In this guest post, educator and writer Tami Charles presents text-dependent questions and inquiry-based activities for students to practice close reading and critical thinking with the book Shame the Stars.
When it comes to early American history, most secondary school students’ knowledge base is a mixture of primitive elementary lessons, big budget Hollywood movies, and hand-me-down myths dressed in a truth disguise. For example, we can all remember early childhood lessons on Christopher Columbus. In 1492, he sailed the ocean blue, discovered America, and made nice-nice with the Indigenous people he encountered.
It wasn’t until later in our academic lives that these myths were debunked: Christopher Columbus stumbled upon land in the Americas, already inhabited by Indigenous peoples. His historic “discovery” ushered in the transatlantic slave trade and countless devastating movements against Indigenous peoples.
The late Maya Angelou once said: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”
Fast forward 423 years to 1915. In the heat of the Mexican Revolution, social revolutionaries allegedly create the Plan de San Diego, calling for an armed uprising against the U.S. government and the return of tribal land to Native Americans. Trouble is brewing along the US-Mexico border. On the Mexican side, the government rules with an iron fist—taking harsh measures against workers, peasants, and most importantly, Indians who have cultivated the land for centuries. Anyone who opposes the confiscation of sacred land or unbearable working conditions is jailed, beaten, or worse. On the American side, violence, rape, racism, and death by lynching are the consequences for Tejanos (Mexican-American inhabitants of South Texas) who may appear to side with native Mexicans. Texas Rangers, a group of Anglo-American law enforcers, discover this plot and use it as grounds to begin a period of violence toward Mexican-Americans of South Texas, regardless of their support of the plan.
This is a segment of American history rarely covered in school. This is the story you were never meant to hear.
Now, imagine you are a Mexican-American teenage boy in 1915, navigating your way through two cultures: The Mexican side, where Aztec blood runs hot and fierce through your veins. And the American side, your place of birth, the place you call home. Your father, an upstanding citizen, initially sides with the perceived purpose of the Texas Rangers. After all, they are the benevolent upholders of the law who aim to carry out judgments against government rebels. Then, there is your girlfriend, who comes from a family dedicated to publicizing the truth—that the Mexican and Tejano communities are increasingly oppressed by the vigilante Texas Rangers. Women are raped. Men are lynched without trial, jury, and conviction. In the midst of the racial tension, you struggle with how to show your loyalty to your gente, your country, and the love of your life.
Set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, Shame the Stars is a relevant a piece of American history that begs to be aligned with such staple subjects as Columbus and the Civil Rights Movement.
With this novel, McCall shows the need for inclusivity of forgotten narratives in secondary ELA and history classrooms. A high school teacher herself, McCall’s work adds to the growing body of literature that allows students to deepen their understanding of how the history of the past manifests itself into the stories of today.
Reading Shame the Stars with your class will allow deep, thought-provoking conversations to unfold. Our students deserve to learn all facets of the history that has developed society as we know it today.
As we continue to discover the forgotten narratives, much like the ones presented in Shame the Stars, we can begin to plant the seeds of change and eradicate the seeds of repetition.
Using Shame the Stars as an anchor text, here are some comprehension activities teachers can incorporate in the classroom.
- Select your favorite character from Shame the Stars. Construct a Facebook page for this character.
- Select your favorite character’s quotes from Shame the Stars. Construct a Twitter page using direct and/or paraphrased quotes to summarize a plot point in the novel.
- What other pivotal era in American history can this novel be likened to? Present your findings in a mock television news report.
- Break the class up into two groups—Texas Rangers and Tejanos. Each group will evaluate the nonfiction sources listed in the novel (both the clippings throughout the story and the author’s sources
at the end). How do these sources reflect the interests of the two quarreling groups? Groups will outline their key points and select spokespersons to conduct a class debate.
- Identify the interconnectedness of the issues presented in the novel with key issues occurring in contemporary society. Use text evidence from both primary and secondary sources to support your claims.
- How are gender roles challenged in the novel? Write an analysis on this topic. Use text evidence to support your claims.
- Reread Joaquin’s poem, “Bless Me Brother.” Rewrite each stanza, using direct language, to translate which plot point the main character is referring to. For example, in the fourth stanza, Joaquin writes, “You ran down the ravine, reached in, and pulled me out…” What specific story event does this stanza reflect?
- Poetry often uses rich figurative language. Search through Joaquin’s journal entries and letters to Dulceña. Identify two examples of each: simile, metaphor, personification, and hyperbole. Record your answers in your journal.
For further reading:
For fourteen years, Tami Charles served as a public school educator but now writes full time. Her middle grade novel, Like Vanessa, debuts with Charlesbridge in spring 2018. She is represented by Lara Perkins of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.