Keep a Questing Mind

by Shawn Durrett, Dean of Faculty

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At convocation on the first day of classes, senior Caroline Lord delivered a rousing speech encouraging her fellow students to “keep a questing mind” (thank you Caroline, for my new mantra for the year – I will quote you frequently and fervently). One of the great joys of being an English teacher is planning curriculum and thinking about ways to engage my students and inspire their curiosity, just as Caroline talked about.

When I plan a new course or unit, I often start by creating a thematic thread, knowing that I want my students to weave and tangle and unweave it throughout the term – in other words, to keep a questing mind as we work our way through the material, comparing and contrasting and building on and from the various texts and assignments. One of the most important skills we teach in an English classroom is how to recognize patterns: a recurrent image in a novel, words in an essay that create links back to the thesis, grammatical structure in a sentence. Basing a unit on shared themes is one such way to help students learn to recognize and appreciate these kinds of patterns and echoes.

This year I’m teaching a new-to-me 10th grade honors English class titled “Finding Identity.” Fellow 10th grade English teacher Tutu Heinonen and I decided we wanted the fall unit to focus on ideas about identity, gender, class, and society, with selected readings that pair nicely with our summer reading book, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. We’ll read Henry James’ novella Daisy Miller (looking again at ideas of gender, class, and social manners in the 19th century but through a different lens- a male perspective). Then we’ll end the term with Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, focusing on judgment and prejudice in the extreme; how it can break down and destroy a community. I’ll add in some poetry and other short readings as time allows.

I wanted to get my students thinking right away about some of the ideas and themes we’ll explore this fall. I began by scattering dozens of images of women on one of the tables in our classroom, and then invited students to circulate the table and look. The reality is, I told them, we live in a world that is saturated with images of women and ideas about what it means or should mean to be one. We started with a simple question: What do you see? Women. From all different cultures. Doing things. Posing. Working. Parenting.

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Then I asked them to choose a pair of images that sparked their interest, perhaps because they expressed a certain idea or emotion or seemed to contrast each other in an interesting way. Here are some of their pairings and thoughts:

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Images of marriage, images of cultural rituals

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“Here’s what you would see in National Geographic, and here’s what you would see in Vogue.” (In other words, image vs reality)

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Artificial vs natural

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Images of strength (I am so proud that my students identify Malala Yousafzai as an image of strength!)

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Images of motherhood, perfection vs reality

Next, I explained that the readings for fall trimester focus on issues related to gender roles, class, and society, and asked if they were interested in these topics. The group of girls in this particular class is incredibly savvy, and like most young women of their generation, multi-faceted. They can speak with equal enthusiasm and authority on Malala Yousafzai as an advocate for social change in the world and on the power of Katniss to inspire a generation of readers. They are self-proclaimed “Jane Austenites” (to be fair, at least one student in my class hates Jane Austen) but they also love reading fantasy fiction. They not only know about the recent Miley Cyrus debacle on the Video Music Awards but they are outraged that Robin Thicke isn’t bearing more backlash for outright objectification and degradation of women in his songs and performances. They are critical consumers of media, and also sharply funny (best comment from the first day of class: Pride and Prejudice is like the Gossip Girl of the 19th century). Yes, they assured me eagerly, they are interested in these topics. Good.

So after our brainstorming about images and depictions of women, I sent the students off with their first reflective writing assignment. They turned in their responses on the second day of class, beginning a discussion that revealed a myriad of responses and emotions about what it means to be a woman in our modern world- outrage, confusion, skepticism, shame, joy, and pride, among others. They have a pretty mundane task for day three of class – study for a test on the summer reading- but then we’ll pick back up with our discussion and start linking and contrasting Pride and Prejudice and Daisy Miller.

The beginning of a new term is filled with nervous excitement, not just for the students, worrying about their first test, but for me as their teacher, wanting to immediately ignite their curiosity for the work that lies ahead. There’s an art to this; you can’t force students to be curious, but you start by providing the opportunity for curiosity to take root. Thank you Caroline, for opening our school year by inspiring both students and teachers to keep a questing mind. The coolest part about any quest, of course, is that you don’t know exactly where it will take you. I’m excited to venture out with my students.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Keep a Questing Mind

  1. Shawn, what you say here is so powerful for our girls. To have the luxury and opportunity to explore the array of offerings at the same time as searching within, that is a gift! It allows such challenge to the questing mind, such yeast for growth and ultimately the knowing of oneself. Thank you.

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