Friday, June 3, 2011

"How to Forge a Jane Austen Manuscript": Teaching Students Austen's Style w/ a Quill and Paper

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a teacher at a professional development workshop must be in search of lesson plans!

The Early College Program PD I attended today at Idaho State University offered many fantastic lesson ideas. Among my favorites is Professor Roger Schmidt's presentation on teaching students to understand Jane Austen's style, particularly irony, by having them learn to write with a Quill just as Austen did.


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  • Sentences from select Austen works. I used Austen's famous line from Pride and Prejudice in my opening. It has been parodied numerous times. A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy at the Morgan Library offers a fine collection of Austen resources.
  • Examples of English Roundhand, the penmanship style in which Austen wrote. Many Google images exist and Dover books offers The Universal Penman as a resource 
  • Ink
  • 100% rag paper
  • Feathers for making quills. Although teachers can purchase both feathers and quills, Professor Schmidt prefers collecting them from "road kill" and hunters. He shared some amusing stories of traveling around collecting feathers in Southeast Idaho and the Washington coast, as well as the gift of a couple of unplucked wings from a student!
The Lesson:
  • First practice writing (copying) some of Austen's sentences on lined paper to get a feel for the slant and size of her lines. Use a dip pen for this first exercise. 
  • Have students study Austen's penmanship. Several resources are available online. The Lady Susan facsimile is available in the Morgan exhibit, as well as a close examination of English roundhand. 
  • Dr. Schmidt advises having students rewrite a short letter from one of Austen's works, such as Captain Wentworth's letter in Persuasion. Students can embody Captain Winthrop's character and write a new version of the letter, perhaps one in which Winthrop says he has waited for Anne long enough, suggests Dr. Schmidt. A second option is to have students imitate Austen's style, utilizing her sentences as models for their own ideas. 
"I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W. I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never."
  • With enough practice, students will begin producing elegant books in Austen's style.
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Booklets created by Dr. Schmidt's students in Jane Austen's style.

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Students who practice writing in Austen's style, copying her sentences, and rewriting her letters gain a greater appreciation of the novel as a new literary form, acquire an appreciation of elegant penmanship and the artistry of Austen, comprehend Austen's use of irony and complicated sentence structure. 

For high school students, making quill pens, dipping them in ink, and making booklets from rag paper is good literary fun! It's a kinesthetic activity that will appeal to right-brain as well as left-brain students. 

Making Quills:
  • Collect feathers
  • Strip the bottom feathers so that they don't impede one's grip. This is called fletching. 
  • Cut the quill. This site offers nice illustrations. 
  • Cure the quill in dry sand at 350 degrees. 
2011-06-03 11.55.26.jpgIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that a high school English teacher at the end of the school year looks forward to the upcoming year and the new lessons she will teach to next year's students. 

Thanks to Dr. Schmidt's excellent session and Barbara Bishop's superb coordination of the ECP workshop, my students and I will have many new learning adventures next year.

Update: 4 June 2011

Jenna Gardner shared the video below w/ me via The English Companion Ning. Thanks, Jenna. This is a fantastic resource that gives yet another dimension to Dr. Schmidt's writing project. 

The Divine Jane: Reflections on Austen from The Morgan Library & Museum on Vimeo.

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