On Discovering Pearl S. Buck for the Classroom

Print of Jewish schoolchildren in New York waving U.S. flags
Print of Jewish schoolchildren in New York waving U.S. flags

"We are a people still young and we know that we have not yet come to the fullest of our powers."
—Pearl S. Buck, Nobel Prize Banquet Speech, 1939.

Pearl S. Buck was the first American woman to be awarded both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for Literature. The committee recognized her “for the notable works which pave the way to a human sympathy passing over widely separated racial boundaries and for the studies of human ideals which are a great and living art of portraiture.” Buck’s prolific writing drew on her extraordinary childhood and early married life experiences living in China. She detailed the richness of that country at a time when China was a complete mystery to most Americans and built bridges between the two distant cultures.

Despite these accolades and accomplishments Buck has been sidelined in English departments in recent years. That may be changing now. Forty years after her death, the discovery of a posthumous manuscript has thrust Buck back into the limelight. (Her new novel, The Eternal Wonder, was released in paperback and e-book format last fall.) This publication has encouraged a resurgence of interest in Buck’s fiction and non-fiction; both are prime examples of Common Core State Standards texts for high school students.

“On Discovering America”

On Discovering America,” with its portrait of what it means to be an American, is perhaps more relevant today than when Buck penned it seventy-six years ago this June. It poses the essential questions: What does it means to be an American? How does that impact immigration to this country? Personal observation and first-hand immigrant experience formed her vision of “America, as it is, and as it is bound to be.” Her essay is ripe for 21st-century classroom analysis and can be used as an exemplary informational text to apply the ELA Common Core State Standards.

EDSITEment’s Pearl S. Buck: “On Discovering America” offers students a vehicle to undertake an independent close reading of the essay. Activities in the companion student version, Launchpad: Pearl S. Buck, echo those found in the lesson.

Both provide an application of Anchor Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1:

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Three worksheets accompany the lesson activities to inform and structure students’ study of the essay.

The lesson opens with an activity exposing misconceptions and myths surrounding immigration. Zeroing in on legislation, students consider Key Moments in American Immigration Policy to determine how immigration patterns to the United States have changed over time.

Activity 2 introduces students to Pearl Buck and makes the distinction between the terms “immigrant” and “migrant.” The PBS documentary The City/La Ciudad may be tapped to define “immigrant,” while CCSS exemplar, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (the subject of an earlier Closer Readings post), may be used to define “migrant.”

Moving on to a close reading of the essay, students determine what Buck is explicitly stating and make logical inferences from it. “On Discovering America” Reading Questions requires specific textual evidence to be cited in support of students’ responses. Particular attention should be paid to Buck’s observations of immigrant relations and how she defines the term “American.” (Example: ask students if they agree with Buck’s premise: “We are all immigrants, we Americans.”)

Activity 3 explores immigrant relations in the context of the 1930s. The student resource, Immigration LaunchPad, contains primary source documents and audiovisual material about immigration in which students discover how the media portrayed immigrants in that era.

Through this window to the past and Buck’s ever-relevant comments, students may draw parallels to the current state of immigration. The wisdom found in Buck’s text offers a fresh perspective for ongoing challenges we face in the 21st century.

Note that there are ample opportunities for writing assignments throughout the lesson plan. Options include personal response to Buck's essay; an analysis of the impact of the Immigration Act of 1924; or a short analysis of one of the documents, photos, and clips viewed in the Immigrants in the Media section. A possible culminating activity would be to render the primary source materials dealing with American immigrants of the1930s into a multimedia presentation.

Additional Resources

ABOUT THE IMAGE

"They sang of America..." Harper's Weekly, 1906. Library of Congress. Jewish immigrant children waving tiny U.S. flags while repeating oath of allegiance; at the central school of the Educational Alliance, East Broadway, New York City.

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