Exploring Women’s History and Gender Perspectives through Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc
Written by David Elliott
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019
Note: Release date March 26, 2019
Grades 7 and Up
“Every life has its own story-/not without a share of glory,/and not without a share of grief./I lived like a hero at seventeen./At nineteen, I die like a thief” (p. 9). From the very beginning, readers of Elliott’s powerful verse historical novel are told, through Joan’s own introduction, that she will die. The flames have already begun to lap at her feet: “I yearn I yearn I yearn my darling.” Fire is just one of many characters whose perspectives are threaded throughout the novel, growing larger and larger within the narrative until Joan is engulfed. Elliott uses contemporary verse forms, such as concrete poems, as well as medieval forms to construct a range of diverse first person vignettes, spoken by inanimate objects like a needle, a sword, a road, a crossbow, and the Castle of Chinon, as well as people such as St. Michael, St. Margaret, St. Catherine, Bishop Pierre Cauchon, and Charles VII of France. Throughout the book, Elliott punctuates the narrative with Joan’s actual voice, as well as those of her accusers, a squire who fought alongside her, Joan’s parents, and her village community, drawing from the transcripts of her two trials, the Trial of Condemnation in 1431, and the Trial of Nullification in 1455. Ideal for verse novel genre study, an exploration of the power of poetry, historical fiction genre study, an examination of the lives of women in medieval Europe, and more, Voices has much to offer mature tween and teen readers and their teachers.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Performing Voices. Read aloud Voices as a class, with different students taking on the various roles. Include some props and costumes, or have students conduct some research on 15th century France to establish in advance what kinds of props and costumes might make sense. When you have concluded the novel, have students share the emotional experience of participating in and listening to the performance. Have students consider the ways in which the performance of poetry differs from reading verse novels silently and independently. Complement this performance of Voices with an exploration of contemporary youth slam poetry. If you are unfamiliar with slam poetry, begin with these resources: Poetry Out Loud, Youth Speaks, and Louder Than a Bomb.
Reading and Writing: Verse Novel Genre Study. Have students read Voices as one option in a verse novel genre study. Before students begin to read, watch Jason Reynold’s short video on the power and potential of verse fiction. Next, provide students with a range of verse novels, both historical and contemporary, to explore. Work with your school librarian to identify appropriate texts of interest to your students, drawing from the list of novels included in Further Explorations below. Most of your students may not be ready to write a full-length manuscript in verse such as the ones they are reading. But all of your students can write verse novellas or short stories. Have students develop contemporary or historical narratives, with or without research as needed. Support them as their turn their narrative writing into poems. In Voices, Elliott’s use of fire’s perspective creates a sense of urgency and terror throughout the manuscript. As students develop their narratives, have them brainstorm with one another a perspective that each can thread throughout their narrative, to add emotional impact.
Poetry Writing. While reading Voices, let your students read first for the story, not the form. Once they are sufficiently “into” the story, or when they are done, provide them with the opportunity to try out some of the medieval verse forms that Elliott used. Use Elliott’s Author’s Note as a guide, and include forms such as the ballade, rondeau, rondeau redoublé, rondel, rondelet, sestina, short rondel, triolet, and villanelle. The resources included below, from the Academy of American Poets, will help you and your students better understand these verse forms. While your students may not enjoy reading medieval poetry, they can enjoy using these forms to write about their own lives.
Reconstructing a Bibliography and Historical Note. Voices begins (“Before You Read”) and concludes (Author’s Note) with David Elliott’s guidance on how readers can interact with the book and understand how he has used different poetic forms to convey Joan’s story. But there is no bibliography or historical note for readers who are interested in finding out more about Joan’s life and/or how Elliott used the facts to construct historical fiction. On the verso page, the transcripts from Joan’s trials are referenced, but no other sources. Using the resources available below, and working with your school or public librarian, have your students conduct additional research on Joan, and create their own bibliographies and historical notes for the book. Support students as they weigh the balance of fact and fiction. How does an author of historical fiction determine what is true or authentic? How is writing historical fiction different from writing biography?
Research: Questions and Answers. On his website, David Elliott writes “Those are the facts, yes, but sometimes facts explain so little. I wrote Voices to discover for myself how an illiterate teenage girl was able to accomplish what seems like the impossible, but by the time I typed “The End”, I was left with more questions than answers. I hope readers will find their own answers in Voices, and not just about Joan.” What does he mean? Have your students explore this quote. What kinds of answers does he refer? Use Voices as a springboard for students to research a historical figure that they have a lot of questions about (individually or in small groups). Provide students with the opportunity to write up their research as either historical fiction (verse or prose) or nonfiction (verse or prose). As they write historical notes for their own books, have them respond again to Elliott’s quote, this time, sharing their own unanswered questions, “not just about” their own subject.
Representations of Joan. As they read Voices, have students consider other texts on Joan of Arc. What voice is Joan given? What facts are shared and which are omitted? Why? Use the resources included below for your explorations. How is Joan of Arc represented to the “masses?” How is she viewed by scholars? What about Joan’s actual voice, as evidenced by the “Saint Joan of Arc’s Trials” primary source, upon which Elliott drew for this novel? What about representations of Joan in art and film over the centuries? Be sure to give students time to investigate multimedia presentations of Joan curated by the National Institute of Audiovisual of France. Have students discuss how their exploration of other texts about Joan help them to better understand Elliott’s representation of Joan.
Joan as a Portal into European Medieval Women: What do your students know about medieval European woman? What do they learn from this book? How did womanhood differ depending on what part of Europe you lived in? How did concepts of womanhood, and female power and privilege emerge over the entirety of the medieval period, from the fall of Rome to the early 16th century? How do students make sense of Joan’s expression of gender? How common or uncommon may it have been for women to dress as men during Joan’s lifetime? Explore the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship webpage to find a scholar with whom your class can discuss gender roles in the medieval period. Perhaps you can host a nearby scholar, or have a Skype session for questions and answers and recommended source material. Have students share their newfound knowledge by creating Voicethreads or other multimedia presentations.
Joan of Arc:
Youth Poetry Performance/Slams:
Joan of Arc:
Brooks, P.S. (1990/1999). Beyond the myth: The story of Joan of Arc. Houghton Mifflin.
Gordon, M. (2008). Joan of Arc: A life. Penguin/Lipper.
Reynolds, J. (2017). Long way down. Atheneum.
Verse Historical Fiction:
Hemphill, S. (2010). Wicked girls: A novel of the Salem Witch Trials. Balzar and Bray.
About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
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