Teacher Explores Affinity for Austen Through Newest Seminar

Olivia Choi '19

This year’s seniors are among the first to take part in Sidwell’s newest English senior seminar, titled “Family Stories: Ties that Bind”, taught by English teacher Lubna Najar. The class is Najar’s very first senior seminar.

The inspiration for the class, according to Najar, originally drew from her long-held love of Jane Austen. In addition to her own personal interest in Austen’s work, Najar was aware of an existing interest among her tenth grade students, many of whom had expressed a desire for a class dedicated to Austen after reading Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”.

Hoping to expand to a wider audience, Najar instead chose to center her class on a theme common to Austen’s work, ultimately settling on the concept of family due to its universal nature.

“It occurred to me that one of the things I really like is how characters in Austen novels have to negotiate their sense of who they are in the context of their family,” Najar said. “Family can be this immense source of support to an individual, but it can also impose on an individual and restrict them. I think we all experience our families in both of those ways.”

In the first semester, students begin with Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”, a tribute to Najar’s “initial Austen seed.” In stark contrast to Austen’s early 19th century writing, two very contemporary novels—Junot Díaz's “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and Octavia Butler’s “Kindred”—will follow in its place.

Despite Najar’s opinion that “the three novels couldn’t be more different,” she assured that they all connect to the concept of family, though in various senses of the word. In “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”, a contemporary novel about a Dominican-American boy’s struggle with identity, Najar affirmed, “you can kind of think of family as metaphorical and maybe representing ethnicity or nation. The idea that family also represents the culture of a place that people come from was really powerful in that book…Family is such a general concept; it could mean almost anything.”

Second semester students will undertake “King Lear” by Shakespeare; “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic”, a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel; and “Boy, Snow, Bird”, a contemporary novel by British author Helen Oyeyemi.

In addition to the novels, Najar said, she hopes to delve into other genres of media, possibly featuring a few episodes of comedic television series “Master of None”, an essay by James Baldwin and several poetry pieces.

As students explore the various understandings of family, a critical objective of the class will be to have students connect the novels to themselves in a personal manner and to “consider their own family stories,” Najar said.

Currently, students have been practicing drawing such connections through informal reflections in reader response journals. Najar plans to further extend the idea by allowing students to tell a family story of their own as a creative project in place of a final exam.

That being said, Najar expects the structure of the course to be fluid.

“So much of it comes from how kids read things and what strikes them, and the things that strike them might not be the things that strike me,” Najar said. “Students really determine what a class is about, so hopefully it will be a little different every time.”

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