Taking students on an adventure with literature

Taking students on an adventure with literature

Photo by Debbie Troy —
Cathy O’Brien says the revised English/language arts curriculum, which she helped design, “has made me pause, be more thoughtful about the process.”

Cathy O’Brien encourages texting in her fifth and sixth grade classes. But there are no electronics involved, and the content isn’t about social plans or what’s for lunch. With colored Post-it notes, her students create threads about literature. They post thoughts, questions, predictions, and opinions about the author’s writing style or intent. Their messages cover four bulletin boards in O’Brien’s classroom at Christ the King Regional School in Haddonfield.

O’Brien, whose overarching theme for sixth graders this year is “The unexamined life is not worth living,” embraces the creative use of tools that get her students engaged in the classroom.

“What do the Federal Express logo and poetry have in common?” she recently asked a class of sixth grade students. Pointing to a projected image of the iconic logo, she challenged them to find an imbedded graphic element.

“I see it,” some shouted, their hands shooting up.

“Where?” and “Show me,” said others, trying to unlock the mystery. Some on their own, others with help, began to see the hidden arrow formed perfectly in the space between the E and the x.

“Now that you know about the arrow, you will never see that logo the same way again,” said O’Brien to her sixth graders. “Once you know the true meaning, you never forget. Once you dig at [poetry], you will never look at it the same way.” And dig they did, starting their new unit with Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”

For the next hour, O’Brien’s students dug together through the first two stanzas of “If.” Their conversation focused on unfamiliar vocabulary words, rhyme and couplets, common qualities in successful adults, kids who have made a meaningful mark on the world, the effects of social media, connections with their Catholic values, and themes they recently studied through works by Shakespeare.

“It makes so much more sense since we talked about it,” said student Ella Vallez as the class ended.

“We’re not just learning to get a good grade,” said classmate Patrick McInerney, noting that O’Brien often goes back to works the class has already studied to reinforce themes and “get the knowledge to adhere.”

Ella and Patrick were eager to talk about Shakespeare, whose works are frequently revisited in O’Brien’s class.

I was scared at first,” said Ella, admitting she thought Shakespeare would be too hard. “But [Mrs. O’Brien] related it to what it would be like in our lives.”

“It’s cool the way it ages well,” said Patrick of Shakespeare’s plays, agreeing he could relate to characters and situations in “Hamlet,” “Twelfth Night” and “MacBeth.”

O’Brien loves the freedom she has to bring Shakespeare — and God — to sixth graders. “I can say ‘Let’s look at this and understand the beauty of God’s creation.’ You know, today that’s needed. Morality can’t come and go. Our choices define us,” she said.

It’s likely Cathy O’Brien has always taken her students on an adventure with literature, going above and beyond the texts in a prescribed ELA course. But she said the revised curriculum, which she helped design, “has made me pause, be more thoughtful about the process.”

Mary Beth Peabody is Communications and Marketing Manager, Office of Catholic Schools, Diocese of Camden.

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