I was having one of those low energy, low enthusiasm days. Not the typical “Ugh, I’m tired and that coffee didn’t do the trick” kind, either. The scarily bad kind. The “This is all pointless and I’ve got nothing to offer” kind.
I was going through the motions with my 9th grade English class – some silent reading, some grammar stuff – and then it was time to finish reading “Cask of Amontillado.” I looked over my notes from last year and saw that I had them reading it in small groups, taking notes on setting and mood together. I had made a note then that it had worked well, and I was honestly looking forward to getting “offstage” and letting them figure out the story for themselves.
But before launching them into groups, I gave them an option. I said we can read it together as a class or in small groups. I do this a lot when I think I know what they’ll say. When students believe they are navigating, I think they might be more interested in where their ship is headed. So I was sure they’d all choose groups. Of course, I was wrong. To make sure it wasn’t just the loud students who yelled out “whole class,” I asked every single student to vote, one by one, and they all said “whole class.” Peer pressure aside, I think they actually wanted this. This is my ridiculously small class: (don’t hate me) 19 students. We had begun reading the story during the previous class, and they said they had recognized that it would be hard to read it on their own.
So I was to remain onstage. I had them take out their notes so they could record details of setting for an upcoming essay. My enthusiasm level was about to flatline, but I grabbed the book, pulled a chair into the middle of the room, sat down, and began to read.
And everything changed.
As I read to them, stopping often to ask for paraphrases of tricky sentences or to make sure they could visualize what Poe is describing, two unexpected things happened. They remained engaged, and I began to enjoy myself.
I couldn’t help it. It’s a great story, and as I delved into it with them I couldn’t help but get excited. Like when I read this exchange, for example:
He raised it to his lips with a leer. He paused and nodded to me familiarly, while his bells jingled.
“I drink,” he said, “to the buried that repose around us.”
“And I to your long life.”
Shudder. Even though this might be the 17th time I’ve read that, I still shuddered. And when I hinted at its irony to my students, I saw that some of them had joined me.
It happened again a moment later, when Montresor removes the trowel from his cloak to prove, in a twisted jest, that he is a “mason.”
When we finally got to the tiny “interior recess” at the “most remote end of the crypt” where Montresor chains Fortunato to the wall, we stopped at length to make sure we had Poe’s dimensions right: “in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six or seven.” I roughly marked out this space in the middle of the room so that the students could see it was the size of a closet. When Fortunato “reached the extremity of the niche, and finding his progress arrested by the rock, stood stupidly bewildered,” I had a student demonstrate by walking blindly into the wall in the back of the room (he’s okay).
All the while, students are copying down descriptions of setting to use for their essays, but they’re also reading and responding to the story. “That’s messed up!” or “This dude is twisted!” or “I’d be so scared.”
How often do I wish that they can do that kind of simple multi-tasking? How often do I wish they would actually pay attention to what we are discussing and see if they find any value in it?
And what was the brilliant, engaging use of technology here? A textbook, a notebook, a pencil. Now, I used plenty of technology to set it up. We looked at pictures of catacombs online and we’ll use Popplet later to outline our essays. But for the actual story, we turned off the projector and pretty much had a good old-fashioned story time.
The success of that kind of lesson every now and again reminds me why some veteran teachers are so resistant to school or district initiatives to incorporate technology into their teaching. Sometimes we are led to believe that they want us to use tons of brand new technology every single day. Sometimes that might be what they actually want. But it shouldn’t be, and I think teachers are sometimes afraid of giving up the kind of teaching that they know works for a lot of kids – and for them. Besides burning out those expensive bulbs in our projectors, we (teachers and students) need a break from the new stuff to get back to the most powerful tools we really have: great stories.
Oh, and I even tried to play a youtube recording of Vincent Price reading the story, but the students all complained that he was too hard to understand. So score another point for the live reader (their teacher).
So while I was slightly disappointed when they asked me to read it – and I made fun of them for being babies who need their storytime – in the end it saved me. When the bell rang I was on a high. That story is just too good. And seeing it get through to a room full of reluctant readers is really why I got into this gig. I know I’m supposed to blog about technology here, but this no-tech day ended up feeling like a revelation to me.