Taconic students take a hands-on approach with 'The Scarlet Letter'


PITTSFIELD -- "It's an example of things you don't expect to work out as well as they do," said Kim Simpson, an English teacher at Taconic High School. "I never expected this."

As it turned out, Simpson's idea to ask her students -- all also enrolled in vocational courses at Taconic -- to create a letter A as they read Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" produced "something amazing," she said.

"It's a tough book," Simpson said. Her assignment was to create an A of materials students worked with in other classes in a way that would reflect the book's theme.

In the novel, Hester Prynne, a seamstress in the Puritan-era Boston of the mid-1600s, is imprisoned for a time and then made to wear an A for adultery because she has given birth to a child while her older husband was in Europe. She also refuses to name the father, a young minister in the town, despite pressure from fiercely judgmental townspeople.

Over time, Hester endures her role as an outcast and raises her daughter, while gradually winning respect for her good deeds. The minister, however, wears his own A -- both figuratively and literally, it turns out -- and is tormented toward an early death because of the secret he can't bring himself to reveal.

"The project was to create an A to express the theme of the book," Simpson said. "That was the entire assessment."

What she got from the carpentry, culinary arts, metal fabrication, auto body, machine shop and other students was a burst of creativity and oral presentations of the works that illustrated the book's theme.

"They were very comfortable with their own experiences," and working with familiar materials, she said. With about two dozen students in her English class, Simpson said she "got something from all the different shops" at Taconic.

"It made us connect to the book," said student J. Alex Gillette. "In the book, she used her skills to make her A, and we used our skills to make our As."

Josh Broskey, who created an A from braided bread, said his work symbolized how many different ingredients can "come out together in the end and work out the way you want them to."

Another culinary arts student, Julie-Ann Doucette, said, "I made a cake because deep down Hester in the book was nice; she was sweet, but nobody saw it."

The cake, she said, had a rough-appearing surface, but "inside it was really nice and sweet."

Other creations included a metal piece in which "the welds [like Hester] become stronger where it had been fixed," Simpson said, and a clock which illustrated how "it takes time to learn from your mistakes."

Jeno Teti joked that his clock also symbolized "how it took me a long time to read the book and understand it."

In auto body shop, Tony Aragon created a piece with three different types of body filler material, including rough surfaces and a smooth finish that symbolized both Hester's public and hidden personalities and her life.

"In the end, I just smoothed it out, because in the end, it all worked out for her," he said.

"We had a long discussion afterward on how as a teacher I could improve on this next time," Simpson said. "I absolutely will do it again," she said. "The shop teachers were amazing too, and had suggestions on how to do it better."

To reach Jim Therrien:
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