Saturday, December 21, 2013

That moment when the high school usurps your curriculum...AGAIN

Last post was about my thrilledness (Humpty Dumpty and Shakespeare give us all permission to invent words) over my highly gifted kids getting into Lord of the Flies. I was exuberant.

(I never blogged about why this unit was a big deal. See, I'd been teaching Animal Farm and To Kill a Mockingbird to my 8th graders for four years when the high school VP emailed my principal and told him those books were now (thanks, Common Core) going to be taught in 9th grade. It was more than lame--for one, I was getting ready to launch AF in a week or so, and two, TKAM is just my favorite. For three, teaching TKAM was so awesome after teaching Elie Wiesel's Night--to teach about a man of courage just brought me joy and was a wonderful counterpoint to Night's darkness. OK, I reconciled myself to writing units for two new texts this year. I asked the VP what the upper grades were teaching and only heard from one 9th grade teacher.

Fine. I spent days creating a unit for Lord of the Flies, and boy did I get excited. Talked to a teacher friend in Texas. Stole a few ideas from a teacher in Pennsylvania. Got some ideas straight from the Creator. Man, this was gonna be waaaay better than AF, waaaaay deeper. You can see read about my excitement here and here.)

Things just kept getting better, especially when I assigned chapter 8 for reading and the kids came in all shaking their heads about the answer to the question, "Who IS 'Lord of the Flies?'" Whoo!!!

After school that day I had a couple of formers come by to visit, sophomores in Honors English at the local high school. "Guess what we're reading, Miss M?" Oh dear Lord, please, no....

I dashed off an email to my principal and the high school VP, forwarding an old email where I'd asked for what the upper grades taught. I told them I'd heard no reply. I told them SOME of what my unit contained--Hobbes, Rousseau, leadership theory, Christ figure symbology, Freud--and got the response: "My best advice is to check with the department head before you select novels."

Are. You. Serious....

If my kids could do this in 8th grade, shouldn't the 10th grade teacher tackle something tougher? Give them Plato. Or just TELL ME WHAT THE UPPER GRADES ARE DOING, AS I'D ASKED. Or ask US what WE'VE done at the lower grades!

Anyway, my principal wrote a response supporting me: "Please understand that we need to keep Lord of the Flies here at DP." I haven't heard anything back from the high school or from him. I am hoping no new news is good news, but it's been a loonnnnng time since I have been that deflated. Gonna press on this year with my plans--comparing Peter Brueghel's paintings to the novels, finding music that goes with each character (compiling the definitive LOTF soundtrack with rationales), writing fine literary analysis papers, and celebrating all of it with a luau complete with PORK (bahaha) and the "islands" creating displays of the symbols and characters chosen from the text: fire, specs, the conch, the beast, pigs, Ralph, Simon, Jack, Piggy......and when they get to high school and the high school forces them to do the same things I had them do already, it will be upon THEM to write a new unit. These kids are ready for more.

And I think I am done giving up the books that work so well with my history course. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

That Moment When the Class Finally.....

I was beginning to think it would never happen, that inner click you feel as an educator when your class corporately buys into the book you are reading. But it happened today, and what a relief.

DAY ONE: Name choosing and nametag making was fine, fun, childish, unacademic, and silly--but good team-building. 

DAY TWO: It did NOT go well. We began with a Golding bio--fine as it went, and then started the book from the Pulitzer Prize winner. But the yards of description Golding pours into the island bogged us down (my exact 10th grade reaction: "Who CARES about all this stuff?? Tell the story, already!").  Boring. Yawn. I brought out the conch--mild interest--passed it around--mild interest. Sigh. I assigned the rest of chapter one for homework. I felt defeated.

