Monday, December 7, 2009

What’s the Point?

I remember all too well sitting down in English class in my high school years, and even into my college years, and being told that we are going to read and study {fill-in-the-blank here}. That was not appealing to me. That did not have a point to me. That did not make sense to me. That was not relevant to my life. Why would I want to read something that I did not know why I was reading it in the first place?

That assignment, to just read something, has puzzled me ever since. Why? What truly is the point of reading this text?

This constant battle, if you will, to have students read material and my struggle to get them to accomplish this feat - whether it is Shakespeare, currently, or something else in the future - led me to an important revelation that began back in my teacher education program.

As teachers, we learn that we need to scaffold learning and that assigning any type of work or material to our students needs to clearly serve a purpose. The only problem and difference between knowing that and our students is that our students have no clue why they are doing the work. That lack of communication between the why of the teacher and the why of the student created the problem when I was in school.

At Arapahoe I began, with Anne and Kristin’s help, to begin to formulate lessons, activities, and homework that truly was meaningful. That truly was relevant. That truly did make an impact on the student’s lives.


Because I explained to the students exactly why they were doing what they were doing and shared with them the benefits and reasons for that assignment/activity/homework that they were about to accomplish. I tried at least to do this on a regular basis.

Now at the FAIR School Downtown I have once again ran into some trouble in terms of reading material. Take for instance, Shakespeare and Hamlet in particular. Why oh why would 9-11th grade students want to read this play? I thought about it for a while and then with the help of my good partner in the English department, Ben Jarman, we came up with a few ideas. Hamlet has in it themes about: not trusting your parents, death, a ghost, lots of fighting, love, and a search for identity. Clearly some of those themes can be debated and looked at from a variety of different angles, but Ben and I decided first to look at those. Next was the idea and task to get students, before we even picked up the text, excited about learning and reading this amazing work of literature (Ok, maybe that is an English teacher talking, but that is what I think. Others are entitled to their own opinion). Now Ben wanted to, as he called it, “Get the Hamlet fire burning” and really get students excited about what they are learning from the beginning. I agreed with him that this was important, but struggled with exactly how to reach our students. Ben had some great ideas and he thought about really just talking to the students about the material and trying to “light the fire” that way. I thought that was good, but then I tried to consider what else would make this exciting to a student in today’s world. So I considered some sort of exciting Keynote presentation, but then I realized that even that, however cool it may be that it would not be the most exciting thing I could produce. I looked to a resource that I used a few times while student teaching - Animoto.

What I produced was this video: Hamlet Introduction Video

To me this was something that I used to engage the students. They thought that it was really cool and engaging. It was great to bring in the images from the SparkNotes Comic Book version of Hamlet. The use of that in class has really allowed the students to get past the hard part of Shakespeare - the language - and really focus on the content, which is what we want them to understand anyway. In all reality I think it was the combination of the words, the pictures, the text, the music, and the fast pace of the movie that made it exciting to the students. They enjoyed it and one student even commented, “[The video] made me excited to read Hamlet.” Cross that off the list - the students were excited about what they are reading and we were able to accomplish that in an exciting and applicable way for the students.

However, since then the “fire of Hamlet” has began to burn low. We started off on this high point and now we are chugging along - probably because we are close to the end and excited about the final projects. When I look back on the unit though, there have been many times that I think the fire could have just gone out. One thing that Ben and I have done is make sure that there is a guiding, focusing question up on the SMART Board for every reading, every group activity, and for the entire unit. Those reasons, in conjunction with our introduction video, have really made the “fire of Hamlet” sustain throughout the unit and allowed it to really take a place within students’ minds.

Now I am not here to say that I don’t get the “this is stupid” or “I hate Hamlet” comments every once in a while, but I will say that even though some students struggle with completing the actual assignment they at least do not have that “Why are we doing this and what’s the point” feeling that I had growing up.

I also look forward to bringing this video back into class next week as we wrap up the unit and have the students relate to and make connections with it and their own lives. Ben and I have made connections throughout this unit with the students, these themes, and their lives, but it will be great to bring it back in again. Then I cannot wait to see the individual connections that students will be able to make as we finish this unit. As they really take the text of Hamlet and make it their own through a group video project. As they really take this text and make it into something that has a point - a point to each of them personally.

So I encourage you, even we as teachers know what the point is in completing an assignment and how it should relate to our students’ lives, we need to share that with our students time and time and time again. Because that sharing, that has made a huge difference in reducing the amount of push back I get on assignments, provided an increase in the level of completion on assignments, and has increased the satisfaction level with my students with their homework, daily work, and group work.

Do your students know what the point is?

I encourage you to tell them...or better yet, let them figure it out with your guidance!