Eric Sargent has an unenviable job, from a certain perspective. He has a range of learners to reach, teaching classic literature to restless freshmen and honors seniors, and Walt Whitman and Herman Mehlville aren’t exactly writers who call to the teenage boy.
But from another lens, and one that Eric himself embraces, he has the best job in the world — introducing young men to deep thinkers from every age, challenging his students to debate and defend ideas that still shape our world and our own identities.
On this blog we’ve highlighted a number of engagement strategies St. John Vianney High School teachers use to engage students. Young men in Eric’s classes are no stranger to competitions and playful brain breaks in his courses, but one unique element Eric has woven into his class is a strategy he terms “voicing literature.”
For students in Eric’s classes, “voicing literature” is the process of shaping our understanding of poems and prose (which can sometimes seem a bit dusty) by breathing our own voices into it and broadcasting those to the broader world. Eric has challenged his students to engage in “voicing” in the following ways:
Eric and Doug Storm, Eric’s former English teacher and mentor, run a collaborative blog called “The Monkey Rope,” an allusion to the seafaring tool used by protagonists in Herman Mehlville’s Moby Dick. As his students wrestle with challenging material, Eric will post reflective prompts and audio samples on the blog, assigning these as homework. The beauty of these prompts is their open-ended nature, driving a conversation that bleeds into class time.
In Eric’s words,
“Our goal is to encourage thinking in as many guises as possible through the medium of the technology. Our title, taken from chapter 72 of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, suggests a collaborative experience, both metaphorical and literal, much like that shared by Ishmael and Queequeg on The Pequod [the whaling vessel].
A tug pulls us out to hang above the oceanic maw; a counter-pull swings us back above the deck. We are all tethered to only one end of the monkey-rope trusting our very being in a kind of blind attachment to who or what is at the other end.
The blog, in my opinion, is a low-profile, informal way of ‘sounding off’ on complex texts and ideas. It becomes a safe place for reflection and brainstorming… the genesis of higher-level thinking.”
In addition to promoting students’ voices as they work out their thinking, Eric regularly drives his students to produce more polished products, posting those to Vianney’s own literary magazine as well as in class-specific collections.
These finished projects live online through a service called Issuu, which allows them greater visibility and a more authentic audience as they are shared to parents, relatives, and strangers around the world using the power of social media.
For Eric, publishing finished work online “allows our students yet another way to showcase their talents and interests. [Publishing] reminds everyone that art and literature must be showcased and framed just as we do with our sports’ teams, chess team and theatre program.”
Finally, “voicing literature” isn’t only tied to the online world. Recently, Eric, together with Vianney’s Theater director, Mr. Al Book, opened up an opportunity to his seniors to turn a storybook into the second act of Vianney’s most recent theater production, Aesop’s Oh So Slightly Updated Fables.
“Being able to watch the process from brainstorming to draft (to more drafts) to stage is a marvellous journey. So often, students view their work as an obstacle to overcome and complete. This was a way for them to view the final product, so to speak.
Final products too often end up in a folder or binder or even in the trash. This assignment landed on the stage and will continue to tour the local grade-schools throughout the early Spring.”
For students at St. John Vianney High School, Eric’s approach to “voicing literature” has stretched them to produce work for audiences outside the four walls of their classroom. “The bottom line,” Eric says, “is less about the product and more about students buying into something that is larger than themselves.”
“Voicing literature” also seems to be less about analyzing antique texts and more about applying one’s own voice to the conversations of our modern world.