DAY THREE: I passed out leadership style readings. This was a bit more interesting. In their islands they had to connect the styles to the boys and write down where in the text their support was. I asked, "Was this activity ok?" B., who LOVES to learn, said sincerely, "This was fun!" But MR. gave me that apologetic head tilted smile that said just as loudly, "Not really." I still felt better because the groups were talking. We launched the next chapter and made lists of the boys, their traits, the symbols, and our designations of meanings. The list-making was full-class but half-hearted. I trusted that list, though. I was thrilled when the kids posted Ralph as democratic and Jack as autocratic. Small victories when things aren't going your way can feel like huge ones.

DAY FOUR: I began chapter three with a handout about characteristics of Christ figures I teacher-stole from a wonderful teacher in Pennsylvania. More interest, especially when we looked at Obi-wan Kenobe, Gandalf, and Dumbledore in that light (they weren't familiar with Cool Hand Luke). "Is Simon going to die?" asked an astute person. "Perhaps, but necessarily--do you think Simon will be crucified or resurrected?" I returned. The normally jolly N. was uncharacteristically scornful: "Number 11 on this list is dumb! No one is a carpenter!" And so we began the chapter only to find the Simon is helping Ralph build a hut. "He IS a carpenter!" someone yelled triumphantly. Things were looking up. They finished chapter 3 over break. The Christ figure trope was a revelation for them, a novelty, cool and adult.

DAY FIVE: We pretty much straight read chapter 4 as a class, adding to our list about the boys. I talked about symbols, and the kids were a bit more into the drama. My VP walked into watch. Wish I had something better than reading aloud. Nope.

DAY SIX: But then today. Ah. Half the students read about Rousseau and the other half about Hobbes. Then we had a Chalk Talk--I had prepared the classroom with ten quotes, half from R, half from H, and the students responded to the quotes and to each others' responses using dry erase markers. It was like having ten silent conversations at once! I had warned them about writing stupid things like "I like turtles," but about three boys couldn't help themselves (Hobbes would say that--and I will use that tomorrow as an example in class). When we began to review chapter four, a shift happened. I don't know what, but the kids began to see the story as a story of human nature. I let them talk. "Would the kids treat Piggy differently if he looked different?" "I think Jack punching Piggy is a sign of civilization running down." (!!) "But what about the cover on this book? Why is that giant fly near Piggy? Is he Lord of the Flies?" And off the discussion ran: who WAS Lord of the Flies?

God bless this ambiguous cover
I finally shared what any bible-reading, church-going Protestant fifty years ago would know, that The Lord of the Flies is Beelzebub, Satan. (I did this by showing Wikipedia's entry and scrolling to the verses in the bible in Matthew 12.) The kids got excited about the reference to the house divided--"The island is dividing!" And then they wondered if the Beast, or maybe Jack, was the Lord of the Flies. Someone wondered if Piggy's name was connected to the pigs on the island. "The names are significant," is all I would say until a girl jokingly asked if Ralph was going to vomit since his name is slang for vomit. "His name means 'counselor,' I said. A thrill ran through the class, I felt it. I decided to share with them the secret of names that had captivated me decades earlier.  Above the lists of the boys, the students watched as the meanings of the names were written:
Ralph - counselor
Jack - supplanter, usurper
Simon - listener
Roger - spear

"Piggy's name is significant because it means what it says." And the class blew up--"Piggy is going to die, not Simon!" "Simon is going to save Piggy because he is the Christ figure!" "Jack is evil and must be the Lord of the Flies!" They were all* so excited and absorbed, making connections and predictions--"Roger is Jack's tool to kill Piggy, just like Jack speared the real pig!" "Jack broke Piggy's glasses, does that mean the end of intelligence?" OK, cue the bell.

Tomorrow we will look for Hobbes and Rousseau in the text and have a quiz contest among the islands groups. But I believe that when I assign chapter five as homework the kids will enjoy it. FINALLY.

*"All" is a relative term. Do 36 students ALL do anything at the same time? In a class of 36, many of whom are introverts, it is sometimes difficult to be accurate about "all." I use it here in the teacher sense of "heavy majority with 36 sets of eyes looking alert."