As we teach about social justice, oppression, and resistance we must be aware that students are fed a constant diet of heroes: Harriet Tubman, Gandhi, César Chavez, Rosa Parks. The stories of these heroes are meant to inspire and motivate our children to become change makers, but they can actually be disempowering. If students don't see themselves as being fearless, persistent, and sacrificing, they may assume they are not qualified to take risks and create change. These hero stories can send the wrong message: If you don't have the will to spend 27 years in jail like Nelson Mandela, you can't participate in social change. In my curriculum I look for alternative models of heroism and accomplishment, where kids can see themselves and the potential for change—in themselves and in the world. I have been using In the Time of the Butterflies for several years now and the novel fits well in both language arts and social studies curricula.
I love this book for a hundred reasons: its language, its artfulness, its message, its complex characters, and its many points of entry. The major plot line is a story of power and politics. But it is also a story about women and love, motherhood and sacrifice, fear and rage, and hope and forgiveness. Students with divergent interests can find common ground in reading this book. In my untracked Women and Social Issues Literature class I have English language learners, teen mothers, honors students, and students who have never finished a novel in their entire school career. The multiple voices of my students are reflected in the multiple voices of the novel. While it is framed by the third-person narrative about Dedé, the one who survives to tell the sisters' story, it also includes the first-person chapters of Minerva, the lawyer and the leader, Patria, the almost-nun-turned-warrior, and the diary entries of Maté, the boy-crazy shoe lover, but also whole-wide-world lover.
Getting to Know the Characters
After the picture activity, I help my students get familiar with the historical figures by holding a tea party. I assign each student one of seven characters in the novel—the four sisters, Mama, Papa, and the dictator Trujillo—with a brief description of that character and perhaps a quote. [Student handouts for this unit can be found at www.rethinkingschools.org/butterflies.] Students write interior monologues in the imagined voices of the characters. I ask them to record their characters' backgrounds, hopes, fears, and feelings about the role of women. With a spread of some Dominican snacks (mango juice, guava paste, queso blanco, crackers—if you cannot find these at a Latino market the students are happy with cookies and juice or tea), I invite the students to mingle at the party and meet the six other characters. While they chatter and snack, I stop the festivities occasionally and invite one of them to make a toast regarding women. When it seems like all the characters have met each other, I instruct students to return to their seats and record who they met, what they learned, and what questions and predictions they have. They share with the larger class while I record on the overhead.
Left to right, Patria, Minerva, and Teresa (Maté) Mirabal
These tea party notes and the interior monologues form the first pages of the reader's journals that the students use throughout the study of the novel. To keep hold of who these characters are as they grow through the book and to trace the students' changing perceptions of the characters, I require all students to follow one of the daughters in their journals. Those who played daughters follow the ones they played in the tea party, and I assign daughters to the others. To start their journaling I ask students to read the first chapter and come up with two passages and two questions that will make for good discussion. The next day they share their quotes and questions in small groups and pick one of each to write on butcher paper and post around the room. Each student then picks one off the wall to write on. They can make connections with other texts, with their own lives, with society or history. Or they can analyze a scene, interpret a symbol, or evaluate a character's choices. I provide a model and instructions and push the kids to go deep.