How to Teach the Serious Topics in Speak

How to Teach the Serious Topics in Speak

Dating violence, mental illness, and rape culture are increasingly common in today’s society, especially in adolescents. In fact, according to the CDC, a recent national study, “In a recent national survey, nearly 10 percent of high school students reported physical violence and 11 percent reported that they experienced sexual violence from a dating partner in the 12 months before the survey.”

Even though dating violence, mental illness, and rape culture are issues our students must face, these topics are either mishandled or not even discussed in schools at the secondary level. Sure, we read To Kill a Mockingbird and discuss Mayella Ewell. But do we really discuss this with our students and make sure that they are okay, that they know what is right, and that they know when and how to speak up and ask for help? This post contains affiliate links.

As English teachers, we have the ability to approach pressing topics through the literature we teach. And as English teachers, we should make it a priority to not only address the presence of dating violence, mental illness, and rape culture in the novels we teach, but we should also do this in a way that raises awareness, begins conversations, and provides students with a safe space to explore these issues.

One of the best novels to read that exposed young adults to dating violence, mental illness, and rape culture is the young adult novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. In Speak, the protagonist, Melinda, is entering her freshman year of high school, and as we read and get to know her, we learn that she is suffering and dealing with the trauma and aftermath of rape. There is also a new graphic novel for Speak.

For some students, this may be the first time they’ve ever read a book that centers around rape and the trauma it can cause. After all, when we read about Mayella Ewell and her testimony in the courtroom, we quickly move on and focus our attention to Tom Robinson.

However, with Speak, this may be the first time a student sees their own personal trauma reflected in the literature they read in school, and this can heavily impact a student, especially if he or she is silently suffering. Therefore, it’s vital that we as teachers handle these topics with great care. Here are some ideas on how to go about teaching Speak.

Start with an Article
Before I begin reading novels with my students, I like to explore the context of the novel first. A great way to do this, and to also incorporate contemporary nonfiction, is to have students read articles and speeches.

To introduce the novel, have students read the article by Julia Jacobs for the New York Times called, “Using Young Adult Novels to Make Sense of #Metoo.” This article relates Speak to our current age, as well as mentioning other young adult novels that include sexual assault. The article also pairs well with Oprah Winfrey’s Me Too speech.

Students can practice their annotating skills and rhetorical analysis by marking up the documents with comments and questions. After reading the article and speech, have students complete a journal-writing exercise, host an open discussion to discuss students’ annotations and general thoughts on the subject, or have students work in small groups to discuss the issues and texts.

Resources
Make sure to explain the heavy material in the novel to students and list the trigger warnings (self-harm, suicidal idealization, rape, dating violence). Emphasize that it’s okay for students to leave class at any time during discussions/readings if they feel the need to do so.

Another way to help students is to point out sexual assault and mental health resources available for students. You can write these resources on the board or have them handy to pass out to kids. Here are some helpful ones to include:
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline Number: 800-656-HOPE (4673)
  • National Sexual Violence Resource Center
  • 1in6 - a resource for men who have been sexually abused/assaulted
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)

However, it is important to note that some students may not be ready to talk and actively seek out help. For this reason, I suggest teaching this book during the second semester -once you have gotten to know your students and have formed relationships with each of them. This way, as you read, you can monitor your students’ behaviors and mannerisms. If something doesn’t seem right to you, talk to the student. Ask if they are okay. Let them know that you care about them and that you are there for them. If things still don’t feel right, or if you have any suspicions about whether or not they might be suicidal, ask them and be specific with your question. Then, help your student get help.

Classroom Activities 
Have your students engage in various, light-hearted activities in between readings to help them process the material. One activity you could do is have students make up an alternate mascot for Melinda’s school and draw it on a poster. It’s a running joke in the book that Melinda’s school keeps changing their mascot. You can even tie in some rigor with this assignment and make it more of a symbolic activity. Plus, this activity might help students who are internally processing the information. Encourage students to have fun with creating their own mascots and allow them to present them to the class once they’re done. Another activity you could have students do is create black-out poetry. Make some copies from pages of the novel and have students create black-out poetry using the pages. This is a great way for students to seek out the emotions in the story without having to try too hard. Finally, the one-pager is a great assignment for this novel because students will be able to reflect on the content of the book in a meaningful way.

Keep Your Room a Safe Place
Another thing I recommend teachers do is to describe our role as mandated court reporters. I strongly urge you to explain what this means to your students before diving into the subject. Explain what it is that we have to report. However, I also urge you to tell your students that if they need to talk to you knowing this, that you are there for them.

Furthermore, you'll also want to squash any inappropriate comments immediately. Whenever I discuss heavy topics in my classroom, I inform students that everyone is welcome to and encouraged to participate, but that they must remain respectful. I also tell them that I will not tolerate any offensive or inappropriate comments about the subject. Discussing heavy topics in class provides students with a great opportunity to practice respectful discourse.

Finally, many students who might be struggling might not be ready to seek out help yet. Get to know your students and notice when things change. Drastic mood changes, grade shifts, and behavior differences are some things we should all look out for.

Teaching Resources to Pair with Speak: