When anxious, depressed students stare into space

Don’t assume they aren’t listening

jc-gellidon-2QGlhU9lRvs-unsplash
Photo: J.C. Gellidon on Unsplash

Last spring in my middle school language arts classes, I taught the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave for the eighth year. It’s the autobiography of Douglass, who was born into slavery. In his formative years, he experienced an epiphany: literacy equaled freedom. As a result, he taught himself to read and write. Years later, sure enough, he escaped from bondage.

As a free man, he became an outspoken leader for civil rights and suffrage and was eventually appointed United States Minister to Haiti. Douglass’ narrative is one of my favorite books in American literature for its honest and raw portrayal of the horrors of slavery conveyed with Douglass’ frank, accessible, and often poetic prose.

It’s an important book that is as relevant today as when it was first published in 1845. As a result, students find the text compelling and riveting. They are spellbound as they read of the realities of slavery often for the first time.

During the unit in which we read Douglass, one of my brightest students—let’s call her Ellen—endured a new low in her personal experience with anxiety and depression. She had battled these demons for a few years then, but did seem to sink even deeper during the month or so that we spent studying Douglass’ text.

It was a tough spring. At a time when her peers were looking forward to spring break, the April dance, and their graduation to high school, Ellen found it difficult just to get to school. She was often absent. On a good day, she was late to first period by half an hour.

As we read Douglass’ account of his life, Ellen seemed bored and detached. And, to be honest, I worried at the time about the content of the book being detrimental to her fragile state. How helpful can it be to read about the atrocities of human bondage when one is already suffering from negative emotions from all sides?

1024px-Frederick_Douglass_as_a_younger_man
Frederick Douglass’ master believed learning would spoil the best slave in the world. Engraved by J.C. Buttre from a daguerreotype. | Photo: public domain

When we read Douglass’ stories about his various masters and life primarily as a city slave, Ellen stared blankly across the room or at the wood grain Formica pattern of her desktop. She did not turn in assignments, and only rarely contributed to class discussions. However, she would take usually do well on the occasional reading comprehension quizzes. Even so, I could tell she wasn’t engaged with Douglass. Or that’s what I assumed.

One day at the end of class, near the culmination of the unit, she casually mentioned to me, “I wrote this poem last night.” An introspective girl, Ellen enjoyed writing poetry and it wasn’t the first time she had asked me to read something she had written outside of class.

I glanced at the title, “Master Mind, and then skimmed through the stanzas as the next group of students coasted in for the boisterous last class period of the day. I noticed Frederick Douglass’ name tucked among the lines; my interest piqued.

“Can I keep this and read it after school?” I asked Ellen. She nodded and sauntered off to eighth hour.

After school, I picked up the poem and read it again. This time, I was able to concentrate.

As I read, I began to realize Ellen had written about her own kind of slavery… to depression.

I felt bad for assuming she hadn’t been listening when, truth be told, she had indeed found connection with Douglass’ experience and words. Yes, she understood and appreciated the horrific dehumanization of American slavery that Douglass experienced, but she went further. She correlated Douglass’ oppression under slavery and injustice to her own oppression under anxiety and depression.

In no way, I’m sure, did she intend to downplay or distract from Douglass’ experience when she compared her own struggle with mental health to his struggle with state-sanctioned slavery. After all, students cannot help but be shocked at the inhumane treatment Africans suffered under the peculiar institution. When Ellen applied Douglass’ experience to her own, I believe it was an honest attempt to deal with her crisis.

And what’s more, she creatively built on that attempt and created her “Master Mind” poem to sustain and even heal herself.

In short, Ellen was doing exactly what educators want their students to do: apply classic literature to contemporary life.

Here are two excerpts from Ellen’s poem:

Master Mind

I am a slave to my own mind.

I’m tied up, naked, and afraid,

While my uninvited thoughts hold the whip,

All day, I try to please my master,

Only to be starved of my happiness.

My fear shatters all remnants of hope,

By striking me for laughter…

 

Another excerpt:

For I want to be the next Frederick Douglass.

I will escape the darkness in my head,

And I plan on writing about my struggle and the struggle of others…

I am simply bringing a different kind of modern slavery to light.

 

And to think I assumed Ellen was just filling a chair in my classroom. Yes, she was staring into space, but she was still engaged, making meaning, finding sustenance and encouragement from her identification with Douglass.

This was the ultimate text-to-self connection, wasn’t it?

