Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

Drawing Lessons from Words

In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the narrator recalls how she and her childhood friend Tracey watched snippets of Top Hat over and over to study Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ dance routine for “Cheek to Cheek.” Recounting Tracey’s knack for forward-winding the video tape to the exact moment she sought, the narrator observes that “she [Tracey] began to read the dance, as I never could, she saw everything” (56). As I read those words, I realized that Tracey’s attention to detail and her ability to see “the lesson within the performance” (56), was the same practice of close study that I require of myself and my students.

Just as Tracey learned the steps of Astaire and Rogers’ dance by watching Top Hat, my students and I drew lessons from Swing Time this semester: learning how a writer can use a nonlinear narrative to underscore the role of music and emphasize the narrator’s “weird state of timelessness” (149), and how leaving a narrator unnamed reinforces her shadow identity.

Along with Swing Time, my students and I studied Robert Beatty’s Serafina and the Black Cloak, as part of my commitment to teaching texts that dovetail with campus cultural events and requiring myself to read different books each semester, as my students are required to do. Yet while the lessons that my students and I could learn from Swing Time were clear to me, I was uncertain initially of what we would glean from Beatty’s novel and how I would approach it in the classroom.

One of the challenges of teaching Serafina and the Black Cloak was that it would directly follow Swing Time, a sprawling literary novel that places considerable demands on readers, due in no small part to its nonlinear structure. After the experience of studying that novel, how would we approach one written primarily for middle schoolers? I pondered that question as I planned the course and decided that we would explore it in the context of YA fiction, examine Serafina as an archetypal heroine, and consider the various genres that it draws upon, including fairy tale, fantasy, gothic mystery, and historical fiction.

Though I anticipated discussions of the familiar themes and devices that Beatty employs, —in particular the tropes addressed in our supplemental readings on YA fiction and fairy tales—I did not foresee that the pairing alone of his novel and Smith’s would prove highly instructive, serving as a primer for narrative variety. Our back-to-back reading of Swing Time and Serafina and the Black Cloak threw into sharp relief the differences between character- and plot-driven novels.

In addition to illustrating variations in the novel as a form, studying Swing Time and Serafina and the Black Cloak back to back offered me and my students the opportunity to consider what our responses to those disparate novels revealed about our own inclinations as readers. For me, the act of reading Swing Time and other literary novels is an act of immersion. I do not feel as if I am reading a novel the way I do when I read a work of genre fiction, such as Serafina and the Black Cloak, so conscious am I of its formula. But for many other readers, familiar devices do not detract from a narrative and may in fact be part of its appeal. Reflecting now on the disparate novels that my students and I studied this semester, I recall Serafina’s own thoughts about reading as she and Braeden explored the Vanderbilt’s library: “She marveled at how this one room contained the thoughts and voices of thousands of writers, people who had lived in different countries and different times, people who had told stories of the heart and the mind . . .” (187-88).

Stories of the heart and the mind: that’s another way of thinking of our work over the course of the semester, both the texts that we have studied and the ones that we have written—all of which have offered lessons through their words.

Works Cited

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Annotated Bibliography

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.

Blending elements of fairy tales, gothic mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction, Robert Beatty’s young-adult novel Serafina and the Black Cloak chronicles the title character’s quest to solve the mystery of the Man in the Black Cloak and his link to the children who are one by one disappearing from the Biltmore Estate.

Bettelheim, Bruno. Introduction: “The Struggle for Meaning.” The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Random, 1976. pp. 13-19.

In his introduction to The Uses of Enchantment, which examines fairy tales through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis, Bruno Bettelheim explores the importance of fairy tales in children’s’ moral development, focusing on how the form and structure of the unambiguous narratives of fairy tales provide images with which young children can structure the daydreams that help them make sense of their lives.

Collins, Billy. “Snow Day.” The Poetry Foundation,, Accessed, 17 Jan. 2018.

The speaker in Billy Collins’ poem “Snow Day” meditates on the “revolution of snow” (1) as he listens to the radio announcements of school closings, steeping himself in the pleasure of the sounds of the whimsical names of the preschools and the sights of the little girls playing outside in the “grandiose silence of snow” (37).

Makant, Jordan. “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright.” Impossible Angles. Main Street Rag, 2017. pp. 18.

One of the poems in his debut collection, Impossible Angles, Jordan Makant’s “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright” responds to Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s 1963 folk song “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” featured on his album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The speaker in Makant’s poem observes that “Dylan was lying” but that his lie was “the measure of true love”(18).

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” The New York Times,, 20 Jan. 2012, Accessed 17 Jan. 2018.

In “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Matt Richtel reports on the debate in higher education on how best to teach writing in the digital age. While some professors have followed the lead of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, replacing the traditional term paper with shorter, more frequent blog assignments, their detractors—including Douglas B. Reeves, columnist for The American School Board Journal and William H. Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review—argue that blog writing lacks the academic rigor that fosters critical thinking. For Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing at Stanford University, pitting blogs against term papers creates a false opposition. Rather than replacing term papers with blog posts, Lunsford requires students to produce multi-modal assignments: term papers that evolve into blogs, websites, and video presentations.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Shifting back and forth from the distant past of the narrator’s childhood in north London to her recent days—in New York and West Africa—the novel swings in time as the narrator recounts two intertwining stories: one of her childhood friendship with a classmate who possess a gift for dance (that she herself lacks); the other of her decade-long stint as a personal assistant for an international pop star. In the prologue, as the narrator watches a clip of Astaire dancing with his shadows in Swing Time, she realizes that she has spent her life in silhouette, first as a shadow to her friend Tracey, and later to her celebrity employer, the Madonna-esque Aimee. In the narrator’s words: “I had always tried to attach myself to other people . . . I had never had any light of my own” (4). To underscore the narrator’s shadow identity, Smith never names her; throughout the novel she remains the unnamed “I.”

Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic,, Sept. 2017, Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.

Jean M. Twenge’s article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” focuses on her research into the behaviors and emotional states of young people born between 1995 and 2012—a generation she calls “iGen”—who differ markedly from their predecessors who came of age before the advent of smartphones and Instagram accounts. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states beginning around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable than those of previous generations, and the evidence that links depression to smartphone use leads Twenge to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time.


One thought on “Drawing Lessons from Words

  1. I teach 5th grade ELA and have a unit focused on Serafina and the Black Cloak. I am developing thematic multi-genre lessons to accompany the novel, and I was wondering if you knew of some appropriate non-fiction, poetry, or dramatic texts that could exist in such a unit.

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