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Choice and Interest Make the Difference for Second-Semester Seniors

This post was written by NCTE member Chris D’Ippolito.

 

It was the end of March, and my honors senior classes and I were trudging our way through the end of Hamlet . . . online. I posted movie clips to help support comprehension, attached links to No Fear Shakespeare, and attempted to craft writing prompts that would spur interesting discussion. Nothing seemed to “stick.”

One of my last homework assignments in the unit asked students to respond to a sophisticated essay about Hamlet’s Oedipal complex, and in one class, only 11 out of 18 submitted the work. With much uncertainty facing us about our return to school, I had to begin thinking about clever ways of grabbing my seniors’ attention. Hamlet certainly wasn’t cutting it, and senioritis had set in long before school closed on March 12.

So I thought first about what would interest my seniors the most and engage them in online learning. Faced with a short window to create a new Quarter 4 plan, I considered my own interests and classes that I had previously taught.

On a Google form, I typed up four elective-style “mini-course” options with short descriptions and pushed it out to both classes for a vote. (The mini-course, which comprises the entirety of the fourth quarter, was inspired by my own experiences in senior English.)

Here are the options I provided:

  1. Independent Reading in Book Clubs: You choose a book from a suggested list with a group of three or four others and do virtual check-ins where you share your thinking one or two times a week.
  2. Creative Writing: Exploration of writing poetry, short stories, movie reviews, “Coronavirus Memoirs”
  3. Author Study: Stephen King: A deeper dive into the master of horror’s short stories, novellas, film adaptations, and novels (i.e. IT, The Outsider, The Shining). We would begin by looking at some of his short stories and novellas and view the movie adaptations. If time allows, we will also look at other films, TV series, and stories in the genre.
  4. Film Studies: A general study of classic and modern cinema, with connections to stories/books that were adapted into movies.

After giving my classes the “Spring Break” to make their selection, I announced the top choice: With 43.8% of the vote, seniors chose Film Studies as their Q4 mini-course. Confident in the selected topic, I set out to craft a weekly structure for my lesson plans.

Structuring the Mini-Course

With whichever course students selected, I planned on posting weekly practice online in reading, writing, discussion—a typical slate of learning experiences in my classroom. With this course selection, however, I added “viewing” to the mix since I envisioned seniors watching a movie a week at home using a variety of streaming platforms.

I also wanted to provide my classes with a weekly calendar that laid out each week’s reading, viewing, and writing assignments. I posted this schedule on my notes for the first class of each week, either Monday or Tuesday, depending on our block schedule. Here are my instructions from Week 2 of the course:

  1. Reading: “Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema . . . ” from The New York Times
  2. Viewing: One movie or more from any of the directors/films Scorsese mentions in the reading, plus anything from Scorsese himself (most of his movies are on Netflix);
  3. Writing: 250- to 350-word response on Classroom; reply to two classmates (50 words each).

Let me give some context. In Week 1, the two classes wrote about the components of a “good” movie. Next, I discussed via Screencastify and Google Slides the current movie landscape and prevalence of blockbuster action films and franchises that dominate theaters. Afterward, I sent students off to watch one of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and directed them to think about how their selected film fits their criteria of a “good” movie.

In Week 2, their reading assignment consisted of a New York Times op-ed written by Martin Scorsese, which had drawn some criticism from prominent filmmakers in Hollywood. In the piece, he discusses his skepticism with MCU movies and espouses his ideas on great films, alluding to past and current directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Greta Gerwig. I was hoping to “shock” my classes with this essay, as many teenagers often obsess about the Marvel movies.

For this week’s viewing assignment, I directed students to their streaming platform of choice to watch a film from any of the directors mentioned in Scorsese’s essay. Because students might not have had access to the same films, I tried to provide a range of movies for kids to choose from.

When I created their writing assignment, I made sure to marry that week’s reading and viewing work to the responses. After having read the essay and watched a film by a director that Scorsese referenced, seniors would then respond to one of two questions:

  1. In your opinion, are Marvel (MCU) movies “theme parks”? Explain.
  2. Discuss the movie you viewed this week and connect it to any “sound byte” from Scorsese’s essay.

Because both prompts could generate a reasonable amount of debate, I asked everyone to respond to two of their classmates to deepen thinking and further discussion. This functionality in Classroom mimics the environment of an in-person Socratic Seminar, but it also allows every student’s voice to be heard, which is not always the case in an in-person class.

My plan in place, I informed my classes that I would be available via email or Google Meet for any additional help or questions, and sent them off to work.

Reflections on My Teaching

When I read and commented on my class’s “good movie” responses later that week, I was struck by the completion rate of the assignment. In the class of 18 mentioned at the outset, 16 out of 18 seniors submitted their work; that’s 89 percent completion on this assignment compared to 61 percent on the previous Hamlet homework. Of course there are other factors to consider (level of difficulty, length of response, text complexity), but it seems that this topic tapped into a reservoir of interest and eagerness to learn that I hadn’t seen from this class in quite some time.

As film studies continued into May and June, seniors remained similarly engaged in their work, and several even reached out to tell me how much they were enjoying the class. In fact, in an end-of-the-year course survey, 88 percent of my students approved of using the mini-course structure (film studies included) for next year’s seniors.

I would cite two key takeaways from this experience teaching second-semester seniors.

The first is the importance of choice. I offered my classes four mini-course options when we started Quarter 4. Instead of selecting one movie for the entire class to watch, I also gave them several options. Finally, students chose from one of two possible responses in their weekly writing assignments. Choice makes the content “stickier,” in my opinion, and allows kids to take more ownership of their work.

The second deals with the importance of interest and accessibility of content. To illustrate this point, one of my students, Matthew, missed three or four consecutive assignments on Hamlet (Hamlet = not “sticky”) at the beginning of our lockdown, but with his “good movie” response, he submitted his work on time and crafted an insightful argument that exceeded the word count requirement. The quality and length of Matt’s work underscore the importance of harnessing choice, students’ interests, and accessible material to motivate seniors to continue to read and write, even after their college acceptances and commitments.

Chris D’Ippolito is currently a 9th- and 12th-grade English teacher in Thornwood, New York, and the advisor of his school’s National English Honor Society chapter. He has also taught 7th- and 8th-grade English for four years at the district’s middle school. He is passionate about helping his students develop lifelong reading habits in an age of constant distraction, as well as teaching strategies for honors students. 

 

 

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