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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue D :: December 1997

Poe, Alcoholism, and ESOL

by Lynne McCarthy and Bernadette Comeau
The first issue of Focus on Basics included an article on qualitative research by Glynda Hull. Inspired by this piece, teachers Lynne McCarthy and Bernadette Comeau decided to do qualitative research themselves. They explored the question of how using the work of Edgar Allan Poe might improve the quantity and quality of discussion in their English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classroom. After looking over their data, they met with Ray Kelley, an expert in the field of court and correctional substance abuse programs, who helped them develop a theoretical framework for their analysis based on the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). In this article, they share their experiences with us.

We are always searching for lessons that generate spirited discussions in English. The class sessions we describe here are those in which students effectively used and practiced communication skills, in particular the ability to relate what they learned about Edgar Allan Poe to what they experienced in their own lives. We feel that this achievement is one of the most significant reasons for using content-based instruction in ESOL classes.

Our Students, Our Mission

The ESOL students we teach at the Billerica House of Correction are predominantly Latino men whose ages range from 17 to 60. Most do not have high school diplomas and about two out of every ten cannot read. The criminal offenses for which they are incarcerated often include drug possession and dealing, domestic violence, stealing, or drunken driving. Their psychosocial histories often reveal childhoods filled with neglect, violence, and dysfunction.

As prison educators, our mission includes providing opportunities for academic improvement, such as speaking, reading, and writing English, and offering learning situations that allow our students to understand some of the fundamental problems that plague their lives. Prison education is one piece of a multifaceted rehabilitative approach to reduce recidivism. We are called upon to interpret and facilitate other institutional services available to our students. Hence, we are aware of the many issues and crises our students encounter.

Substance abuse is prevalent in 80% to 85% of men committed to penal institutions in Massachusetts (MA SJC, 1995). We find these statistics accurate among our students as well. Our students' willingness to speak frankly about their problems with alcohol and drugs inspired us to learn at AA, since it is available to them. We did not teach the AA tenets, nor did we know them when we taught the unit upon which we focused our research. When we revisited Poe's works through the lens of the Twelve Steps (1981), however, we learned what our students had readily seen: that Poe's characters are imbued with the very same despair, loneliness, resentment, and guilt that the substance abuser suffers from. It was that discovery that prompted us to share what we had learned via this article.

Classroom Goals

Giving a human context to our learning content is always a major goal when we plan curriculum. "To present knowledge cut off from human emotions and intentions is to reduce its affective meaning" (Egan, p. 30, 1986). Our primary academic goals include conversing in English in a meaningful, spontaneous manner, and practicing reading, pronunciation, and comprehension skills. While we do teach and emphasize the practical applications of reading, such as job-related and daily-living skills, we equally emphasize and equate the ability to read with experiences that can change and expand a person's life. "What is required to be eager to learn to read is not knowledge about reading's practical usefulness, but a fervent belief that being able to read will open to him a world of wonderful experiences, permit him to shed his ignorance, understand the world and become master of his fate. For it is faith that kindles one's imagination and gives one the strength to undertake the most difficult tasks..." (Bettelheim & Zelan, p. 49, 1981).

Why Poe?

We chose Edgar Allan Poe as the content of our unit because we felt the tragic circumstances of his life and his struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction coincided with themes generated during classroom discussions. He is an American author about whom we feel passionately. In addition, we conducted the unit in October and wanted to give our students a flavor of the spirit of Halloween. While we used many of Poe's stories and poems, the pieces discussed in this article are "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Raven," and "The Oval Portrait."

Because we teach in an open-ended program with a transient population, our lesson design is short, self-contained, and intended to be completed in one or two sessions. We team-teach two separate classes, for two-and-a-half hours, five days a week. During beginning lessons, we usually introduce new vocabulary. We then break into two small reading groups based on ability. Each student in the group reads a few lines of the text and then pauses, as the group practices pronunciation, usage, or vocabulary. After each paragraph, we ask questions about information in the text to assess students' reading comprehension and see if the students can make inferences about the text. We include skill activities such as word finds and scrambles, cloze sentences, vocabulary and definition matching, and multiple-choice and written comprehension questions.

The Beginning

We began the unit we researched with a one-hour PBS video entitled Poe: Terror of the Soul (1995), which provided biographical information as well as dramatizations of Poe's well-known works. Choosing short, yet meaningful, reading texts on Poe's life was difficult. Students in an advanced English course on Poe at the Naval Academy in Annapolis have created a site on the Internet called "The Poe Perplex." We used two biographical writings, one by J.A. Black, one by T. Poulter, from this site.

