Eric W. Maroney
The Common Core State Standards emphasize the need for students to engage with complex texts while analyzing the way author's choices (tone, selection of detail, diction, etc.) contribute to the construction of meaning. This close reading, a strategy for purposeful reading and rereading of a text which often includes annotation, allows students to unpack the layers of meaning in a text, examining not only what a text means but also how a text means. "A significant body of research links the close reading of complex text—whether the student is a struggling reader or advanced—to significant gains in reading proficiency and finds close reading to be a key component of college and career readiness,."
Many high school students, particularly in the 9
grade lack experience with close read analysis and therefore find the task uncomfortable and foreign. Students in grades 11 and 12 also require additional practice of this skill as they confront more complex texts in preparation for post secondary education. This need to increase students' ability to closely analyze a text is further made difficult when students disengage due to a perception that a task is too complex or lacks interest.
This unit uses the lens of community and ethnographic study to strengthen students' ability to closely read text. If a student is able to closely read what a text (written, visual or, dramatic) says about a community they are familiar with, this same skill can be transferred to the analytic examination of literature; "the skills of 'reading a text' closely parallel thoughtful reflection on the "text" of human behavior."
Students may perform a close read of film, television, or advertisements to strengthen their ability to make note of details and artists' techniques, interpreting and analyzing how these technical choices construct sociopolitical representations of communities. This practice is in service of the same skill required of AP examinations and the Common Core State Standards.
The unit is also designed to strengthen written ability, including voice, and uses writing as the primary vehicle for inquiry and knowledge construction. Ethnography will be used to engage students in the same kinds of questioning and observation that making the close reading of a written passage calls for. Additionally ethnographic writing expands the range of writing that students practice; "Ethnography bridges the gap between the self reflection we encourage in journal writing and the critical thinking we teach in literary analyses."
In the unit, Defining the American Community: Drama and the Other, students will explore how theatre constructs representation of community, both negative and positive, and the ways in which drama can be used for social change (political theater and community theater). Ultimately, students will be equipped with a sociological lens (Marxist, feminist, critical race) that will allow them to explore the ways in which dramatic texts construct community. Anchor texts will focus on communities that include marginalized identities. In that spirit, students will explore the ways artists' choices impact meaning and affect depictions of community. An example might be examining how casting only actors of color alters the meaning of Death of a Salesman as produced at the Yale Repertory Theater several years ago. The unit is designed around a performance task that requires students interview representatives from communities of their choosing and use these interviews as the basis of composing monologues.
The 11-12 NHPS ELA curriculum is currently under revision by a committee of teachers to better align instruction with the Common Core Standards and allow more space for individual teacher input and creativity. The curriculum is structured around a series of conceptual units that can be paired with a selection of performance tasks to assess both conceptual learning and skill. One of the units currently in production concerns American Drama and themes of the American Ethos. That unit focuses on the Common Core State Standard RL.11-12.7, "Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)" This Yale New Haven Teachers Institute unit can be used to augment and extend what is being written for the NHPS ELA curriculum or it can be taught as a stand-alone unit. Defining the American Community: Drama and the Other will enable students to put into practice understandings they have gained through the examination of multiple versions of a given text. As authors and directors of their own dramas, they must consider the choices they make in representing their subjects (communities) in much the same way a director makes purposeful choices when retelling a classic narrative.