In a traditional English class, a teacher might assign Herman Melville’s famous novel Moby Dick in small chunks. Students might complete their reading (or not), discuss major themes and perhaps write an essay at the end of the unit. But if a student never gets past the first few pages, the rest of that unit is lost.
It’s become a common refrain that traditional education isn’t serving a generation of students whose lives outside of school are completely disconnected from what happens inside. But there are plenty of teachers working hard to make reading material relevant to students, including a team of researchers from University of Southern California Annenberg’s Innovation Lab that includes Henry Jenkins and Erin Reilly. They’ve created a model of what they call participatory learning that engages students with materials on a personal level, often by incorporating different types of media into the classroom and offering varying points of entry to a text. Most recently, the team has put together a teacher’s strategy guide, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English, Classroom and an interactive digital book, Flows of Reading, to provide models of their approach.
Moby Dick is a notoriously difficult book. “This book defeated me as an Advanced Placement kid,” Henry Jenkins said. He remembers hating the book, gritting his teeth to get through it and writing the worst essay of his high school career. That’s why he was so impressed by the work of the playwright Ricardo Pitts-Wiley who was teaching Moby Dick to incarcerated youth in Rhode Island, many of whom read below grade level.
Pitts-Wiley asked his students to reinterpret the novel in the context of their own lives. In their retelling Captain Ahab became a powerful drug dealer trying to avenge the death of his loved ones. Continue reading