The House on Mango Street is full of short passages perfect for beginning and intermediate English learners. The vocabulary is not overly challenging, and yet you’ll find new words to study. And best of all, even with very simple language, these short stories — or they could even be called prose poems — resonate. There’s so much meaning and feeling packed into these short vignettes.
Pre Reading: Just the First Sentence
“Hairs” is one of the first stories in the collection. Read just the first sentence, and you’ll get a feel for who the narrator is and what this book is about:
Everybody in our family has different hair.
What do you know so far about the story? What’s the setting? Who are the characters? What is it about? How do you know — find word clues.
We have a family. It’s about “everybody” in the family, how everyone is “different,” shown to us by their hair.
Who’s the narrator? How do you know?
What feeling about the story do you have so far? What gives you that feeling? For me, it’s warm – family. It’s intimate, or close, because hair is intimate. Maybe something of a conflict in the fact that they’re all different. Do you have any guesses or predictions of what the story will be about?
Do you see how much you can get from only one line of the story? I love this about good literature!
Teacher Note: This title- and first-sentence analysis is something I often do with the whole class when introducing a new story or poem. I’ve heard it called “Establishing the Initial Dramatic Situation.” We see how much we know about the setting, characters, plot (and making predictions!), and any other literary elements. The important thing here is to lead students to always go back to the text and physically make a mark or underline. So with each question — Who are the characters? I ask – How do you know? What specific words or phrases made you think that?
Teacher Note: Then, I would move on to having them read the first paragraph individually, in pairs, or small groups. This lesson is for: Objective: discover the meaning of vocabulary words in context, so I’m asking them to underline words they don’t know first. But you could have them analyze anything about the passage at this point. The key is to just focus on the first paragraph and have them physically underline and annotate something specific to practice critical reading and connect the steps of analysis from an impression to evidence.
First Paragraph: Learn Vocabulary
We’re ready to read! Read the passage once to yourself. Then read it again. Underline any words you’re unsure of. Don’t use a dictionary (yet)!
Everybody in our family has different hair. My papa’s hair is like a broom, all up in the air. And me, my hair is lazy. It never obeys barrettes or bands. Carlos’ hair is thick and straight. He doesn’t need to comb it. Nenny’s hair is slippery—slides out of your hand. And Kiki, who is the youngest, has hair like fur.Sandra Cisneros, from The House on Mango Street
Vocabulary in Context
Which words from the paragraph are you unsure of? For some students, “broom” might be tricky. Some might underline “barrettes.” Some might underline “comb” or “slippery” or “fur.” Skim over the words you underlined.
Start with the first sentence where you have an underlined word. For example, maybe you underlined “broom.” Read the sentence again – and a sentence before and after it (the context). Highlight or circle any clues — words or phrases — that help you understand the meaning of the underlined word. [In a classroom, this can be done in pairs, just the first paragraph, maybe 10 minutes.]
For broom, you might highlight or circle “up in the air,” though you still might not know what that means. That’s ok. Move on to the next. You might have underlined “barrettes.” Look at the context of this one. It says, “it doesn’t obey barrettes. What’s the “it“? Her hair. If it doesn’t “obey,” maybe the barrette is something that holds the hair in place … “bands” could be something like that too, something that ties the hair.
Keep moving through the paragraph, using the context to guess the meaning. It’s important not to rely on the dictionary but to use these steps to sharpen your own reasoning process! You know how you can read a dictionary definition and still not really understand what the word means? You might say, “I need to hear an example.” Exactly! Reading literature gives us an example, a context, and we can use it — and in many cases — learn these words better, more meaningfully, when we read them in context. Plus, it’s just more enjoyable to be able to teach ourselves to read without using the dictionary for every sentence!
That said, if you need to check any meanings in a dictionary, do that now!
Teacher Note: (Sometimes, I give the above explanation about using a dictionary and a real-life example of the importance of context before I start this lesson.) Next, we’re going to do the steps of analysis — to connect the evidence, the words in the story, to the larger meaning, the connotation and characterization. Objective: Identify significant text details and make analyses of overall meaning (in this case, characterization).