In Black's three-page paper, "How Did Poe Survive for Forty Years?" (1996), our students struggled with vocabulary. After reading each paragraph, we defined unfamiliar terms, had them reread silently, and then asked them to paraphrase what they understood. The terms melancholy, depression, gloom, and lonely generated discussion on usage. Students asked for model sentences in the first person, which suggested to us that they identified with the suffering Poe experienced. One student remarked that English had many different words for "enfermedad" -- sickness, illness, ailment, disease.

While Black's paper elicited discussion focusing on vocabulary and usage, the paper by Poulter, entitled "Edgar Allan Poe and Alcohol" (1996), brought forth a richer conversation. This might be because the students had grappled with the difficult vocabulary in Black's piece and were ready to focus on content. In his paper, Poulter appears to contradict himself. He says Poe was not an alcoholic, then describes Poe's drinking habits: "One drink was too much" " He drank either to oblivion or until he was out of money" (1996). AA says that one drink is too many, a thousand is not enough.

We asked, "Was Poe an alcoholic?" In this session, most of our students were men in their early twenties. They tended to agree with Poulter despite Poe's documented behavior. However, one middle-aged student, Antonio, - all students' names have been changed - disagreed strongly with the younger men's impressions of Poe. While Antonio had attended classes regularly for about six months, he rarely spoke about personal experiences. Yet, during our study of Poe, he spoke freely and authoritatively. He argued that because of drinking he had experienced circumstances similar to Poe's, so he knew Poe was an alcoholic. Antonio said that many times he had very good intentions of having only one beer, never was it only one. In fact, because he drank excessively and often in binges, he alienated all those he loved and who loved him. He spoke about his ability and willingness to remain involved in AA to maintain a sober lifestyle.


Our students were engrossed in the physical and psychological terror of "The Tell-Tale Heart," in which the narrator has murdered a man he claims to have loved because he hated the man's eye. Antonio immediately made a connection between the old man's corpse and his personal life." "chopped up like the movies. My wife threw away all my scary movies because I would be drinking and watching them over and over." " She was afraid I would turn into them." When discussing why the narrator killed the old man, Antonio commented, "sometimes when you are mad you can do terrible things. " Pedro, a student in his early twenties, said, "He hated his eye. . . He don't love him, he killed him."

Everyone agreed with Pedro except Antonio, "Don't you read the papers? Some men kill their wives' jealousy, sometimes the wife does nothing "the man is jealous for no reason." As we read "The Raven" aloud to our students, they focused on the narrator's state of oppressive grief and alienation. In reflection, we feel that the narrator is like many of our students: depressed and isolated. Alone in his "chamber" he "eagerly wish(es) the morrow." He describes himself as "weak and weary" as he futilely attempts to distract thoughts of Lenore. The students immediately compared their own lives to that of the narrator. Many students commented, "I sit alone in my cell, thinking about why." One student asked, as if to verify his suspicion, "This is a real story?" He asked the others in the group, "What do you think?" The lines "...sorrow for the lost Lenore -- For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore -- Nameless here for evermore" caused the students to wonder aloud, "Where is she? Where is Lenore?" One answered, "Maybe he's waiting for her." Another, "No, he can't have her anymore." Juan, who had been in our group for about a year, had periods of depression. After reading and discussing "The Raven," Juan was particularly concerned about the narrator's mental stability. Much like the narrator's musings, he often asked, "What's in the bird's mind?" To "This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing -- To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core" Juan responded, "Before he's thinking of sadness. The bird is looking into his pain. The word "nevermore" hurts him. He feels Where's my love?'" Students explored the causes of the narrator's pain and desire to drink nepenthe' to forget Lenore. Some students suggested that the bird was trying to make the narrator accept that Lenore was dead. They felt the narrator was trying to deny this and therefore could not go on with his life. Some asserted that the bird was causing the pain, that outside forces are responsible for an individual's problems. Others agreed that outside forces can influence our lives tremendously, but we need to deal with these forces or they will destroy us. They believed his pain was due to his inability to overcome the grief of losing Lenore. Juan stated, as if he were speaking directly to the narrator, "You must look at the bird -- you've got to stop and cry -- and forget about Lenore ... the pain of Lenore...but you've got to stop--" We asked, "What happens if you don't stop?" Juan said, "You don't get better." Another student said, "You die."

