Students in Literature 1 are discovering their ideas matter.

These days, casual observers of Proof School’s high school literature class might be underwhelmed by the sight of students tucked into various corners of the Maker Studio, working away on their computers. These casual observers are likely to see me talking with students for varying lengths of time: five minutes with one student, 20 minutes with another, 10 minutes with a third.

When the gong rings, signaling the end of class and the beginning of lunch, here’s what those same casual observers might see: students tucked away in those same corners, still at work on their computers. 

So what’s going on here?

The answer to that question is deceptively simple and deceptively complicated. On the one hand, students are writing their papers. I like giving them class time to work and run into the inevitable roadblocks. I like being there for them at the moment they need it. 

On the other hand, what they are doing is quite complicated: they are using test cases to examine a theory put forth by a contemporary scholar. These scholars are experts in their fields and on the topics we are investigating as a class. Those topics include the ethics of representing victims of the Holocaust, the verbal representation of visual art, the role of beauty in defining justice, and a strategy known as “antimorphosis” that artists and writers use to know the unknowable.

It’s a sophisticated kind of essay, one that I helped to develop and integrate into the Harvard College Writing Program’s regular pedagogy for all first-year students. It involves saying something back to that scholar, by highlighting an unwritten assumption that makes the theory valid or by articulating a necessary condition for the theory that the scholar does not make explicit. 

This is what I mean when I say that the answer is deceptively complicated. What might look like students quietly working alone is actually the sight of students actively engaging a community of scholars and a community of ideas. It’s also deceptively complicated because their ability to engage these scholars and ideas is predicated on the run-up to Block 4, including the weeks in Block 1 and Block 2 we spent actively debating each other and discussing ideas; the weeks we spent in Block 2 and Block 3 working in shorter sprints on writing during class; and the weeks students spent in Block 3 planning how they would take advantage of the wide and long runway I’ve set up for them. 

In other words, casual observers of the course in Block 4 would miss the proverbial 90% of the iceberg under the surface. 

We now have finished our last week of the block. This past week, on Tuesday, students spent the entire class period reading and commenting on each other’s essays. We had 4 micro-discussions going in small groups, with some of the best insights about writing I’ve heard in 15 years of teaching writing. They were talking about structure and signposts, questions and argument, and evidence and analysis. 

That’s why, at the end of class, students often don’t get up to go to lunch. They continue to work on their essays because they are invested in what they are doing and what their peers are doing. They are invested in the community of ideas. As one student put it this week, it’s because she feels for the first time that she's working with an idea that matters. Or, as another student put it, it's the first time that his ideas matter.

--Zachary Sifuentes