Paper Clips and Shakespeare

One has to be in a certain mood for a documentary. I love my Netflix account for this very reason. I don’t necessarily want to sit and watch a documentary on a Friday evening, but a rainy afternoon… eh, sure. I pair these two because they both have to do with education. That being said, they are both documentaries, so don’t expect action sequences or amazing cinematography.

The first, Paper Clips, I saw some months ago. It was really incredibly moving. The synopsis is this, a small town teacher teaches the Holocaust to middle school kids, but they cannot fathom the numbers killed by Hitler and his ilk. So they decide to collect a few thousand paper clips to represent the dead. The students write letters to different community people and a couple celebrities asking for donations. What follows is a monumental story of the curiosity and motivation of students and the desire of regular people to help wherever possible. Individuals begin sending paper clips in with stories of family members who died in the Holocaust. Celebrities send letters of encouragement. The project continues through several years of students who have to document the touching letters that survivors’ family members send in as well as photos and always, paper clips. The news of the Tennessee middle school’s project reaches the desk of a couple journalists at the Washington Post, both of German descent. They visit the school and publish a story, and the paper clips roll in to the tune of 30 million. The school erects a permanent memorial to Holocaust survivors (I won’t spoil this part), and it includes many of the letters and mementos sent in alongside paper clips. The journey from teacher to project leader to, really, facilitator of such a project was really interesting, but above all, this is an emotional film. The students are affected; the community was affected. People around the world were affected. One drop….

The second documentary, The Hobart Shakespeareans, I actually watched this afternoon. It was another film about non-traditional education. Rafe Esquith is a teacher in inner-city L.A. in a school comprised mostly of Latinos and Asian students. The neighborhood is rough, but the kids are kids. The school is year round, July to April, and he teaches all subjects. His class motto is “work hard, and do your best.” He introduces his students, 10-year-old, to advanced education, including Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, and Of Mice and Men in his curriculum. He says his goal is to make sure his students care for one another and that since many are first or second generation Americans, to make them feel whole and included in American culture. He has Halloween parties and plays baseball with them to teach teamwork and good sportsmanship. However, Shakespeare is his true love, as you see early on. The kids who want to participate in the Shakespeare program take extra time after the school to learn it. And learn it they do. To see a child of 10 not only read Shakespeare but to also understand it, was phenomenal. Ian McKellen, famed Shakespearean actor, visits the class and says how each time he visits the class, he wants to tear up to see students understanding the spirit of Shakespeare when some actors do not. Some of my students (college age) moan and groan about discussing literature. These kids ate it up and wanted more. When they read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and read Huck’s moment of anguish in determining whether to do the right thing by Miss Watson’s perspective of what he feels is right, several students were tearing up. (Skip to 4:06). It really makes you see how great a child’s capacity for learning is, but it also made me desire that space as a child where inhibitions didn’t matter and you were free to love a story about a young boy trying to find himself. Shakespeare, to me, was simply tangential to the type of learning Esquith creates in his classroom. The irony? I teach Hamlet to a group of high school seniors beginning tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. Somehow, I don’t think the experience will be quite the same.

I struggle with teaching not because I don’t love it, I do. Completely. I struggle because students these days don’t know how to think. It’s unbelievable the number that sit in my class staring under desks at cell phones, communicating without communicating. Plugged into everything but nothing important. My goal is to reach them. If I have to stand on my head to make them learn, I’m willing to do it. I have an awesome outside reading list of contemporary reads and late and great works. They have to choose two from the list and read them over the course of the semester and then turn what they take from those texts into a creative project. I’m hoping it won’t backfire. Class makeup is just a funny thing, and you never know what you’ll get. If you teach or are a student, I’d love to hear what, to you, makes a memorable learning experience. I don’t particularly care if they remember me, but I do want them to remember talking about literature, about life – not about text messages and tweets.


Oh, I should learn to be more positive. Hamlet went much better than expected this morning. We will continue this unit for the next several class periods. Yea!


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