Ideas for Teaching Langston Hughes' "Thank You, M'am"
Getting Things Started
Write the number "10" on your board, and below it, write this list (or a similar list that has crimes that get progressively more serious):
- egg your friend's house.
- key your neighbor's car.
- steal from a convenience store.
- steal someone's purse or wallet.
- steal a car, knock someone out with a weapon.
Then, ask the class how many of them would egg a house for $10. Add zeroes to the 10 until everyone would say, "Yes."
Then, do the same for the next crime. This may take you into the millions -- and for some items, you may have students who won't switch from "No" to "Yes." Wrap the activity up by mentioning that most people have a price that will let them do things that they think are morally wrong.
Encountering the Story
The next step in this lesson plan for Langston Hughes is to distribute copies of "Thank You, M'am." (Note: This story is in the public domain.) Have students read this story -- either silently as you read aloud, or aloud to each other in small groups. As they read, you can have them mark some or all of the following:
- Descriptions of the woman and of the boy.
- Ironic (or unexpected) things that happen in the story.
- Funny things that happen in the story.
- Elements of pathos (things that make us feel sorry for the boy, and for the woman).
After you have finished the story, have each student (or group) share the elements that they marked during the reading. Then, ask the students what the boy and the woman have in common. Elements that would be important to mention would include a shared poverty -- and a shared history of theft because of that poverty. Ask students what they think the main idea (rhetorical argument) of the story is. Successful answers will talk about how so much crime is motivated by desperation.
Activities for Extension
1. Have students draw and label diagrams of their own bedrooms, including size dimensions. Then, have them draw a diagram of Mrs. Jones' apartment -- which is really just one room with some screens to separate areas. When they return, ask them to think about what it would be like to have their entire house in a space the size of their bedrooms.
2. Have students journal about one of these topics:
- Have you ever stolen anything? What was it? Why did you steal it? How did the story turn out?
- What does your grandmother have in common with Mrs. Jones? In what ways are they different? How would your grandmother have responded to the mugging attempt?
3. Fast-forward ten years in time. The boy is 24 or 25 years old, and Mrs. Jones is very old. What has happened to the two of them in the past ten years? Write the conversation they would have if they met somewhere. Where would they meet? Why?