When I was a teacher at the King School, I was given a tough assignment, as I was starting at the bottom of the totem pole. Three of the classes I was assigned to teach were the bottom level of a three-tiered tracking system. In others words, there was both honors and AP sections above those “regular” level classes. As a result, not only were the kids in these classes lagging in their skill level in reading and writing, but also they were made painfully aware of these deficiencies by such a brutally clear system of distinction. To no surprise, the kids were demoralized in many ways by their status, and in many cases had given up on English as an area they could excel at the ripe age of 15(!).
The reasons for their deficiencies were myriad. Many of the boys were concrete thinkers, and simply hadn’t yet developed their abstract thinking, though it was rarely a permanent lack. Others had substantive learning disabilities: sensory processing disorder, dyslexia, memory recall. Yet others had behavioral challenges, such as oppositional behavior or more frequently, ADHD; the obvious manifestation was that they had very short attention spans and couldn’t be still for long. Finally, another set was hampered by low-level psychological challenges: namely either depression or, more often, anxiety (frequently in the form of perfectionism).
What they all had in common was that they couldn’t learn well in a typical English classroom. A traditional English classroom, at least in the private school setting, is fairly predictable. Students are assigned reading. They come into class and discuss the reading and then write essays on what they’ve read. While there are many caveats to this model, it is fairly universal as a base pedagogy. Well, picture how well this model goes if a student has ADHD and can’t pay attention to a serious discussion on literature for more than ten minutes. Or picture how well it goes if the student has auditory processing issues and can’t follow the conversation in the way they could if there were a visual element to it. These deficiencies compound as the student doesn’t learn keystone concepts, falls behind, can’t understand more advanced concepts that build on the foundation, fall further behind. Eventually, they decide that writing is “not my thing,” and give up. And who can blame them? When an ego is trampled, should we be surprised that it wilts?
When I saw this tragedy in motion, I decided to go another route. What if I abandoned this idea that the study of literature needed to be a stodgy, pretentious deep dive into abstraction, a dry, mechanical exercise in building vocabulary and writing fundamentals? What if one essay a semester, given several rounds of drafts with individual conferences was considered enough? What if more focus in the assessment was placed on “differentiated instruction”? If we eliminate the idea that English had to be “serious” and we instead paid attention to project-based learning, a funny thing happened.
It was a project on The Great Gatsby that really opened my eyes, a novel that essentially every English-minded academic dorks out over. The assignments for Gatsby are typically as elevated as they come, given English teacher’s almost protective pride over the excellence of its rhetorical execution. But this time, I had just been inspired by an introduction to “Differentiated Instruction.” In DI, your assessments should be designed to appeal to all different types of learners: aural, visual, kinesthetic, etc. So I designed a project-based assessment that offered a number of different options for breaking down the secondary meanings in Gatsby and reproducing them in an instructional way to the class. One option was a rap, and in a given class environment that had kindled a sense of trust and mutual respect for each other, several people even took it on. Not only did they take it on, but they went to incredible lengths to produce it, so fully engaged with the project that it was no longer work. They ended up with a music video, some dressing in drag, splicing a number of different shots together, with a well written lyrical ballad of Gatsby. Now, they learned nothing about traditional English skills like developing a thesis statement or evaluating evidence, but they did learn a ton of other skills. Collaborating with others, film production, writing lyrics, film editing, and a number of others. But most importantly, they learned that English wasn’t a bunch of archaic muck that put a damper on your Sunday nights; it’s not a bunch of dignified snobbery.
The next round of essays, the only of the semester, instead of offering regurgitations of Sparknotes, the thesis statements asserted original thinking, the analysis was engaging and creative, rather than formulaic and plain. Three of the students in the class ascended the next year all the way up to the AP section, skipping over honors. It turns out, all they needed to succeed in English was themselves.
But what unlocked that critical realization for them was a focus on differentiated instruction, the notion that they could engage in serious literature through moving their bodies, producing film, musical accompaniment– a total panoply of sensory engagement. The product of self-belief is profound and life-altering. Any route there, particularly for a teenage student, is superior to “serious study.” At the end of the day, all the tools that any human being needs to understand things like irony or passive voice really exist internally. Teaching should really be focused on the unlocking of what is inside, not the treasure already within.