A couple weeks ago, I was focusing on teaching my students to go beyond the literal in their interpretation of literature, both in written form and film. For tenth graders, it is difficult at times to spy symbolic meaning rather than what’s on the surface. On this particular day, I used a film clip of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, asking the students to identify elements of the scenery, costumes, colors, music, and casting and the effects that these choices create. After the clip, I did the teacherly thing and stood before them, giving clear instructions about how to take their notes on the film/play and how to form theories about the underlying messages of the text. After giving the instructions and clarifying a couple questions, with 15 minutes left in class, I said (well, I guess “shouted”), “Remember, I’m looking for real critical thinking! See me with questions! Due tomorrow! And… Go!”
Then, something weird happened.
My students all stood up and started moving their desks, forming small groups of 2-3. My knee jerk reaction was to snap into correction mode–something like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa… Where are you guys going?! Did I say to get into groups?! Stay in your seat and get to work!” But, I didn’t. I just frowned a little and watched them. What was going on? Such rebellion!
But as I sat and watched through slightly narrowed and suspicious eyes, I saw what I soon realized to be one of those waking-dream-magical teacher moments. The groups were evenly formed. No one was left out. They were facing their desks together, just as I so often remind them to do. (It’s impossible to collaborate with people whose eyes you can’t see into, I say.) My students were talking at a low volume, but with an excited, nearly conspiratory tone. Listening closely, I heard things like…
*** “Ok, I wrote down something about the designs of the Friar’s tattoos, especially the big cross on his back…” “Me too! But I’m not sure what it means, other than the obvious religious stuff.” “Well, he’s not wearing a shirt and we know that he’s like a master of herbs or something, maybe it means that he’s close to nature but also serving religion?”
*** “Did you notice how Romeo and Juliet were in the pool during the balcony scene? I bet that’s related to the fishtank thing we thought of the other day, with the blue and yellow fish mixing for Romeo and Juliet’s families.” “Oh my gosh, you are completely right! Which color was Capulet?” “Blue–they have blue cars… Wait, but Juliet doesn’t wear blue.” “No, remember, she’s always wearing white to show her innocence and, you know, she’s neutral.” “So… now they are the fish! And they’re not separated by glass anymore! Awwww!”
*** “So, the beach is totally Romeo’s emotions. Sunny when he’s happy, foggy when he’s depressed. It’s like the whole city goes along with what he’s feeling.” “So that could mean… the peace of Verona depends on him.”
*** “Don’t be SO LITERAL, dude! It’s gotta mean something DEEPER!”
There they were, talking, writing, and trading theories. I just sat at my desk in bliss and did nary a dang thing. I took a deep breath and thought: yes. This is exactly what I have been trying to get them to do ALL YEAR LONG! That’s what mastery looks like. My students were thinking critically, collaborating in a positive, mature way, and totally engaged. Some called me over to check their ideas against my opinion or offered me two options, asking which would be the better interpretation. I had a ridiculous amount of fun discussing it with them.
So what does it say about me as a teacher that my students collaborate automatically? Well, a couple things. Perhaps it does mean that I need to be more direct about my desires when I wish them to work independently. But I hope it also means that I have trained them well to collaborate successfully in an academic context–to use the presence of their peers as an intellectual alliance rather than a simple social opportunity. I hope it means that I’m reinforcing the value of collaboration and “talking out” ideas, and the positive aspects of admitting confusion, taking risks, and watching theories evolve before their eyes.
I’m glad that, at least on this day, I sacrificed my need for management and control in exchange for the gift of seeing my students’ authentic, organic collaboration skills at work.