For this brief reflection on the essays you wrote in mid-March, I use the same structure that shaped those compositions. This reflection describes major patterns across the thirty-six essays. Not everyone’s writing matches this general description, but the patterns drive my thinking about essential ingredients for this month-long unit. Also, I do my best to honor various ways in which people define these terms, rather than specify my own unalterable definition of any term. Although these shifting definitions present a challenge for such a short summary, I will proceed. “If we shadows have offended / think but this and all is mended” (Puck, Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Most people believe that you learn to analyze the reading thoughtfully; this is one of the most exercised skills in this class. I see this strength as connected to the other two because your analysis grows through communication skills (oral and written) and through collaboration. Oral communication skills develop largely in the small group discussions. In these conversations, individuals express multiple opinions. You then choose and shape the interpretation that makes most sense to you–in writing. In other words, the analysis goes through several stages, like a worm through the guts of a beggar. Written communication, for most people, is a skill that has grown because of regular practice. Granted much of your writing has been shorter or apparently less formal than you are used to; even so, the majority appreciates the frequency with which you are asked to express interpretations in writing. This habit encourages you to know what you think, and find the most effective way to express those thoughts. Finally, many of you cite regular collaborative work as the most beneficial experience. These occasions test your ideas against your classmates’ respectful questions. Many people report that they have learned how to listen more effectively. For example, they have learned to set aside their own views long enough to hear the interpretations of others. When I consider these most exercised skills, I am encouraged by how well they fit together. You are regularly working together to produce and express meaningful interpretations of the literature.
On the other hand, leadership and initiative are two skills that people feel we exercise least. For example, students have leadership opportunities outside of school and in extra-curricular activities, but rarely in a classroom setting. At the same time, many people see few opportunities to take initiative. For example, they are told what will happen next–e.g., the day’s agenda, the homework instructions or the subject of the next assessment. I must insert that I believe one can take initiative in many different private and public ways. The other set of least exercised skills I will also lump together: creativity and problem-solving. People clearly long for opportunities to express themselves creatively–for example, with forms other than written text. At the same time, many people cite problem-solving as more indigenous to Maths and Sciences than to Literature. Again parenthetically, I would like to suggest that drama, poetry and fiction all offer significant problems, especially of interpretation. If you combine this second pair of least-exercised skills, you see the desire to solve problems creatively, which leads us to the problem of how should we spend our class time between now and early May?
Given these patterns, the time we spend together in class during this month needs, in my view, to include several ingredients. First, perhaps for variety’s sake alone, the work needs to happen in three different spheres–individual, small group and whole group. These three arenas give people a chance to read and think to themselves, discuss discoveries with others and make more formal presentations to the full class. For an analogy, consider lakes–and these have a special name which I will research later–that “turn over” periodically. In other words, their cooler waters bubble up from the bottom, essentially replacing the warmer waters on the surface. This turning over, this mixing brings fresh nutrients to life at the top of the lake. Likewise, mixing spheres of our biography work will replenish our mental energy and provide more intellectual nourishment. Second, many people wrote about the desire to choose a book that means something to them. Understandably, then, having personal goals makes sense. One person, for example, may be exploring an imagined career, while another watches how the author advances past unexpected obstacles. With personal goals comes the need for customized rubrics, so that people know when they have reached their personal goals. Otherwise, what is the point of having a goal? The third essential ingredient, which resonates most with me, is the demonstration of understanding. Most people want to find new understandings as a result of reading their book. I believe the attentive readers will discover these insights. The task then becomes communicating this understanding to others. I imagine a whole host of ways for creative problem-solvers to do this. Lastly, a clarion call came from your recent essays: let us lead; let us take initiative. Therefore, I believe that each day, starting next week with Monday, April 8, should have at least one student leader. That person, or those people, will know the day’s plan and guide the others through it. As I am doing here in this sentence, starting next week, I will fade from view, leaving room for you.