Like the Narrator

We feel that Juan and the other students easily identified with "The Raven" because Poe's writing emanates from a place of pain, suffering, and grief. Poe is able to capture the sense, sound, and feeling of suffering and alienation, and to transform it into poetry. Although the vocabulary is difficult, the students could understand this transcendent quality. After we read " On this home by horror haunted -- tell me truly, I implore -- is there -- is there, balm in Gilead? -- tell me -- tell me, I implore!' Quoth the Raven "Nevermore," we asked the group, "What is the question he's asking?" Juan answered, "He wants a cure, healing. A cure to stop his suffering. The author of this poem suffered from pain. He was abandoned. His mother and his wife died...this makes him suffer...maybe they are together now. In many of Poe's poems, there are people who suffer. But this Raven he doesn't even give him a chance."

After finishing the unit, students "particularly Juan" continued to maintain an interest in Poe. Three weeks before his sentence ended, Juan asked if he could tell the story of "The Oval Portrait" by Poe to the class. A few days later, we read it as a group. At the close of the discussion, Juan, striving to understand the story, asked, "Why is the artist so sad, so moody? It's like he can't take it, he's exhausted. It's like some people. They are so filled with remorse for what they did or what they are doing that they can't stop and think about what's important. Because if you let yourself be filled with that remorse or grimness, then you can't go on. You need to be strong and continue to try to be happy with your life."


During the data analysis process, we reviewed our notes, reading selections, activities, and goals. We were most pleased with the quantity and quality of student-directed dialogue that occurred in this unit. Student's readings of the poems were quite fluid and beautiful. Poe's use of rhyme and rhythm helped to guide student pronunciation.

We felt the video and the biographical pieces presented at the start of the unit were key to student motivation. These provided the students with a deeper understanding and identification with Poe. The students made connections we never imagined. It was amazing to hear a student say, "That's how I think when I'm drinking," when reading about a character's thoughts or behavior in a story or poem. For us, content-based instruction allowed for more focused and meaningful teaching. While exploring Poe's life and works, we were able to focus on language and literacy objectives, as well as allow our students the opportunity to examine facets of human nature.

In reviewing our activities, we realized that, except for the poetry, we used abridged versions of Poe's stories. This accommodated our need for short, self-contained lessons and level-appropriate material. Next time, however, we will include the CD-ROM of the "Fall of the House of Usher," where the unabridged story is narrated.

We also recognized that we did not provide many opportunities for students to write. In the future we plan to ask students to highlight Poe's life by writing his obituary based on the classroom readings. We will assign expository writing exercises, perhaps by asking students to compare a Poe character to a particular tenet of AA. The AA philosophy can serve as a counterbalance, an offering of a solution to the darkness to which Poe succumbed.


Alcoholics Anonymous (1992). The Big Book. New York: AA World Services.

Alcoholics Anonymous (1981). Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: AA World Services.

Bettelheim, B. & Zelan, K. (1981). On Learning to Read: The Child's Fascination with Meaning. New York: Knopf.

Black, J.A. (1996). "How did Poe Survive for Forty Years?" World Wide Web, Poe Perplex, EnglishDept/poeperplex/aims.htm

Egan, K. (1986). Teaching as Story Telling. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Harris, R. (1982). The Tell-Tale Heart: Adapted from Edgar Allan Poe. Providence: Jamestown.

Janssen, A.T. (ed.) (1985). "Life in Death Based on Poe's "Oval Portrait." In Unusual Stories from Many Lands. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (March, 1995). "Final Report Supreme Judicial Court Substance Abuse Project Task Force."

Poe, E.A. (1958). "The Bells" in R.J. Cook (ed.) One Hundred and One Famous Poem. Chicago: Contemporary.

Poe, E.A. (1989). "The Raven" in G. Ellis (ed.) Reading and Understanding Poems. Providence, RI: Jamestown.

Poulter, T. (1996). "Edgar Allan Poe and Alcohol" World Wide Web, PoePerplex, EnglishDept/poeperplex/aims.htm

About the Authors 
Lynne McCarthy has been an ESOL/Literacy teacher at the Billerica House of Correction in Billerica, MA, since 1989. She has a Master of Education degree and taught elementary school for three years before joining the adult education program at the prison.

Bernadette Comeau has been an ESOL teacher at the Billerica House of Correction in Billerica, MA, since 1984. She speaks Spanish as a second language and is currently pursuing her Master of Education degree in Curriculum and Instruction in Creative Arts.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL