Wanna’ see something really scary?
Robert De Niro as the sociopathic Max Cady in the 1991 remake of Cape Fear
I love Southern Gothic fiction. Love, love, LOVE the genre. Call me strange, but from the backwoods to the bayous, the existential through the evangelical — I am a sucker for a good story from the American South full of freaks, misfits, outsiders, and lost souls in need of healing and salvation.
Some sample authors if you’re of a literary bent:
- William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August)
- Flannery O’Connor (“A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away)
- Wiley Cash (A Land More Kind Than Home)
Or if you’re more of a film and television buff:
- Season one of True Detective
- Any season of The Walking Dead
- Pretty much any season of American Horror Story (Asylum, Roanoke, Freak Show)
- Cape Fear
- The Skeleton Key
- O Brother, Where Art Thou?
- Big Fish
And if you’re just a pop culture aficionado:
- Beyonce’s “Formation” music video
- The Left 4 Dead 2 video game
- Urban exploring some of America’s most haunted places including abandoned theme parks, mental institutions, and psychiatric prisons
- WWE’s Bray Wyatt and The Wyatt Family
Long story short — the Southern Gothic genre is rife with powerful imagery of cultural decay, social decline, and misguided religious fervor. These elements make it a natural wellspring of inspiration for some tremendously successful intellectual properties and artistic palettes, and so it’s the perfect field of study for a room full of curious high schoolers as we roll into these last days of the school year desperately trying to stave off the end-of-year doldrums and the rising temperatures with a group of learners who are simply itching for purpose and autonomy in their academic careers.
When I first tried my hand at teaching a unit on Southern Gothic literature about a decade ago, I came ready to roll with copious binders full of detailed lecture notes on the finer points of Southern Gothic philosophy, books upon books of Evangelical traditions and the spirited dissents of their Catholic counterparts, and a giant stack of dusty old college essays from my time working towards that all important B.A. (and later, M.A.) in English. After a few weeks worth of lesson planning, I’d fine-tuned the greatest hits of the bunch down to what I thought was a pretty darn good slideshow presentation on all things Existentialism 101, if I do say so myself. And 35 minutes of me talking at a bleary-eyed room full of less-than-interest high school students later, and PRESTO! I had namedropped like a dozen different philosophers, moved at breakneck speed through like 300 years of Christian theology, and magically taught every single young mind in my classroom everything they could ever possibly have wanted to know about the beauty of this genre and the deeper meaning of life itself.
Yeah right. I wish.
The truth is, I had a lot to learn. Sure, I was firing on all cylinders and sharing all the important high points about what I knew about Southern Gothic traditions, Catholic theology, and existential philosophy — but when I look back at those early lessons today? It was a whole lot of ego stroking from a terrified young teacher who simply didn’t have the courage to leave anything to chance, and wanted to erase any possible doubt that yes, he most certainly knew his stuff.
Because that’s what being “a teacher” meant, right?
In short: I doubled down on teacher talk because I was desperately afraid to leave any questions unanswered.
The problem with this approach?
The person who talks the most in your classroom is usually the one who’s learning the most. Real learning is messy. And unless you simply want a room full of robots who can parrot back a string of low-level names, dates, and trivia questions: students need time to process, to reflect, to question, and to roll up their sleeves and go under the hood. Point blank: I didn’t want my class to be a showcase of how smart I was. I wanted to use the rich subject matter of this unit to show my students how smart they could be!
The turning point for me came about three years into teaching the brass tacks “Existentialism 101” presentation: a student in my fifth period class actually pulled out her cell phone to keep track of all the massive amount of information I was spewing. She recorded the lecture and shared it with me as an .MP3 — and let’s just say it was super humbling to hear the tape back and have to soak in just how full of hot air I seemed to have been. Was the voice on the recording excited? No doubt. Well read? Heck yes. But effective? Now that’s a harder call. And perhaps the most important question of all…
If I was such an amazing teacher: did my students leave my classroom feeling empowered or overwhelmed?
In short: I was the one doing all the mental heavy lifting. For all my good intentions, colorful name-dropping of familiar faces from pop culture, and genuine enthusiasm for my subject matter: my students were simply expected to do little more than sit like obedient little sponges and soak up the egocentric parade of talking points that I just so happened to feel like sharing their way.
Can I interest anybody in a nice, hot slice of homemade Southern Humble Pie?
Over time, I gradually starting becoming more confident in talking less about this topic that I loved so very much. And rather than force-feeding everyone the exact same data dump of information at the same time through lectures (regardless of how high energy they might have been) — I started experimenting with different approaches to self-guided learning in this, my most challenging of units.
My first move was to provide students with a move-at-your-own-pace video worksheet, where they would get a sneak peek at the world of the Southern Gothic and make some predictions about the unit that was to come. Nothing fancy, but it was certainly a start.
The following year, I allowed students to choose their own homework format by assigning a common text for study, then having them select between take-home annotations using Kami, Twitter, or a Google Form to correspond with our pre-recorded podcast library. Soon after, I starred following up with surveys, asking students to offer feedback on how best they were learning and what I could do to help.
Another year later, I gave students the chance to record their very own small group podcasts, where we joined in free flowing dialogue to talk about what we’d just read and where we were still having trouble.
Then I started introducing gamification elements in my classroom to let students teach themselves different chunks of unit material at their own self-guided pace with activities like #QRBreakIN.
Until finally, I threw the entire playbook out the window, going all in for experiential learning to complement our in-class reading assignments by planning a class trip to an abandoned 19th century insane asylum located in the remote town of Weston, West Virginia.
And when we return from the full day excursion, students now spend their final two weeks of the semester working asynchronously in a classroom “maker space” to design their very own period-appropriate mental asylum websites.
No turning back now.
I share this story both as a living reflection and as an in-progress timeline of a passion project that I expect to continue working on for the rest of my professional career. As teachers, it is so tempting to hold tight to the reigns of the “sage on the stage” approach to instruction — especially when dealing with subject matter that we love, and particularly when we are just so afraid to forget to cross any “T”s and dot any “I”s along the way. But as we move through the “guide on the side” model to become what Elon University professor Dr. Tony Weston calls “The Impresario with a Scenario” — I hope today’s blog entry can help offer a feel for how introducing even small steps along the lifetime of a once closely protected teacher’s pet project can ultimately lead to a rich tapestry of new and ever more exciting permutations of student-centered discovery, wonder, and learning.