Saturday, December 6, 2014

Significance and Choice: What Does It Look Like in Your Class?

Lessons for the week: the importance of significance and choice. I offered several new essay prompts, and even the drafts are so much better than in previous years. (And there’s an added bonus for the teacher—How would you like to hear your students pleading for the necessity of future classes to experience the unit they just did?)

In addition to one very open-ended essay question at the end of the Human Dignity unit built around the short Holocaust memoir Night, by Elie Wiesel, this year I offered 3 more specific questions, but still with the opportunity for students to articulate what they found significant about the unit. 

Here are the prompts:
  1. Why is it important for young people today to read Night? (Hypothetical situation: The English department is considering dropping this book because “nobody cares about the Holocaust anymore.” This essay is to convince them to keep the book in the 10th grade curriculum.)
  2. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the oppressed.” This is what Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Do you agree? 
  3. Is the world on a trajectory of increasing regard for human dignity or increasing disregard for human dignity? What is your role?
  4. What is the most significant thing you have learned about human dignity this unit?

Two disclaimers here. First, significance is ridiculously easy in literature. After all, that is WHY people write literature—to find, explore, protest, discover, struggle with, and communicate what they see as significant. Other fields might have to dig a little deeper. But surely there is a reason you love your field, a reason THIS unit is important and irreplaceable. What is it? Help the kids see it, own it. Second, significance starts with unit and lesson design—from the beginning of the unit I have to have a significance in mind that I am targeting helping students discover. Any assessment of student learning is first an assessment of teacher instruction. That’s a little scary, but it’s also empowering. If students are not getting what I want them to, I can change the instruction.

I read good answers to questions 2 - 4. And part of their beauty is that students who don’t particularly feel that future students MUST read this same book don’t have to fake it. So that the students who DO pick it must have at least some commitment to the book itself. For now, then, I’m going to focus on answers to question 1. 

It is absolutely invigorating to read students whose forte is not even English class argue for the necessity of the English unit and/or work just studied:
  • 10th graders have only a shallow understanding of the history that has built this world today. Reading a book like Night and connecting it to an article like “Being Muslim in a Mad, Sad World” and a movie like Hotel Rwanda is important for 10th graders for these reasons: learning about the event, the leader, and the lesson of human dignity.
  • This book also I should not look down on other people and not be prideful. I feel like there is a lot more that I could understand if I think about it more. 
Have you ever tried asking students to protest the removal of a given unit from the curriculum? What would that look like in your discipline, class, and age group?

For me, there’s a week of class and then exams before Christmas break, AND I’m in the middle of moving. I’m stressed in some ways, but I’m so energized when I read my students’ papers! 

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