Our school has a copy of the Discover Channel’s production Great Books: Walden. I think it is pretty good (and short) introduction to Thoreau — in fact, I think the entire Great Books series is, well, great. Inside the videocassette case was a tiny little lesson plan that reminded me that Discoveryschool.com has lesson plans. I searched for one to go with the video and found this one created by Gretchen Surber. I thought that my Honors American Lit. students would really enjoy it. As a class, we took on different parts. The lesson plan calls for a cast of Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, and Mother Theresa. My students insisted on adding Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Donald Trump. After that, I said I had to put a cap on it, or we wouldn’t be able to function, because the panel would become too unwieldy.
Unfortunately, Gandhi and Mother Theresa were sick and didn’t come to school, which left our panel of “idealists,” as the students called them, kind of small. I jumped in to play Mother Theresa, but we were left Gandhi-less.
The purpose of the panel was to examine Thoreau’s ideas of simplicity versus acquisitiveness. The students’ responsibility was to research their character and figure out how their character would respond to questions arising from this conflict.
My student moderator directed set up of the room. He had made signs with the characters’ names on them for each panelist to wear. While I can’t exactly say that my students dressed the part, they sure did get into their roles. There was a heated disagreement between Bill Gates and Karl Marx. The students had clearly researched and prepared to answer the questions put forward by the moderator.
A couple of days before this event, the student I picked to play Andrew Carnegie begged to be let off the hook, but I had a hunch that he needed to try this — to stretch out of his safe zone and challenge himself. I wouldn’t let him quit, and I encouraged him to give it a shot. He did an excellent job. He stayed after to help me put the desks back, and I told him what a great job he did. “I was sort of surprised with myself,” he said. “I was surprised how passionate we got, considering we were just playing parts.”
It was amazing. What was really incredible is that I did very little to prepare, aside from creating a handout. The students did all of it. I think they learned a lot — much more than they would have if I’d stood in front of the classroom and lectured on the topic. One thing’s sure — they’ll remember what they learned.
I still recall taking part in a similar activity when I was in 7th grade. It was a Social Studies activity called the Great Redwood Controversy. My teacher assigned us roles, and even though I was the only person in my class who voted for Walter Mondale in our mock election, my teacher assigned me the role of the lawyer who lobbied congress to allow logging in the Redwood National Forest. I remember that even though I disagreed with my character, I got into it. I wanted to win. I didn’t, but my teacher gave me a special award, presented to me by my assistant principal. I still have it.
Maybe I should make one for Andrew Carnegie.