Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Additional Reflections on a Semester of PBL in American Literature

Here are additional reflections from students in an American Literature PBL class at The Frisch School:

Student sample 1:

Doubts by Ami

Granted, I had my doubts. Over the years, I had come to regard the various posters and programs decorating Frisch’s walls with suspicion; I often questioned whether they were a testament to their creators’ good-natured toil or simply an excuse to miss class. Naturally, my experience in English this year, which I believe to have transported me out of my narrow-minded perspective in some respects, came as quite the surprise. I now feel as though the comforts of the sheltered community I call home had eclipsed the glaring difficulties faced by those nearby. I also feel that project-based learning has given me the opportunity to scrutinize the status quo in a manner that is both engaging and significant. The evolution of my perspective began with the class discussion of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

I was raised with the notion of a flawless America. America is the country that saved my father and grandmother from economic oppression and cultural persecution in the Soviet Union; it was here that they fulfilled the American Dream and thus sought to ensure that I afforded America the proper respect. As a consequence, I have always had trouble accepting the grim realities that tarnish America’s reputation. Yet when confronted with the disheartening description of inequality and poverty in the case of Henrietta Lacks and her children, I was forced to acknowledge that America may not be as flawless as I had once thought. I had obviously heard of the issues raised by Skloot before, but it was not until she poignantly recast them in a more personal, human light that I realized the gravity of societal injustice. When I researched how the Lackses were denied any compensation for their mother’s invaluable contribution to mankind and wrote an op-ed condemning the judiciary’s unfair arbitration of similar cases, I did so not in the name of justice alone, but for Deborah Lacks and John Moore. In class, we often discussed the writer’s use of pathos, which I feel Skloot uses extensively in order to portray a darker side of America.     

    In a New York Times series, entitled “Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life”, Andrea Elliot employs pathos in her vivid portrait of childhood poverty as seen through the eyes of one young girl, Dasani. Dasani lives with the other nine members of her family in an overcrowded apartment in New York City. Dasani and her siblings tolerate rodents, a decrepit home and hunger as her parents struggle with an addiction to narcotics. Reading one article in the series, I was stricken as Elliot describes the heartwrenching difficulties Dasani faces at school. Unable to afford a clean school uniform, Dasani must assume a “ghetto” persona, taunting her classmates and remaining alien in mind and body. Dasani, however, cannot only be included among the nine others forced into her ramshackle home; she also takes her place among the other 16.7 million American children living in poverty. Within the confines of my community, it is often difficult to appreciate the suffering of those less fortunate. Dasani cannot be found among the impressive, suburban homes or the privileged, middle-class families. Dasani is not only a symbol of the imperfections of American society but proof of the public’s ignorance. My work in English this year, however, has opened my eyes to a world previously unknown. I learned that women and minorities are routinely denied access to reasonable employment and that one in every ten children in the United States lives without access to basic health care. Yet it was not until I began to prepare for the Twenty-Six Acts of Kindness Day that I fully understood the intent of our class’ tireless efforts.

    In early December, I had the privilege to hear Laura Schroff, the best-selling author of An Invisible Thread, speak at Frisch. I was greatly moved by Ms. Schroff’s heartwarming tale of how she welcomed a young stranger, Maurice Mazcyk, into her life; the story bespoke the themes of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and brought them only further into my sphere. In memory of the twenty-six children who perished at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Ms. Schroff and Maurice agreed to run the Twenty-Six Acts of Kindness Day on December 26, along with our class. I felt as though my participation in the program could rectify the injustice I had encountered earlier in the year; I soon embarked on an ambitious quest to convince Google to recognize the day on its homepage and encouraged my peers to share their acts of kindness with the student body. Although my former self might have doubted these programs’ relevance to English, I have nothing but regret for my myopic concerns.     

    Pathos is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a quality that causes people to feel sympathy and sadness”. I believe the definition to be an inadequate depiction of the pathos used by the artist. As I had read earlier this year in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, his self-professed desire is to cause me to “feel what I felt” (O’Brien 171). The task of the writer is not simply to observe the shortcomings of society and dutifully note them with indifference; it is to become one with the afflicted and to tell their story as the writer might tell his own. The definition of pathos should read “a quality that expresses the pity or sadness felt by another”. Social commentary is not the perfunctory pursuit of justice as some may assume, but an outlet for a writer’s inspired, righteous indignation. The relevance of literature is contingent upon the proper use of pathos in writing. Pathos is a time-honored tool that has lent itself to works as diverse as the biblical prophecies of the Jews’ impending doom in the Book of Jeremiah and Thomas Hardy’s personally inspired critique of marriage, Jude the Obscure. Thus, to my former self, I would argue that I have learnt more about literature than I could have imagined; I learned that the artist is inspired by his impassioned investigation of inequity rather than his spontaneous creation of a plot and characters. I can resolutely declare that it is my work in English this year that has thrust the world into a new light.

    Granted, I never thought the poster-plastered walls deserved more than a cursory glance. I once doubted pronounced inconsistencies in American society. I once doubted that America could be the greatest country in the world and retain flaws nonetheless. Now, however, I doubt that our society affords American women, minorities and children with the capacity to succeed. I doubt that Dasani and millions of other impoverished children are content leading lives far inferior to my own. I doubt that a truly principled society could deny a select group of citizens a modicum of humanity as it did in the saga of racial injustice described in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Countless others have protested societal misconduct for ages, and I am proud to now include myself among their ranks. I began the semester with some doubts and ended it with others.

