My English 9 honors students recently finished reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. We still had a few days before final projects were due so we were working on some enrichment activities in class. My grand plan for last Thursday was to watch roughly 15 minutes of the 1998 film version starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow and then talk about classic works transcending time and place. That’s not how things went.
Before I could start my “planned” conversation, the students ran in a different direction.
“They never should have changed Pip’s name. Names all have an important meaning so changing them is wrong.”
“It was too sunny in the movie. The clouds and the gloom in the book help the story.”
“Why was there so much green in the movie? Was that supposed to symbolize the gardens?”
“The real Joe never would have taken that money.”
The conversation went on for the remainder of the period, about 20 minutes. The passion of the arguments caught me off guard. I guess that’s what happens when I plan how things should go. I like to think that I am an innovative teacher who creates copious opportunities for students to discover knowledge. But it’s events like this dynamic Dickens conversation that remind me how true learning tends to exceed the artificial boundaries that we put in place in our lesson plans, in our expectations, and most notably in our assessments. I wanted students to go in a certain direction and to discover a certain knowledge. They denied me and went their own way. It was truly one of those moments when I re-realized that sometimes my job is to get out of the way.
And so I sat quietly as students used evidence, analysis, and extrapolation to make claims, to back up those claims, and to discuss Dickens’ characters, themes, and settings. Perhaps the best part of the whole experience is that they weren’t talking to me; they were talking to each other.
Go away Pearson. We have Dickens.