop approach teaches students effective reading, writing, and thinking strategies, and gives them ample time to independently engage in these skills through rich, well structured learning activities.
Throughout the curriculum guides, there are resources and suggestions for presenting effective mini-lessons, writing prompts for student entries in their reading response notebooks and writing notebooks, and rich activities for independent learning.
The guides are aligned with the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks for English Language Arts. The goals and objectives for student learning are presented at the beginning of each book’s guide. They incorporate state standards and BPS standards and articulate high level understanding goals as well as content-specific and skill-specific objectives. The learning activities have been designed to allow students to create evidence of their knowledge, skills, and understandings in order for teachers to assess student mastery.
The references to BPS learning goals and habits of mind are from Focus on Children: Boston Public Schools, Citywide Learning Standards Subject Area Summary, English/Language Arts 9-12.
Available at www.boston.k12.ma.us
Goals & Objectives for Student Learning
Massachusetts English Language Arts Standards
1: Students will use agreed-upon rules for informal and formal discussions in small and large groups.
4.23: Students will identify and use correctly idioms, cognates, words with literal and figurative meanings, and patterns of word changes that indicate different meanings or functions.
8: Students will identify the basic facts and main ideas in a text and use them as the basis for interpretation.
9: Students will deepen their understanding of a literary or non-literary work by relating it to its contemporary context or historical background.
11: Students will identify, analyze, and apply knowledge of theme in a literary work and provide evidence from the text to support their understanding.
14.5: (adapted) Students will identify, respond to, and analyze the effects of sound (alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme scheme, consonance, assonance), form, figurative language (personification, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, symbolism), graphics, and dramatic structure of poems.
15.7: Students will evaluate how an author’s choice of words advances the theme or purpose of a work.
17.7: Students will identify and analyze how dramatic conventions support, interpret, and enhance dramatic text.
18.5: (adapted) Students will develop, communicate, and sustain consistent characters in improvisational, formal, and informal productions.
19: Students will write with a clear focus, coherent organization, and sufficient detail.
Upon completing this unit, students will understand that
August Wilson uses drama to tell the stories of complex characters whose lives reveal important aspects of African American history and culture.
August Wilson uses the elements of drama to explore the themes of: becoming a man, sins of the father, family, courage, death, racism.
It takes courage to write authentically about your culture and your history.
Characters in plays, as well as people in real life, make difficult choices and that it often is not easy to determine whether someone is courageous or not, a hero or an anti-hero.
The following questions are “the big questions” that students should want to, and be able to, answer from reading the play and engaging in the related activities. We recommend that you pose these questions to students at the beginning of the play, and that you post these questions in your classroom to keep them in the forefront of your students’ thinking.
What can we learn about history and culture from drama?
What makes a work of drama compelling to readers and audiences?
Is it courageous for a playwright to record and expose the difficulties their cultural group has faced? Is it courageous for a playwright to record and expose the intimate details of their cultural group, such as the “dialect”? Is it courageous for a playwright to record and expose the negative aspects of their culture, such as the depiction of members who make bad choices?
Which characters in Fences are courageous and which are not? Why?
What aspects of your history and culture do you believe are important to record and expose? In what ways would it take courage for you to do this?
Note: While “culture” is commonly used to refer to race, ethnicity, and religion, students should be encouraged also to think about the culture of their generation, neighborhood, and school or of their hobby (music, sports, etc.).
Knowledge and Skills
Upon completing this unit, students will know
a variety of figurative language used in the play (see lists provided for each scene)
the events that take place in the play
the influence of the 4 B’s on August Wilson’s work: artist Romare Bearden, poets Amiri Baraka and Jorge Luis Borges, and blues music.
that August Wilson was an influential and highly acclaimed playwright
that African Americans migrated from the South to the North in large numbers following each of the world wars
who Satchell Paige was
the key events of the early Civil Rights movement
Students will be able to
find evidence throughout the play for the key themes of: family, sins of the father, courage, and death
find evidence throughout the play to describe the motivations and personalities of the characters
make inferences about what they are reading in order to form theories about the relevance of characters, actions, and dialogue in the drama to the themes of the play
use evidence to support their inferences about the characters and/or themes in the play
apply their understanding of the elements of the play by dramatizing a short scene from the play
make connections between what they read in the play and contemporary issues in their own lives
record and expose a difficult and/or intimate and/or negative aspect of their culture through drama, visual arts, music, and/or poetry
write a reflective piece on how their work on the final project (see bullet above) was difficult and/or courageous
The Final Project
We encourage you to introduce the final project to your students at the beginning of the unit. This will help direct the students’ exploration of the play around the Essential Questions and Understandings articulated in the Goals & Objectives.
