A “Typical” Day in Contemporary History Class
I have always been resistant to putting ideas in students’ heads, but I am very interested in putting thinking into them (if that makes any sense). I do not need students to think as I do, but I feel that it is essential for them to become good critical thinkers and thinking people in general. Class today was a good example of my teaching style and strategy.
On my Lesson Plan (not the Unit one that the students download from my website, but the bare-bones format that I submit to the Office), it said that we would be discussing authors of the time period we are currently studying (1896 – 1912). Because my process is flexible and variable, no two classes come out quite the same, but on this day, it was remarkably similar. To preface, I might say that these two Junior classes of Contemporary History have been my biggest challenge so far at PHS, because they did not choose to enroll for my class in particular, and have indicated that this was certainly not the class that they had anticipated. Behavior and studiousness has been variable, though the students have certainly progressed greatly since the first week.
We began with a picture of Oscar Wilde on the SMARTBoard. I usually ask the students what they think of the person in the photo, and this shot of Wilde is typically stylish and unique. (“Foppish” I think we would have said in the old days.) I then told them of his novella The Picture of Dorian Gray. They were being exceptionally well-behaved, but I think a certain tension was building in me about what would come next. Knowing how the class will progress is sometimes detrimental to one’s concentration, and in this case, I have been having some trouble getting the class to focus on a specific task and particularly to contribute to an effective discussion. I had some trepidation that the class would move forward effectively, and was considering the options that I had for delivering relevant information.
Coming to the end of the relevance of Dorian Gray, I hypothesized, with some help from some students that the story speculates on whether we ever truly show our inner self to others, or if we hide behind a fašade of superficiality that disguises our faults. This was met with looks of acknowledgement and understanding on the faces of most students, and so I decided to proceed by connecting this to Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, which I had previously given them (excerpted) for their notebooks. Wilde’s homosexuality caused him to be incarcerated, where he proceeded to write this poem, a scathing assault on the prison system and judiciary practices of his day. Since the students readily and honestly admitted that none of them had read the excerpts that I had given them, I was faced with two choices: Give them the gist of the story and move on; or take the major risk of testing their intellectual and social maturity by exploring the document in detail. Though admittedly nervous about what I thought could be great potential for disaster with this group, something in me sensed this as a turning point in our relationship, and I decided to be bold.
I asked the students to turn to their copy, and then asked for volunteers to read excerpts. Those volunteers were almost immediately forthcoming, and at each break in the passages, I provided them with information that would help them understand the vocabulary and imagery that Wilde uses. Their attentiveness and sensitivity was incredible. As we proceeded, some of the hypothetical questions became very deep, but the class handled it with exceptional aplomb. I began to feel more comfortable, and was eventually glad that I had taken the bigger risk. For most of 30 minutes, the class was focused, participatory, and extremely thoughtful. We touched on a wide variety of topics involving not only homosexuality, but also social conventions, artistic integrity, and teen culture. In every case, it was obvious that most students were thinking about their own values and positions on a full spectrum of topics.
When we had finished, I paused for just a few seconds of silence before proceeding to the next topic. I told the students that I wanted to savor the moment just a bit, because I truly felt that those were the best moments of class all year. Many of them seemed gratified to hear that, and there was agreement on many faces.
Our next topic was much more easy-going: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the invention of Sherlock Holmes. Students were able to laugh and ponder, as we discussed the character and the vagaries of being the author of an archetypal fictional person. We then discussed Jack London’s life and writings, including what was a familiar book for many, Call of the Wild. We again floated some hypotheses about whether any animal can ever be truly domesticated, and whether humans actually can be, though this last idea was cut short by the bell.
The afternoon class was a virtual carbon-copy of the morning class. The process was almost exactly the same, and therefore equally gratifying.
After the students left and classes were over for the day, I pondered what had happened. I had moved the unit more slowly than I had intended to, but the rewards had been tremendous. I truly believe that every class period with those two groups will be better now, as we build on the trust and intellectual honesty that we experienced. I am a strong believer in the value of relationships, and I am certain that all relationships within those classes have been improved. I think the risk was fully justified by the rewards.
If there is any flaw I can see to yesterday’s exceptional class periods, it would be that of everything the students learned in that 45-minute period, many of them vitally important lessons about life, tolerance, compassion, artistry, and individuality, the only thing likely to appear on any standardized test is Jack London in a multiple-choice question to match with his book. I don’t believe that any of my students would have traded the experience they had for the opportunity to memorize the answers to a few multiple-choice questions.