About three weeks ago, I put up a tent in my classroom.
Not to hide in, although the thought was tempting. And not to zip wayward teens into to prevent them from running with scissors, another major temptation. No, this tent was my attempt to bring the Apocalypse into my students’ lives.
Why, you may ask?
Desperation, man. Sheer desperation.
The Apocalypse Tent is a result of facing an apocalypse in my career over a year ago. I called it a “pedagocalypse” this week when I presented my ideas to a group of fellow pedagogues as part of the NSTU Provincial Conference Day. My pedagocalypse infected me in the form of unengaged students… kid who would rather read text messages than novels, kids who would rather tell me they “have a life” than do homework, kids who would rather fail than complete the most basic of assignments.
Teaching isn’t easy. Snow days notwithstanding, it’s a stressful, soul-wrenching, all-consuming career and we wear our students like Hannibal Lecter wore Clarisse… wait, did he make those gross skin suits, or was it that other guy? I watched that movie through laced fingers. I have no idea what I’m talking about. Just… teaching is hard. Trust me.
The idea behind the Apocalypse Tent is to plonk my students into the setting of the novels I hope they read. This year, I have put aside my old trusted friends … The Crucible, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Kite Runner… in favor of Apocalyptic Fiction such as The Age of Miracles, Station Eleven and Hugh Howey’s Wool.
Because of the Walking Dead, man.
And World War Z, The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games and even Wall-E.
Don’t get me going about Wall-E. It gets ugly.
Apocalyptic fiction is everywhere, disturbing and dark as it is, but if that’s what’s flickering under their covers at night then I want to be the flashlight to illuminate it with them. We teach tough content all the time in the English classroom. Try to tell me Hamlet isn’t heavy. Go ahead. Have you read The Kite Runner? What about Speak? As English teachers we have the privilege and the challenge of deconstructing tough content for our students with every novel we teach, and the End of the World is no different.
The Apocalypse Tent
The Apocalypse Tent is installation art that models a Survival Encampment from the Apocalypse. There’s a map showing the invasion, there’s a dissected zombie hand, there’s a journal of The Book of Days, there’s a communication device, there’s a dead zombie girl… most of the artefacts in the tent are taken directly from the novels the kids are reading. We did some theatrical activities, we did some monologues, we pondered the meaning of Authority and Obligation and Dependence.
Did it go over well?
The custodians seemed miffed.
My darling Liam, from Art Club, insisted on adding a pee-jar with the rationale that since the world was crawling with zombies, no one would dare to go pee outside. A practical lad.
My English students were, for the most part… uncomfortable. It seems they want to enter a class, sit in a desk and be told what to do. I can do that. Read this story, answer these questions, find these definitions, and you learn… what exactly?
Squat on the floor of a hot smelly tent with zombie sounds emanating from beneath the flaps and write a monologue telling me what your character is feeling. Use quotes from the novel. Wear a costume. Make it real.
I, obviously, don’t have a life…
But I took this tent, and these ideas, and my incredible nervous terror to the ATENS Conference on Friday and I presented to lovely teachers who smiled and nodded when I spoke of my fears for my career, and my fears for the literacy of our kids, and my fears for getting it right in the face of a twenty year old curriculum and all these shiny new “Millenial” children.
Presenting for the Association of English Teachers of Nova Scotia
I used a puppet. Apocalypse Annie. I like her a lot.
It’s super cool to be able to hide behind a mask and speak in a really lousy south shore Nova Scotia British accent with a hint of Pakistani that slides around from one nationality to the next while a crowd of people sit on the floor and laugh. It was great!
I am trying to get over my Pedagocalypse… I have twelve more years to go, people. I can’t throw in the towel just yet, so I’ve decided to throw in the zombies instead. Just to see what happens.
I am asking my students to consider three main Essential Questions with their novels:
- When is it acceptable, even essential, to question Authority?
- What are your social obligations, especially in times of extreme unrest?
- What are the consequences of dependence?
I ask myself these questions as well. Am I the authority in my classroom, when they can google any question, anytime, and get a response before I can even find my glasses to read what they are waving at me on their tiny, tiny phones? I lose my glasses ten times a day. Their phones seem to rule their universe. Authority has changed, respect has changed, kids have changed. I have to change along with them.
I have a social obligation to meet my students where they are, and work from their interests to build literacy. Where are you, kids of 2015? I am asking, I am searching… maybe I’ll have to google the answer.
And I have to let go of my dependence on my traditional ways of teaching that included such classics as the “Chapter Questions” and the “Vocabulary Building Activity”. Sigh. I will miss you, Vocab friend, perhaps we will meet again…in Teacher Hell, where the lunch bell is always late and the photocopier is always broken and there are always ten less pairs of scissors than kids…
I’ve taken the Tent down now… apparently it was a fire hazard… but the lessons continue. The uncomfortableness of being asked to participate, and to think, will continue. But maybe, if the Apocalypse does come, my students will understand the zombie’s point of view, and their motivation, and their Essential Questions…
Or at least they can google the answers.
On their tiny phones.
While me and Annie (Annie and I, duh) hide in the tent.