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Teaching Sapphire's Novel Push

The following discussion about resources and strategies for teaching Sapphire's
novel Push took place on WMST-L in November 2009.  For more WMST-L files
available on the Web, see the WMST-L File Collection.
Date: Tue, 10 Nov 2009 09:39:03 -0600
From: Jami Harris <jlharris4 AT CRIMSON.UA.EDU>
Subject: Teaching Sapphire's novel Push
Hi all,
I'm a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Alabama pursuing my
Masters in Women's Studies. I will be teaching Sapphire's novel *Push* next
semester in my Introduction to Women's Studies course and am looking for
suggestions on any projects or activities I could implement. Also, I have
not taught this text in the past so I'm so wondering how long I should give
them to read it. I remember reading this in my Intro class in undergrad and
it took me only a couple of hours to finish.
So any worth while suggestions about paper ideas, in class activities, group
projects, etc. are welcome.


Jami Harris
Graduate Teaching Assistant
Department of Women's Studies
100 Manly Hall
The University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL  35487-0272
Date: Tue, 10 Nov 2009 09:06:02 -0700
From: Susan Koppelman <huddis AT MSN.COM>
Subject: Re: Teaching Sapphire's novel Push
I suggest you post this request on the Fat Studies Listserv and on the
A-A Studies listserv.  I can do that for you if you'd like.  Susan
Susan Koppelman 
huddis  AT  msn.com 

The Short Stories of Fannie Hurst "The Strange History of Suzanne
laFleshe" and other stories of Women and Fatness "Women in the Trees:"
U.S. Women's Short Stories about Battering and Resistance, 1839-1994
Between Mothers and Daughters: Stories Across a Generation
Date: Tue, 10 Nov 2009 11:12:23 -0500
From: Jen Gieseking <jgieseking AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: Teaching Sapphire's novel Push
Considering the hoopla around the new film "Precious" based on *Push*, it
might be a great exercise to study the media and marketing around the film.
Looking at Oprah's role as executive producer opens a lot about telling
specific stories and whose get told, why or why not, and at what cost,
profit, and loss.  Her role in the film has definitely increased the hype
around it and will continue to do so.  Of course, actually seeing the film
as a field trip exercise would be well received.  Also, students could
interview movie-goers immediately thereafter, making a distinction between
those who and who have not read the book.

Jen Gieseking
Ph.D. Candidate, Environmental Psychology
The Graduate Center, City University of New York
jgieseking  AT  gmail.com
Date: Tue, 10 Nov 2009 10:14:15 -0800
From: Alexis Krasilovsky <alexis.krasilovsky AT csun.edu>
Subject: Re: Teaching Sapphire's novel Push
Suggestion re "Push": Have them compare it to the just-released film
"Precious" once it's out on DVD.  (You may want to pick a particular
chapter from the book and a particular scene from the film -- or
pages/clips -- to incorporate into a lecture, and then open it up for

Best regards,
Alexis Krasilovsky, Professor
Dept. of Cinema and Television Arts
California State University, Northridge
Date: Tue, 10 Nov 2009 21:20:27 GMT
From: Mev Miller <mev AT LITWOMEN.ORG>
Subject: Re: Teaching Sapphire's novel Push
When Sapphire wrote Push, she had been a literacy teacher and her
character was a composite of several literacy students. I would
recommend that you "companion" the volume with some current real-life
experiences of literacy learners and teachers. Therefore, I would
recommend the following resources from WE LEARN:
1) Women's Perspectives: A Journal of Writings by Adult Learners -- you
can download issues 1-3 from http://www.litwomen.org/perspectives.html
2) Empowering Women Through Literacy: Views from Experience - you can
see the Table of Contents at
3) The Change Agent #19 - Women & Literacy -- can be downloaded from: http://www.litwomen.org/tca/index.html
Please let me know how these resources work for you.
I will also have an exhibit at NWSA -- so you can see all these
resources there. And -- just a reminder -- earlier this fall I sent a
link about resources we specifically designed for Women's Studies to
include women's literacy experiences. Go to:
Mev Miller
WE LEARN Director
welearn  AT  litwomen.org
Date: Tue, 10 Nov 2009 21:50:58 -0600
From: Jeannie Ludlow <jeannieludlow AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: Teaching Sapphire's novel Push
Hi Jami, and all,
I've taught *Push* several times in lower-level undergrad courses (and am
about to begin it in my lit course next week). It's a joy to teach because
the students really struggle with the text and its meanings. One thing my
students have struggled with is how to try to understand Precious without
stereotyping her. It helps that we've already read some light theoretical
works on poverty, fat studies, and sexual abuse before we begin. I almost
always put *Push* at the end of the semester for that reason. If you e-mail
me, I'll send you a list of my attendant readings.

