I’ve thinking a lot of big thoughts lately. As I’ve written about, I want to rethink the way English is taught. I want it to be a hands-on, student-driven event. I don’t want to stand at the front of the room and drone on about why this author or that author is so great. I don’t want to pollute my students’ minds with my personal observations, thoughts and feelings about a particular work, author or literary period.
Instead, I want the students to come to their own conclusions. I want them to find authors and works they find interesting. I want them to find their own meanings by reading pieces and people they enjoy and can relate to.
This is different from what is the norm. Generally, a teacher assigns a certain book, literary period or author, and the student must read what is assigned, complete the necessary study guide or whatever, and take a test.
Now, I’m not so naive that I think a change like this can be implemented immediately. It needs to be eased into.
To do so, a colleague and I discussed coming up with a list of works for each literary period and allowing the students to choose from that list. Then they can choose from a list of assessment options. These generally are different projects they will complete to show mastery of the text and period.
Neither of us is satisfied with a list. We’d rather just turn the students loose to find their own works . . . with parameters of course. Such as they must choose some poetry, some novels, some short stories, some non-fiction text, et cetera.
That is ideal.
However, as an attempt to ease into this method, I decided to pick a book of short stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe.
I distributed the book to my students and told them they had five weeks. Within that five weeks, they had to pick four pieces and complete four projects that showed their mastery of the text. Mastery in my definition was an understanding of text’s tone, emotion, literary validity, style of the author, background of the author that caused the works to be written as they were, influences on the author, how the work affected literature, and how the times were reflected in the writings, among other elements.
I left this wide open with my nine-student American Literature class I chose for this experiment because of their openness to the concept I was proposing (my other two American Literature classes tackled Poe in the traditional way with book reports and whatnot because they weren’t comfortable with my “new” method).
They performed above my expectations.
One student created a series of podcasts reminiscent of NPR (National Public Radio) reports. In it, he discussed the pieces with his listeners, and he even enlisted the help of a friend to introduce him in each piece, like an anchor throwing it to a reporter.
It was great!
A couple students created Google Sites that dissected the author and his works. Several created dramatic readings and audio slideshows of the works being read.
PowerPoints and Prezis were completed. Biographical reports about Poe were written.
Another student — a music buff — selected songs that replicated the moods of Poe’s writing.
For the final project, which was supposed to consume the final two weeks of the unit, one student came forward with an idea. She wanted to do a class-wide project. She wanted to make a movie.
As a group, they decided to create a movie of “The Masque of Red Death.”
The group got to work. They filmed the movie on the stage of our auditorium. Each student had a role to play. One was the designated videographer. Another was the video editor.
In the end, it wasn’t a movie. Due to a problem with the audio, they had to turn it into a movie trailer.
The end product thrilled me nonetheless. The best part was the students weren’t satisfied. They wanted a movie. That makes me happy. They were invested. Not because I told them they had to be, but because they were into it. They were enjoying literature, and they wanted to show what they understood.
I was beyond myself with pride and joy.
Of course, there were things I would like to do differently.
I need to give class time more structure. Too often it seemed like they were just goofing around and not working, though they did meet nearly all of my deadlines.
Also, I honestly have no way of knowing if the text was actually read. They could have easily cheated and read Spark Notes or something. I need to devise a way to ensure the texts were read, but as I’ve said, the depth of the projects was great. I believe they actually read Poe’s work.
Before I could move on, I wanted to see what the students thought, so I asked them to write out their impressions of the way the unit was structured.
Overall, the students seemed to like the format. Here is what a few of them had to say:
“I think that doing the projects was a lot better than what the other classes had to do. I like being able to work at my own speed and doing my own thing. I liked having a week to get everything done. I actually had fun doing these projects.”
- “I really thought that this project was better than just forcing the literature down our throats, I liked being able to do things my own way, unguided, compared to following instructions or lists, which can get boring at times.
- I liked being able to interpret things my own way, as since there are no tests or lengthy book reports, no chance of getting wrong answers.
- My favorite projects were the movie and the music list that I made for the Masque of the Red Death
- My least favorite project probably was the reading of The Raven, it just took a looooong time to finally get a good reading with no mistakes and getting the timing right with the music.
- The only problem I really had was that I had a hard time not doing a cliche’ project, and I felt that maybe you could give a bigger list of projects to do.”
“Doing project about Edgar Allan Poe by this way is in my opinion more fun and more useful. Having so many options how to do it is better because not everybody is good in drawing and not everybody is good in a music so, you can adjust it to your personality. Mostly you are working with modern technology what is also more fun than just read the book and then to fill some papers, and vocabulary which makes you frustrated because usually it is unable to understand and remember all of that. I do not think that there are any things which I like more in doing the projects by the old way. I would like if we could do it also in the further projects.”
“I thought making projects was fun and creative. It was a great way to express your own creativity and the way how do you see the poem. Making project with Movie Maker wasn’t that fun, but finding the right pictures and music and making your own video was fun. Last project was the best one in my opinion. Everybody had fun time filming the project. I really wish we could do something like that in the future again!”
“I really liked the projects. It makes you think more about the book. I’m not a person who likes to read, and I’ll be honest i just hated the book we read before. But with the projects you really have to understand the book to create a project. And you just try more to understand the book. It was a lot of fun and interesting.”
“I think this project was better. All though if the members of the team would work better in the last one it would’ve been way better. We should’ve had more planing in it we needed more time to video to do sound checks which was one of the problems. Then when it came to editing everyone yelled at me because it wasn’t how they wanted it. Though it was their own fault for not running test to see if the sound was in check. I know the sound was there but no one like videos where you have to turn the volume up and down in the movie because it get annoying. Though I liked it needed more planning and communication between people, but I would do it again.”
“I like it. I think we need a little but more structure with it but it was a really good start. I wish the other classes would have done it. I think we should have more class projects where you give us kind of an outline and we run with it together. I don’t think it would work as well with bigger classes though.”
The students gave some great feedback, especially since it wasn’t all roses. Some of them had a few critical things to say. Great. That’s what I wanted. I honestly wanted to know what they thought, whether it was good or bad.
So how am I going to move forward?
Well, I’m still working that out.
For the next unit, I am assigning “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I am “cramming this book down their throats” because I think it is necessary for them to read it. It is a great piece of American Literature.
However, I am going to continue to allow my nine adventurers to deal with “Gatsby” in their own way. They have to read the book and then they will be doing a project. The other classes will be completing assignments along the way as they read the book outloud as a group.
I’m excited by the success of this trial run, and I anticipate nailing down a more concrete method of implementing this across all of my English classes by year’s end.