Students teach each other literature ( lernen durch lehren)*
"The Curious incident of the dog in the night-time", Mark Haddon, Vintage.
Rosmarie Frick, Bozen/Bolzano, Sued Tyrol/Alto Adige, Italy
Mark Haddon's first novel for adults not only fascinates the public which it was meant for, namely adults, but apparently has something for everybody, including 11th-graders at a scientifically oriented high school in SouthTyrol, Italy.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME is a murder mystery novel, says the author. But in fact it is much more. Christopher Boone, a fifteen-year-old boy suffering from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism, is the narrator and main character of the book. He is a maths freak and thinks he knows little about the world and human beings. But the confrontation and comparison with Christopher's view of the world with his/her own will make the reader think about issues ranging from small idiosycracies to God and life after death.
Teaching English at a scientifically oriented highschool, where we also teach sciences in English, I found this novel particularly suited to the interests of my students. It contains excursions (or digressions) into maths, physics, astronomy and logical problem solving, which obviously cater to my students' areas of specialisation. And, as I had expected, they were hooked after a couple of chapters...
The following method focuses on all four basic skills: speaking, writing, reading and listening, with an emphasis on oral production.
As an introduction to the book we talked about people with disabilities and the students told about personal experiences ranging from spending several school years in integrated classes (a system common in Italy, where disabled pupils attend elementary and secondary school together with their peers without disabilities) to facilities or the lack of facilities for the disabled. Then the students were given a " first letter- last letter" dictation with basic information on Asperger's Syndrome to set the atmosphere for the first contact with the main character's strange world. I learnt this method from Mario Rinvolucri in a seminar and it consists in slowly dictating a text which the students note down by writing only the first and last letter of each word and substituting all the letters in between with dashes. At the end of the dictation they try to reconstruct the text with a partner. The first part of the exercise makes them focus much more on the spelling of words than they would in an ordinary dictation and the second part makes them focus on the content of the text, in our case Asperger's Syndrome.
We divided the chapters into as many units as there were students in class, which resulted in units of 3 - 4 chapters each. We filled these units into a table with the folling keywords
- Chapter headings
- Story line
- 10 words
- 2 debate topics
Each student signed four times in different units and for different tasks, which meant that each would "perform" in front of the class in four different settings. Additionally the students were to keep a Logbook, where they would note down interesting thoughts, ideas or connotations while reading the book at home.
Each week we devoted up to one lesson to working with the novel. The students read the chapters of one unit at home and then four of them "taught" their peers in class. As the chapters of the novel are numbered with prime numbers, which take the reader from chapter 2 to chapter 233 and which are no help for orientation at all, the headings we agreed on helped the students keep an overview of what was going on in the various chapters. The students talked in threes on one of the debate topics suggested by one of their classmates. They could decide in their groups which topic they liked better for their debate. These debates were usually very lively and ranged from the exchange of personal experiences to the philosophical reasoning on life and death. Retelling the story line was useful oral practice and the teaching of new words enriched their vocabulary.
As a follow-up task the students evaluated the work they had done at home and in class in groups and then wrote an evaluation and a book review. The majority liked the book, and especially the way we worked with it in class, as it gave them maximum speaking time, provided a perfect motivation for meaningful communication in the debates and taught them in Christopher's words that "...a thing is interesting because of thinking about it and not because of it being new." Their logbooks were handed in and corrected.
In conclusion we could say with Mark Haddon that "...it's a desperately sad book and /readers/ wept most of the way through it. Other people say it's charming and they kept laughing all the time...Because Christopher doesn't force the reader to think one thing and another, I get many different reactions..." and this is what makes this novel great for young investigative minds.
* to find out more about Jean Pol Martin's brilliant work on Lernen durch lehren ( Learn it by teaching it) visit this German language website: www.ldl.de
Please check the Creative Methodology For The Classrooms at Pilgrims website.