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Bringing Literature to LIFE

Donning wardrobe items and props. Popping balloons. Standing in circles. Standing on your hands. Not quite your average English classes.

While English at Providence Day certainly includes and concentrates on the basics — reading, writing, literary analysis — there’s so much more to it than that.

The curriculum regularly involves interesting classroom activities and unique approaches to teaching and learning by passionate faculty dedicated to fully engaging students in the work and words at hand.

Dr. Clint Crumley, Upper School English Department chair for the last 15 years, not only hopes to “create and maintain the conditions for a culture of high intellectual expectations — toward each other and our students — but also a culture of warmth and understanding, one that learns some of the lessons of the literature that we teach.”

Namely, he said, that “stories are fundamental to making sense of things, that the observable world is crackling with meaning, that every person has dignity and a rich interior life.”

While PDS students are not all penning stories and poetry, writing is still an integral component of their academic careers.

“Our students write an awful lot by the time they graduate, more than most American high school students,” said Crumley. “They also receive a lot of careful feedback from English teachers, not only about the content of their work but also about its rhetorical effectiveness, its logical cogency, and its degree of stylistic elegance and panache. They’re held to a high standard, and they learn to respond to feedback through revision.”

The Middle School English department works closely with students as they transition into more analytical writers, said chair Amy Bynum.

“We push them to prove arguments with evidence from the novels they read; we help them make connections and learn empathy through the characters they get to know during the course of the year,” she said. “We want to help them develop their own voice in written work and to ultimately communicate ideas effectively in writing.”

In a world of texting and tweets, said Bynym, “the appreciation of prose, complex sentence structure, and figurative language is becoming a lost art. We hope to develop readers, writers, and thinkers who recognize the beauty and importance of rhetoric and writing.”

Popping Prose

Katherine Currier’s Upper School Writing Seminar class occasionally gets pretty loud.

As part of an in-depth lesson plan on connotation versus denotation to help students grasp the undercurrents of their word choices, inflated balloons are introduced — and then popped.

“We discuss how in speech and in writing, certain words can alienate an audience,” said Currier. “We also rank descriptive words in categories from harsh to least harsh: gaunt versus thin, obese versus plump.”

The students each write one word that can have many different connotations on a piece of paper — for example, ennui, consternation, freedom, zealous — and then roll it up and put it inside a balloon, which are scattered about the floor. Then, using a pencil as a dart, they each pop one of the balloons.

“Once they do, they pull out the word, read it out loud, and then their homework assignment that night is to write a one-page essay defining that particular word using a narrative,” said Currier. “The narrative is derivative of their life experience, so the definition depends on how that personal experience drives connotation.”

The balloon popping in itself, she said, “is a kinesthetic activity that simultaneously creates movement and the excitement of chance. If they cannot pop a balloon with the pencil, they have to jump on it.”

Christine Marshall takes a softer — yet one could say “upside down” — approach in her English II classes, in which she sometimes stands on her head.

“The headstand typically happens a bit later in the semester and accompanies the reciting of a poem,” she said. “I require students to memorize a poem, which they tend to balk at, so I recite one on my head to demonstrate how easy it is.”

“It’s really easy for me to do, but students get a kick out of it,” she added.

Creativity and Collaboration

The English Department once spanned 6th to 12th grades. Five years ago, to better serve student needs, several Middle School-focused departments were formed, including Middle School English with Bynum as chair.

Both Upper and Middle School English departments still actively collaborate to foster success.

“(We) have worked together often over the years to align, vertically, the curriculum,” said Crumley. “Naturally, we’ve especially focused on the transition from 8th to 9th grade, on grammar (usage and mechanics), on paragraphing, on overall essay structure.”

“Recently, we combined with the librarians and the Middle and Upper School history teachers to form a research task force, creating standards and expectations for all students in 6th to 12th grades,” said Bynum.

The courses and requirements have evolved and changed over the years, as well. Once needed for graduation were semester-long American and British Literature surveys.

“We’ve since developed more than 15 different electives, some that focus on literature, others on composition (all of which involve writing assignments), enabling teachers and students to explore topics that interest them, from philosophy, poetry, and graphic novels to geo-politics, magical realism, and Shakespeare,” said Crumley. “We offer more electives than most English departments I know of.”

The classics are still there, said Bynum, but “we have added texts that make our curriculum more multicultural and diverse.”

Middle School English’s one elective course, Creative Writing 6, has become so popular that creative writing courses for 7th and 8th grades are being added. The department also has incorporated more project-based learning (PBL) in lieu of traditional assignments.

7th-grade teachers are trying a PBL approach with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which stems from Middle School Head Michael Magno’s approach regarding professional development — teachers were given a choice of joining one of four cohorts: PBL; mind, brain, education (MBE); experiential learning; and design thinking.

Three English teachers joined the PBL cohort and devised a way of using the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the PBL approach, a student-centered pedagogy that involves a dynamic classroom approach in which students qcquire deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems.

“While we are reading, students are taking notes on three main arguments for teaching the book,” said teacher Kristin Santo — that it is historically relevant, has relevant connections to current issues, and offers “amazing life lessons and words of wisdom that transcend the fictional world of Maycomb (where the story is set) in the 1930s.”

The approach helps students see the novel’s significance and that literature is a model for real life, said Santo.

“By stepping away from the traditional reading comprehension questions approach, we can foster a deeper, more critical understanding of the novel,” she said. “What can we learn about life? What can we learn about ourselves?”

The hope is to shift the focus from content to impact, away from “What happened?” to “Why does it matter?”

“This deeper analysis of events and character development goes beyond the pages of the text to create real, meaningful work,” said Santo. “The creativity and collaboration that can come out of a project never ceases to amaze me.”

Middle School has added a cross-curricular unit this school year, collaborating with history teachers as the students read Margaret Peterson Haddix’s teen novel Uprising about women’s suffrage and the Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911.

“We also partnered with the theatre program while reading Romeo and Juliet in 8th grade … to create a deeper understanding of the play,” said Bynum.

Middle School theatre teacher Jamie Hutteman led Kristen Friedman’s class through a series of activities as a precursor to reading Shakespeare’s tragedy —using true/false statements relating to the play’s themes such as “I believe in love at first sight” and “religion guides my decisions in life.”

“The students walked to a new location in the room if they agreed with each statement and remained if they disagreed,” said Friedman. “Each student moved at least once, showing that the play is applicable to events in their lives and opinions they have.”

Hutteman turned reading the prologue into an interactive activity — students stamped their feet whenever there was punctuation.

“This helped them understand not only how the play should sound when lines were being performed, but also how to recite them properly,” said Friedman.

“Students came back to English class not only having a greater understanding of the play itself but also how it should be performed and how its themes are still relatable in their modern lives,” she said.

While ensuring students are mastering the necessary reading comprehension and writing skills, English teachers will continue to make the literature and work they love relevant to their students’ lives, such as by making connections to other subjects or interests outside of school.

“When students make meaningful connections for themselves, the content sticks,” said Santo. “We just have to give them the tools to make those connections.”  

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