Those of us who love literature have learned a lesson or two about plans. We were first taught by Scotsman Robert Burns who, in the 18th century, poetically cautioned that even the “best laid” plans are subject to the whims of chance and misfortune. Just in case we missed the lecture, or even worse–the point, John Steinbeck schooled us beautifully and tragically through his Burns-inspired mice and men one hundred and fifty years later. In the world of literature, plans are absolutely made to be broken, they are 100% guaranteed to unravel, they are undeniably destined to destruct, just ask Gatsby.
While the mere mention of the word plan sends avid readers seeking for shadows in every plot corner, the word path evokes a feeling of invitation and promise. A path can be well-worn, can be marked with breadcrumbs, can be yellow brick, can be via armoire, can be river ala Huck Finn, and can be ocean ala Odysseus; a path in any form is a possibility. The quintessential literary path of possibility is of course the one “less traveled by” that made all the difference for Robert Frost. As educators in the 21st century, we are now at that momentous place where the pedagogical paths diverge. I believe that if we truly choose the less traveled (though with steadily increasing traffic) road of conscientious innovation in the classroom, we must be willing to say goodbye to lesson plans and hello to lesson paths.
I have been blissfully following a lesson path with my senior World Literature students this semester. You could say that the path was dictated by history. The first day of class was January 20th, 2009–Inauguration Day in the United States of America. The inauguration of a new American president is always special, but this year the swearing in of the first African American president was profoundly resonant. In spite of my inclination to shift into automatic pilot with my usual first day “I am in control of you” class business, I welcomed my new students at the door as they arrived and together we took the first steps on what would become our lesson path. I streamed live coverage of the historic day, and projected twitter so that the kids could see the comments from excited citizens of the world; tweets from Australia, Canada, Germany and Singapore were seen among many others. I asked the students to be aware of their thoughts and emotions as they watched (they reflected on and shared their feelings in the discussion forum of our class wiki once they joined a few days later). It was a fabulous first day of the journey.
The clear next step on our lesson path was a bit of a step backward in time. January 19th, the day before our first class, was Martin Luther King Day. Watching the crowds on the mall at Obama’s inaugural clearly beckoned for us to look at the footage from the March on Washington and to listen to the words of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech; this became day two, the business of class business would have to wait one more day…. Day three came and I did cover some of the usual business, just quickly, because the kids were eager to talk about what they had seen and heard on the last two days. Discussion of America’s racial evolution in the last half decade led to talk of segregation which prompted me to share the visceral words of poet Langston Hughes, whose “Ku Klux” left many students speechless.
Simultaneously, a news story about a former KKK member issuing a public apology to John Lewis–congressman and life-long civil rights activist who marched with King–for a racially-motivated attack in 1961 commanded our attention. We watched video footage of the story on our class ning, and contemplated race, hate, fear and forgiveness. After students shared reactions to the story in discussions on ning, our class discourse turned to questions about racism in the rest of the world. These questions led to South Africa and Apartheid and, aha! Literature! Have I got a story for you: Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold”… and the boys emerged as the clear next step on the path for my American teens who were pondering race issues, because it is about, well, a South African teen pondering his position on race.
Master Harold led to lively discussion, and discussion evolved naturally to written analysis. Guided by the significant struggles of Hally, the teen character in the play, the students wrote essays about their own personal struggles. They connected beautifully with Fugard’s work and provided wonderful diagnostic pieces of writing that also served as a means of self-introduction. While I am not willing to negotiate the importance of writing instruction and practice in my class, our lesson path led us there at the perfect time, and the previous steps on the path made the students quite receptive to the opportunity.
In the play, misplaced anger and spite lead the conflicted Hally to become “Master Harold” who lords over two black employees of his family, his only true friends. He ultimately, sadly, displays racist superiority and intolerance towards Sam in particular, the black man who was his one positive male role model. Discussions in class centered a lot on tolerance and the lack thereof in the world. Questions were posed in our book club meetings: how do otherwise good people become hateful? What are the roots of intolerance? Why do we not learn the lessons of history? This talk inevitably turned toward that darkest chapter of the past, the Holocaust. Two pieces I had always wanted to read, Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir All But My Life and Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus—yes, that means comic book, but don’t be fooled, it is a masterpiece–became our reading choices as we continued on our lesson path.
Reading workshop followed and my students and I devoured these tragic yet triumphant works of literary art. I read both books along with the kids in a true co-reading, co-learning role. It was an absolute delight, a definite perk of the path. We had book club meetings, we had virtual discussions on our wiki and ning, some of us even scurried back to the bookstore because we just had to buy Maus II (yes, that means seniors in high school chose to buy and read more…) We laughed, we cried (honest), we marveled at the insights and illustrations. Maus readers educated the others about their book and its brilliance, its point, its poignancy. They showed Spiegelman’s clever swastika shaped path with forlorn Vladek and Anja walking arm in arm. They shared his devastating comic within the comic and explained that Art depicts himself as a child in prison-striped pajamas, psychologically trapped by his family’s history in the hateful shadow of Hitler. Those who had chosen to read All But My Life shared Gerda’s words with their peers so that they too would get to know this amazing survivor who walked through years of hell in the snow boots her father insisted she wear on the summer day she was taken. Through our wiki, readers shared exciting findings such as the Klein Foundation channel on YouTube where Gerda’s recollections of the Holocaust and her message of hope and humanity are recorded.
