Accepting the Inevitable: Oliver Sacks Essays (Body of Work)

In 2015, two weeks before his death, the New York Times published an essay by Oliver Sacks titled “Sabbath.”  In the essay, he writes about “what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself.”  Instantly, it shot to the top of the most read list on the Times and was emailed around the world.  And for good reason: it’s an incredible piece of writing by a man about to die.    

That essay, and the ones that came before it – detailing his love of the periodic table, his cancer, and what it means to turn 80 – make up a quartet of essays published by the New York Times over a span of 2 years. 

Oliver Sacks has written extensively, about a wide range of topics, but he is perhaps best known for writing about his patients and their neurological disorders (he’s was a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine for a long time). 

Here, in the collection of essays below, you will find links to that quartet of essays.  Those four essays also became anthologized into a book titled Gratitude.

For us, in our Language and Literature class, there’s so much for us to explore.  Staring with the concepts of communication and transformation, students will then move into studying each essay individually before connecting them all together in a final debate.

As well, there are two different approaches we are providing in terms of studying the essays.  Of course, you can also combine the approaches to fit your needs!

The first approach is the less traditional approach.  You might decide that you need to help students with Paper 1 skills and in that way, each essay will be looked at through a Paper 1 lens (or guiding question).  The second approach would be more conventional – to read an essay, answer some questions about it, and to discuss it in a small group or whole class.    

There’s also a task at the end for students to complete the body of work by finding an essay of their own.  While a 5th essay has been provided (in case you don’t want to take this approach), this offers students an opportunity to find, read, share, and discuss another essay by the same author.  The IB explicitly states in the guide that 5-8 essays make up a body of work (page 21 of the guide). 

Because these essays were published in a newspaper, because they are non-fiction, and because Sacks is not listed as an author on the PRL, this is a wonderful non-literary body of work that you can add to the course.   

Guiding Conceptual Questions

Concepts - Communication and Transformation

1.  What is the relationship between writer and reader (how do they communicate with each other) and how does that communication transform our understanding of the world around us?

2.  How do readers transform what writers have communicated?

Connection to Global issues: Science, technology and the environment

Science, technology and the environment is a larger field of inquiry set by the IB.  And all of these essays explicitly talk about the relevance and importance of science in Sacks's life (the last one less so).  Of course, students might also connect to "creativity and the imagination" or "values and beliefs" instead.  In other words, the fields of inquiry are pretty broad, and students have many ways to approach one of the essays through this lens.  

Remember, to make the field of inquiry into a global issue, students would have to take one of the listed ideas - science, for example - and create a more narrow (but not too narrow!) issue around or about science.  Students must remember that the global issue needs to be transnational, felt in everyday local contexts, but also have significance on a wider or larger scale.     

Body of Work

1st Essay

“The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)”

An essay (about turning 80), published in the New York Times opinion section of the newspaper

July 7th, 2013

https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/opinion/sunday/the-joy-of-old-age-no-kidding.html

To take a Paper 1 approach to these essays, provide the guiding question below.  Then, have students spend 20 minutes doing the following in the following order: unpacking the question; reading the essay with the question in mind; annotating the essay using the question to guide them; outline ideas for a Paper 1 response including a thesis statement, topic sentences, and evidence that could be used to support the claims or arguments being made.

This gives them the “feel” for Paper 1.  It’s not exact, but it does help them learn how to work under the time pressure.  You can then, if you choose, have students write an actual Paper 1.  More likely, you can skip the 5 questions and instead spend the rest of the lesson discussing the essay in relation to the guiding question or using the discussion prompt below.   

Paper 1 Style Guiding Question:

How does the narrative perspective and narrative voice in this essay shape the reader’s understanding of it?   

If you don't want to take a Paper 1 approach to these essays, have students instead read the essay and answer the questions below in their Learner Portfolio.  Once finished, students can discuss them with a partner or small group to compare answers. 

Questions

1.  How would you describe the tone in this essay and why? 

2.  How does Sacks use examples, anecdotes, and dialogue from others to enhance his purpose?

3.  How is science and the language of science used in this essay and why?

4.  What ironies or paradoxes exist and how do they help readers to understand his larger purpose?

5.  How does Sacks present ideas about freedom near the end of the essay and how does this connect to his purpose? 

Discussion or debate prompt

Sacks is lying to us readers.  Getting old isn’t joyful – it’s a painfully restrictive process. 

2nd Essay

“My Own Life”

An essay (on learning he has terminal cancer), published in the New York Times opinion section of the newspaper

February 19th, 2015

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer.html

To take a Paper 1 approach to these essays, provide the guiding question below.  Then, have students spend 20 minutes doing the following in the following order: unpacking the question; reading the essay with the question in mind; annotating the essay using the question to guide them; outline ideas for a Paper 1 response including a thesis statement, topic sentences, and evidence that could be used to support the claims or arguments being made.

This gives them the “feel” for Paper 1.  It’s not exact, but it does help them learn how to work under the time pressure.  You can then, if you choose, have students write an actual Paper 1.  More likely, you can skip the 5 questions and instead spend the rest of the lesson discussing the essay in relation to the guiding question or using the discussion prompt below.   

Paper 1 Style Guiding Question:

How do the style and tone help to shape meaning in this essay?

