At Proof School, the meaning of literature is palpable, quite literally.
In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, after struggling against Franco’s regime and succumbing to the power of modern aircraft, a small contingent of Republican soldiers holed themselves up in an abandoned mill. They had been delivered handwritten copies of Pablo Neruda’s latest manuscript, an unpublished look at the effects of war on the countryside. These soldiers read poetry amid artillery fire, hunger, and uncertainty. Even with war as a background to their days and their nights, they chose poetry.
This story sets the stage for our high school literature class, a course motivated by the question of how authors like Neruda have given voice and representation to war. How do we adequately represent, and therefore communicate, something otherwise impossible to convey? What role can literature play in bringing history, and its lived experience, back to our eye level? And how did the twentieth century change the way we relate to war and our representations of it?
Asking these kinds of questions changes the nature of a conventional high school literature course. First, these questions are big and meaningful, and they help students connect literature to the real world of lived historical experience; there’s no doubt that the literature we’re reading matters. Second, these questions are so big that students need to break them down into smaller, fundamental parts; doing so allows us to model logical and analytical processes important to all disciplines. Third, these questions position students to adopt a problem-solving mindset when they read, discuss, and write about literature; they learn there is so much more to do than summarize what they’ve read.
The effect of all these changes to the conventional high school experience is to minimize my role in the classroom. In short, I can’t play the sage on the stage because there is no real answer to the questions our class is posing.
There are lots of ways a teacher in this kind of classroom can maintain agency: she can guide discussions by asking questions; help develop papers by showing students the iconic ways that scholars think, write, and make new knowledge; categorize evidence in a way that promotes their intelligent use; and give them models for ways to structure a paper that intervenes in a potential misreading of a text.
Because a flipped classroom tends to diminish the role of teaching, it tends to increase the role of learning. In this model, the teacher doesn’t share his or her knowledge with the class. Instead, we put more faith in our students to carry the discussion and be the agents in their learning. Sometimes, it means not speaking in class so that students have a true opportunity to carry the day. When I have done this in our class, we’ve had a stunning result: one hour went by without the debate subsiding even once, and they had only discussed a single poem.
I was told on many occasions when I moved, not long ago, from teaching college to teaching high school that I would need to make significant changes to my teaching. The test case so far is pretty clear: students at every level, and at any age, are looking to be challenged, to be given a fair chance at gaining mastery, and to demonstrate what they’re learning. They are looking for genuine problems to solve and honest questions to answer. They want to avoid being “taught” because they are looking for an opportunity to learn.
When Spain’s rebel, Republican forces got hold of Neruda’s book of poems, they were so taken by the language that they retrieved any fabric they could from the battlefield, and churned it into handmade paper; they brought an old clamshell printing press to the front lines, and snaked its 1,200 pounds of iron between Franco’s soldiers and his air force; they set type letter by letter, word by word, and line by line, and in the process printed and bound by hand what turned out to be the first edition of Neruda’s manuscript Spain in Our Hearts.
Of the five known extant copies of these phenomenal books, two are in the Library of Congress. I have been lucky enough to travel to Washington, DC, to see them in person.
The journey of those poems, from Neruda’s hands to the hands of those soldiers, from the battlefront to the front of our minds, gives us a window into the significance of language to console an otherwise unspeakable experience. If such a book can change the lives of soldiers on the battlefront, perhaps it can change the way we think of literature in the classroom--and how that literature can be taught.