Early in the unit, perhaps even before you begin reading the play, engage students in writing and talking about the cultural groups they belong to and the problems facing their cultural groups. Move students toward choosing one of their cultural affiliations to focus on during this unit. Explain to them that through their entries in their writer’s notebooks and class discussions, they will explore their culture in order to understand how they can portray their culture in the tradition (if not the medium) of August Wilson: authentically with the goal of making a thoughtful and positive social impact.
While the activities in the guide have been designed to help students build the skills necessary for the final project, each teacher will play a crucial role in shaping how the activities are brought to life in the classroom. We hope that by introducing the final project to you at the beginning of the guide, you will be more confident in designing your unique approach to teaching Fences and guiding students through their final projects.
The central objective of The Max Warburg Courage Curriculum’s Courage of My Convictions program is for students to explore how they can use their communication skills to express the courage of their convictions. The curriculum guides are designed to challenge students to identify and evaluate the courage and beliefs of the writers and characters in the books they read. The learning activities also provide students with opportunities to reflect on their own courage and convictions.
The final projects for each book in the Courage of My Convictions Curriculum require students to demonstrate their understanding of the use of communication to produce thoughtful and useful social change. Students are encouraged to combine the written word and artistic expression in a product created for a real audience.
We strongly encourage participating teachers to work with our staff to organize an opportunity for students to present their work with their classmates and members of the larger community. We are committed to helping to create such opportunities.
Final Project for Fences
Overview for Teachers
In our exploration of Fences, we have asked questions about what it means for a writer/artist to record their culture in authentic ways, including exposing the culture’s difficulties, intimate details, and negative aspects. Clearly, August Wilson wrote about the African American experience as a way to remember (or learn about) the past and to positively transform the future.
The final project allows students to authentically record, and if they choose, also expose their culture. Students will be expected to work in the tradition of August Wilson and create an authentic record of their culture in order to positively transform their community and the communities around them.
Directions for Students for Part One of Final Project
You will express the courage of your convictions by authentically recording the experiences of your cultural group. You will decide which of your cultural affiliations you will focus on: your ethnic group, church group, peer group, neighborhood, etc. You must work in the tradition of August Wilson and create a record of your culture’s difficulties with the purpose of making a positive impact on your community and other communities. You are encouraged to include intimate details of your culture and negative aspects of your culture, though you must decide what you are comfortable exposing and make your own judgment call about what to include and what to exclude.
You may record the difficulties of your cultural group in one of three mediums:
Create a series of Romare Bearden-like collages. You must include at least four collages. Each collage must include a title and brief accompanying text (1 – 2 sentences) to make the images understandable to all viewers.
Write a one-act play. The play must be at least 6 typed pages. (Remember that with characters’ names, each page in a play has fewer words than on a standard page.)
Write four poems or songs.
Directions for Students for Part Two of Final Project
Write a five-paragraph essay about your project. Identify the aspects of your culture you have recorded and exposed. Describe how you have been authentic in your portrayal of your culture. (Prompts: Have you focused on difficulties? Have you included intimate details? Have you included negative aspects?) Explain what positive changes you hope to see in your culture, and how your portrayal promotes this positive change. Reflect on the ways in which your portrayal of your culture took courage.
Before Reading Fences
Synopsis of the play
Fences is the story of Troy Maxson, a 55 year old sanitation worker, who lives with his wife Ruth and his son Cory. Troy has become restless with his life. He is fighting with the union to become a sanitation truck driver, a job that is only done by white workers. He also is insisting that his son pursue a steady and reliable job, rather than chasing his dream to become a professional football player. Troy’s perspective stems from his own disappointment in trying to become a professional baseball player. Further destabilizing his life, Troy begins an affair with a woman who recently has moved to town from Tallahassee, FL.
Throughout the play Troy is chased by Death and a past he seems destined to pass on to his children. At the same time he is always trying to discover what it means to be a man, oscillating between holding power over his family, providing for his family, and making his own decisions, whether right or wrong. Troy realizes that there is a price to pay for each of his decisions, and he winds up sacrificing his wife and his son in his quest to be the man he is destined to be.