If you don't want to take a Paper 1 approach to these essays, have students instead read the essay and answer the questions below in their Learner Portfolio.  Once finished, students can discuss them with a partner or small group to compare answers. 

Questions

1.  How does the 1st person perspective add to the ethos of this essay and the argument Sacks is making?

2.  The essay opens with hard truths.  How is the factual and/or scientific opening contrasted with the clarity about life by the end of the essay?  Why does this matter?

3.  How does Sacks explore the tension between living and dying?  Why does this matter?

4.  How is repetition used in this essay and for what effect?

5.  How would you describe the tone in this essay and why?

Discussion or debate prompt

While Sacks talks about his fear of dying, he's more grateful than anything else by the end of the essay.  And yet, one might argue that it's hard, almost impossible, to be more grateful than fearful in these situations (learning you have terminal cancer).  Do you agree with Sacks or do you think fear is a more prevalent or predominant emotion in these situations?   

3rd Essay

“My Periodic Table”

An essay, published in the New York Times opinion section of the newspaper

July 24th, 2015

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/26/opinion/my-periodic-table.html

To take a Paper 1 approach to these essays, provide the guiding question below.  Then, have students spend 20 minutes doing the following in the following order: unpacking the question; reading the essay with the question in mind; annotating the essay using the question to guide them; outline ideas for a Paper 1 response including a thesis statement, topic sentences, and evidence that could be used to support the claims or arguments being made.

This gives them the “feel” for Paper 1.  It’s not exact, but it does help them learn how to work under the time pressure.  You can then, if you choose, have students write an actual Paper 1.  More likely, you can skip the 5 questions and instead spend the rest of the lesson discussing the essay in relation to the guiding question or using the discussion prompt below. 

Paper 1 Style Guiding Question:

How does the author use the connection between science and life to create meaning in this essay?

If you don't want to take a Paper 1 approach to these essays, have students instead read the essay and answer the questions below in their Learner Portfolio.  Once finished, students can discuss them with a partner or small group to compare answers.

Questions

1.  How does the focus on science and facts in the opening of the essay set the tone for the rest of the piece?

2.  Why does Sacks use star and sky imagery used in this essay?

3.  How does Sacks demonstrate to readers he's still active, still interested in the world around him? 

4.  How does Sacks present his illness, his cancer, to readers and what's the effect?

5.  What does the periodic table symbolize for Sacks and why?

Discussion or debate prompt

It’s better to not know if you are dying. 

4th Essay

“Sabbath”

An essay (about his impending death), published in the New York Times opinion section of the newspaper (two weeks before he dies)

August 14th, 2015

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/opinion/sunday/oliver-sacks-sabbath.html

To take a Paper 1 approach to these essays, provide the guiding question below.  Then, have students spend 20 minutes doing the following in the following order: unpacking the question; reading the essay with the question in mind; annotating the essay using the question to guide them; outline ideas for a Paper 1 response including a thesis statement, topic sentences, and evidence that could be used to support the claims or arguments being made.

This gives them the “feel” for Paper 1.  It’s not exact, but it does help them learn how to work under the time pressure.  You can then, if you choose, have students write an actual Paper 1.  More likely, you can skip the 5 questions and instead spend the rest of the lesson discussing the essay in relation to the guiding question or using the discussion prompt below.   

Paper 1 Style Guiding Question:

Why is this last essay so emotionally moving?

If you don't want to take a Paper 1 approach to these essays, have students instead read the essay and answer the questions below in their Learner Portfolio.  Once finished, students can discuss them with a partner or small group to compare answers. 

Questions

1.  What is the purpose of including a discussion of (or creating an image of) his family's religious rituals at the start of the essay?

2.  There's a turning point in the essay when Sacks discusses his sexuality.  How does he present this to readers and why is this so vital to the essay?

3.  What is the importance of religion in this essay? 

4.  Near the end of the essay, how does Sacks use questions and for what purpose?

5.  What is it about the very last paragraph that is so powerful? 

Discussion or debate prompt

Sacks states, "although, in his work (Robert John Aumann), he stands for rationality in economics and human affairs, there is no conflict for him between reason and faith."  Is this true? 

Connecting the essays - Final debate question

Which essay is most meaningful to you and why?

5th Essay

You have two options here.  For option one, students can choose their own Sacks essay to study.  Once they've chosen one, read it and analyzed it, they can bring it to class to share and discuss with others.  In sharing with others, students should focus on comparing and contrasting it to what was previously read.  How is it similar?  How is it different?   

Option two is to have students read, analyze and discuss this essay - about taking drugs - in the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/08/27/altered-states-3.

Towards Assessment

Individual Oral: Students can choose a short excerpt - 20 to 30 lines should be sufficient - for their Individual Oral.  They would spend two minutes exploring the global issue in relation to the extract and then spend another two minutes connecting to the rest of the essay and the other three essays in the Gratitude quartet, with a particular focus on stylistic choices that are seen in them all.   

Higher Level Essay: Students can choose a line of inquiry - perhaps something about science or dying or religion or old age or simply gratitude.  Alternatively, it could be focused on something more literary, like perspective, symbolism or the contrast between living and dying.  Students would take their idea, or concept, and develop it into a line of inquiry for a 1200 to 1500 word essay.  2-4 essays seems like the right amount to use, depending on the actual line of inquiry and what the student wants to accomplish.

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