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Open Access: Helping Students Understand Literary Texts Through Performance

The first folio of the heroic epic poem Beowulf, written primarily in the West Saxon dialect of Old English.
The first folio of the heroic epic poem Beowulf, from a manuscript currently in the British Library.
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I have a vivid memory of one of my first meaningful failures as a high school English teacher. I was convinced I could recreate the same kind of inspirational experience I had experienced in the undergrad English classroom by selecting the right text for one of my senior classes, Honors British Literature, at a private high school in suburban Baltimore. The text was “Araby,” one of several stories we read from Dubliners by James Joyce, but as we got into the significance of the final moment when the boy-narrator experiences his epiphanic paralysis while leaving the bazaar, a student in the second row confessed, “Well, that’s just kind of … sad.”

While I could have decided that this student just didn’t want to appreciate the humanity in this fine work, I realized in my post-class malaise that this student, like other students, suffered from a lack of access—some of them had not yet experienced the personal and cultural disappointment so pervasive in the Dubliners stories; some had not yet experienced the notion that any story could be aesthetically potent or that their own lives could be actualized by contemplating and discussing the story. I decided that I had to start earlier, that I had to get into the business of teaching what I call “access experience.”

Ideally, students come to class having read the assigned text. Discussing the narrative serves as a means through which the students can consider and become more aware of the story and their own life stories. Reading and writing are, by nature, empathetic activities. Most teachers know that, in the classroom, many obstacles impede empathetic, self-realized responses to texts. For my purposes, the access experience would serve as an imaginative and dramatic event that allowed the student to practice the text with personal and emotional seriousness in the class.

The following year, I decided to use Beowulf as my first trial run for such an exercise. This was before the Seamus Heaney translation, and the heavily alliterative and kenning-dense nature of the Charles Kennedy translation was hard on first-time readers. At the end of the two-week unit, I encouraged my students to bring in cardboard, duct tape, and various other basic supplies. We constructed armor and weapons, named our swords using kennings, and, thus equipped, pillaged other classrooms in the high school. I use the term “pillage” in a metaphoric sense because often we were simply parading; in other years, we performed scenes from the Anglo-Saxon epic. We rarely took items from other classrooms. Most students were, however, drawn to the notion of “pillaging” in English class, so I didn’t change what we called the experience to maintain the sensationalism of the exercise.

Entering the Narrative

Five years after installing it as an annual event in all of my British literature classes, students were claiming that it was one of the best classroom experiences they had ever had. Underclass students begged me to “pillage” their classes repeatedly throughout the day. Over the years, participating seniors actually became more conscientious, organized, and creative in the planning and execution of the pillaging exercise. When I took a position at another school, several students lamented that they would not get to partake in the event when they were seniors—an event they had looked forward to for several years.

I admit that this exercise, like any collaborative exercise, requires that one knows the community in which he or she exists. Though I employed a lot of improvisation in the trial and even in subsequent years, I was very careful of how I handled each performance. This type of activity does have the potential to alienate coworkers and or administrators. I gave teachers and administrators forewarning about the exercise, and I was preferential to familiar colleagues who favored the exercise. Likewise, I knew which teachers might not like the disruption, and I politely passed by their rooms when choosing the next classroom to enter. Rules were necessary as my classroom became mobile. For example, touching any student in any class was not allowed and would break any hopes my class or I had of perpetuating the tradition.

As I began to reflect more thoroughly on the effect of the activity, I realized I had the luck of achieving more than I had originally planned. In regard to the access experience, students were allowed and encouraged to enter into the human part of the foreign narrative. However silly or innocuous our pillaging dramatization might have been compared to a true Anglo-Saxon tribal experience, the imaginative act allowed students to experiment with the emotional intensity inherent in the text in a safe public environment.

On the cognitive level, students were allowed to play with the content knowledge, such as Anglo-Saxon character, narrative, and poetic devices, that they had struggled to grasp. Knowledge of the context led to more thoughtful discussion and student engagement with the text. Student emotion, intelligence, and community converged in the imaginative culminating act of dramatic analysis—what all teachers hope for in an assessment—that triggered a more curious, motivated, and open attitude toward other subjects and texts in the senior English class.

‘Inspired Community’

The best surprise of the project was the social reinforcement that occurred quite naturally in the classroom and in the school community at large. Once students in individual classes were excited about the exercise, they encouraged each other within the class in preparation for the performance. Preparation and performance allowed for differentiated and creative roles within the activity. Ultimately, I came to understand that the strongest motivator was the audience: underclass students, teachers, and even parents who were bound to discuss and expect the performance as part of an ongoing tradition. While an individual teacher’s assessment can be effective, peer and community assessment adds a dimension to the student’s perception of the performance, and it was an effective tool for students who had drifted into senior apathy.

In Democracy and Education (1916), John Dewey wrote, “Work which remains permeated with the play attitude is art—in quality if not in conventional design.” Although our cardboard and duct tape weapons were not of the highest quality, and we may not have been the most disciplined of companies, our capacity for play was unlimited and I believe, as Dewey affirms, the activity became a justification for literature as an aesthetic experience. The highest goal of each discipline, according to Dewey, was aesthetic appreciation—something that could naturally happen in carefully manipulated environments.

Though I realize English and history teachers have been performing these kinds of text-centered activities in classrooms throughout educational history, I believe our exercise was unique because it promoted free play, public performance, and inspired community. As a teacher and a department chair, I often focus on reproducing these outcomes in the classroom and school culture in the larger community.

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