25 September 2010

A Moby Dick Breakthrough

I just finished "Whaling Week" with my 11th-graders. We voyaged with Moby Dick for two days, sang whaling songs, and engaged with three years' worth of resources I have collected on this amazing work of literature.

By my estimates, these students are now part of a select group: I would venture that fewer than 10% of American literature classes in land-locked Tennessee even attempt this work, much less spend a week on it.

I always end the week with a fun activity--a harpoon-throwing contest. "You have just read from Moby Dick," I told my standard-level juniors, "and you get it. Not even the kids in AP English can say that." We went out to the football field, where, in the end zone of the football stadium we would throw a rake handle (a.k.a. harpoon) at a plastic box (a.k.a. whale).

One student, Dee, was the last to leave the room. Dee is a challenge to teach. I have a lot of these 4th-block kids turned on to learning at this point of the semester. Quite a few come in asking "what are we doing today?" or "this is Slavery Week, right?" (When kids ask questions like these, they are ready to learn anything.)

Dee usually asks, "We're not doing anything today, are we?" He is usually the last to take out pen and paper. He just doesn't seem to care; he just doesn't seem to 'get it.'

I handed Dee the "harpoon" as we left. "I'm really tired," he told me. He had gotten his driver's license this week, maybe that explained it.

"It's OK, we're going to do something fun now," I answered. Then he said something that shocked me.

"With my last breath...."

I caught the reference immediately, "With my last breath, I stab at thee, though damned whale!" They are the last words of Captain Ahab. We had read them the day before. And Dee had been listening.

Later, on the football field, Dee threw a pretty straight harpoon, but he didn't win the competition. The boys blamed the wind at first for their bad aim. Then cheerleaders started practicing their dance routine at midfield. The boys couldn't have been more distracted!

(I asked them what would be harder, throwing a harpoon from a whaleboat bobbing on the ocean waves, or throwing a harpoon on a level football field with cheerleaders practicing nearby. We had trouble reaching consensus on that one.)

Another student, Matt, won the competition. I touched him on the shoulder three times with my model harpoon, and with every touch we shouted, "O Captain, my Captain!"

It was a great end to whaling week, but Dee's memory was probably the highlight for me.

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