Saturday, May 28, 2016

Celebrating Students’ Critical Thinking

At the end of the year who doesn't just want to be done—teachers as well as students? (Yes, I had to take myself out to a coffee shop Thursday afternoon for the motivation and isolation necessary to tackle marking my last set of papers.) 

But let’s not just rush to be done: Let’s take the time to notice and celebrate the growth that has happened this year. One of the places that happened for me this week was in an 11th grade class discussion, post-AP  Language test, on reading chapter 8 of The Great Gatsby

This was a mind-blowing conversation for me, based on the last line of the penultimate chapter: “It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete.” 

Student 1: “What does ‘holocaust’ actually mean?”
Me (looking it up on my desktop dictionary): “Destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially caused by fire or nuclear war.”
Student 2: But since this was written in 1925, the German genocide of Jews hadn’t happened yet, so that connotation wouldn’t be there.

Wow…that hadn’t actually occurred to me in so many words.

In the same class, students developed a theory that hadn’t occurred to me:

Way back at the beginning of the book, some of them noticed Myrtle’s claim that her husband had deceived her about his social status by getting married in a borrowed suit that she had thought was his own. Maybe because I’ve been encouraging them to look for the motif of deceit and illusion.

One student came into class Wednesday protesting the unfairness of the mistake that had, at the end of World War 1, sent Gatsby to Oxford rather than home, where Daisy was waiting for him, got discouraged, and married Tom instead. “If only that mistake hadn’t happened, everything would have been okay!” 

Really? I asked. Gatsby knew during his original month with Daisy that she was operating under a false assumption: “…he had deliberately given Daisy a sense of security; he let her believe that he was a person from much the same stratum as herself—that he was fully able to take care of her” (149). If he’d been able to return immediately after the war, would this deception have been uncovered before the wedding? 

Immediately two students began bouncing this idea back and forth and came up with the theory that Fitzgerald shows how doomed the dream is before it even starts by presenting Wilson and Myrtle as the option to what actually happened. If Gatsby had come back and married Daisy immediately after the war, before making his fortune, there might have been a bride expecting more; a long, plodding struggle to  provide what she expected; and ultimately disillusionment.

Wow…that hadn’t occurred to me, either. But it works. 

It’s a good feeling at the end of the year: when my students are coming up with questions and theories that I hadn’t thought of, my work is done. They are critical thinkers, ready for the next level.

What are your signs of success--even small ones? Encourage yourself: train yourself to notice students doing well.

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