Sunday, November 14, 2004

stoking the fire

It's Sunday morning. I awoke at 5:30 thinking good thoughts and having new ideas about school, about my students, about a project we've been working on. I alluded to this project in the last blog, about my students taking the leap and connecting the literature through writing, and that they were giving themselves over to it, and that I was afraid I'd botch it. Yesterday I told some friends about the project and how it was proceeding and they thought what the kids were doing was really something and so I want to write about them, and the project, here.

It has been a struggle trying to get the students to give the literature a chance. It seems that they think that kids reading aloud is enough, whether anybody understands or not. This thing about the kids always wanting to read aloud is related somehow to them loving to copy things. They're usually completely quiet and calm when their fellows are reading aloud, even though everyone is at sea, just like they are when they're copying. I'll have to think about what that means. (It's 8 am. I hear church bells.)
It didn't seem to get any better as time went on. They were still rebellious when I asked them to look at pieces of literature for understanding. Once they'd lose focus or got lost, they'd stay gone. I think part of that is because they don't have enough self-confidence to believe that they are capable of understanding, and when they lose focus or get lost it's confirmed. But another part of it is that I had not been successful in causing them to see the relevance of what we were reading. That's my job to do that. I had not caused them to understand that there was a good reason for reading America's literature. I had not won them over. There is a big picture, but every time I'd try to cause them to see that, to get a little glimpse of that, an inkling, they'd shut down. For them it was just a stupid sermon about hell, a diary of a boat trip, some Indian talking about rivers and wolves, a crazy man who talks to a bird, another crazy man who goes into the woods to talk to himself, etc. What did it have to do with them?
But I went into these woods of theirs to live deliberately, to show my students what living deliberately means, what it meant to Thoreau, for example, to show them the thinking and writing of the people whose thoughts and writings somehow bespeak us. They were Americans. We are Americans. I want my students to understand that they do not live in a vaccuum, that things have changed and do change, that something came before that had something to do with how we think today. Because it does seem to me that these children live isolated like on an island, as I've said before, and they don't know any other way or any other possibilities. (I think society wants to keep them there, but that's another rant.) Most important is, I don't think they feel a connection with America. I want them to expand their minds and therefore, their options. For some reason I am driven by some great desire to make children think their own thoughts. (I'd hate to think that Prometheus brought us fire and suffered for us, just to have the people to whom he brought this incredible gift of thought-fire let it go unnoticed and unused, eventually to let it go out.)
So, this past Monday I stood in front of the children and proposed a hypothesis: that we modern Americans could see, from the literature that came before us, something about how we came to think and be who we are today. And I told them I want them to prove or disprove that. Then I divided the literature that we read up into four categories (I guess to make it more graspable): the old, the less old, the modern, and today. The old is the native Americans, pilgrims, puritans, Ben Franklin's attempt at moral perfection, and Douglass and the other writings by and about slaves; the less old is Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Poe; the modern (so far) is Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jack London (To Build a Fire). (Publishing company categorizers will probably send me "you're stupid" letters, but that's how I saw it.) We went over each piece and made notes about what each author depicted. We've only gotten through the less old so far. We're going to do the moderns tomorrow and the "today" we'll do for the rest of the school year, and maybe do all this again somehow at the end. (Still thinking on that. Maybe I should discuss a collaberation with an American history teacher.).
Immediately the students began comparing and connecting, even though at the first step all I asked them to do was make notes. Then I had them turn their notes, one category at a time, into strung together sentences and paragraphs (I called it a very rough first draft). It's in these paragraphs that many of them are already developing a thesis. (I should mention that to them tomorrow, point out how natural this process is.) Then, this week, beginning Tuesday, we make the serious leap from notes/paragraphs to looking at the whole thing, identifying what we each think the big picture is, and turning that into one big essay. I told them Friday that they're going to be so proud of themselves. And, wow, they are. They're being, like, intellectual. Also, they've been, on their own, looking things up in my encyclopedias, like dates and names and some even gathering more information about the puritans, etc. That was completely their idea. (It hadn't occurred to me to suggest it. Their education so far has given them a lot more than people realize, I'd say.) I awoke this morning realizing that this is a researched essay -- students studying texts and bringing facts together to support or refute a thesis -- and the very thing we teachers want our students to do.
The other thing that occurred to me at 5:30 this morning is that when it's over we should reflect on the process we went through that got us from the original nothing (poorly understood texts) to the final something that shows authentic and deep understanding, and enlightenment. I want them to understand how important what they've done really is.
My belief in these children's ability of mind has never weakened. But now I have something to show for it. I think I should do something with these essays, to show the world.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ms. Plesh,

My name is Lauren Duplessis. I was one of your students back at Mandeville High and I stumbled onto your blog through a link from a link from a website. I don't know if you remember me, but I was just perusing your blog and felt I should share something with you. You are like a modern-day Mary Poppins going from school to school changing people's lives for the better, and I commend you for it. You are such a good and optomistic person and I wish I could have embraced your Shakespeare class with as much enthusiasm as you had teaching it instead of treating it as just one more elective. I also deeply regret switching out of your creative writing class, but I think, as your students are experiencing now, that I just wasn't ready, even after eleven and a half years of education, to believe that I had thoughts that anyone else would want to hear. You are one of the only teachers who deeply practiced a no judgements policy, and that was so comforting. But I know that my thoughts do matter now, and I just wanted to let you know that you are one of those few people who have that spark and energy to "do" and I try everyday to be more like that too. I wish you all the luck in the world with every new endeavor.

2:19 AM  

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