So, the end of the semester happened. (Translation: You haven’t seen any new posts for a while.)
But Jenny and I kept teaching away, and teaching Hamlet to seniors no less, and asking them to read another book, too, even in those last few weeks of school. And they did it. Willingly, as looks suggested.
So what made that possible? Because it didn’t always happen in my high school classroom, even when I taught Hamlet at other, gentler times of the academic year. Don’t get me wrong: Jenny’s kids were great, but in some ways they also were just kids, edging toward graduation, distracted by the upcoming AP exam and the final finals of their HS career, the Colorado springtime and impending summer, and all that the end of the senior year brings.
Yet day after day, they came to Jenny’s classroom willing to try their hand at rhyming couplets and understanding why Shakespeare might be using them; to read passages closely to determine whether Hamlet and other characters were maintaining or wavering in their resolve; to watch Daniel Beaty’s extraordinary performance of “Knock, Knock,” and to respond to it with their own writing, either by drawing connections to Hamlet’s relationship with his late father or to write their own poems in his voice; to learn some theatre moves for understanding scripts so they could get the play on its feet.
And that was just with Hamlet. After the play had concluded and the AP exam was out of the way (one student was actually able to write about Hamlet for the free-response question–yay!), we turned to book clubs, asking the students to read books we saw as associated with the theme of resiliency:
- The Book Thief by Martin Zusak–a novel narrated by Death, telling the story of a young girl orphaned and taken in by a German family during the Holocaust
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green–a first-person girl-meets-boy novel written from the perspective of an adolescent girl who has survived cancer
- Shine by Lauren Myracle–a mystery told from the perspective of an adolescent girl attempting to solve a hate crime against her friend, a gay boy, in a small Southern town
- Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand–a biography of Louis Zamperini, WWII survivor of a Japanese POW camp
After they finished Hamlet, the kids willingly read these lengthy books in book clubs, too, and created book trailers for them as a project presented on the last day of school. (Unfortunately, I missed this day because of a search meeting in my department–AARRGGHH!)
So just to be clear, this is not a victory narrative about Jenny and me. It’s truly a “wondering” we both have. What made this possible? The theme? The book? The teaching approach? The combination of traditional and digital projects?
We’re fairly certain that it wasn’t that the unit was organized with the CCSS in mind (she said, wryly). But we also know that planning with the CCSS in mind influenced the decisions we made about this unit. As well, we’re certain that the curriculum development methods we’re learning in our NWP work with Literacy in the Common Core has made us think more precisely about instructional design–about how the activities and lessons we’ve designed lead toward, we hope, meaningful assessments at the end. We’ve both been teaching for a good while, so in some ways, this general approach is not so new if you remember “outcomes-based evaluation” and “backwards design,” for instance.
But there is something that feels new about it, both for us and the kids, too, we think. And we’re trying to figure out what that it is.
Part of me is pretty darn convinced that it involves our subversive intent going in to the unit to push back against some of the ways we already know the CCSS will be used to justify and perpetuate traditional practice. Susan Ohanian, for one, is very, very afraid. I think the fear is to some extent justified. But I also think that if all we do is rail against the standards, we’re missing opportunities to exercise our own agency as educators to meet them in ways that stay true to what we know. The alternative is to heighten our cynicism quotient so high that we might leave the profession altogether, and that would be shame.
I just can’t give up the notion that we can generate cases that work as counternarratives to prove that what Jenny’s kids did in the last few weeks of school is wonderfully possible.