When I set out for Santa Fe, New Mexico, for an NEH seminar in Dante the summer of 1996, I knew that I was embarking on the most important and influential part of my professional life as an English teacher. What I didn’t realize was that, over 15 years, virtually all of the students at Geneseo Central School in upstate New York would also benefit from my stimulating experience. Our six to eight weeks together studying The Inferno at the end of the sophomore academic year became, according to many reports, the highlight of our time together.
English 10 at GCS consists of heterogeneous groups—scholars and special education students mingled in each section. At first I wondered, “Will they all be able to deal with this poetry? Will they stumble and groan? Will they like it?” The answers? Yes, no, yes.
The unit began with some pre-study questions: What is your concept of Heaven? Hell? Purgatory? Sin? What, if anything, do you know about Dante? Each class was divided into teams of four, heterogeneously grouped, to sit together throughout the unit. A leader whom I knew to be a responsible and serious student helped guide those who were absent or had difficulty with notes or reading. Each student had a special folder specifically dedicated to our study. We spent some time on an overview of the entire work and looked at the diagrams and balance between the poem itself and the pages of notes that accompany those lines. There were several hand-outs, beginning with scaffolded notes on the basics of Dante, The Commedia, The Inferno in context, terminology used throughout, such as canto, tercet, shade, Dante the Pilgrim and Dante the Narrator.
Unlike reading Shakespeare aloud, students found the Mark Musa translation accessible. We studied Cantos I – VII and XXXII – XXXIV by reading aloud in parts, including the summary and distinction between the two Dantes. Before reading each canto, they received a guideline indicating the lines for each part, vocabulary, the most relevant notes from Musa’s work and other pertinent connections. I handled the segue between Upper Hell and the final cantos by providing summarizing statements and some commentary. Each year several students chose to read the entire work and some ventured on to Purgatorio and Paradiso.
While it took only one day to read and discuss each assigned canto, there were other activities along the way. For example, they had small assessments and completed visual projects for Upper Hell. We also explored numerous related forms of media such as newspaper and magazine articles, cartoons, videos, and The 5-Minute Iliad and Other Instant Classis by Greg Nagan. There is no shortage of material on sin, Hell, and evil, or at least meanness, in our world. Dore’s Illustrations of The Commedia were incorporated into some assessments, and copies of the other two poems, as well as their own visual projects, dotted the classroom. Local gurus Drs. Bill Cook and Ron Herzman—co-leaders of the Great Courses series on Dante--visited us to mark a significant and enlightening day for all.
Especially as we explored the closing cantos, we workshopped subjects such as parody, The Golden Mean, and Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” What is each writer suggesting? Why is ice an appropriate punishment?
The culminating project was writing their own cantos with careful guidance for the basic requirements: summary, Pilgrim and Guide and other essential characters, environment, contrapasso, appropriate tone and language, and any transitions. Some of these final projects were majestic and philosophical, while others were just plain silly, but they all reflected some measure of understanding and success. The gems among them actually looked like pages from Musa with language that imitated his translation.
Throughout our Inferno study—and sometimes long after—I learned that students who had been indifferent or grumbling English students earlier became fascinated and intrigued by Dante’s Hell, his hierarchy of sin, and his methods of punishment. Participation in reading, conversing with their Dante teammates, and creating interesting projects and cantos were not limited to the usual suspects and they had fun. Once I had some validation, I always advertised this unit as the highlight of English 10, and students verified this claim year after year.
Fortunately, the English department at Geneseo has great autonomy over its syllabus, so choosing to incorporate The Inferno was not an issue. In light of the Common Core standards now, I could still argue that the poem provides ample justification for its inclusion. It has a definable structure and offers many examples for analysis and use of literary devices. This study also proved to be something quite different from the usual, a plus for many students at all ability levels.
As I reflect on those 15 years of Dante in the classroom, I am still thankful and proud that I was able to share a portion of this work with hundreds of young people.