AcademicsMar 1, 2018
For what belief would you go to jail?
Students in sophomore English explore the intersection of civic activism, suffrage, slavery, and selfhood
For what belief would you go to jail? That might seem something of a heavy writing prompt, but it was a central question English Teachers Richard Scullin and Emily Pulfer-Terino ’97 posed to their sophomore students. The 10th-grade curriculum highlights the writings of the Transcendentalists, the 19th century writers, philosophers, and reformers whose ideas helped shape early American literature and political thought. Marked by the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, and known for their progressive positions, the Transcendentalists’ views were often critical of their contemporary society, particularly as the United States struggled with the question of slavery.
“The aim was to introduce students to authors who wrote and acted from a position of trusting themselves and their beliefs,” explains Mr. Scullin, who also included the writings of Frederick Douglass in the course. Though not considered a Transcendentalist, Douglass’ ideas were quite familiar to the Concord abolitionists. Additionally, Mr. Scullin structured the class much like Thoreau might have structured his day—with time alone to write, contemplate larger questions, and consider how those questions might affect them.
Throughout their work, sophomores were asked to consider how the Transcendentalists’ views on topics such as civic activism, suffrage, slavery, and selfhood intersected with their daily lives. A culminating project asked them to develop a “Blueprint for Advocacy,” a plan to effect change in their lives or in the world around them. Responses ran the gamut. One student advocated for mindfulness and taking time for herself each day. Another planned to disconnect daily from technology and get outside, while another campaigned against a policy considered unjust. “The goal was to encourage the students to believe in themselves and their ideas,” Mr. Scullin adds. “They practiced free writing and analytical writing that asked them to consider where the rubber meets the road in their lives, where ideas meet praxis. It was about trusting themselves and asking themselves, ‘Where do I stand?’”
English I students, taught by Phoebe Goodhue Milliken ’37 English Department Chair Rebecca Cook-Dubin, Julie Schutzman, Ph.D., and Mr. Scullin, took a similar approach while reading Antigone, the classic Greek play in which the title character risks death by defying a state order. “The students come to realize that this is a story about a young woman who encounters something she feels is unjust. We then examine what she does to stand up for what she believes,” Ms. Cook-Dubin explains. “We ask, ‘How does she become the voice of change?’”
In their discussions, students found themes in the play — written 2,400 years ago — that fit their lives today. “They looked at the idea of fighting for what’s right and connected it to contemporary issues,” Ms. Cook-Dubin adds. “All of them had different ideas, but they all had passions.” A final project asked them to identify the values that guided decision-making by the play’s main characters and to consider the play’s lessons about effective leadership. Notes Ms. Cook-Dubin, “We also talked about the idea that leadership sometimes is not only about taking stances that are uncomfortable, but also about acting when you think there is injustice.”
Chelsea Canal ’21 was struck by Antigone’s determination. “She did what she needed to do for her family,” says Chelsea, who enjoyed the play’s lessons and found ways to bring those lessons to her own life. “I liked seeing examples of strong female characters,” she says. “I also learned that if you are a leader, you have to be willing to compromise. You can be determined, but you have to listen to what other people say in order to get things done.”
Students found the Transcendentalists’ writing challenging, but they connected with the authors’ themes. “At first, the language was weird and confusing, but you could tell deep down that these authors were really passionate in what they believed in, including independence and taking time for themselves,” says Kailani Small ’20, whose “blueprint for advocacy” was personal. “I decided I needed to take time for myself, because this year has a new workload, with lots of homework, and I need to make sure I am taking care of myself, especially when things are stressful.”
Yaya Wang ’20 particularly enjoyed Thoreau. “I was fascinated by his ideas for civil disobedience,” Yaya says. “There are a lot of things that people complain about but don’t take action.” For her blueprint, Yaya decided to speak out against a rule at her previous middle school, where students were not allowed to have long hair. “I liked how Mr. Scullin let us reflect for ourselves and find ways to apply the readings to real life,” she adds. “The idea of sacrificing something might be unfamiliar to us, but maybe we’ll notice things more in the news now, and a small ripple can build up a big current for change.”