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The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

Avi Wortis

Theme: Breaking out of Traditional Gender Roles
Grades: Grades 7-8

In this fast-paced and suspense-filled novel, 13-year-old Charlotte Doyle describes a remarkable sea voyage that changes her life forever. In 1832, Charlotte crosses the Atlantic aboard the Seahawk, departing from England to join her family in Rhode Island. Raised to be a proper young lady, she is surprised to learn that she is the only passenger and only female aboard the ship. Frightened by a mysterious crew, at first she trusts only Jaggery, the captain, but soon discovers that he is cruel and slightly mad. She then joins ranks with the mutinous crew but must convince them of her loyalty by tackling death-defying feats unfamiliar to most females of her era. Charlotte is befriended along the way by the old black cook, Zachariah, who eventually helps save her life. When the vengeful captain accuses her of murder, Charlotte is tried and found guilty. She escapes punishment in a life-and-death struggle with Jaggery and is finally reunited with her family. Charlotte misses the Seahawk, however, and, in an unusual twist of the plot, casts aside the comforts of home for the life of a seafarer.

  1. Linking to Today: Gender Roles.
    Challenge students with the following questions: Are there jobs that women can't do? Are there jobs that men can't do? Draw two columns on the chalkboard with the headings JUST FOR MEN and JUST FOR WOMEN, and ask students what, if any, jobs they would list in each column. Then let the sparks fly! Urge students to debate the rationale for listing jobs under either heading and to give concrete examples that either support or dispute the gender limitations of any job listed. Help point out some of the prejudices or expectations regarding jobs that, in the past, have been associated with only one gender—for example, construction worker, nurse, firefighter, secretary. At the end of the activity, tell students that, in The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, they will read about a 19th-century girl who takes on a job typically assigned only to men.
  1. Tapping Prior Knowledge: Sailing Across the Atlantic.
    Explain to students that they will be reading about a trans-Atlantic voyage from England to Rhode Island that occurred in 1832. Then have them work together as a class or in small groups to discuss what they know about trans-Atlantic crossings in the 19th century. Urge students to brainstorm ideas about the types of sailing vessels available in the 19th-century and the living conditions that a seafarer might have encountered. Encourage them to share facts or stories about ocean voyages that they remember from history books, stories, or films. Record their facts and impressions on the chalkboard to be used later as a reference when discussing the novel.
  1. Two Faces.
    Suggest that students create a contemporary two-part collage that reflects Charlotte's character before and after she joins the crew of the Seahawk. Invite them to use pictures from current magazines or to draw pictures that illustrate their impressions of Charlotte's changing attitudes, emotions, and values.

  1. A Bit of Advice.
    Have students work in small groups to prepare a skit in which one student plays the role of a guidance counselor attempting to resolve the conflicts between Charlotte and her family. Suggest that students in each group begin by deciding what kind of advice the counselor should give and how Charlotte and her family would respond to it. Allow time for volunteers to present their skits to the whole class.
  1. Nothing Women Could Not Do.
    In this project, students will learn about modern-day women and women in history who, like Charlotte Doyle, have broken gender barriers. Working in pairs, students will research one pioneering woman and then present their findings to the class in a variety of multi-media profiles.

    Suggested Procedure:

  • Give students a list (such as Amelia Earhart, Sylvia Earle, Delores Huerta, and Sandra Day O'Connor) of women who have broken into traditionally male careers. Then ask students, working in pairs, to select one woman from the list or one of their own choosing to research for a special class presentation.
  • Give students ample time to use the library, textbooks, and the Internet to search for information about their pioneering woman, and suggest that they try to find answers to questions such as: What were her early years like? How did she get started in her career? What motivated her? How did she overcome any prejudice or hardships? How has she influenced others?
  • Next, have students prepare a creative profile of their pioneering woman that they can share with the class and, if possible, with others in the school. Encourage them to choose a method or format that will be more interesting and appealing than a straight oral report. For example, they might plan and perform a dramatic profile, create and videotape a talk-show interview, make a narrated slide show, create a bulletin board for the school lobby, or make an illustrated book for the school library.
  1. How-To Pamphlet.
    Instruct students to research the life and manners of upper-class American girls and women in the first half of the 19th century, especially the way young girls were expected to behave. Then ask them to write the type of "edifying," or instructional, pamphlet that Charlotte's parents would want their daughter to read.