I know I’m supposed to keep ‘em under control, but now and then I like to whip kids into a frenzy. A constructive one, of course. It’s a release of psychic energy we all need, the closest thing you can get away with outside the xerox room to dancing nude around a fire beneath a full moon.
One of those days happened recently on the last day of the quarter, the conclusion of a five-books-at-one-time unit called Epic X discussed here in a two previous posts. All reads were one-offs from Beowulf, which we’d battled through as a class: Michael Crichton’s The 13th Warrior, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, T.H. White’s Once and Future King, John Gardener’s Grendel, and Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve.
I wasn’t exactly planning Mardi Gras in November, I confess. But as my teaching partner Jen and I surveyed the room about an hour into the eXperience, I realized the thing had taken on a life of its own. Picture a fender bender between a frat party and a debate team.
Actually, picture this. Boys dressed like extras from “The 300” were wrestling over spilled grog tankards near a Bedouin tent (the grog was soda; the tent was an 8-person dome with a sheet thrown over it). Graceful Indian girls nearby were leading classmates in meditation, the hum of their “Ommmmm” undisturbed by the chaotic next-door neighbors. A helpful group member sprinkled rose water on the cross-legged savants, among them a 6’4” football player dressed as a knight.
Behind them, a girl with ant antennae and an identification number on her chest stood near a boy in a dress and a blonde wig (she was one of the Wart’s “teachers”; he claimed to be Morgan LeFay). They were making classmates who couldn’t pass a quiz composed of medieval riddles eat dirt (brownies crumbled up in cups). Nearby, kids jousted with pool noodles, bit the little heads off cookies representing hapless Danes, or slaved in a tannery to earn tickets for spicy plates of lemon rice.
The assignment was based on one of my favorite questions: How can kids hold learning in their hands? Make the books come alive, I challenged them. Their “X” had to appeal to all five senses and be interactive, use text and teach the book. A few broad strokes and get out of the way. Sometimes, it’s my favorite way to teach. Or not, you could say. Unteaching, I sometimes call it.
There was structure to the madness. Each student carried a graphic organizer and responsibility for evaluating one peer. On my best 8.5 x 11” line drawing of a face giggling into its hand, they had to record notes in the area of the nose about how their partner’s X incorporated the sense of smell and write on the fingers about how it appealed to the sense of touch. Questions on the back made them articulate what they learned about the book’s themes and the author’s use of language, as well as interview their friend to assess what she had done to help the group prepare.
Undocumented student achievement may have occurred. Adding to the general confusion, at the end of the X every student walked out the door with an A, though all they knew at the time was that they’d made it to a four day weekend.