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high school harkness

Experiential Learning in the High School: Harkness on Your Feet

Dina Marks, High School English Department Chair
One of the challenges that we face as a department is keeping alive in our high school students the joy of reading instilled by the lower/middle school faculty. High school students are increasingly focused on the grade (or the “points”) offered by an assignment, and it’s difficult to get them to slow down and focus on reading as exploration, as a puzzle to be unlocked, or as play.
Last year, as we were reading Macbeth with the freshmen, Kristin Ware was looking for a way to break the cycle of “read, discuss, assess.” For homework the night before, her students had read and annotated Act 5 Scene 1 of the play; instead of the expected Harkness discussion, however, Kristin had them work together to figure out how to stage, and then perform, the scene. She wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out, but it was so successful that I did it with my students, and now it is one of our go-to projects.

The first thing that we do is put a list of jobs on the board, and students sign up for which job they want to do. Of course, we need students to be actors, but we also ask for students to design costumes out of whatever they can find in the classroom, to create the scenery, to be “text experts” and counsel the actors, to be the director and keep everything running and everyone on task, and to run lighting and sound effects. Each student has a job, and because of that, no one is sitting back or disengaged. The key to this assignment, though, is that we turn everything over to the students, and then we stay out of their way while they figure out the scene. There were, in fact, times that I sat in the hallway while the students puzzled through the text and worked through the scene so that they had to come up with their own answers.

How, for example, should the costume designers show that Lady Macbeth is scrubbing imaginary blood off of her hands? What should the scene designers draw on the board to match the feeling of 5.1 of the play? What does the word “taper” or “closet” mean in this context? With what inflection should the doctor in this scene read his lines to effectively communicate the emotion of the moment? What do you do if your classmates are playing around and not getting to work? When we empower the students to deal with these things without offering ready-made answers for them, we allow them to overcome the anxiety of being “wrong” or “getting a bad grade.” We normalize that it’s okay to struggle and to not always know what the answers are, and we remind the students that school is a place to learn rather than a place to feel like they have to know everything and do everything perfectly the first time.

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