“At the intersection of poetry and literature sits drama.” Such were the words that framed the college-credit class populated with high school students. Much has been written about literacy standards and their integration into science and history classes, but do the standards effectively integrated into our K-12 literacy classes prepare our students for success in a college literature class? The best place to seek an answer for this question is by examining a college-level literature class and sample what is expected of students to be successful at this level.
I visited the college course Introduction to Literature at Eastern Iowa Community College (EICC) in Maquoketa. Maquoketa is fortunate to have an EICC satellite located next to the high school, making it convenient for our students to take college-level classes for dual credit while attending high school. Seth Archer, an EICC instructor, is an out-of-the-box educator who is passionate about making literature come alive for students. His challenging questions and layers of instruction prod students to think and formulate opinions. His expertise was evident as he led students to dig deeply into the meaning behind words, music, and performance. How do all three come together to create meaning?
This day was the class’s first foray into an analysis of the Broadway blockbuster Hamilton. Students had the book containing both text and performance photos from this play, adding a dimension beyond an analysis of the text as they listened to the music, analyzed written lyrics and examined performance photos.
The students were organized at tables with a partner. Directions were to reconfigure into groups of three and write discussion questions using concepts, terms, and elements the class had learned in a previous short story and poetry unit, questions designed with a focus on the musical Hamilton. Groups selected one of their questions to write on the board. A few student-created samples included the following:
- In what ways does Hamilton take liberties with historical accuracy in order to connect with a modern audience?
- How does the reoccurring rhythm found in the first stanzas of Hamilton’s “A Winter’s Ball,” “Guns and Ships,” and “Your Obedient Servant” describe Hamilton and forward the plot?
Standards used in this class extend those found in English-language arts (ELA) classes in high school. Those standards were:
- 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.
- RL.11–12.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
- RL.11–12.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.
Previously, the class had studied Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas, so they were asked to consider the following question: Does Hamilton hold up to the best poetry we have read?
Mr. Archer emphasized that when the lyrics are read, it does not feel like poetry. The words do not have the rhythm – the music holds the rhythm and establishes a mood that the words alone do not create. Students determined that the lyrics need performance to create the mood by bringing in additional contrasts. The class was encouraged to listen to the lyrics for tone and mood. Then a new layer was added as Mr. Archer described the costuming which provided the accoutrements of power.
As students compared the written lyrics to the photos from the performance, they considered how all of the elements alter what the audience perceives in terms of characterization. Their next step – what other songs would be good to analyze through the lens of lyrics, music, and performance?
As we examine the ELA standards at the secondary level, teachers are encouraged to take reading skills to a deeper level by integrating knowledge and ideas through an analysis of multiple interpretations.
According to Johnston High School English teacher and the 2010 National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling, “The Core is designed to enhance the cognitive dexterity of our students by getting them to focus more precisely, to transfer more fluidly, to construct more readily.”
A focus on depth of knowledge and text complexity in our instruction creates in our students an additional layer of analysis that can go beyond an English class and be applied in other subjects while developing authentic enjoyment of performance. It can also prepare our students for postsecondary success in a college-level class.
Principles for the Postsecondary Teachers of English (from the National Council of Teachers of English website)
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