06.16.15Demetrius Loves Helena. Or Does He? Daisy’s Story about Midsummer Night’s Dream
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending an hour or so with Daisy Christodoulou. She was stateside for a conference and had taken the train from New York to spend the morning watching and discussing video of teachers with me and my team. We had a little time between train and meeting and so there we sat on a bright, sunny day talking assessment, instruction and West Ham United.
I was telling her about the chapter on Close Reading in our upcoming book, Reading Reconsidered, and how we would make the case for some instructional fusion. Students, we thought, should read much harder texts and should analyze them at the most rigorous level possible but to do that teachers had to slow down and “establish meaning“–that is they had to make sure that students actually understood what the text said. So often, in English classes we’ve observed, teachers have asked students to analyze a scene that they didn’t really understand. We have seen them attempt to discuss a key scene from Hamlet when we were sure in watching that students did not yet understand exactly what had happened to whom and how these things were revealed.
Daisy then told me a story about how she’d seen something similar play out in a very rigorous English class. It was a fascinating story and I thought I’d share it.
Several classes at ARK Schools, where Daisy works, were reading Midsummer Night’s Dream. They were piloting a new curriculum founded on the idea of asking students to read very challenging texts and to discuss and write about them at a very sophisticated level. Surprisingly, Daisy noted, they had spent a lot of time in first few weeks focus really closely on the plot–what exactly happened to whom. They didn’t want to take for granted that students were following it all–even the names of the characters and the relationships between them and in particular the four lovers. If you know Midsummer Night’s Dream and can recall encountering it for the first time, you might recall how easy it is to get Demetrius and Lysander or Helena and Hermia mixed up. And so they took the unusual step of really focusing on that.
Daisy described it this way: “If you just saw those lessons in isolation you would probably think they were quite mechanistic and too simple. We went over and over the names of the characters and who they loved – lots of questions at the bottom of Blooms Taxonomy! Only then did the pupils move on to discussing the big themes of the play, in particular whether Demetrius’s free will is taken away by the fact that the love potion is not removed from his eyes.
In order to discuss this you have to be really clear about the difference between Helena and Hermia, and the fact that he is in love with Hermia at the start but Helena at the end. If you can’t grasp the names and the basic plot, you can’t start to discuss the big issues about what true love and free will are.”
But the result were surprising she said.
“The final essays the pupils produced were brilliant, and really did engage with these themes, because they had that secure understanding. We moderate as a team across the 8 schools, and all the pupils were making really sophisticated comments about these themes, and it was clear from reading them that the sophisticated analysis was grounded in the solid knowledge of the plot. Having taught this text before in a previous school and not spent as much time on the plot, I was well aware of how confused and incoherent a lot of essays on this text can be! It was just so much different from my previous experiences teaching the text.”
Anyway it was a fascinating vignette- a bit of attentiveness to something you might overlook as too mundane actually leads to richer results on the higher order thinking side of things. I’d love to hear if anyone out there has had similar experiences.
Agreed! The way you describe it implies the kind of pressures that lead teachers to skip out this kind of foundation. I’ve been influenced by some of Andy Tharby’s blogs this year in which he discusses asking these kind of ‘basic’ questions before moving on. I’ve started to do this quite a bit with poems in particular; so… searching my brain for a really famous poem… erm, say Sonnet 18… What does Shakespeare suggest comparing the Fair Youth to? What shakes the ‘darling buds of May’? etc. This round of questions might only take five mins or so but it seems to really consolidate the facts and imagery for pupils at all ability levels. Even if you’re really bright, it’s a hell of an ask to go from reading a new poem a couple of times to suddenly trying to engage with higher order engagement with Petrarchan conceits etc. I’d think of it a little like opening a wine: it needs a little time to breathe (and be enjoyed) before it can be judged properly. I’ve definitely been into much of a rush sometimes to let the pupils reach this first rung of understanding (when you’ve read a poem or play a few times, it’s easy to overestimate how quickly they should grasp these ‘basics’. Thanks for the article.
Thanks, Magnus. Great points. In our upcoming book Erica and Colleen and I discuss the “rigor of the microscope” being equal to the “rigor of the telescope.” But we still see a lot of teachers seeking rigor by asking broad sweeping big picture telescope questions in lieu of the type of rigorous “microscope” questions you describe.
This is so true. Mastering the basics of the plot is like mastering key vocabulary when learning a new language. Only once the facts are automatic can fluent discussion begin.
Thanks, Anthony. Another decent analogy is math(s): Only when your number sense and calculation is so fluid as to be automatic can you think about what you are doing conceptually and whether there’s a better way. I am thinking of calling this the high/low theory.
I really appreciated this post! It made me think about a professional development in which I was told to “isolate what you want them to grapple with.” You can’t have students grapple with basic comprehension of a text and deep analysis of it at the same time–that understanding of the gist has to come first.