The strong reactions to the works proved perfect inspiration for another essay, this time after a week of Essay Boot Camp (focused instruction in which I share structure and style basics and model my own writing). The resultant essays were quite strong and the students’ interest in the subject matter was clear. As we completed the books a number of students reported that their parent or friend was planning to read next after hearing the student’s passionate response! A student not even in my class came and asked if she could borrow a copy of All But My Life to read on her own. Just the other day I loaned my copy of Maus to an art teacher in the building who had heard my students talking about it and who wanted to experience the magic of the tale herself. My principal and media center specialist also read Maus, and our library has been newly stocked with copies. This beyond B304 connection has been a great byproduct of following the path!
In their post-writing reflections many students expressed awe at the amazing strength of character of Gerda, Vladek and others who faced such unthinkable devastation. They marveled at the ability of the human spirit to not only triumph over hatred, but to even find joy in the face of abject sorrow. The stunning film Life is Beautiful called out to us at this point. We watched (and read) the film in class, in its original Italian with English subtitles. We were all astounded by the juxtaposition of such intense beauty and such loathsome ugliness. We engaged in discussions on ning about Roberto Benigni’s courage in using humor in his story, about the brilliant colors in the film, and about the power of love. We thoroughly enjoyed watching the footage of Benigni’s ebullient Academy Award acceptance speech. His passion was uplifting at this point on our path, and we loved that he, along with the other artists and memoirists were getting the last word in this woeful tale of history–poetic justice.
How could the lives of so many people be taken while the world looked the other way? This question borne from All But My Life, Maus and Life is Beautiful eventually led us back to Africa and its civil wars. How could villages and families be casually destroyed? How could children be subject to such violence and even forced to fight and kill? Ishmael Beah told us how in his story A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. We read this compelling piece, stunned at the theft of youth that Beah experienced in Sierra Leone in the early 1990’s. We talked, in face to face book clubs and in virtual discussion on buckenglish wiki and ning, about the horror and sadness of his story, a story almost unreadable in parts. The one point of joy for Beah throughout his experience was his love of music; he loved Bob Marley, but American old school hip hop was his favorite. His tapes of Run—D.M.C., LL Cool J, Erik B. & Rakim and others literally and figuratively saved his life in the painfully tragic years of his youth. We listened to the songs Beah cherished so that on our path we could feel for a moment what it might have felt like to be on his. It was powerful.
Music became our compass, and it pointed us directly to a young African man the same age as Ishmael Beah who, on the opposite shores of the continent, had seen similar violence and civil war in Somalia. Rapper K’Naan and his poetry provided our next literary lesson. We listened to K’Naan’s songs, me with my IPod, the kids plugging into school laptops and following links on our ning to listen to free songs provided by K’Naan on his ning. We read the lyrics and contemplated his meaning and message. The students began making connections between the voices of Beah and K’Naan, and they blogged about their discoveries on our ning. The students’ posts were amazing. Their comments on their peers’ blogs were thoughtful. Their comments to me were inspiring. I had daily messages from students sharing websites they found in their free time, videos, links about Africa, civil war, child soldiers and more. A student was excited to share a video of K’Naan talking about piracy in Somalia. One student reported that his dad had taken his IPod and wouldn’t give it back because he, the dad, was “so into K’Naan”! Another said her mom, a forty-something professed opponent of rap music, had fallen in love with K’Naan’s music and was sharing it with her coworkers. Yet another said she shared K’Naan’s lyrics with her brother and he was starting Beah’s book so that he could see the connection. A parent emailed a link to an African charity organization along with a thank you that her son, a “reluctant reader” was not only reading, but sharing stories at home. A Spanish teacher in the building heard we were exploring Africa so she came up to my room to share her daughter’s website with photos and reflections of her time spent in Africa on two extended stays. There was clear magic on the path and suddenly we had peers, siblings, parents, and other teachers walking along with us. Hmmm…this never happened before with all of my cool, meticulously crafted lesson plans and cheery, colorful handouts….
The students were not alone in their excitement. I was so enthused by their reactions, day after day hearing comments of “this is awesome!” and “Mrs. Buck, you’ve got to see this article that I found” and “what do we get to do next?” Get to do, not have to do. That is path versus plan right there. My insightful, creative colleague Rod Vesper, who teaches art and so much more at Turpin proved to have the map for the next leg of our path. After listening to my rambling explanation of our tour through Africa, he said, “You’ve got to check out Dan Eldon.” Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Dan Eldon was a British-born, Kenyan- raised young man who was enchanted by Africa. He truly loved Africa and he chronicled that love and his life–a life that ended at age twenty-two when he was stoned to death in a riot–in his spellbinding journals. Dan embraced “Safari as a Way of Life,” and as he traveled his path he sought to have adventure and to make a difference for others. He photographed Africa in war and in peace; his favorite country was the one in which he died, Somalia.
