Saturday, January 28, 2017

One Hundred Visions and Revisions

This time of year can be difficult in the classroom.  It's challenging to muster energy and enthusiasm when so much of the day is shrouded in the gloom of winter and a week might pass without seeing the sun.  Maybe that's why I brought Prufrock into the classroom.  Though the poem is certainly cimmerian, somehow I feel moved, even uplifted, after reading it.  Despite the stilted and inconsistent rhyme and meter, the poem manages to lull and soothe.  Threads of it stick and swirl in a way that brings a sense of calm and clarity, and if not true clarity, perhaps the comfort that we're not alone in our uncertainty.

I knew my kids would be up for the challenge, but at this point in the year, I am a dealer in sticks and carrots.  If I simply put the poem in front of them, they'd look at the length and sigh, they'd look at the name and pass judgement, they'd look at the first few lines and see words they didn't know and phrases they didn't understand.  I'd lose them before we even began.  Hence, the carrot: playdoh.  I swear to you, if the seniors walk in and see playdoh, they will go to unimaginable lengths to use it. And the smell.  It's awfully difficult to acquiesce to overwhelm and feelings of inadequacy when the perfume of playdoh fills the room.  Prufrock and playdoh may not seem like natural companions, but with playdoh in hand, Prufrock suddenly becomes manageable. Playdoh offers possibility.

The playdoh rule is this: students can play with it as long as they're focused on what we're doing in class.  And they know they'll eventually have to demonstrate some level of analysis and understanding with a playdoh sculpture.  I gave an impassioned speech about how "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is my favorite poem of all time and that it would behoove them to lie to me if they didn't feel the same adoration.  With that -- passion and playdoh-- they were hooked.

We talked about the transition from the Romantics and Victorians to the Modern Era, emphasizing the shift from a sense of order and meaning and identity to a period of chaos, uncertainty, and confusion of identity.  We looked at Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase and discussed the ways in which it mirrored the tenets of the Modern Era.
Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase

And with that, we moved into the poem.  I reminded the students that they should expect to be confused, but to zero in always on what they understand -- where they find meaning.  So we read and they were captivated.  They were in it, swept away with me.  We shared the palpability of the piece in a way that is such an enormous gift to the nerdy English teacher in me.  We were swayed and lulled, moved by the current of Eliot's words.  When we finished the poem, I asked them to make a playdoh sculpture of one thing that emerged for them in the poem that held significant meaning and to be prepared to explain it -- not that they needed to have it all figured out, but they needed to defend why they thought it was important.

The sculptures were as unique as the the students: an ominous black hand with long, thin fingers; a clock; an hourglass; a head upon a platter; replicas of trivial, everyday items -- tea cups and coffee spoons; mermaids; a skull.  And as students took turns sharing their sculptures with the class, we began to unpack the meaning.  The tone came seeping through. Their individual details compiled to aid understanding.

We went through some explication.  I gave them some hints that might deepen their connections.  We discussed Dante and John the Baptist and Hamlet.  Then I sent them home to grapple with it some more.  I finished the day with an enormous sense of joy.  I shared something I love with them, I gave them a window through which to see and understand not only the power of the poem, but me.  I encountered the poem when I was their age and it spoke to me in a deeply profound way -- I hoped it would do the same for them.  They trusted me. When they arrived to class next time, we'd move into Socratic Seminar with it.

This seminar was PHENOMENAL.  No exaggeration -- my eyes flooded with tears, I was so moved by these kids.  Teachers are often so busy talking that we don't allow students the opportunity to show us how brilliant and thoughtful and insightful they are.  There was a dramatic shift in both the way I saw my students and in the way they saw themselves.  I'd provided several with mugs of tea (many are battling illness), my favorite of which has the coffee spoons line on it (the irony wasn't lost).  As they sat there sipping tea discussing and extending and reflecting on the ideas in the poem, they transformed.  I saw them suddenly as wonderfully intelligent, thoughtful adults, not children.  I'm not being hyperbolic. It was magical.

I know the day likely won't be replicated anytime soon, if at all, but we shared something powerful yesterday.  It was something I remember experiencing with my own AP Literature teacher and some of my favorite college professors.  It was a sense of deep companionship and understanding and respect. We shared the moment when growth happened.  We witnessed it happen.  We experienced it together.  I certainly don't expect these kids to head off to college eager to be English majors because we read Prufrock and had a lovely experience, but words have the ability to isolate or to bind.  I am grateful to be bound to them and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have shared a piece of literature that moved and continues to move me.  I'm grateful to have paid witness.


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A Note about my Approach to Socratic Seminar

Over the years, my approach to Socratic Seminar has evolved.  I pair students and they take turns "coaching" the other.  The coach completes a tally sheet for the participant.  Each student sets an individual and measurable goal for the seminar and shares it with his/her coach.  Students arrive to class having generated their own questions and initial responses.  For each participant, there are two rounds,  generally 5 to 8 minutes in length.  Between the rounds, they pop out to see their coach and lead the conversation -- this is how I think the discussion is going, here's where I'm at in reaching my goal, I'm so pumped I shared something that generated meaningful discussion, etc.  The coach has tallied the ways in which his/her partner has participated (eye contact, deepening discussion by tying to a specific line in the text, inviting another student into the fray, etc.) and shares observations. After the coaching break, they high five or fist bump or simply offer encouraging words and send the participant back to the discussion.  Discussion after the coaching break is always stronger than the first half and it allows the student who isn't participating in discussion to fulfill an important role. After the second round of discussion, the coach and participant swap roles.
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