This lesson plan’s activities are based on Teaching Idea #1: Being Lost, for Carmen Boullosa’s poem Sleepless Homeland. Some elements of the format are based on Allen Singer’s CCS/Danielson template, available from his Huffington Post column.
Length: 2-3 45-minute class sessions
Grade Levels: 10th through early college
Subject: ELA, Social Studies
Standards Addressed: CC Anchor Standards for Reading: 2, 4, 5, 10; for Writing: 1, 3, 4, 9.
Rationale: In this poem, Boullosa asks, ¿Quo vadis? of Mexico. Quo vadis means, “Where are you going?” or, more accurately, “To what purpose are you going?” in classical Latin.
It might be interesting to compare the theme of lost-ness in “Sleepless Homeland” and Joyce Carol Oates’ classic short story, “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?,” which is available in full text on Oates’ official website. Boullosa’s poem asks the question of a country; Oates’ story seems to ask the question of Connie, the girl at its center.
- Use textual evidence to make inferences about the metaphorical meaning of Quo vadis
- Analyze the development of the theme of losing one’s way across two literary works
All available online:
- “Sleepless Homeland,” a poem by Carmen Boullosa
- “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?,” a short story by Joyce Carol Oates
“Where are you going?” or, more accurately, “To what purpose are you going?” in classical Latin. (Definition viewable in the About tab next to the poem online)
Students read the definition of Quo vadis? and spend 3-5 minutes free-writing their associations with the question.
Students watch a Words Without Borders interview with Carmen Boullosa, which includes clips of her reading the poem. As they watch, they consider how Quo vadis? represents her feelings towards Mexico.
- To help students understand the context of this poetic response to Mexico’s drug wars and their human toll, have students use an essential question, such as, “What are the drug wars of Mexico?” or “What is the human cost of the drugs in Mexico?” to guide the conversations in parts 1.1 and 1.2 below.
- Ask students to work in small group to view or read the nonfiction resources in the Context and Playlist tabs; and then, to discuss them. E.g., one group will look at a timeline, another will be reading Juan Villoro’s essay, etc.
- Next, switch up the groups so that each student can share what they learned with classmates who examined other resources. Each new group will include one member who looked at the Time gallery, one member who can speak about the Villoro essay, etc.
- Students read the poem to themselves, making notes for a later conversation about why it begins with Quo vadis?
- Students take part in reading the poem aloud. If there are Spanish speakers in the class, students will read and listen to it in both languages.
- Students take part in small-group or class discussion, using the questions below.
- What does it mean to ask a country Quo vadis?
- What is the poem’s vision of Mexico? How does that vision come across?
- Why, in this poem, is ¿Quo vadis? a Latin phrase, punctuated as if it were Spanish? (See the first question mark.) Why might the poet wish to emphasize that the question is being asked by a Spanish speaker?
- Students read “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?“, perhaps for homework.
- Students write quick responses to the question: “How did you feel as you read the story?” or, for more advanced groups: “What was the atmosphere of the story?”
- In pairs, students retell the story to each other, attempting to answer the question, “What happens to Connie?”
- Students share their answers and take part in a class discussion:
- Where does Connie go?
- What is going to happen to her?
- Why is it happening?
- Essay: Compare the ways in which these two literary works ask and answer the question Quo vadis?
- According to “Sleepless Homeland,” what metaphorical direction does Mexico seem to be headed in? What is Mexico becoming?
- In “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” where does Connie seem to be going? What is she becoming?
- Essay 2 (Advanced): Consider the role music plays in these two works; specifically, how the authors use music to help create a sense of disorientation and danger. Discuss narcocorridos (find examples in Context tab), to which Boullosa was listening as she wrote “Sleepless Homeland;” and Bob Dylan’s rendition of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” to which Oates was listening in the period she wrote “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” Also, consider the brief but significant description of the XYZ Jamboree in the Oates story.
- Poem/Story: Write your own poem or story asking Quo vadis? of a person or a place.
Supporting English Language Learners (ELLs)
- Activate background knowledge of Spanish-speaking students: Ask those students to read the poem in Spanish as well as English. Engage them as in-class experts: reading the Spanish version aloud, explaining differences they notice between the Spanish and English versions, and discussing the meanings of the Spanish terms in the translation.
- Familiarize students with the unusual structure: Play a narcocorrido (from Context tab) for students so that they can have a sense of the influence of that music on the poem. Speak with them about the multiple parentheses and what they might signify: diminished importance? suggested speed of reading?