As we finish up another semester of school I just wanted to spend a bit of time highlighting an amazing project done in one of our English classes. I wanted to highlight it as much for myself as for the amazing kids who worked on it. I say for myself because I just really like talking to teachers about their classes and about teaching and learning. I spend a lot of my day talking about a lot of things that have very little to do with learning. Things like Collective Agreements, supervision schedules, maintenance reports and progressive discipline take up most of my days, so when a teacher walks into my office and says that they just have to tell me about something their students did, I am all ears.
Ms. MacLean is a great young teacher at our school and is someone that is totally open to new ideas and to looking at how best to reach her kids. She is incredibly busy as she coaches a bunch of sports and is even one of the Athletic Directors for the entire school. Lots of balls in the air but she still looks for ways to improve her craft. She is truly fine teacher.
I think it is her openness to new ideas and innovation that allowed her students to come up with what you see here. Instead of the traditional essay comparing the male protagonists of The Great Gatsby and Slumdog Millionaire, they mimic the format of the latter and created an amazing video. This project could be easily dismissed by plenty of critics, (you know what I think of critics), but a little more thought and analysis tells the real story of this work.
If you could see the subject line under the video on YouTube you would see the following thesis paragraph:
The period between one’s birth and ones death is known as life. In the novels The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Slumdog Millionaire by Vikes Swamp, Jay Gatsby and Ram Mohammed Thomas must decide whether they follow an individualistic path or one that is afflicted by societal influences. Ram and Gatsby do not let the influences of society triumph their own moral worth. By examining the effects of isolation, the characters’ drive, and the individualistic aspects of love, it will be clear that the individual ultimately has a larger impact on their future than societal influences.
This is a fine thesis and then the amazing video that they created basically acts as the essay that will advance this thesis. There are direct quotations from the novels and the character’s interaction and dialogue go into even more depth. There is real substance to this video and I think it shows real thought about the novels. Sure, there could be other angles explored and perhaps some of the quotations could be a bit more on point, but I think that the core of the piece is great.
Now I was an English teacher when in the classroom and so I have a special place in my heart for literary analysis. While I grew tired of the traditional essay format, (I mean how many times can you read people talk about the elements of a tragic hero?), I still do see the value of a well constructed argument. I just think that there are so many different ways to present that argument. This is where people will have a problem with this assignment (cause it’s just not an essay!), but also why it is so powerful.
What these students did, or more accurately, were allowed to do, was to take a medium that they have an obvious passion and talent for and use that to truly get into the text. I guarantee that these students worked harder on this project and thus thought more about the texts, than they ever would have in a traditional paper. They had to consider how to weave the two characters and stories together. They had to not only explicitly state their argument, (which is the attractive part of an essay), they had to be more subtle and creative. They had to tackle a rather large script (which they deliver very well), and then also deal with the technical aspects of green screens, editing, graphics and lighting. They had to collaborate to get all their ideas together and then come up with a way to work in the necessary elements of a literary paper, without actually using paper. They had to do all of this and they totally nailed it!
Here is the key to it all though. They did all this, and learned so much more and I guarantee that they actually enjoyed the process! Imagine that; enjoying the process! This is only possible because the teacher allowed students to go with their ideas and explore a medium that they had a passion for. The teacher fought against the temptation and possibly pressure, to adhere to the norm and just go with the same old essay format. I wrote lots of essays through my high school and university years and I honestly cannot remember too many of them. I remember dreading the process at times, and really wondering about the applicable skills I was gaining, but I don’t truly remember too many of my arguments.
I can hear the critics talk about how this is not what we are used to seeing and how they are missing out on some skills and the truth is that maybe they are but isn’t that what real learning is? Isn’t it about choosing? About taking a look at a problem and while understanding that there are a number of ways to solve it, also choosing the way that best suits your interests and passions? About picking your path and hopefully it is more often than not, the one less travelled by? (I think I wrote an essay about that line once!)
Now a lot of people will look at the technical skills that must have been at play to make this video and think that they could never have that in their class because they don’t have the technical skills to support students trying it. That is the best part about this; this teacher doesn’t either! She is more than comfortable with technology but does not spend a lot of time with green screens. That does not matter though, simply because this teacher took herself out of the equation. By doing this, she allows her kids to do amazing things that they will remember and they can be proud of. This is easily the toughest thing for a teacher to do: to relinquish control and to allow students to blaze their own paths. It makes creating a rubric tougher but makes the product so much more meaningful.