January 19, 2012
Please enjoy this next installment in our yearlong elaboration of what experiential learning means in the Upper School at Mounds Park Academy. This month, English Faculty member Beth Slocum shares her thoughts about the ways a student at Mounds Park Academy uses literature to understand the human condition, especially one’s own.
Upper School Director
The handout reads “Resolved: Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn should be banned from the high school classroom.”
And students talk —
“I don’t believe any books should be banned…”
“I don’t believe in censorship….”
“What’s wrong with Huck Finn? It’s just a kid’s book after all.”
“Huck Finn is one of the most banned books ever? Why is that??”
Then with the flip of a coin, two three-person student teams find themselves on either side of a debate that has followed Twain’s novel from its first publication in 1885 to this moment in our classroom.
But looking at this issue from multiple points of view allows our students to see, through someone else’s eyes, the racial issues Twain renders and satirizes in Huck Finn’s antebellum South, and for all time, not only in that historical setting but also in our contemporary society.
Experiential learning in the English classroom looks different from what we expect in the hands-on problem solving of building a balsa bridge in physics or mixing chemical reactants to uncover the unknown compound in chemistry or designing a rotating graphic image in math. In English we solve problems, too, problems of language, as we arrive at deeper and more complex readings of “texts” in print, image and sound and as we create more insightful and thought-provoking texts of our own.
Our students need multiple experiences of language to discover meanings and to make their own. Why? Because we are storytelling creatures who depend on our listeners, no matter how close or far-flung they may be. When a YouTube video goes viral, we want to know it; we want to see it, to share it. When we read a good book, hear a great song or love a new film, we want to tell someone. When social networking brings people together to express their political and social desires, we experience the power of language to create community. In all its forms, in all its manifestations, language is our shared “hands on” experience.
Yet, experiential learning in English, often project-based learning, requires multiple skills of imagination, intellect, visualization and composition – in the visual representations of the Good and Evil project in 9th grade English, the demonstration of masculinities in Men’s Studies or the case studies on literary theory and world cultures in the World Literature elective. Students learn by doing with their hands and with their minds.
In the MPA English classroom, teachers take as a basic assumption that reading, writing, listening and speaking are not merely skills to be learned but experiences to be lived, and that these lived experiences engage us in the most human activity – communication. We believe that through our students’ creative and cognitive processes, they can vicariously experience what they haven’t yet or may never experience in their own lives; that in trusting their own imagination and the imagination of others, they will understand more broadly and more complexly lives beyond they own. In these ways, we teachers believe that students can develop greater empathy for individuals who are not like them and deeper insight into cultures that are not like theirs – sometimes a global or historical community or a contemporary, even demonized “other”.
When our students inhabit the psychological dilemmas of Hawthorne’s characters in The Scarlet Letter, they learn experientially, recognizing the psychosomatic sickness of body and mind caused by unresolved anger and guilt and the crisis of low self-esteem caused by social ostracism or bullying. By applying the critical lens of psychological criticism, students grasp the ways that literature provides tools for deeper self-understanding.
When our students create a living storyboard of the opening scenes in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, they learn experientially by physically inhabiting a silent improvisation. They transform themselves into the necessary objects and characters, turning our classroom into a progression of storyboard” frames created from how they have learned to imagine film production.
When our students circle up and lead their own full class discussion of The Great Gatsby, they learn experientially from each other, without teacher intervention, by proposing intellectually rich questions, tossing their ideas into the arena, by agreeing, disagreeing, expanding, by finding “proof” in the text. Ultimately, they build an inclusive and respectful conversation, helping each other contribute in a lively process of give and take.
When our students take responsibility for the initial editing of each other’s essays in the process of peer-editing, they learn experientially by applying their own intellectual and linguistic wisdom to the problems of content, structure, logic, expression and style in their classmate’s work.
When our students design a visual representation of Aeneas’s journey to the Underworld and tie that to quotes that illuminate the personal or cultural insights he gained, they learn experientially as they apply those insights to their own lives – plus, they manage to fill the entire 16-foot white board in the back of the room.
When our students risk sharing their own creative work – short stories, poetry, one-act plays, they learn experientially from their peers in the artists’ workshop mode of constructive critique, a roundtable of honest and supportive feedback.
Language forms us, shapes our consciousness, gives us voice, defines our humanity. We live in an ecosystem of language and of community, as natural to us as water is to fish in their schools. We share our stories – in fiction, in scientific inquiry, in poetry, in journalism, in the lyric essay, in documentaries, in theatre – produced in print, on the stage, the screen, on blogs, through analog and digital media – in the hope that we and our students will become infinitely more humane and generous beings.
We believe in experiential learning because we know that experience changes us. And that debate about banning Huck Finn? In the abstract, I would never consider banning a book, but for the first time in my life, as a student and an educator, I heard an argument that persuaded me to consider banning Huck Finn, an argument articulated from the thoughts and hearts and passionate voices my student represented in this position demanded of her by the flip of the coin. I could never support censorship, but I heard and understood the deep logic and emotion of why some people whose lives have been
different from mine might want to – and that changed me.
Experiential learning doesn’t make us right or wrong, nor does it gives us access to some absolute truth, but it does enrich our common humanity and give us a chance to understand our differences and to live well for our common good.