Thursday, April 3, 2014

Reflections on PBL from Sophomore English

This past year at The Frisch School, Dan Rosen, Meryl Feldblum, and I [Tikvah Wiener] "PBL"-ed our sophomore English class. Here is our curriculum, which centered around the questions of how do we identify stock characters and stock devices, and how does literature give voice to the voiceless?

After the latest multi-disciplinary project, The Frisch Africa Encounter, which happened on March 12, I asked my students to reflect on the year so far. Here are two exemplary reflections. We think it's amazing that Ben, the student who wrote the second reflection, was "electrified" by the opportunity to write and think about what interested him. 

Reflection One

Zach A.

English class has been an incredible experience this year.  Rather than the usual style of learning where the teacher simply teaches the class for forty minutes, this year has been completely different.  Through project-based learning, not only have I enjoyed class more, but I also believe that I have retained the information learned even better than I would have using the previous method of instruction.  Learning about stock characters and stock plot devices, Little Bee, and the African continent have truly impacted my perspective on literature, and my worldview as a whole.  Those three topics, although originally foreign to me, are the ones that I enjoyed learning about the most, and are the ones that I hope will continue to influence my personality even after the school year has ended.

In the beginning of the year, we learned about stock characters and stock plot devices.  A stock character is a classic/stereotypical character whose personality conforms to society’s perspective of the character.  Some examples are “the jock” or “the evil scientist.”  Stock plot devices, similar to stock characters, are situations/scenarios that are often portrayed in works of literature, such as “aliens take over the world” or “the relationship that went too fast.”  Before learning about these literary devices, I had never really recognized them.  I was aware of “classic” characters/situations, but that was all that they were to me: classic characters/situations.  Learning about how authors utilize these literary devices opened up my eyes to an entirely new way of understanding works of literature.  Rather than simply viewing characters/plot lines in a literal fashion, I am now able to analyze those elements and apply them to real-life situations.  I now understand that when an author uses one of these literary devices, the goal is just that.  An author wants the reader to be able to recognize these stock characters and stock plot devices in order to get the reader to apply them to his own life.  Furthermore, learning about these literary devices has had a profound impact on my own life.  When I recognize a stock character or stock plot device, it compels me to take a step back and recognize whether or not I am similar to that character/whether I have had a similar experience, and if that is good thing.  For example, in The Prioress’ Tale in The Canterbury Tales, the stock character of “the evil Jew” appears.  The Prioress says, “The serpent Satan, our primal enemy, who has his wasp’s nest in Jewish hearts” (p. 135).  She attributes the evil Satan to the hearts of the Jews, perfectly portraying the stock character of “the evil Jew.”  When I read this, I immediately compared myself to the Jew in the story, and came to the conclusion that I could not be any more different than that stock character.  Ultimately, I am a unique person and therefore reflecting on how I am both similar and different to stock characters is crucial in the development of my personality for the better.

One of the novels we read this year was Little BeeLittle Bee by Chris Cleave is a novel about a Nigerian refugee named Little Bee who seeks refuge in England, where she is taken in by a woman named Sarah O’Rourke.  The novel sheds light on a multitude of issues such as exploitation, refugees, morality, and societal flaws, but the issue that resonated with me the most was the need to give voice to the voiceless.  The novel contained many examples of refugees who are voiceless.  Little Bee, the main character, personifies this characteristic.  Little Bee has a burning desire to fit into western society.  She learns “the Queen’s English,” befriends Sarah, looks after Charlie (Sarah’s son), and helps Sarah any way she can, all in an effort to live like a normal girl in England.  Nevertheless, she is still voiceless when confronted with society (represented in the novel by the English government) and is sent straight back to Nigeria without the slightest notion of what the right thing to do might actually be.  I believe Cleave wanted to make a point that Western society should be more kind to refugees and really take the time to listen to their stories so they can be given a voice.  It is important not to be so self-centered and believe that you and your country are “the best” while everyone else is not as important.  Personally, I gained a sense of humility after reading Little Bee.  It is a little embarrassing to think that this is how refugees are treated in our society, and I definitely learned the importance of putting others before myself and thinking more about other people’s concerns.

One of the most exciting parts of this year’s curriculum was The Frisch Africa Encounter.  For about a month I, along with several other students, researched how the organization Innovation: Africa is improving life in Africa through the introduction of drip irrigation to African countries.  Africa has an extremely dry climate, and as a result, it is crucial that not a single drop of water is wasted.  Unfortunately, in an effort to grow crops, much of this valuable water is wasted due to evaporation and other factors.  However, drip irrigation is the technology that is changing the course of agriculture around the world.  Netafim, an Israeli company, developed the technique of drip irrigation.  Water from a water source is dispensed into a system of tubing with the help of a pressure control valve.  The water is then threaded through the tubes where it is slowly and constantly dripped directly to the roots of a plant.  This allows every drop of water to be utilized and also allows the plant to absorb the water more efficiently.  With drip irrigation, up to 70% of the water used to grow large scale crops can be saved, and plants can even be grown more efficiently.  An incredible success in Israel, drip irrigation is now being introduced to countries in Africa with the help of Innovation: Africa, so that they too can benefit from the revolutionary technology that is changing the face of agriculture.  My group and I presented our research at Africa Night.  Personally, it felt amazing to show off to parents the knowledge I gained through The Frisch Africa Encounter, and explain how important the work Innovation: Africa is accomplishing.  Aside from the fact that The Frisch Africa Encounter was a wonderful experience, it also showed me how lucky I am.  While researching all about Africa and the situation there, I realized how lucky I am to be living comfortably in America.  There are so many things I take for granted due to the fact that I live in America, and The Frisch Africa Encounter helped me realize that I should appreciate everything I’ve been blessed with.