Although the novel is very short, I give my students two full weeks with
it--we read about 1/2 the first week and 1/2 the second, not because it is
long or esp. difficult to read (except for the way Sapphire uses
language--see below) but because the family situations are so difficult for
some students to think about (for a variety of reasons). I find that the
first class period, I do most of the talking, and it isn't until the second
day of the first week that the students feel ready to talk through some of
Precious' experiences.

Be prepared for anything. The first time I taught it, visitors came into
class the first day we dealt with the text (prospective students and their
parents). When one student complained about the "explicit language" in the
text, another said, "Well, I was an incest victim, and I'm here to tell you
that you don't feel like sugarcoating the language about something like
that." I'll never forget the look on one visiting mom's face.

One of the issues my students have struggled with is the eye dialect,
especially near the beginning of the novel. I second Mev's recommendation of
WE LEARN activities to help them begin to understand why the author "just
didn't write it so we could read it" (as one of my students said a couple of
years ago).

I'm interested to see the film, too, but I wouldn't ask students to see it
before I saw it myself and assessed its appropriateness and its potential
for revictimization of some survivors.

"[W]e have no right to penalize people who are *not* fortunate enough to
lead well-ordered lives."
  ~Takey Crist, M.D., OB/GYN/abortion provider, 1972
Jeannie Ludlow, Ph.D.
jeannieludlow  AT  gmail.com
jludlow  AT  eiu.edu
Coordinator, Women's Studies
  and Women's Resource Center
Eastern Illinois University
600 Lincoln Ave.
Charleston, IL 61920
Date: Wed, 11 Nov 2009 11:56:53 GMT
From: Mev Miller <mev AT LITWOMEN.ORG>
Subject: Re: Teaching Sapphire's novel Push
Jeanne Thanks for your post...and I'm glad I read to the end
and saw your support for the WE LEARN materials. There was one
phrase in your post, though, that caught my attention..."One
thing my students have struggled with is how to try to understand
Precious without stereotyping her. It helps that we've already read
some light theoretical works on poverty, fat studies, and sexual abuse
before we begin."  This causes me to wonder. As WS faculty use Push
in a variety of settings, is the literacy piece really understood as
central? Do professors focus on poverty, fat, and sexual abuse and
neglect or misperceive the reality that limited literacy proficiencies
keep 41% of women in the U.S. * at or below * very basic functional
literacy proficiencies (see
http://nces.ed.gov/NAAL/PDF/2006470.PDF )?  Does WS --as a field--
really understand the impacts of limited literacy on women's
lives? Yes, poverty and sexual abuse can be (are) understood as
"causes" to low educational achievement or barriers to access
to education (as well as race and learning disability, culture,
gender, and a host of other factors). But, at some point as women age,
this lack of basic literacy/education become integrally connected with
keeping women in poverty, prison, poor housing, poor health,
marginalized and voiceless. "Lack of education" is a phrase
often used in connection to poverty or welfare - but it's
important to understand what impacts WIA and other debilitating
policies are having for women struggling to overcome educational
barriers. (Those working in developmental ed courses at community
colleges or university levels will understand how insurmountable these
barriers can be.) In spite of gains made by girls' high school
graduation rates (many of whom are still barely literate! - we see
them all the time in adult basic ed) or improved access to higher ed,
basic literacy is STILL a key issue for women ** in the U.S.** (not
just internationally). In addition to the references I made in the
previous email, I would also add WSQ #32 1-2 and *Laboring to Learn*
by Lorna Rivera. WE LEARN members would love to see more research in
these areas (there's an appalling dearth here!). So, any grad
students out there looking for a direction...please contact us -
we'd be glad to give you some ideas!  Mev Miller WE LEARN Director
welearn  AT  litwomen.org
Date: Wed, 11 Nov 2009 16:34:53 -0500
From: Glynis Carr <gcarr AT BUCKNELL.EDU>
Subject: Re: Teaching Sapphire's novel Push
Hello everyone, 

Here is some good literary criticism that might support your teaching of Push: 

Telling incest : narratives of dangerous remembering from Stein to Sapphire 
Author: Doane, Janice L. Publisher: Ann Arbor :University of Michigan Press, 
Pub Year: 2001 

"Narrative as Empowerment: Push and the Signifying on Prior
African-American Novels on Incest" Author: Michlin, Monica
Source: Etudes Anglaises: Grande-Bretagne, Etats-Unis 59, no. 2 (2006
Apr-June): p. 170-85

