Freshman English

We are reading The Cask of Amontillado, and you know kids hate to read. Seriously, they would rather I picked their toenails out of their toes than make them read something.

Now I, myself, know a little something about having a short attention span and needing to have thousands of sensory stimuli if I am going to devote more than four minutes to one thing. That is why I had to devise The Plan.

First of all, I never make kids read aloud. This is helpful in two ways: 1)They aren't embarrassed and tongue-tied by being forced to "perform" in front of their classmates, and 2)It saves me the EXCRUCIATING torture of having to listen to them butcher the language in a monotone worthy of Ben Stein himself. So I do all the reading.

The thing about freshmen is you never know how they will react to something. If I were to read a story to my speech or theater classes, and I "did the voices," they would think that is the awesomest thing ever and make me do voices for the rest of the year. But freshmen ... look: freshmen think everything that anyone over the age of 17 does is lame. It doesn't matter if I'm trying to be entertaining or interesting or enthusiastic; they think I'm lame.

I remember this one time, in band camp three years ago, when I went to WalMart to look for little prizes to hand out to kids who got 100s on their tests. It was an Olympic year, and I found these little plastic Olympic medals that came 10 to a bag and cost 99 cents. So I handed them out in my speech classes, and those kids went CA-RAZY for those things! (Also, you have to give them out with the right combination of enthusiasm and acknowledgment of your own dorkiness. It's a gift.) They wore them for, like, a week, even outside of my class; I would walk down the hall and see my stupid plastic medals hanging around kids' necks.

I was super-excited about their reaction and thought, "Well, I'll hand these out to my freshmen reading classes." And I used exactly the same words and exactly the same inflections, and those kids stared at me like I had grown a second head. They were NOT amused. I think ninth graders have not really developed their senses of humor yet, or they have not yet learned not to take themselves so seriously, or else they are given new personalities with their end-of-the-year report cards or something, because when they hit the 10th grade they are all of a sudden really fun to be around, and they are a little more appreciative of my antics.

So back to The Plan:

Basically, when you read a piece of literature, you're supposed to dissect it down to its smallest parts and explain every fragment of figurative language or plot or theme or something else that sucks the joy right out of the story. I save that for later, after we've established that yes, this is an amazing story, and yes, Poe was a weirdo, and yes, now I totally love to read out of my literature book.

I started with Poe's biography. It's totally in the book, so I didn't have to make anything up. Plus, you know Poe had a pretty messed-up life, and even fourteen-year-olds who have seen everything and who know everything and who have convinced themselves that they can no longer be surprised are taken with Poe's story. They especially like the part where he married his thirteen-year-old cousin. And the part where she burst a blood vessel in her head from singing. And the part where Poe probably was a drug addict. And the part where he might have died of rabies. And the part where a train jumped the tracks and ran over his gravestone. (I find those things to be interesting as well).

So after we've all learned that Poe was crazy, we quit. That leaves them wanting more, you see. And they have two days to think about what kind of story a possibly rabies-ridden opium-addict alcoholic might have written.

The next time I made them learn about linking verbs for half the period, so they were more than happy to pick up their lit books and read a story (all part of The Plan).

I'd prepared a PowerPoint presentation with pictures of things they were probably unfamiliar with.

-a picture of a cask, because it's important to know what the title means
-a picture of a man dressed in motley (a joker's outfit), so they understand the irony of Fortunato being dressed like a fool
-a picture of a catacomb, because I asked how many of them had seen Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, and only two of them raised their hands (it was a bone/skull free catacomb, because I didn't want to offend their innocent eyes) (even though they have seen more guts in movies than I have)
-a picture of a Freemasons' meeting, contrasted with a picture of a mason building a wall, because Poe uses the separate meanings to make a point
-a picture of Montresor's coat of arms
-a picture of fetters, which are like handcuffs but scarier

I'd spent about four hours last week finding spooky-ish songs on iTunes, and I set the mood by explaining that The Cask of Amontillado is a whacked-out story and that we needed to get into the spirit of the story by having a soundtrack of creepy music.

The Mad House, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra & Erich Kunzel
The Haunter of the Dark, Nox Arcana
Crystal, Mannheim Steamroller
Voldemort, HP & the Goblet of Fire soundtrack
Deep Forest, Javier Navarrete
Enter the Dragon, Danny Elfman
Interlude 7, Mannheim Steamroller
Requiem (the Fifth), Trans-Siberian Orchestra]

I turned on the music, turned on the PowerPoint, and began to read. I didn't try to read like Vincent Price. I stopped often to explain things. I asked questions for comprehension and I also asked them to make predictions. We got up to the part where Fortunato starts to cough, and then I quit. (Always leave them wanting more.) (Also, the bell rang.)

The next time, I started the creepy music before they walked into the classroom. I asked them questions to review what we'd read, and then we got right into the story. Again I would stop to explain, check for comprehension, or ask for predictions. And when we got to the end of the story, I paused for a moment to allow it all to sink in.

The consensus among the students was pretty much that Montresor was crazy and Poe was on crack. I accepted this opinion, but I made them tell me WHY they thought that and what specific things in the story supported their opinion.

I showed them this version of the story, which is very accurate, but which is laid out in Legos. And I made them tell me what was happening in each picture (to check their comprehension and make sure they understood what had transpired in the story). Then I showed them the video I posted below, to further cement the events of the story in their minds.

(I'm telling you, if they EVER forget this story, I will be some KIND of disappointed.)

Today we talked about characterization; next time we'll talk about plot and irony. They'll have a test, of course, but their big grade for this story is a project: draw a comic strip of the story (yet another way to help them recall the major plot points). Awesome, right?

So I am very proud of The Plan. It only took about 16 (non-consecutive) hours to put together. I hit a buttload of the intelligences, went through every category of Bloom's Taxonomy, and appealed to every learning style.

And oh my gosh, am I EXHAUSTED.

1 comment:

Dreamy said...

April, you're exhausted and I am totally in love with you. Your lesson plan sounds so cool that I almost want to be a freshman-- for like, the duration of your lesson, of course. ;) Serious, you rock. I hope that when I'm a teacher I will be as cool as you.


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