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From 16th century China to a Prescott classroom

Student Nadia DeVol is the director of the student-written performance titled “Englightenment,” based off the 16th century Chinese novel “Journey to the West,” which Prescott high school students read as part of the Great World Texts in Wisconsin program. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Rhi Hadler is painting Gabe Diaz to be Monkey in the performance of “Enlightenment,” which Prescott students will perform at the Great World Texts in Wisconsin annual student conference April 20 in Madison. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

PRESCOTT -- How does a 16th century Chinese novel relate to the world students live in today? Some may find it a stretch, but the truth is, it relates more than one would think.

For the first time, Prescott High School students participated in the Great World Texts program, led by instructors Mandy Bernick and Bonnie Jones-Witthuhn.

“Mrs. J-W and I thought this would be a great opportunity to do cross-curriculum between AP English and sociology,” said Bernick.

The Center for the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison launched the Great World Texts in Wisconsin program in 2005 to connect scholars at UW-Madison with high school teachers and students in Wisconsin by reading and discussing a classic piece of world literature. According to a press release from The Center for the Humanities, “These texts serve as lenses through which to see our world anew, providing students the opportunity to discuss some of the most pressing issues of ourtime, and to explore the relationship between humanistic inquiry and globalcitizenship. Shaped by voicesthat reflect a variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, this conversation provides students a critical opportunity to explore these questions with peers from across the state of Wisconsin, and to become familiar with great works of literature that are not usually taught in high school classrooms.”

This year, student participants across the state read Wu Cheng'en's “Journey to the West” (translated by Arthur Waley), which is known in English-speaking countries as the novel “Monkey.”It was published anonymously in 1592, and “rallies against the limits of a literary world where writers' ideas and use of language were highly controlled by traditional Chinese forms.”

It is considered one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature.

“It was very surprising and interesting to learn how common the main character ‘Monkey’ is in our 21st century society,” Bernick said. “Todd DeBonis wrote ‘The Monkey King's Daughter.’ This is a middle school book series. I read this book to my sociology students. Both Bonnie and I had students read ‘American Born Chinese’ by Gene Luen Yang which is a graphic novel that connects to Monkey. Both of the books really helped our classes to read ‘Journey to the West.’ The storylines and characters made a lot more sense. I also read one of the volumes from a different graphic novel series ‘Adventures from China: Monkey King.’”

Bernick said students weren’t sure what to think of the book at first, but slowly warmed to the text.

“The first part of the book was difficult, but after chapter six most students started to enjoy it more,” Bernick said. “Being the original book was written in Chinese during the 16th century there remains the cultural difference today as well.”

The teachers branched out to help students understand the book, by incorporating lessons on Buddhism and Confucianism, viewing movie clips on YouTube, studying Chinese history and watching the 2013 film “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons.”

“AMC also had a new series come out in 2015 called ‘Into the Badlands,’” Bernick said. “My students watched a trailer to this series that has some connections to the book ‘Journey to the West’ and thought it looked like a great series to start watching.”

In December, co-coordinators of the Great World Texts in Wisconsin program Devin Garofalo and Manuel Herrero-Puertas visited Prescott to mentor students for the project’s upcoming annual student conference April 20 in Madison. At the conference, students share what they’ve learned with other participating schools through interpretive projects.

Prescott students Nadia DeVol, Madeline Bartles, Kaylee Backes, Gabe Diaz, Nick Gangi, Ryan Jorke, Carly Thompson, Alayna Seleski and Erica Urman have written a script to act out for April 20, called “Enlightenment.”

“Andrew Lane, with the help of Mr. Dallas Eggers, has also been helping with filming and editing our work,” Bernick said. “ Andrew Taylor will be presenting during the Plenary Session in Madison, as each school needs to have a presentation at that time. Not all AP English and sociology students will have their projects going to Madison. Just the above selected students.”

The video shows enlightenment for characters Monkey, Tripitaka, Sandy, and Pigsy as they journey from the early Peach Banquet storyline at the start of the book to meeting with Buddha at the end of the book, Bernick said.

The conference will also feature an interactive discussion with playwright David Henry Hwang, who created a TV film adaptation of the novel.

As for taking part next year, Bernick and Jones-Witthuhn would welcome the opportunity, but are unsure if funds will be available.

“This year the school matrix worked out for Bonnie and I to do the project. It is hard to say at this time about next year,” Bernick said. “Prescott School District was given a grant through the Great World Text project to participate. This helped cover the cost of substitute teachers and gas to Madison, as well as hotel. If this ends up being a once in a lifetime opportunity for Bonnie and I as teachers, it was worth it.”

For more information about the program and past novels read, visit humanities.wisc.edu/public-humanities/gwt/about-gwt.

Sarah Nigbor

Sarah J. Nigbor serves as a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, a position she began in April 2017. She joined RiverTown Multimedia in October 2013 as a news reporter for the New Richmond News, before being appointed editor of the Pierce County Herald in February 2015. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Spanish and French in 2001. She completed a minor in journalism in 2004. 

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