Instructors’ Teaching Experience
I had a wonderful experience teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God in GEL. This novel really has everything: a classic love story, an intense focus on community, engagement with American history, and even a funeral for a beloved town donkey. My students were very interested in discussing the central relationships in the novel (Janie's partners; her friendship with Phoeby; the function of the community broadly, etc.) and appreciated the beauty of Hurston's prose. It was a great novel to start the semester with because the book is brimming with language perfect for close reading. [E. Bruno]
I divided the book across 5 days as follows:
Day 1: Chapters 1-4 (pp. 1-33) [Focus on Janie's upbringing and first marriage]
Day 2: Chapters 5-8 (pp. 34-87) [Focus on Janie's move to Eatonville and marriage to Joe]
Day 3: Chapters 9-12 (pp. 88-115) [Focus on Tea Cake's arrival in the text]
Day 4: Chapters 13-17 (pp. 116-153) [Focus on the move to "the muck"]
Day 5: Chapters 18-20 (pp. 154-193) [Focus on resolution]
This sequencing provided natural breaks and kept the reading load manageable; if you want to teach it in 4 days, the last three sections can be collapsed into two. [E. Bruno]
Introducing the Novel
The novel was famously "recovered" in the 1980s following the publication of Alice Walker's essay "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston." You may want to share this history with students, discussing the novel's obscurity and how Walker's essay—along with the spread of Black studies programs and restructuring of the canon—helped recover it. If you want to bring the essay directly into class, just note that it includes mild spoilers.
As a novel of the Harlem Renaissance, you may want to explicitly position the novel within this important artistic tradition. This PowerPoint includes broad history of the movement and can serve as a starting point. (See notes section of each slide for additional context.) If you introduce the major themes of the period and share some examples of other HR writing (which is very easy to do with poetry), you can then continue to discuss how Hurston's novel responds to the Renaissance as you read.
If you're looking to bring Harlem Renaissance poetry into the class to teach alongside the novel, see the HR Poetry Cluster. [E. Bruno]
The official ZNH website has an instructor's guide including discussion questions and essay prompts, available here. Note that the guide is designed for high school students, so you will probably want to adapt them into higher-order questions at times.
Fishbowl Discussion Questions (for Chs. 5-8)