I love showing Dead Poets Society to Grade 12 students.
There’s something special about that movie and that group. They’re not much longer for my building, and will soon be sallying forth to “Carpe diem.”
But, if I must be honest, I’ve always applied the Stink of English class to it by attaching an academic piece to it, often an essay. The film is rich, with lots to discuss and debate, much for students to ponder as they respond in writing. It works for this, and it’s a good piece to give them the “freedom” of an essay response to say what the movie inspires them to say.
And I kind of hate that I’ve done that. My DPS lesson plan was becoming as stolid and devoid of passion as the introduction to poetry Keating has the boys rip out of their books.
So, this year, I revamped things. There was to be no formal response. In actuality, I wasn’t even going to be able to watch the film with them, because I would be away at PD. They watched.
And when I returned, we talked about it. All the analysis, and questioning of the film that had gone into student essays of the past made it to the whiteboard in my room, as I took notes during our hour long discussion of the film. I asked questions. They asked questions. They answered both, and had more. It was really wonderful, and I saw more insight and engagement with the analysis of the film than I had seen in years.
But we weren’t done. This film means a lot to me as a teacher. Like many of us, I place Robin Williams’ John Keating pretty high on my list of fictional teachers that inspire me. I wanted students asking, pushing and exploring under my tutelage. Any shy student in my classroom, I mentally brand as a “Todd,” inspired by Ethan Hawke’s introverted character.
And assigning my students an essay on this film suddenly seemed like a glaring piece of hypocrisy.
I opened my notebook and jotted down the notions in my head. I crowdsourced ideas on Twitter. I checked out what some colleagues had shared over the years.
When the dust settled, I had a series of things I would ask my students to do. There would be some reading and reflecting, and there would be writing – all inspired by the film. Here’s what we did:
Like the scene in the film, we composed something on the spot. In an attempt to compose something relatively pure, in the moment, I talked each of them through the process of pulling some ideas out. I didn’t plan it, and simply had them start from a random moment, and gave them random directions as we went. I wanted them to see what came out of a moment like that.
What was fun about this was the freedom they had. It just happened. Yes, I assessed it, but only insofar as I checked off that it was done. I wanted them to see the power in throwing out words. We may go back and revise it, or it may just live as poetry of that moment, that day.
YOUR TODD & YOUR NUWANDA
I wanted them to explore two sides of themselves. We wrote on note cards, each side representing one aspect of themselves, as inspired by characters in the film. I used the following prompts:
- Todd Anderson is a painfully shy young man. Using his voice is hard for him. Reflect upon how you are a Todd.
- Charlie Dalton takes on the name Nuwanda to express himself bravely, and recklessly. Reflect upon when you are a Nuwanda.
I loved the duality of this activity. Looking at two aspects of their personalities was a nice reflective piece. Though I allowed for an expansion beyond the note cards they started with, I enjoyed the brevity that the note cards encouraged. The goal was the thought, not a fully developed piece. That being said, if we decide to, we can go back to those cards for a piece to develop.
O CAPTAIN, YOUR CAPTAIN
I asked them to choose a person who inspires them, who encourages them to be their best. They were asked to write a tribute to them.
The writing was the exercise, the expression of their feelings. Whether or not we ever pass these tributes along is something that each student will decide for themselves. It was, however, nice to ask students to write without dictating the form. I have a couple of poets who were able to go right to that form.
CARPE DIEM 1
They were asked, again, using a note card, to identify, and justify, a Latin phrase that inspires, empowers or describes them. They could obviously choose one that exists, and is used, or they could play with a translator to create their own.
This was a quick, notebook time type of activity that actually generated a lot of thought and discussion. I love when writers are buzzing about their ideas. One of my English team members and I were discussing extending the idea, and having students put their phrase on a t-shirt. It would be a cool memento of our class.
CARPE DIEM 2
In this scene, Keating’s first lecture, he has the boys look at the photos of past students. We did this, studying the faces of past graduates as displayed in the hallway to find inspiration.
The buzz was neat, chatting about the people, finding loved ones, putting faces to imaginary characters that we had discussed in class. I hadn’t suggested snapping pics with their phones, but they did, taking a few faces back to our classroom to ponder, and write about. I gave little instruction, other than to use the pictures as inspiration. Some of my writers wrote stories about their former student’s life in our building, their life after our building. One of my writers wrote a poem that the former student she chose might have written. A very cool activity I can’t wait to do again.
I asked them to spend some time immersed in poetry. The ask was that after reading poetry for a class or two, they were to select 5 poems that resonate with them, 5 poems that move them. Song lyrics could only count for two, and they needed to explain their choices.
It’s actually really cool to see what they pull in. Some of them struggled outside of lyrics, but found poems in the stack of anthologies I dropped in front of them. Others rolled in with their own poetry collections they love, while others were trolling Instagram for works from their favorite InstaPoets
LOOK AT IT IN ANOTHER WAY
The famous desk scene… They had to go to a place. I asked them to find a way to look at it differently, and to try to write from that new perspective.
I actually make an effort to limit the homework I give students outside of reading, but I asked them to find a different way to look at a place that they love.
WHAT WILL YOUR VERSE BE?
As these students are approaching the end of their time in our building, I asked them to write about two things related to your “legacy” there.
1.) What do you think you will be remembered for here? What mark will you leave on the school community?
2.) If you were to create a “secret society” like the Dead Poets Society at our school, what would it be about? What great need at our school, what missing thing, could your group provide for the students who would be part of your group?
I loved this activity because of the “end of high school” aspect of it, the need for them to reflect. I love that it gave them a chance to reflect. As well, as a member of the staff, I got some insights into what they felt our school was missing in a way that might feel more meaningful than the surveys we usually have them do.
Each individual activity in this pursuit based upon Dead Poets Society allowed my writers to do something cool. There was freedom to express themselves, as well as a push to experiment. The feedback I got from them as we worked was positive, and they enjoyed the variety of things we did, and I think, really appreciated not having to deal with an academic piece of writing attached to a text. That was the takeaway for me as a teacher, that sometimes, we should just focus on being inspired, and then creating.
What things do you do in your classroom that are about inspiring students, as opposed to an academic task? How do you have your writers use that inspiration? What would you add to my list of activities inspired by this film?