During a recent English class, seventh graders read aloud and discussed Anzia Yezierska's essay, America and I, about immigrating from the Russia-Polish border in 1923. Examining the text through literary devices such as simile, metaphor, and personification, students sought to answer that central perplexing question that has baffled writers for centuries: What does it mean to be an American?
"There are many different answers, and many different people have a variety of lived experiences that affect their perspective," said Ms. Zoe Tuohy, whose grandmother, coincidentally, came from the same region as the essayist. In the piece, the writer described working for a family that refused to give her wages.
Ella Buono '26 pointed out figurative language in the text. "It says 'golden land of flowing opportunity,' but opportunity is not actually flowing, and the land isn't actually golden," she said. Then Mia Liberti '26 took things one step further. "Even though she's living in the land of opportunity and has the American ideal, she is being oppressed because she has a job but is not getting paid," she said.
"Right!" said Ms. Tuohy. "We talked about work and jobs and being successful. The idealized American dream is to make money and support family, but without wages, there is little opportunity. Joey, what do you think? Is this opportunity?"
"No," said Joey Fava '26, as he shook his head.
As the class progressed, Ms. Tuohy brought the discussion full circle. "See how the essayist compares her message, that America is land of golden opportunity. Is that always the case?"
"No!" responded her students in unison.
Ms. Tuohy continued, "Yes, opportunity can be found in this great country. But often the experience of immigrants when they arrive is different from what they expected."
When the bell rang, Ms. Tuohy left her students with much to think about. And that's her goal. The reading assignment, and the conversation it provoked, reflect a refreshed seventh-grade curriculum that the Middle School English Team and Ms. Tuohy, also the Lower and Middle School Academic Dean, adapted to make lessons more relevant and inclusive. The current mini unit, Defining America: Poems, Essays, and Short Stories, adapted from Fishtank Learning, is being piloted in Ms. Tuohy's discussion-based class that explores various poetic and literary devices.
"The over-arching theme is belonging and home, not just geographically, but emotionally as well," she said. "What does home mean and how does that definition change over time?" As she sees it, seventh grade is the perfect time to explore these thematic questions.
"They're starting to question the world around them and to develop their own thoughts and opinions," she said. "I ask open-ended questions, like, What does it mean to be an American? Together, we peel back the layers. Why does this person's experience shape what it means to be an American? Is there one ideal? Is it attainable for all, and if not, why not? I provide all different voices through poetry, essays, short stories, and novels. We look at ideas from all different levels and perspectives, come up with our own synthesis, and then each student forms his or her own conclusion based on these discussions."