The issue of student engagement is a perpetual topic in teacher training seminars. Regardless of age and grade, teachers want their students to do well and doing well is correlated with the ability to enjoy, or at minimum have interest in, the material. But engaging students in the curriculum is a complicated task; teachers want a class that is responsive, active, and alert. Nobody wants to take a boring instructor, and we do not want to teach in mundane uninteresting ways. So the question of engagement is constantly on my mind. How do teachers get students excited about a text? How do they guide them to find meaning, substance and the motivation to do the work? Part of the answer lies in the ability to acquire a growth mindset; a concept in which growth is unceasing because the brain continues to grow when learning takes place. As an educator, I continually seek new information about teaching. I listen to myriad podcasts, attend professional conferences, watch Ted Talks, books, read scholarly articles and secular articles, and I acquire any material that will help me create a vibrant classroom.
Most recently, I came across an article highlighting a practical pedagogical approach to teaching literature in a first-year college writing class “Learning to Talk Back to Texts: Multimedia Models for Students (and Teachers).” The author, Caitlin Kelley, had been teaching Jane Austen’s canonical work Pride and Prejudice. Kelley’s conundrum centered on how to engage students in a classical novel written in the early 1800s. She understood that the classical themes within the novel of love, desire and independence, transcend time. But she was also keenly aware of the need to contextualize this novel so her contemporary students could relate to it. For the novel to come to life, she decided to introduce Austen’s masterpiece by having her students watch “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” a modern series rendition of Pride and Prejudice made for a YouTube audience. This “digital mode[s] of communication” introduced a way for students to converse with Austen’s novel because they were able to examine her work through a modern and relatable digital platform.
Kelley’s classroom evolved into a realm of imagination as students took on various ways to speak about Austen’s work. The varied projects in her course included a video review of Jane Austen video games, an on-line advice column written from the perspective of the main characters, a blog about a particular scene, vlogging etc. These projects were ways to create an intimate interaction between text the student; the students delved deeply into the text which resulted in a meaningful conversation. As Kelley states, her students were able to “…join an academic conversation” because her classroom became an inclusive and inviting place.
The Lizzie Bennet shows were quite successful; they won an Emmy in 2013 for the series creative endeavor. The show is also a perfect parallel to Austen’s work, as the characters are the same characters brought to life in today’s digital age. Kelley’s work was smart; it became a place of creativity and imagination. It also allowed her students a certain agency in that they selected the project they wanted to explore, as well as the means to produce it. These latter ideas of creativity, imagination and agency in the classroom are core to engagement and participation in any environment. Students were highly participatory and involved, not simply in the project, but in critical thought and textual conversation. They were not only talking to the text, they were having an intimate and meaningful conversation with it.