Yes, through Eldon’s lens we see K’Naan’s Somalia, which connects to Beah’s Sierra Leone, which we discovered after the beauty of Benigni’s film, which we came to via Gerda Weissmann Klein and Art Spiegelman, who we found after Athol Fugard pointed the way by questioning tolerance, the tolerance lacking in Apartheid, that mirrored American segregation, that we discussed because the day before class was Martin Luther King Day, and on the day class began an African American man became the first black president of the United States of America. That is the journey, circuitous—yes, authentic—absolutely, of a lesson path. This authentic learning journey cannot be planned, rather it unfolds, it reveals itself in the Frost-esque yellow wood of educational possibility. It is a lesson path and the learning it inspires is remarkable.
There are a few truths about following the lesson path. My classes are newly paperless (see “Paperless Tiger” post below), and while this change has absolutely encouraged the spirit of adventure befitting the lesson path mindset, any willing traveler can savor the thrill of authentic learning that the path provides. The path cannot, however, be traveled while clutching manila file folders. Ready-made packets and preconceived notions are not allowed, they obscure the view of possibility. We all know it is easier to travel light, so it is wise to unpack old expectations and definitions of success and failure. The path is indeed fluid; it has many twists and turns though it has all ups, no downs. One clear up is that benchmarks and standards are easily met along the path, and with real meaning and relevance for the students. I took some time recently to read through my district’s Course of Study and to evaluate my progress in meeting the goals set for senior English students. I confidently checked off 75% or more of the goals not even half way through the semester. The path is unequivocally about real, meaningful, lasting learning. It just happens to be fun learning and in this age of limitless resources and inspiration that should not be an oxymoron.
I have heard it said that for a 21st century lesson to be a true success it should result in some change for the world. My students and I have recently come to this point on our path. I asked my students to consider what we could do to change the world after our amazing safari through Africa (incidentally, we also read Nadine Gordimer’s “The Ultimate Safari” another thought-provoking piece). A number of remarkable ideas were posed, which yielded a list of ten choices ranging from making a patchwork story quilt, to having an Africa walk, to having a shoe drive (Beah adored his shoes, or crapes as he called them). The winner, by democratic vote, was to raise awareness in our school of over 1,000 students about the different voices of the world, and to play K’Naan’s music over the PA during the change of class. This week my students have been working collaboratively to pitch scripted dialogues that would be effective in catching the attention of our student body. Next week, after choosing the winning script, revising it, rehearsing, and designing a creative handout with websites and other educational resources, my 111 seniors will be visiting all twenty-six homerooms at our school. Their presentations will raise awareness and I suspect they will be proud of the result. World changed? I think so. Not to mention the analysis and synthesis of works, writing, revision, collaboration, and public speaking along the path.… Lessons learned? Definitely.
What is on the horizon of our path? After my students bravely change the world one homeroom at a time, and proudly hear their music play throughout the halls of Turpin, we are headed to Paulo Coelho’s beautiful novel of finding one’s path and treasure–The Alchemist. The alchemy that our lesson path has wrought for each of us has inspired a change in how we read. We are planning a generational book club for The Alchemist–those who choose to will invite an adult to read along with us! We will have multi-tier discussions, and parents, grandparents and others will have the opportunity to join discussions on our wiki, during our class, and at a weekend coffee shop meeting. Out of town co-readers will have the chance to Skype into our discussions, or to call their student pair during class to share their thoughts. The idea of express shipping a copy of the book to a friend serving in the military overseas was even raised. I can’t wait to see who joins us on the path. I know my co-reader, my sixty-five year old mother, will have some valuable contributions to add to our discussion! I believe that in this age in which we can easily connect with classrooms on the other side of the world, we must not forget the power in fostering connection within our students’ physical community, and even within their own homes. The students are not getting “points” for choosing a co-reader. As I told them, they will gain nothing for doing so, but they will also gain everything. Some scratched their heads at this, but I saw twinkles in the eyes of many. They are starting to get it. Ah, the lessons of the path.
As for me, I couldn’t be happier on my path as teacher, student, wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend. I will pack my bags this June and travel with students to Germany, Czech Republic, Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland, on the third of three senior trips that have already taken me to Italy, Greece and Turkey. I will continue always to travel the enchanted world of literature page by page, through rivers, over oceans, across continents, around the world and into the realm of imagination. I will heed the words of the literary lessons taught by Burns, Steinbeck, Frost, Fitzgerald, Hughes, Fugard, Beah, K’Naan, Eldon, and those writers whose words will whisper in my ear and win my heart on a day yet to come. I will say goodbye to the comfort and control of lesson plans and hello to the promise and possibility of lesson paths. I will be guided by my students, my colleagues, and life as it unfolds beneath my feet. I will continue to choose the path of innovation and authentic learning in my classroom in order to do justice to the young people with whom I am privileged to travel. Together with my students, I will explore a road not merely less traveled, but rather a 21st century road never yet traveled that will lead to profound personal discovery, and I believe that will make all of the difference.