"'Handing Back Shame': Incest and Sexual Confession in Sapphire's Push"
Author: Donaldson, Elizabeth In: Messier, Vartan
P. (ed.)--Batra, Nandita (ed.); vi, 187 pp.; Transgression and Taboo:
Critical Essays; College English Association-Caribbean Chapter
(CEA-CC), Mayagnez, Puerto Rico Publication: 2005

Glynis Carr 
Associate Professor of English 
Bucknell University 
Lewisburg, PA 17837 
gcarr  AT  bucknell.edu 
Date: Thu, 12 Nov 2009 00:05:25 -0500
From: Shereen Siddiqui <siddiqui AT FAU.EDU>
Subject: Re: Teaching Sapphire's novel Push
I used Push a few years ago in Women, Violence & Resistance. It was a 
wonderful teaching/learning experience. My class met for three hours, 
once weekly, and we discussed Push in one period. I probably could have 
spent longer on it, but I'm not a lit person and always feel a bit out 
of my element teaching novels. As others have mentioned, I scheduled 
Push for late in the semester. It addresses so many of the themes in 
the course, and I wanted the students to have some background before 
reading it. Many of them told me that they opened it when they bought 
their books at the beginning of the semester just to take a peek but 
couldn't put it down. Officially, though, it was assigned for one of 
our last class meetings, and I gave them one week to read it.

If I recall, I asked students to write their own discussion questions. 
I know that we focused on the cycle of abuse, since they had already 
learned about that. We also discussed structural violence. I use a 
definition from an essay by Philippe Bourgois in Violence in War & 
Peace (edited by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois): "Chronic, 
historically entrenched political-economic oppression and social 
inequality, ranging from exploitative international terms of trade to 
abusive local working conditions and high infant mortality rates." We 
had a good discussion about whether or not structural violence is 
relevant to Push.

I gave them a Push essay question on their final exam. If you want it, 
feel free to e-mail. I also have old interviews with Sapphire that I 
can e-mail you. I found those useful in preparing myself for the 

I'm thrilled that Sapphire is finally getting recognized for Push. I 
heard her on NPR earlier in the week (interviewed by Michele Norris on 
Talk of the Nation). And Lee Daniels (director of the movie) was 
interviewed on Fresh Air by Terry Gross. Next time I teach the book, I 
might have students listen to podcasts of those interviews.

Shereen Siddiqui
Florida Atlantic University
siddiqui  AT  fau.edu
Date: Wed, 11 Nov 2009 22:10:09 -0700
From: Susan Koppelman <huddis AT MSN.COM>
Subject: Re: Teaching Sapphire's novel Push
I am impressed by what you report about teaching Push, Shereen, and I
would like to suggest that it could all be even richer if you include
some material from the new Fat Studies movement.  If you or anyone
else is interested, I can poll the scholars on that listserv for some
particular materials that would be useful to include here about fat
oppression.  Susan

huddis  AT  msn.com
Date: Thu, 12 Nov 2009 00:42:31 -0500
From: Carole V Bell <cvbell AT UNC.EDU>
Subject: Re: Teaching Sapphire's novel Push
This is an interesting, accessible first-person piece by an African American
woman about the difficult political implications of the movie adaptation. If
you address the book and then the movie, it might be a worthwhile companion

Carole V. Bell
PhD Candidate, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication
cvbell  AT  gmail.com 
Date: Thu, 12 Nov 2009 09:33:55 -0600
From: Heidi Schumacher <schu1257 AT UMN.EDU>
Subject: Re: Teaching Sapphire's novel Push
Teaching the novel _Push_ has been a really rewarding experience for me. The
students generally LOVE it and report that they read it very quickly because
they are so absorbed.

One activity that really works for me is a "silent discussion" of the book--
this activity can be quite powerful. I put giant sheets of paper around the
room with a major theme from the book on each sheet. The students walk
around the room (silently) and write anything they want on the sheets in
response to the theme. This can yield really interesting material for
discussion-- the students who don't participate in verbal discussions in
class often have amazing contributions in this format, and it is anonymous
so people feel comfortable making some personal connections.

After about 10 minutes of this, I tell them to walk around again and write
comments/questions/opinions in response to their peers. Again, the anonymity
really helps here.

Finally, I have the students break in to small groups, give each group one
sheet of paper, and have them process all the comments on it and then report
back to the entire class on that theme.

Hope that helps!
Heidi Schumacher
Cal State University, Northridge

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