PBS in the Classroom

Re-Thinking Hemingway in the Classroom

  • SHARE:

Living in the age of information, we find ourselves at a great crossroads for education. This is a time when we can do so much more than we ever thought possible, and so can those we teach. Though education has historically been used as a tool of colonization, both internal and external, in many ways, today’s educational landscape is without borders.

When teaching Hemingway, a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, there is much to consider about borders. Hemingway was at once a man who lived beyond borders, he traveled to and lived for a time in Africa, Cuba, France, and Spain, to name just a few places. He also lived his entire life imprisoned behind immovable barriers caused by his lifelong addictions to alcohol, and women, and his battles with mental illness. He lived a life of contradictions, and it is important to remember that when choosing to bring his works into the classroom.

Hemingway the documentary offers a new vision of the man and his works by revealing information about his life that has previously not been known by many outside the community of scholars specializing in studies about his work. It can be argued that higher education often dictates what the rest of the educational landscape determines is worthy of academic study. All too often, this creates a constrictive academic hierarchy that serves as a wall, a border between tradition, what we have always done, and the possibilities of what we can do as education evolves to better serve students in classrooms of today and tomorrow.  

Looking to move beyond elevating Hemingway the man (and his works) for the sake of tradition, and progressing toward an examination of Hemingway as the complex and flawed individual that he was, requires awareness of the ways education has historically been used to disenfranchise and marginalize many groups of people. Literacy educators who studied Hemingway in school often bring him into today’s classrooms and add his works to the curriculum because they are comfortable reading his works. He writes from a place and position that has been centered and normalized--occasionally to the detriment of those he depicts.

However, Hemingway was also one of the first American writers to write about taboo topics without explicitly describing them at all. One of his strengths as a writer lies in his ability to use language that is clear, and concise, leaving just enough room for the reader to fill in the gaps with the imagination. Literacy educators return to his works over and over again perhaps because as an artist, his works offer a plethora of writing skills and turns of phrase worthy of study. However, as the world has continued to evolve, literature and writing has, too

We do ourselves and our students a disservice when we continue to return to writers like Hemingway without acknowledging writers of his time from diverse backgrounds who did not gain his status not because they were inferior writers, but because of prejudicial social conditioning of the time--which continues to this day. To take down these barriers to our students seeing themselves as writers, creators of great works of literary art, we must rethink teaching Hemingway. Educators can be taught to see him as more man, and less monolith. We can teach skills that support the development of critical consciousness, and we can make space for recognition of the many phenomenally talented writers that have come since as we transform the classroom into a space for growing potential future writers in front of us every day.

Julia E. Torres

Julia E. Torres Veteran Language Arts Teacher and Librarian

JULIA E. TORRES is a veteran language arts teacher and librarian in Denver Public schools. As a teacher/activist committed to education as a practice of freedom, her practice is grounded in the work of empowering students to use Language Arts to fuel resistance and positive social transformation. Julia has been awarded the 2020 NCTE Colorado Affiliate Teacher of Excellence award chosen as a 2020 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, and serves educators as a member of the ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE) Board of Directors. Julia facilitates workshops and professional conversations about anti-bias/anti-racist education, social justice, and culturally sustaining pedagogies in Language Arts, as well as digital literacy and librarianship. Her work has been featured in several publications including NCTE’s Council Chronicle, NPR, AlJazeera’s The Stream, PBS Education, KQED’s MindShift, NY Times Learning Network, The Chicago Tribune, ASCD’s Education Update, Rethinking Schools, School Library Journal, and many more.

Join the PBS Teachers Community

Stay up to date on the latest blog posts, content, tools, and more from PBS Education!