At Madison East High School, students in Amy Isensee’s classroom are considering what they have in common with 17th-century Chinese culture
Isensee’s Advanced Placement English Literature class is participating in Great World Texts, a groundbreaking program launched in 2005 by UW-Madison’s Center for the Humanities. More than 400 students from East are reading and creating projects related to the same novel: Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en — originally published in 1592 and more widely known throughout English-speaking countries as Monkey.
The culmination of their study is a daylong conference on April 20 at Union South, where students from East will join more than 1,200 students from around the state to present their work and have opportunities to interact with UW-Madison faculty, graduate students and the public at large.
The preparation begins in early spring, when Isensee introduces students to the complex themes of Journey to the West, which is based on the true story of a Tang Dynasty monk who travels to India seeking sacred texts. “We do not live in a black-and-white world,” Isensee tells her students. “We are surrounded by incredibly complex issues and situations constantly.”
When students divide into small groups for a discussion, junior Alyssa McGillivary notes that greed is a theme in the novel, which features Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. Her group debates whether Western culture today parallels what was playing out in Monkey centuries ago.
“Consumerism is more and more prevalent today,” McGillivary says. “We need to work on this, as greed affects humanity.”
More than 1,200 Wisconsin high school students will present projects at the April 20 conference at Union South.
Nicolas John Dupaty, a junior and newcomer to Great World Texts, says he did not read much when he was younger. But he says the program has given him an opportunity to read a classic book, examine philosophical questions, and express what he’s learned in creative ways.
Students at the April 20 conference will not just be presenting research papers. “This is an opportunity for the students to present a final project: a paper, interpretive dance, a band, a video,” says Emily Clark, associate director at the Center for the Humanities.
For their project, Dupaty’s group is crafting a large cutout of Monkey, the book’s main character, and attaching a variety of quotes from the book.
“My group wanted to create something interactive for viewers/students to not only understand who Monkey is, but to ask questions and comment on our analysis as well,” he says.
“I like the fact that instead of being forced to write an essay or report, you get to read the book and be creative about it,” says McGillivary.
The program expanded this year, allowing more schools to participate, and UW faculty visited schools around the state to help teachers and students prepare for the conference.
For example, about 30 AP literature and sociology students from Prescott High School, about 250 miles north of Madison, will attend the conference this year for the first time.
“It is huge for both Prescott High School students and the UW System to know each other exists,” says Mandy Bernick, who teaches literature in Prescott. “It’s super-important for high school kids to have the humanities exposure that Great World Texts brings.”
Rania Huntington, assistant professor of East Asian Languages at UW-Madison, says she has a “strong personal stake” in the project. “I was once a Wisconsin high school student [from Mazomanie] reading this same book.” Huntington says Journey to the West introduced her to a complex cosmology and awakened a passion for other worlds; after reading it, she studied Chinese, traveled to Taiwan and China and ultimately joined the faculty at UW.
“I have an obligation to share this rich world with other Wisconsin students.”
The April 20 Great World Texts conference, including the students’ presentations and visual art displays, is open to the public. At 11:00 a.m., Chinese American playwright David Henry Hwang will present the keynote address. He is the author of the Tony Award-winning M. Butterfly and The Lost Empire, a mini-series based on Journey to the West.