Characterization: Using Text Details to Draw Conclusions
Now, let’s do some character analysis based on the details the narrator gives us about the family members. Make a list of each family member and how their hair is described:
- Papa: hair like broom, up in air
- Narrator (me): lazy – doesn’t obey
- Carlos: thick and straight – doesn’t need to comb it
- Nenny: slippery – slides right out of your hand
- Kiki: youngest – hair like fur
Good! So what conclusions could we make about each person in the family based on their description? (Remember this is from our narrator’s point of view — that’s important because another member of the family might have a different perspective!):
- Papa: tall, dignified (up in the air)? Add your thoughts ________
- Narrator (me): She is the lazy one in the family and doesn’t obey order – like the barrettes or bands. She doesn’t obey what’s trying to hold her in. Add your thoughts _________
- Carlos: thick and straight – doesn’t need to comb it: Maybe very orderly, predictable, no trouble, simple? Add your thoughts _______
- Nenny: slippery – slides right out of your hand: She’s hard to keep tabs on, to track – maybe doing her own thing – independent?
- Kiki: youngest – hair like fur: probably a baby since the hair is thin and wispy like fur; soft, delicate
Again, see how much we can know about these characters with just a few details? We get a lot of information about how the narrator sees her family members. What do you think her relationship is like with each member of her family? Can you picture this family now? How do you see them?
Sentence Structure & Repetition: Meaning Beyond the Words
It’s time to read the last paragraph. This one turns to the mother, who hasn’t been mentioned yet. As you read, do your same practice: underline words you don’t know, maybe star or make a note of anything you have a reaction to as you read (such as, “oh! that’s interesting!” or “change in tone!” or “change in the sound” or “I wonder…” or “I notice…”
But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and Mama’s hair that smells like bread.
Isn’t that different from the first! What are your main feelings or reactions to this second paragraph? Do you feel a shift? How does the story shift?
For me, this is so warm. Overall, I feel so much love for the mother, and much more feeling than the previous paragraph. I’m going to go back and pick out the main words I see that paint that picture:
The mother pins her hair — careful, loving. Like rosettes- candy — sweet and pretty, something that brings you joy. Further on, we get all these details about warmth, safety, comfort: putting her nose into her mother’s hair; the hair smells like bread; an image of sleeping next to her in her bed, rain falling outside, Papa snoring — so just the narrator and mother awake together. The last line repeats all the images of warmth and comfort and love: “The snoring, the rain, and Mama’s hair that smells like bread.”
I would say there is a major shift between the first and second paragraphs. What shifts do you see? How are the first and second paragraphs different?
The first thing that stands out to me is that we have a whole paragraph dedicated to the mother, while all the other family members are described in one or two short sentences each, and they all share the same space the mother takes up. So, it seems the mother — in the narrator’s mind — deserves the most space. One of her equals all the others combined!
The mother gets so many more details than the others. Remember when we made our list of the other family members before and made guesses about how the narrator feels about the other characters? Did you have a little trouble knowing how she felt? I did — I felt like I was just making my best guess as to how the narrator feels about the characters and what her relationship to them is. But the mother? I know how she feels about the mother! That closeness, warmth, sweetness, safety is so clear.
Also, look at the sentence structure! In the second paragraph, can you even find the beginning and ending of each sentence? It’s all one run-on sentence! Compare the mother’s lines to the first paragraph? The first paragraph has these short, simple sentences. “Papa’s hair is like a broom.” “My hair is lazy.” But the mother’s sentence? It runs on and on, no stops, lots of commas. It’s like the narrator can’t contain herself–her feeling for the mother can’t be contained in normal, well-ordered sentences! And the narrator repeats herself — look at all the repetition: “holding you, holding you,” smell, bread, rain, warm. Do you see other examples of repetition?
To conclude: What do you know about this narrator and her relationship to her family? Who do you think this narrator is? (She’ll be narrating the whole book!) What do you know about this family? Can you relate to this passage when you think about your own family? What do you think The House on Mango Street will be about?
Reflection: What did you learn about using the context to figure out vocabulary? What did you learn about finding details to tell you about characters? What will you take away about looking at sentence structure or repetition?
Creative Writing prompt: Write a short paragraph about your family or your group of friends, or the most important people in your life, using “Hairs” as a model. You could describe everyone’s hair, giving details that also say something about their personality. OR to challenge yourself, you could choose another quality. For example, describe each person by their shoes, or their car, or their favorite object or food.
You could make a list like we did above to jot down your ideas:
- Me: red flats
- Dad: brown loafers
Freewrite a little about the details until you find details that seem important to who the person is. For example:
- Me: bright red flats, flashy, shiny, freshly polished
- Dad: brown loafers: worn leather, dependable, owned for years but new laces
Then for your final draft, decide which details you’ll include and write it up! Maybe try to vary your sentence lengths like the author did here. Have fun! Comment if you’d like to share!
Check back for more lessons from The House on Mango Street, and possibly a future book club!