Let’s not always assume that students aren’t “getting it.” They may be understanding and gaining more from a text than we ever expect.

This experience with Ellen has shown me the value of being watchful of how students are connecting with our classroom texts. From now on, I won’t be so quick to assume that students who stare off into space are not engaged.


Thanks for reading! This has been a busy summer, and I’ve skipped a couple of weeks’ worth of posts. Between a month-long trip to Greece, (click here for one of about 25 posts), moving to a new city, a new teaching position, AND delivering my daughter to NYC last weekend for graduate school, writing on my teaching blog has been put on the back burner. However, I intend to start posting weekly starting today.

Stay tuned for my next post where I write about my new high school classes, memoirs, and map-making.

 

The Graphic Essay: A fresh way to discuss theme with evidence, commentary, and a dash of symbolism

IMG_8457 (1)

I will definitely try this project again. I see potential.

This spring, I assigned  a graphic essay to my eighth-graders after they finished reading Frederick Douglass’ Narrative.  I felt the graphic essay would:

  1. offer a break from traditional essay writing;
  2. help students discuss theme with evidence and their own commentary;
  3. allow students to discuss symbolism; and
  4. allow students to get creative and apply their artistic skills.

I found this idea on a blog by teacher and author Buffy Hamilton at her website, Living in the Layers. Hamilton’s post references projects created by students at North Atlanta High School, including the graphic essay project created by teacher Casey Christenson. Her students created graphic essays based around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond.

Usually in my classes after we finish reading a book, students write a traditional essay on a specific topic or question from the book. However, at the conclusion of reading Douglass, my eighth graders were already writing another essay on Douglass  to be included in their human rights dissertations.  So instead of writing another essay, I decided to provide some variety and offer an alternative… the graphic essay.

When I explained the assignment to them, they were eager to be my “guinea pigs” (yet again!) for this new-to-me project.  I’ve never had students not want to experiment with a new idea and I let them know that I appreciate their flexibility.

To introduce the project, I gave each student a copy of the assignment sheet. My sheet was based on Hamilton’s, which was based on Christenson’s. (Don’t you love how teachers borrow from each other?!?) Here is a photo of the assignment sheet I made:

IMG_8461

In class, we read through the steps and the requirements for the project. We also discussed the three theme options from which they could choose. Deciding on one of these themes was the first part of the process, as shown in step number one in the photo above.

They then were to develop a thesis statement that would argue the theme they chose. Following this, they were to cite three quotations from the book that supported their theme, and then provide a commentary or explanation of how each quote supported or related to the theme.

Students then were to select a symbol that would connect to and unify  the theme. Finally, they were to compose all these elements on an 11″ x 17″ sheet of construction paper. They could use any art materials I had in my room (markers, colored pencils, crayons, stickers).

We also decided to sacrifice an older copy of Douglass to use in the essays. Students could use the pages of the actual text in their compositions. Some cut shapes out of the pages, while others used the pages that contained their quotes used to support their chosen themes.

I also had printed off some photos from Christenson’s blog post. These photos showed some examples of graphic essays. This was very helpful as it showed my students the level of detail that was expected. Here are pictures of those mentor texts:

IMG_8462
Graphic essays created for Walden Pond by students at North Atlanta High School. See Living in the Layers for more.

Overall, the project went well, considering it was my first attempt. When all the essays were finished, I posted them in the room in “gallery walk” style, so students could vote for their top six. I projected the requirements on the Smartboard during the “gallery walk” so students could choose those that best met the criteria. This was needed so students wouldn’t focus too much attention on the artwork at the expense of the theme, evidence, commentary, and symbolism.

How well each essay met the criteria was an important distinction for them to make, too. One student with excellent creative execution didn’t cite any quotations. Despite the visual appearance of this student’s project, it didn’t accomplish the other goals, and as a result, students wisely did not give this student’s essay”Top 6″ status .

Here are more graphic essays made by my students:

IMG_8458 (1)
As you can see, some essays were more involved than others. One contained flaps that were to be lifted to reveal the commentary below, while another contained a safe with a door that opened as its symbol. One that was artistically well-executed didn’t contain textual evidence; students didn’t award it “Top 6” status.

I’ll try this project again next year at my new high school position. I really like how it capitalizes on students’ learning differences and artistic talent to discuss and argue theme and symbolism.  Thanks to Living in the Layers for the idea and inspiration


Thanks for reading! Have you ever tried graphic essays in your language arts or English classroom? Drop me a comment and share your experience. See you next week!