Saturday, March 23, 2013

Hands off the Wheel

Once or twice a semester I abdicate control of the class to my students. It’s a little scary, and I’m never sure what’s going to happen, but Thursday magic happened, and I dismissed students to spring break knowing they’d gotten everything I’d hoped they would out of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

Here are some of the things students said to the rest of the class, drawn around the room in a big circle:
  1. I suspected from the beginning that there was something wrong with Nora. When people act goofy, it isn’t because they are, but because they are hiding from themselves. Like the main character’s wife in Fahrenheit 451.
  2. Nora’s forgotten that a marriage is two parts--it's true Torvald didn’t do anything to help, but she’s forgotten she has a voice.
  3. Ibsen included Anne-Marie and Kristine because they are strong women characters. Nora was society’s ideal wife, but the others were better women.
  4. The society forces people into characters. We need to define who we are, or else the society will.
This abdication does not come naturally to me, as I spent the early years of teaching being very bad at orchestrating whole-group discussions. Neither is it something I’ve learned from reading, but from my high school English colleagues. They call it “open forum,” so I do, too. I’ve come to it slowly, and with ambiguous results at first, but I’m becoming a fan. Thursday was one of the best I’ve ever had--the students moved their discussion forward, reacting to and building on each other’s comments without violent disagreement, and ending with all the observations I’d have made (and a few that hadn’t yet occurred to me!)--without me having to make them. That, I think, is when learning is powerful.

Here are the ingredients that helped make this open forum a success:
  1. A student who is willing and able to facilitate the discussion skillfully.
  2. A limited number questions--well-constructed but open-ended--that the students have been gathering input on throughout the reading.
  3. Me (the teacher) completely removing myself from the discussion (I transcribe the discussion on computer, projecting my work as I go, for reference and for correction, if necessary).
  4. A requirement for students to participate, but the option for those who prefer to contribute online later, where I post the questions and transcription.
The questions I asked were...
  1. Did Nora make the right choice? (What did she choose? Why? Given what you know of Nora’s and Torvald’s personality and motivations, what else could she have done?)
  2. How is Kristine Linde a foil for Nora? (What does she want out of life? Refer back to act 1, p. 858 “How free you must feel--” “No--only unspeakably empty. Nothing to live for now,” as well as to later developments.)
  3. How do you think Ibsen would define a good marriage? (Use evidence from the play, including Nora’s comments on p. 900 about being happy vs. being light-hearted and about loving someone vs. thinking it fun to be in love.) How does this compare to your definition of a good marriage?
  4. Why is the question “Who am I?” an important one to ask and to answer? Support your answer from A Doll’s House, and apply to yourself: why was it important for Nora and why might it be important for you?

After watching the last 15 minutes of the movie version, I told students to arrange their desks in one big circle, turn their journals to the last page where they’d find the 4 discussion questions (they are also free to pursue any other questions they might have), then I took myself and my computer out of the circle and waited to see how they would organize themselves and what they had learned. 

Because while I delight in the cleverness and artistry of the happiest couple and the saddest couple switching places from the opening lines to the closing lines of the play, or the use of an oil lamp as a symbol for the light of enlightenment, or the double meaning of Nora’s lines at the end “Yes, I’ve changed....No, it’s not too late,” every student might not find that equally scintillating, or remember it past the test. 

But if they’ve learned to look past irrational-seeming behavior to the perception that’s motivating it, that a real marriage takes respect and honesty, that loving service is more fulfilling than safeguarding appearances, and that they need to know and define themselves now, before they acquire commitments that will make it more difficult, then it was worth the risk of abdication.

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