|Student with a copy of Anna Karenina|
On Friday a student shared with me that her grandmother had passed away, and since I had already been planning on writing a post about this particular student, I think it's a fitting time to write this. I taught the young lady in the above photo in my first semester Literature class, and her story is now added to the many experiences that continue to shape my perspective as an educator.
Please walk briefly back in time with me to Sept. 7th, 2011. It is my second day with my new batch of Grade 12 Literature students, and the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is on the agenda. It's a large class and they are shaping up to be a loud and energetic group. They are responding very enthusiastically to some of the activities involving modern culture and music, but at some point they will start to realize that a key component of the course is to read (!) some really old (and often dry) poetry. It is now the moment of truth and I hand out the first 6 pages of Beowulf. To be fair, Beowulf is long but it isn't that difficult to sell with its heroes, monsters, blood and gore; however, my strongest memory of that 2nd day of class is of the above student commenting (loudly enough for me to hear) as she finishes the first page and then flips ahead:
"Oh my God!! This is SIX PAGES LONG! The MOVIE would be shorter!"
I certainly realized at the time that this was not a good sign. While I appreciated the honest feedback, it was definitely going to be a long semester if 6 pages of poetry was too much for a student to tackle. Because of her negative response to the reading my first thought was that she was a struggling learner, as kids who dislike reading often fear length of text above all. If 6 pages of Beowulf was too much then comprehension was possibly a larger issue. I mentally lumped this student in with those who strongly disliked reading and therefore required extra encouragement, scaffolding and active options.
Flash forward to the end of the course in late January 2012 when this student was completing her final assessment. In the course students are given a number of options for a final assessment and one of their choices is a "Cultural Literature"project. "Cultural Literature" requires students to complete further research beyond the course. They must demonstrate an understanding of the skills taught in Lit 12 (critical literary analysis, awareness of style, technique, context, language etc.) and apply them to literature from their own cultural heritage. Imagine my surprise when this student chose the "Cultural Literature" option instead of a creative project or a final exam. I was even more confused when the time came for her to present her final project to me (students present their projects in a 15 minute live interview format) because what came next was certainly not what I would have expected. She began the interview by describing her choice to study Russian Literature for her project and then launched into a reflection on Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." I almost fell out of my chair. Everyone knows that kids who don't like reading don't decide to tackle one of the lengthiest novels ever written.
Me: "Did you say Anna Karenina? You didn't seriously read Anna Karenina..THE Anna Karenina"?
Student: "Yes, (small sigh of impatience) that's what I said"
Me: Name a character in the book...besides Anna.
Student: "There's about fifty, but how about Vronsky, Levin, Stiva, Dolly..."
Yes, she had actually read it. My "reluctant reader" had polished off Tolstoy's massively complicated Russian classic. As the interview continued, she explained that her interest in Russian history and culture stemmed from the relationship she had with her Russian grandmother who lived in Penticton and had told her Russian stories since she was a child. Throughout her final project she had discussed what she was reading with her grandmother and had numerous conversations about her grandparents growing up in Russia and living under the reign of Stalin. I was suitably impressed when the student explained the difference between the Russia of "Anna Karenina" (which took place during Tsarist rule) and the experiences of her grandmother while Stalin was in power. Her grandmother's fading health at the time made the exchanges even more valued.
In reality, this student wasn't a struggling reader at all. She hadn't rejected Beowulf because she couldn't read it, she had rejected it because she didn't care about it. As a teacher, I hadn't done an effective job helping her discover the connections between Beowulf and her own life. It all came down to what was truly relevant in this student's perspective, and in this context it became obvious that 6 pages of Beowulf was too much effort, while 860 pages of Tolstoy was completely reasonable. I don't think I have ever had a clearer indication of the correlation between relevance and student motivation. Back in September after the student's initially negative response it was easy to consider laziness, low ability, or inability to focus as culprits when in truth she saw no purpose in reading Beowulf. I know there are many students who balk at reading because of legitimate learning difficulties, but in this case I had identified a struggling learner when in fact I was dealing with an unmotivated one.
My second semester has given me a chance to try and re-focus my instruction with the idea of relevance at the forefront. It has been considerably "messy" as I try to re-create project options and intros to lessons but the overall result will (hopefully) provide a more meaningful experience for my students, as well as a higher level of engagement and a deeper connection with the material. The experience has also reminded me that up until last year I always kept a sticky note on my desk with the following quote: "Nothing Is Interesting If You're Not Interested". That quote has been stuck to my computer over the past decade in countless classrooms in three different schools but somehow it got lost over the past year. Thanks to this student, it's now back on my computer monitor where it belongs.
Side Note: Another reason that 2nd day of class is still so clear in my mind is because later that day I recorded a video reflection. My only goal was to demonstrate how a teacher could use a flip camera to reflect (instead of having to write something out) for my inquiry group. It was simply a sample reflection (and it was the only video reflection I did all year as I prefer to write) but the story I mentioned is the one I ended up describing in this blog. This youtube clip is just a video version of the above post (just trying to differentiate the delivery :-). I have full permission from the student to use this clip.