March Museums and Mash-ups: Springtime Experiments in the Classroom

As the daffodils start sprouting near sidewalks and the draft in my apartment warms to where I don’t feel compelled to don a housecoat at all hours and become more of a Rose Nylund than I already am, the longer, sunshiny, pollen-y days give me the itch to experiment.

In the last two weeks, my classes tried two experiments. One, a virtual field trip to the collection at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, offered students a chance to learn about the context of August Wilson’s Fences by examining photographs and artifacts related to the play’s 1950s Pittsburgh setting at closer range than a real field trip might allow. For example, students interested in athletes of the period could zoom in close enough to see the frayed stitching on a buttonhole in tennis great Althea Gibson’s Wightman Cup blazer, the tiny script of the cartoon on the back of a Hank Aaron baseball card, or the pencil marks on a protest sign that called out a baseball player turned segregationist city councilman (if his former team had been integrated, the poster posited, then the community ought to be, too). (Think of how you could pair an artifact like that with Rebekah’s picket sign mini-study!) If you can think of any reason to take students to this collection (or, better yet, to the museum itself) go. The collection prompted some profound questions and gave students a taste of one strategy actors use to prepare for roles.

Our second experiment is a kind of a high-resolution zoom lens for text (I say “is” because we are still in the midst of it!). 

As I read seniors’ drama analyses a few weeks ago, the comment I found myself repeating was “Can you share some evidence to support your ideas?” Students could see the “forest” of our dramas, but they weren’t acknowledging the trees. Many students are worried about using quotes on their final exams. “Quote the text anytime you have the chance in class,” I tell them. “The more you use the words, the more likely you are to know them by heart.”

Easier said than done. These students have to hang on to four plays–their lines, their conventions, their themes–and compare and contrast those plays through the lens of an exam prompt.

So how, in the midst of a crazy-fast whole-play study that demands students’ navigation of four different forests, can I get them to stop and appreciate a branch, a blossom?

Enter the mash-up. 

Here is how it works:

  1. Students brainstorm a list of connections they noticed between our plays (similar themes, characters, conflicts, etc.)
  2. Students select one character from each play related to one of the connections on the list
  3. Students comb their scripts for “juicy” lines from each character that could eventually fit together in a conversation, being careful to cite where in the play each line could be found (this will be important later).
  4. Students arrange the lines into a one-page mash-up conversation (in my example, Rose Maxon from Fences consoled and criticized Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman)
  5. Students share their mash-ups with a classmate or a small group, reflecting on how their reactions to or interpretations of lines change (or don’t) when they are reframed in new conversations. Below are some of the questions my students discussed in small groups:
    • How did you decide which lines to include and how to arrange them?
    • As you assembled your scene or read through someone else’s, did you notice any patterns? (Do some characters speak in mostly questions? Statements? Demands? Do they frequently speak to or about someone else?)
    • Which exchange (combination of two lines) are you most proud of? Why?
    • Which member of your group selected the most surprising combination of characters?
    • Which member of your group selected the best-matched pair of characters?
  6. Students write to reflect on what they noticed, realized, or understood differently about our plays as a result of making (and analyzing) mash-ups.

In some ways, this activity is an extension of something I often use to start a drama study: two-line scenes. I like the way the mash-up brings us back to basics with another layer. Now, students think about how more than two lines fit together to build tension, show affection, prompt revelation, or develop a character. 

In addition, mash-ups demand that students work with the words. As they page through plays, write out lines, and find ways to weave those lines together, they are working with the text alone. It’s easy to get lost in the rhetoric of an exam prompt or the theories of literary critics, but with a mashup, students stick to the raw material and will hopefully own more of each play as they nudge pieces into place. Mash-ups put students in control of making meaning rather than having them depend on me for pairing passages or directing their focus with a prompt.

Today, some of the results are in. Many mashups demonstrated just how little (and how much) separates the characters in our plays.  Others made the plays’ casual misogyny uncomfortably apparent. And still others revealed that characters we thought were similar (doting wives Linda Loman and Rose Maxon, for example) actually handled their problems very differently (one was passive, the other prodded and resisted.  Paging through the plays, manipulating the text, and looking at other classmates’ combinations helped my students appreciate nuance.

Not studying literature right now? My Moving Writers colleagues have shared a few fantastic posts about the benefits of cutting an essay apart and rearranging it to play with structure and argument; why not try cutting apart opposing op-ed columns and creating a conversation between columnists? Or asking students to  make a “conversation” between facts when preparing research essays?

Any classroom experiment, like those early daffodils, risks being flattened by a stiff wind (or, as is the case for those of us on the east coast, a spring snowstorm), but if the first crop fails, I can try replanting with a few adjustments next year. What I am always grateful for after lessons like these is my students’ willingness to take the risk, to make the leap with me. It’s no wonder the great minds we teach have inspired an incredible mashup themselves.

How have you used mash-ups in class? Have other strategies for helping students select evidence when analyzing literature? Please share your thoughts and questions on Twitter @MsJochman or in the comments below.

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