Every English class that I have ever taken has followed the conventional teaching style of having students take notes while a teacher teaches for the entire period.  I have never experienced an English class quite like this year’s.  The way project-based learning allows me not only to learn the material, but enjoy learning it in a relaxed environment as well, has made my experience one that I will remember.  I can now apply the skills I learned in recognizing stock characters/stock plot devices, the messages I learned from Little Bee, and the values I gained from The Frisch Africa Encounter to any other work of literature I will read in the future.  Additionally, learning about stock characters, stock plot devices, Little Bee, and Africa truly enabled me to examine my personality, enhance my worldview, and hopefully have a lasting impact on the way I view and treat others who are not from my society.

Reflection Two

Ben L. 

I don't mean to sound sappy or clichéd, but I feel that English class this year was a new experience for me. I had fewer lectures, fewer tests, and less rigid structure than I ever had before. Yet, I felt like there was more to learn, more to think about, more to explore than ever before. It was the freedom I was given, the ability to choose my own conclusions, to customize and personalize my projects, that made literature seem like such an open and exciting place.

This phenomenon is relatively new in my experience. In middle school, I could never conform to my teachers' expectations. I remember reading "Flowers for Algernon" in 8th grade. We were asked to write an essay on the nature of intelligence in the story, but I decided to focus on the more philosophical aspects of intelligence in general and compare the author's vision with those of other philosophers'. I invested a lot of hard work in that paper, but I was given an F for A) discussing what the teacher called "off topic" and "tangential" ideas, and B) not giving a proper header as instructed. All of my thoughts, musings, and explorations of the theme of intelligence were disregarded, because I did not think or muse about what the teacher wanted me to, as well as the absence of proper formatting. Yet, through 9th grade I retained my interest in literature, reading an occasional short story or play, but I never attempted to organize or solidify my thoughts on it. I was reading "Ward No.6” and Other Short Stories" by Anton Chekov when we were given an assignment to write on Wilde's "Dorian Gray". I asked if I could compare the two for my essay, as the two writers were radically different in their approach and style. In my old school, everything up to my conclusion would have been chosen for me at this point. Yet, now I was being given free range, not to mention positive support, for my choice of topic. A week before the due date, I shirked my usual video-game routine to eagerly contemplate the nature of the two: while they lived and died within a margin of a few years, I realized that they both had radically different styles: Chekov wrote his love scenes in a cold, stark, neutral, and dispassionate way, while Wilde hosed the reader down with metaphors, poetry, witticisms, descriptions, and nauseously vibrant emotions. While I had a dim sense of this before the project, writing it down and sketching an outline solidified, improved, clarified, and recorded my understanding of both. But more importantly, it felt electrifying to be rewarded for my own, independent interests, and to incorporate them into my schoolwork.

Maybe it's that freedom that has raised my English grade this year and caused a surge in my interests in literature. I believe that there are a number of benefits to this style of teaching. First off, the notion that our opinions and conclusions matter have greatly increased pride in our work, and thus our desire to do it has increased. I feel I have many times argued or disagreed with the material placed before me, and was commended for for thinking outside the box instead of being rebuked. Furthermore, an emphasis on technology and art provided a more accessible, hands-on means of understanding the subject at hand. Lastly, the freedom and mutability of the projects enabled us to rely on our imagination, to learn from what interests us, and to be rewarded for our own delves into literature. The Merchant of Venice assignment utilized all of these traits, making it a prime example of how the class works. Students were expected to play a scene and create a website page based on their studies of the play. My group decided to switch roles, with my female friend playing the Moroccan prince while I donned the role of the fair Portia. Reading from my iPad, our little act caused a small riot of laughter, but our teacher realized the spotlight our performance had placed on character stereotypes and roles, pointing out to the whole class that our gender switch highlighted Shakespeare's use of stereotypes, especially the boy/ girl mechanic seen in the scene. By doing the unexpected, we proved a point about the play and received praise from our peers. For the second part of the unit, we were tasked with creating a webpage describing a theme in the play, a format we were familiar with. I used a video about a similar phenomenon in Romeo and Juliet to show that our subject, responsibility versus love, was pan-Shakespeare.

Yet, even with the seeming open-endedness, our class stuck to a singular theme. Through gothic literature to Shakespeare to The Canterbury Tales to African immigrants, we studied how people were represented in literature. How others see them, how they see themselves, roles we fit into, misconceptions we break -- through all of our roaming, we have focused on these themes. We analyzed common gothic tropes, we studied mockeries and satires of stereotypes in old English, attempting to distinguish between sarcasm and reflection, we found anti-Semitic stereotypes and humanity all bundled up into the incredibly complex character that is Shylock, and we read a Nigerian immigrant's struggle with her own identity/nationality. But more than just another arbitrary subject for school, I find this subject invaluable for us as adults. As high school students, the world we are about to enter is ripe with stereotype and crises of identity. We will encounter views and conceptions of other people -- and it is crucial that we be able to distinguish truth of character from stereotypes and misconceptions ingrained into the minds of our peers. At the same time, we must be able to accept our own identity and see through the stereotypes others impose on us; not much has changed since the era of Shylock. We must learn to accept ourselves, both as Jews and individuals, like Little Bee, not Julian. It is not enough to know math and science -- we must be able to see through the tropes and stereotypes of life -- to create our own character!

I repeat: I don't mean to sound sappy or clichéd. But I feel as though I have learned a lot about literature. Not the names of famous authors or the meaning of poetry. I have learned to recognize others and accept myself, to be proud of my own beliefs and opinions, and to not be afraid to venture into literature. I have learned, in a sense, to make my own path.