New Historicist Lens (A Lesson in Reverse)

I just had a chance to send this letter off to one of my Sophomore classes:

Dear Silver Stream,

Just wanted to give you a collective shout out for the quality of today’s conversation in class. Here are a few things that made it so good:

  • You talked about how you felt, not just what you thought. The space was safe enough for you to share some deep feelings. 
  • You really listened and took each other’s viewpoints into consideration. You built off of each other, and sometimes surprised me with where you agreed and disagreed (in a good way).
  • You really used the literary lens we had just learned to dig deeply into the different angles of our topic, so it wasn’t just strong feelings. It was strong feelings and analysis. 

There are many schools where this kind of complex, emotional conversation would never happen. Thank you for making our school a place where we can really talk. I am proud to call you all my students. Keep asking good questions. 

Peace, Ms. Pahomov

Here’s the topic that prompted the conversation that went so well:

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And here is the super-condensed literary analysis tools that we reviewed before diving into this discussion:

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 11.34.48 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 11.34.55 PM

Talking about “A Birthday Cake for General Washington” wasn’t even on my official plan for this conversation — but some of my pre-written prompts made me think of it on the fly:

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 11.35.12 PM

People often wonder how we make things work at SLA. Listen to Saltz: there is no secret sauce. This lesson was embedded in a book-long conversation about literary lenses, so this was not their first time applying some critical theory. But thanks to a few years of inquiry and learning to talk about race in the classroom — props to the work of fellow SLA English teacher Matt Kay here –the students were able to speak their minds and actually listen to each other.

They were able to say, I’m sick of having to hear about slavery, as if that’s the way my people came into this world.

They were able to say, I’ve spent so long learning about slavery as an abstract, horrible thing with a lot of numbers attached, we need something to humanize what often gets painted as a phenomenon without real people in it.

They were able to argue about when children need to learn about the problems of the world, and whether it’s acceptable to sugar coat the bad stuff (and to what degree).

And they were able to to both agree with and challenge each other, across racial lines that you don’t always see in the room together in Philadelphia, converging and diverging in ways you didn’t expect in the first place.

At the end, we were asking questions: How do you tell the story of somebody who was denied the chance to tell it themselves? Do you even have a right to? Should we trust stories told by anybody other than the person who experienced it personally? What do we have to gain by re-creating the past?

So yes, having this conversation can be easy. And yes, it takes a whole school to make it happen.

And yes, the work is totally, totally worth it.

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