George Lucas Educational Foundation
Mental Health

Bringing Moments of Joy to High School English

An English teacher is redoubling his efforts to use reading and writing assignments to help students learn how to navigate the challenges of a turbulent world.

March 5, 2021
Young woman participating in English class via distance learning
rfranca / iStock

I wasn’t expecting my seniors to say Hamlet was their favorite part of the term. Their enthusiastic participation and thoughtful writing certainly demonstrated care and focus, especially considering we visited the tragedy over Zoom in December, the last month of the toughest year of most of their lives.

Of course, Hamlet wasn’t better over Zoom because of Zoom. Hamlet was better because I didn’t make students parse Hamlet’s banter for every allusion. I didn’t have them study women’s rights in Shakespeare’s time. I didn’t burrow into standards or view test prep as an antidote to “learning loss.” Even more than usual, I knew that wasn’t what my students needed.

My students needed a community devoted to wellness and joy.

They needed to feel cared for and space to show that they cared for one another, even as they completed assignments that required critical thinking, writing, and public speaking.

To that end, they needed opportunities to express themselves and reckon, both publicly and privately, with what they’ve experienced: illness, financial instability, injustice, political turmoil, a lost year, and separation from friends, teammates, and comforting routines.

For the foreseeable future, high school English teachers should place these goals at the center of the curriculum—for the remainder of this year, and next year—and any year, for that matter.

A Classic Takes on New Relevance

Last term, I introduced Hamlet as a text both relevant and escapist, a portrait of a young person buffeted by unexpected tragedy, searching for purpose, weighing competing allegiances, shaken by despair.

How does a young person cope with disruptive circumstances beyond their control? That question threaded its way through other, more contemporary, texts of the term as well—There There, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and more. Students could consider their own existential dilemmas and competing allegiances, the ways in which their plans and hopes have been derailed by the pandemic.

Hamlet always suits seniors leaving high school behind, but this year, they answer the essential question collectively. Though impacted differently along geographic, racial, and socioeconomic lines, they’re all dealing with a once-in-a-century disruption of life that may mark them forever. Hamlet, the prince, once stands to inherit a kingdom, but even such an appealing destiny may confine a bright and curious person. In their isolation, frustration, and fear, teenagers who feel the destinies they conceived for themselves threatened can relate more than usual.

Yet with this heaviness on the menu, I have also learned this year to make more space for laughter. To see sweetness and levity as serious classroom work. Even with Hamlet.

This is part of the prescription, embedded in everything from class routines to the design of projects. I’ve assigned more creative writing than usual, so students can safely share authentic feelings through fictitious characters. I want them to experiment with world-building, to be playful, free. I devote chunks of class time to one-on-one conferences about work schedules and weekend hikes as well as essay revisions.

Hamlet aside, I’ve revamped my reading list, veering toward texts that balance portraits of struggle with comedy, beauty, love, and adventure—like “If a Bird Can Be a Ghost,” by Allison Mills.

I present class as a publication. I ask students to write open letters, fiction about historical events they research, ghost stories, and papers for panel presentations on teen health. All work serves an authentic purpose beyond the “classroom” borders. We make Flipgrid “mixtapes” of speeches. I create digital magazines from students’ writing assignments, giving them the option of using pseudonyms. I share almost everything with the school community. To encourage buy-in, the public work is high-stakes and tailored to students’ needs.

Turning a Play-by-Play Into a Playful Learning Moment

While I fantasize about deleting Zoom, my Hamlet experience highlights how technology can tighten the classroom community.

As it streamed from my computer, I decided to live-chat the play, first to translate confusing passages, and then to answer student questions in real time. The familiar “group chat” framework encouraged an irreverent spirit. Students dazzled me and each other with creative emoji use: a barrage of snakes when they saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray Hamlet, black hearts and vomiting faces following Hamlet’s crude jabs at Ophelia. With my encouragement, students treated the play like an ancient precursor to the HBO teen melodrama Euphoria—a text both salacious and moving.

Together, for the benefit of the classroom, we repurposed the teenage addiction to multitasking, an issue made more glaring by remote learning—which makes gaming through class incredibly easy. Their Hamlet response essays were eventually better than I expected, but importantly, we all felt connected, like we were a lively community in spite of our distance. It was exactly what they—and I—needed.

Even as our country emerges from its pandemic crisis, next year’s students will benefit from this approach. They will carry trauma from the past year-and-a-half, losses more lasting than a dip in grades. I’m definitely not the only teacher who believes classes should respond to the emotional, social, and civic needs of students, that doing so can be therapeutic. This does not dodge academic rigor—instead, it refocuses it.

If last year meant staving off shock and horror, and this year has been about wrestling with sadness and rallying around hope, next year will be about healing.

Many journalists, parents, and officials are suddenly focused on education inequity and teen depression—not new problems. Better now than never, so long as interest doesn’t fade with the need for remote or hybrid learning. Similarly, I hope teachers of literature recognize the need for a permanent shift. Online learning has confirmed my long-held conviction that literature class is where students must work on themselves and develop healthy approaches to relationships and the challenges of a turbulent world. Some teens today see what awaits in adulthood and seek further isolation. With every unit, assignment, and strategy, we can remind them that they don’t have to.

This isn’t a response to the moment. This is the moment showing us what we should have been doing all along.

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  • Mental Health
  • Online Learning
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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