Recently, I had a chance to visit a local high school in an underserved area of town where I was to serve as a “community partyer” during Senior Exhibition Days. For the exhibition, students prepare and deliver a twenty+ minute presentation, with multimedia support, and then respond to questions for another ten to twenty minutes. Afterwards, a panel of teachers and community partners discusses the presentations and, using a rubric prepared by the school, evaluates it. Then the student returns for feedback and further discussion.
My dry description of this process doesn’t do justice to it or capture the lived experience, which was downright magical—for several reasons. First, the students were into it in a big way: they came prepared and raring to go, dressed neatly and looking their best: no slackers here. Their professionalism was striking to me: they had worked hard on these presentations, and it showed. They had no formal scripts, but rather talked right to us, suing slides to guide their discussion and help us follow. They cared—and they made us care.
Second, the content of the presentations I heard simply blew me away. They were all based on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, a tough text for the most experienced reader. Each student had chosen a character to focus on – and they dug deep, revealing a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of their character and of the text. Later I learned that they were reading the entire book in their English class, discussing it almost page by page as they go, and that they had already written three papers about the book, one on their own definitions of love, one about how love works and doesn’t work in the novel, and one on a specific character. All the students said they had a terrible time at the beginning of the book but went along with it since they really admired their teacher and she wanted them to read it. But their attitudes soon changed. One said, “I learned that I had to be patient with the story. At first, it didn’t make sense to me, but then it all started coming together.” By this time of the term, all thought Song of Solomon was a “really cool” book. And as their presentations revealed, they came to this understanding at least partly because their teacher asked them to relate the novel to their own lives. They had learned to “read” the stories of Guitar, Milkman, Hagar, and the others as life scripts, repeated patters (of templates as they called them) that shaped the characters’ lives. Once they had identified such patterns in a character, they looked for such templates in their own lives and examined them critically. The students I heard talked with apparent ease about their own life stories and scripted or repeated patterns of behavior, drawing lessons from the novel to help them imagine ways to flip the script or break destructive patterns. They talked intensely about love, and of loss, and of desire, always returning to Song of Solomon and their growing understanding of it and of themselves.
These were stunning performances, given by students who, in other settings . . . well, would NOT be reading and analyzing a very difficult work by Toni Morrison. So I learned something I already knew but don’t live by enough: it’s impossible to set the bar too high if you can engage students in learning about themselves in relation to others and to texts. These kids were reaching way beyond their grasp—and doing so with maturity and confidence and wisdom. As one student said, “I’ve gotten to be way more responsible since we’ve been working on this project. Now I want to be responsible.”
I also learned something important about timing. When these students gave their presentations, they were only about two-thirds through the novel and still had about 5 weeks of the term to go. Having the exhibitions not at the very end of term seemed a stroke of genius to me, because now the students have gotten deeply into their analyses and built up steam in terms of approaching their final essay of the year, the culmination of their work. And they are excited—they want to k now what’s going to happen at the end of the book. In fact, each student included predictions about how various characters might end up, which is of course what highly experienced readers do all the time—anticipate and predict.
So now they go back to t heir English class and finish Song of Solomon, reading together and savoring every detail, and continuing to write about the book. One student, who said he “wasn’t much of a reader,” found the novel “so good” that he says he is going to read Beloved next. “I’ll never forget Song of Solomon,” he said. And I’ll never forget these exhibitions. I just wish Toni Morrison could have been there. I think she would have learned something from the senior exhibitions as well.