When Bill Gibson introduced his teenage students to a novel set in eastern Turkey about clashes between secular rules and deep Muslim beliefs, he didn’t worry about whether the story would resonate despite an absence of connection to the life they know.
“There’s no point of orientation. It’s set in eastern Turkey, and these are high school students — how much do they know in that part of the world?” said Gibson, who teaches history at Madison East High School. “They haven’t learned anything yet or very little, so it’s very disorienting in that respect.”
But instead of rejecting the unfamiliar, Gibson said his advanced placement European history students have absorbed the complexities of Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel Prize-winning novel “Snow.” The novel is about a poet named Ka who had been living in political exile in Germany for 12 years. It follows him to a Turkish city named Kars, where he plans to investigate a rash of suicides by young Muslim women suspected to be a result of the women being forced by schools to remove their head scarves.
While there, heavy snow traps the city for three days — the length of the story — and Ka is confronted with clashing religious fundamentalists and secularists, and constant questions about his religious beliefs, while he also hopes to reconnect with a woman he used to know there.
“Snow” is this year’s pick for the Great World Texts program facilitated by UW-Madison’s Center for the Humanities, a 9-year-old literacy initiative that provides Wisconsin teachers like Gibson with sets of novels chosen for their cultural and literary value, teaching guides and professional development, and provides students with a chance to respond to such work with projects of their choice that cover a theme of the book.
The culmination of that effort unfolds Monday, when about 500 students from 15 Wisconsin schools will meet at the Great World Texts conference at UW-Madison. The students will have a chance to meet and hear from the author they have been studying all semester, and to present and discuss their work together. Nine students have been chosen to have lunch with Pamuk.
The book was chosen for its global perspective, said program coordinator Heather DuBois Bourenane, but also because it is a text that is frequently asked about on Advanced Placement exams but not frequently taught in schools.
And it’s a different kind of book for many of the students reading it. As Gibson’s student Emily Massey points out, the book doesn’t end happily with its main character “reaching for something that’s there, but never attainable,” But she also said that’s what kept her attention.
“It’s the kind of book that has no heroes, which is very non-traditional for them,” Gibson said. “In all American stories, there’s a hero and a car chase ... and it’s very black and white. But here, there’s none of that. It’s very human and very clumsy and I think it has a lot of human qualities that (students) can identify with.”
At Middleton’s Clark Street Community School, teacher Bryn Orum was able to design an entire course around the book. Orum said the students became notably interested in learning more about Islam.
“I think the most important thing they can get out of it is a deeper understanding of this religion because it is so misunderstood by a lot of Americans,” she said. “It’s cool to watch their thinking going from simple to more cloudy. I think that’s a sign of deep understanding — when you think things would become more clear, they actually get more cloudy with more information.”
Projects there, she said, include a speech about how the women in the book dealt with a head scarf ban compared to similar, real events in Turkey, and also interviews with Muslims living in Dane County.
At East, where English and social studies teachers have created units around the novel, students are producing projects ranging from essays, poetry and songs to movie trailers, paintings and three-dimensional models.
“I think it’s been a good experience,” said Hafsa Brown, a senior in Gibson’s class. “To open students to the world, and to conflict.”
Brown, 18, created a landscape painting titled “The Land Where God does not Exist” for the conference. She describes the painting as her representation of a vision a character had, bringing into focus “the contrasts and symbolism and how they depict the events in Kars,” she wrote to the program’s coordinators. “The burning tree surrounded by the snow, hot versus cold, light versus dark is apparent contrast, but more important is what they represent.” Brown also uses the theme of snow to represent veiling, another theme in the book, she wrote.
Massey has written a musical score because she was struck by the book’s intense imagery, she said. Sean Thiboldeaux, a junior in Amy Isensee’s AP language and composition class at East, built with his partner a diagram of the city of Kars “focusing on the violence and death that happens in the book,” he said. And Amber Brown in Kent Wannebo’s AP English class created a cake with a frosting design based on the book.
The variety and depth of ideas spun from reading the book provided a lesson in humility for Gibson, he said, about “how incredibly brilliant our students are.”
“Honestly, it reminds me of how lucky I am that I have this job,” he said. “It’s a reminder (of) how poorly understood East High School or maybe public schools in general are. … It’s a complicated place, it’s full of complicated people with complicated lives like in ‘Snow.’ ”