The humanist Michel de Montaigne in 1580 conceived of the essay as an attempt to display discernment and thinking, a kind of theater of mind. More than 400 years later, students in literature classes still write essays incessantly: lower school essays, middle school essays, high school essays, college essays, and application essays. Essays. Essays. Essays.
As a Sacred Heart, Greenwich teacher of tenth- and twelfth-grade English and World Literature, I am always seeking innovative ways to inspire students to think abstractly about a literary text. Reading any text requires entry into the world presented by the writer; a text is a literary space that inspires multiple and layered interpretations.
I am interested in encouraging students to examine texts as symbolic structures and systems that they enter and inhabit -- meandering, sauntering and stopping, then exiting, and possibly returning again and again.
Following Mark Twain's suggestion that students should not "let school get in the way of their education," I invited Sacred Heart’s AP English and World Literature Honors students to disrupt the cycle.
I suggested with a grin, "Let's Hack the Essay."
Influenced by the work of Matteo Pericoli at Columbia University's Laboratory of Literary Architecture (http://www.lablitarch.com), my teaching and learning goals for the upcoming year involve conceptualizing ways for students to use Sacred Heart’s new MakerSpace to imagine literary texts as spaces in which readers immerse themselves.
During the past few weeks, talented literature students have been engaged in applying critical and creative thinking skills to their understanding of a complex, ambiguous work, Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Dillard's memoir, An American Childhood. After reading, annotating, and analyzing this text in Harkness discussions at the seminar table, classes entered the MakerSpace.
To frame the assignment, we looked at two projects by former Sacred Heart students. Krystyna Miles (CSH '12) is a Dartmouth engineering student. She used a 3D printer to adapt and make a probe to explore layers of firn, ice that exists compacted below the earth's surface. We screened a video clip of her work.
It is a relevant and inspiring way to ask this question. How is Krystyna Miles (CSH 2012, Dartmouth 2016) like Annie Dillard? Think of some connections between Krystyna's project and Dillard's microscopic approach to "topology" and "topography."
We also looked at a visual summary of Yale architecture student Katie Colford's (CSH 2011) work constructing a "kit of parts" that provides a condensed means of exploring the formal, spatial, and experiential characteristics of her design for a villa.
In the first MakerSpace class, students needed to condense the text into its driving themes, by brainstorming and sketching ideas and images that reflected their interpretations of the key elements of the text.
The next step: applying the maker model of designing, tinkering, prototyping, and fabricating through creative, visual, artistic, systematic analysis and interpretation -- in ways other than writing an essay.
I hope to inspire colleagues to use the maker model of tinkering, prototyping, and iteration in their high school literature and humanities classes. I am interested in the convergence of STEM and Design Thinking approaches to problem solving as applied to literary production and analysis: digital humanities, data visualization, info-graphics, i.e. alternative ways of interpreting the layers of meaning and structural architectonics of literary texts.
Hopefully, I can also inspire others to conceptualize imaginative ways to hack high school literature and humanities classes and assessments by untethering students and teachers from the iterative, way-too-predictable process of reading, sitting, discussing, sitting some more, and writing an essay.