Student Sample 2:

Romanticism by Michelle

Throughout the first semester of school I learnt about Romanticism. Romanticism is an artistic movement originating in Europe in the late 18th century. This movement is characterized by a great interest in nature, emphasis on the individual's expression of emotion and imagination, departure from the attitudes and forms of classicism, and rebellion against established social rules and conventions. My English teacher (Mrs. Wiener) was determined to have our class fully experience and take to heart the essence of Romanticism. The process of taking Romanticism to heart consisted of three parts: experiencing Romanticism, showing one’s understanding of Romanticism, and personal growth. 

The best way to experience Romanticism is to turn to nature. One November day, Mrs. Wiener took us outside; she then proceeded to read a poem with us. This poem was “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer.  “Trees” is an important poem that exemplifies Romanticism. In his poem, Joyce Kilmer describes nature as perfect and loving. After reading this poem, my class was instructed to draw pictures of a tree and then write a reflection. 

The following is my reflection: “The poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer influenced my art by showing me that trees are more than just trees. This poem helped me see that an autumn tree displays on its leaves the entire life cycle. The green leaves represent children, or beings that are new to life, beings that are “green” in their understanding of the world around them. The next color is yellow. Yellow represents young adults, those who have more experience than children, but less than adults do. Red represents adults who have more knowledge than the young adults and children.  Finally, the color brown represents elders and death. Brown is the final stage, because the color brown is a mixture of green, yellow, and red. When at the brown stage of life, one can look back and see one’s self as what one really was in all the stages of his life. By reading this poem I learnt to recognize such meaningful symbolism in nature, and trees specifically.”  

I have always found a tree in autumn to be quite beautiful; the multitude of colors displayed on the trees leaves are so perfect. This magnificent sight would leave me feeling as though I had missed something. I could never figure out what I had missed, until I was told to draw a picture of a tree and analyze it. The drawing aspect of the project did not take long. Analyzing the drawing, on the other hand, took hours. I studied every aspect in my drawing and could not find any symbolism, until I remembered what Mrs. Wiener had said that day. On that November day Mrs. Wiener had handed out The Scarlet Letter, and said, “There is a lot of symbolism in this book, especially color symbolism”. Suddenly my drawing seemed to reveal to me something astonishing, I now could see the entire life cycle displayed on the tree’s leaves. Thanks to the seemingly trivial words, I was able to recognize the symbolism hidden in the color scheme of an autumn tree’s leaves. This project helped teach me that nature has a lot of hidden messages. By having a class outside, I was able to understand the appeal of Romanticism. 

After having experienced Romanticism outside, it was now time for us to show the extent of our knowledge about Romanticism. Mrs. Wiener gave us an assignment, which consisted of taking a painting by the Hudson River School of Art and comparing it to The Scarlet Letter

The following is an excerpt from my assignment: “This painting is most comparable to Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, a man with two sides to his personality. The first is the Reverend Dimmesdale in nature, who is free of the conforming restraints of society. Then, there is the Reverend Dimmesdale who is bound to the rules of society.  This painting is a painting of nature, which in itself is free of society’s hold. However, while in nature, it is still under society’s control. For it is a member of society who drew this picture, and it is the members of society who deemed this painting worthy of being admired; thereby trapping this picture in an eternal struggle of freedom from society and being controlled by it.”  This assignment helped me evaluate the extent of my knowledge with regards to Romanticism. 

Now with a good understanding of Romanticism, my class took on a project that would help us grow as human beings. On December 26 my school paid tribute to the twenty-six victims of the Sandy Hook shooting. In order to pay respect to those victims, my class decided to help spread twenty six acts of kindness. To make this day even better Mrs. Wiener contacted Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski, who wrote An Invisible Thread

An Invisible Thread is a memoir about how Laura Schroff helped saved the life of Maurice Mazyck by doing just one small act of kindness. Maurice was from a broken family and was suffering from malnutrition. His mother was a drug addict, and his father had left in the early part of Maurice’s life. Every day Maurice would stand on a street and ask for money, so that he would be able to buy some food. On a day that seemed like it would be normal, in that people would ignore Maurice’s pleas for money, Laura Schroff experienced a feeling that she would later claim was fate pulling her in the right direction. She acted on this feeling and offered Maurice a meal. Laura and Maurice would later turn sharing a meal into a tradition. Maurice had come from an area known for its violence; nevertheless, Laura never feared for her life in all the time she has known Maurice. Romanticism is characterized by a person acting on his/her emotions and going against society’s norms. Laura Schroff acted on her emotions when she decided to help Maurice, and she went against the societal norms when she decided to take Maurice under her wing. Had Laura Schroff been in a novel she would have been labeled a Romantic hero. An Invisible Thread ties in with our Romanticism project in that it helped us be able to recognize Romanticism and the Romantic heroes of everyday life.  

On December 26th, Laura Schroff, Maurice, and Alex Tresniowski came to The Frisch School to participate in the 26 acts of kindness day. This day was spent promoting acts of kindness, and it also had an impact on my behavior. The following Monday the Russian Club had a pre-New Year’s party, and I had brought food. After the party I noticed that I had some leftover food and decided to treat my class to the food. The act of sharing food with your class, also, happened to be one of the twenty- six acts of kindness. Romanticism and this personal growth experience correlate, because Romanticism is characterized by acting on one’s emotions. A person is usually pulled by his/her emotions to help another person in need.  

The process of internalizing Romanticism was an especially valuable experience. Though I learnt Romanticism through an unconventional way, I feel as though I now truly understand Romanticism exceptionally well. I spent time in nature as most protagonists from Romantic novels do, thereby learning to see nature through the author’s prospective. The project on Romanticism helped me see to what extent I understand Romanticism. Finally, the 26 Acts of Kindness Day helped me internalize the message of Romanticism.