Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Loving My "Grecian Urn" Lessons: A Response to @Cult of Pedagogy #SOL16

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"The only place Keats could have seen a Grecian urn is in the British Museum." Dante Cantrell, professor Emeritus at Idaho State University made this comment years ago during a discussion of John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." The comment wedged itself into my mind.

I thought about Dante's remark as I read Sunday's post "Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn?" on Jennifer Gonzalez's blog Cult of Pedagogy. Jennifer's argument against what she calls "Grecian Urn" lessons operates on two premises, both of which we need to recognize to understand how the argument veers off course into hasty generalization and an ironic twist given her use of a Grecian urn as a metaphor for pedagogically unsound lesson plans. In John Keats's acclaimed poem a Grecian urn symbolizes the power and beauty of art. More about that later. 

The first premise from Jennifer is one I accept: Teachers need to construct lessons that align with relevant standards and that actually teach those standards. I spent a year developing a course in English 12 for the NEA Better Lesson Master Teacher Project, which required me to do exactly that: develop standards-based lessons, so I speak with authority on this topic. Those lessons that teachers assign with no relevancy to standards my friend Michael LoMonico, senior consultant in education with the Folger Shakespeare Library, calls "building the Globe theater out of popsicle sticks." Such a lesson has nothing to do with Shakespeare's language. 

Where I take issue with Jennifer's argument is her second premise, which indicts performance-based tasks such as acting as "Grecian Urn Lessons," as well as "neat-o tech" projects, both of which take time for students to complete, and to Jennifer's thinking, too much time on a project diminishes its value. Of course, this begs the question: How much time is too much time?

In his book Fearless Writing: Multigenre to Motivate and Inspire, Tom Romano articulates the value of immersion in big projects, those projects that inspire and motivate students to explore, create, and discover through critical thinking: 

"Multigenre writing is an immersion in a big topic of personal importance. I want students to taste such passionate immersion. I want them to experience how that immersion, combined with the possibility of multiple genres, can waken a boldness of expression in them. Students' subjective experience with multigenre will affect their attitude toward writing. It will affect your attitude toward teaching."

A multigenre project may appear "Grecian Urnish" to the untrained eye and even to many teachers who don't understand the time-consuming nature of writing and creating. But multigenre engages students creativity and passion for learning in ways traditional research cannot. Yes, it takes more time, but it's time well spent when a student suddenly awakens to the power of her own voice. 

Digital stories and illuminated texts likely fall within Jennifer's paradigm of "Grecian Urn" lessons as they, too consume time. They also engage students in literature and help them understand imagery, tone, diction, and figurative language. I good illuminated text requires a student to verbally interpret/perform a poem in such a way as to demonstrate insight into the literature. 

Similarly, Jennifer's indictment of acting as "Grecian Urn" lesson planning shows a woeful lack of understanding of the academic nature of dramaturgy. I hold a certificate to teach drama, and my study with the Folger Shakespeare Library reinforces the validity of performance pedagogy in all classrooms. It's through performance, through playing with Shakespeare's language that students as young as third grade grow to love Shakespeare. 

A couple weeks ago I wrote that after participating in a brief performance activity while touring the First Folio exhibit at Boise State University, my students asked if we could study Hamlet in AP Lit and Comp this year. 

Two weeks ago students performed a readers theater production of A Doll's House. This activity necessitated a close reading of the assigned act, which means students read most of the play multiple times. It necessitated students cut the act to ten minutes; that each group plan for costuming, props, vocal cues, pauses, etc. Additionally, I required students to annotate their scripts and perform for a colleague's class, which meant they had to write an introduction for their scenes. We followed this with a formal in-class essay, which students are currently revising. It's a messy process, but one worth the time and energy.

Simply, there is no better way to engage students in the study of a dramatic work of literature than through performance. The ancient Greeks embraced this notion not only through performance of such classics as Antigone and Orestes, which is the play in which Euripides penned something I find poignant in our time: 

When one with honeyed words but evil mind
Persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.

The Greeks valued rhetoric, and they worked both for excellence in presentation and style. Drama activities support Cicero's Five Cannons of Rhetoric, and rhetoricians recognized their importance in our communication: 
  • Invention
  • Arrangement
  • Style
  • Memory
  • Delivery
As a speech and English teacher, I value helping students understand each of these cannons and know that the creative learning opportunities I offer lead them to greater command of verbal and written communication as well as the deep reading skills they'll need to be college and career ready. Our students need more opportunities to commit their learning to memory. 

Thus when I see a generalized statement that devalues these learning opportunities grounded in sound pedagogy, I'm concerned. 

Finally, using the Grecian urn as a metaphor for bad lessons resonates with irony. In Keats's poem, he describes a pair of lovers frozen in time as they run toward one another. This depiction of art on the urn mirrors the poem's last two lines, lines immortalized in English literature as some of the most important utterances celebrating art and artistic expression: 

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Rather than toss those Grecian urns on the scrap heap of pedagogy, maybe it's time to dust them off, and display them in our classrooms for all to admire and cherish as we embrace the young lovers frozen in time and eternity. 

Each Tuesday the team at Two Writing Teachers sponsors the Slice of Life
Story Challenge. I'm grateful to these ladies for their unwavering commitment to
the power of narrative. Thank you. Head over to TWT for more slices. 

*For another perspective and response to the Cult of Pedagogy post I address, check out "Drama is Not a Grecian Urn" over on Huff English.