The key themes explored in the play, and in the activities in this guide are: becoming a man, sins of the father, family, death, courage, racism.
Activities before reading Fences
Meeting August Wilson
August Wilson’s play Fences highlights a difficult chapter in African American culture. Use the “About the Author” section on the next page to introduce August Wilson to your students. There are discussion questions following the reading.
Many good images of Wilson are available on the Internet. As of the date of publication, updated information and pictures exist at the following website(s):
You also may want to have your students listen to a six-minute interview with August Wilson from 2004 on National Public Radio, titled “Intersections: August Wilson Writing to the Blues.” You need Real Audio to play it. It’s available at:
About the Author August Wilson
August Wilson was one of the most important American playwrights of his generation. He was born Frederick August Kittel in 1945, the child of an African American mother and a white, German father. He began writing, and working in theater as a young man in the 1960s, and in the 1980s became recognized as an influential force in American theater. Wilson won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony, the two most respected prizes for literature and theater, respectively.
Wilson was raised by his mother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the Hill District, which is the setting for most of his plays. His childhood was difficult. Wilson encountered racism in the all-white schools he attended, and found he was unchallenged at a vocational school he attended. He dropped out of school in the tenth grade when a teacher accused him of plagiarism. Wilson spent his time educating himself, and widely read the works of black writers such as Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes. He eventually was awarded a degree from the Carnegie Library because he frequented it so often in his quest for knowledge.
Wilson wanted the world to know about the difficulties black families faced in America. When describing his early involvement in the theater, Wilson said he was “a cultural nationalist…trying to raise consciousness through theater.” He told an interviewer, “My generation of blacks knew very little about the past of our parents.” He went on to write a series of ten plays highlighting African American life from 1900 – 2000, each play set in its own decade. Wilson has been described as giving a “miraculous voice” to the black experience.
Wilson liked to say that his work was inspired by the Four B’s: writer Amiri Baraka and Jorge Luis Borges, artist Romere Bearden, and the blues. Amiri Barka is a politically engaged African American writer associated with the genre of jazz poetry. Jorge Luis Borges was a South American writer identified with the magical realists, who include magical elements into otherwise realistic stories. Romere Bearden created collages depicting the history and experiences of African Americans.
The blues may have had the deepest impact on Wilson’s work. He explained in an interview that when he listened for the first time to a recording of Bessie Smith, one of the great blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s, he realized he could write in the language he heard around him – African American “street vernacular.” Wilson expressed the magnitude of this realization on his life by saying, “The universe stuttered and everything fell into place.”
Wilson finished his final play in the ten-part series in 2005, a few months before his death from liver cancer. A few weeks later, the Virginia Theater on Broadway in New York City was renamed the August Wilson Theater in his honor.
Discussion Questions after reading “About the Author”
These could be used to direct a class discussion, or as prompts in the students’ reader’s notebooks and/or writer’s notebooks.
Why do you think August Wilson wanted to write about the difficulties African American families have faced?
Why do you think Wilson wrote ten plays set in each of the decades of the 20th century?
Why do you think Wilson chose drama as a way to record and expose the experiences of African Americans?
Wilson wrote about the intimate details of African American life, and included characters who could be judged as anti-heroes. Do you think it takes courage to expose the intimate and the negative aspects of one’s culture?
How might you feel to have the difficulties, intimate details, and negative aspects of your culture publicly portrayed?
Wilson’s plays were widely read and seen by people of all backgrounds. How might his plays have shaped the way non-black Americans look at the African American experience?
Activities as You Begin Reading
The activities in this section refer to the reading before Act One: the Epigraph, Characters, Setting, and The Play.
Reading the Cast Lists
This activity could be part of a mini-lesson, or as small group, independent work.
If your class has not yet looked at other plays, or if you have only looked at Shakespearean drama, you might want to begin by having students look at how the book is set up. Students will discover lists of the two original casts.
Some students may know who James Earl Jones is, either from his television commercials, or as the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars. Looking through the character list is a fun way to preview the story. Students pick up on the fact that Cory is the only child attributed to both Troy and Rose. It may help to point out that the characters are listed in the order of appearance; otherwise it is sometimes confusing why Raynell isn’t mentioned early in the story.