Yesterday afternoon, my office, student ("P") on his way out the door after having successfully completed -- after 6+ weeks of it hanging like an albatross around his "Ancient Mariner" neck -- his "Ozymandias" poem memorization project.
"Nicely done. Pleased that your parents and I can finally celebrate your quarter grade the next time we're on the phone together. And I have to believe there's a bit of a weight off your shoulders now that you'll pulled off this assignment."
"Definitely feels good. And you know what? I actually ended up liking this poem once I memorized it. Crazy, that."
Backstory: Every one of my 10th graders -- 4 sections worth (the entire 10th grade for our school, actually) -- were given the following non-negotiable challenge the first week of this 3rd quarter:
Each of you has been assigned the challenge to memorize Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias," a 14-line poem centered on the historical fragments of one leader's "cold command" that lies "half sunk" in sand long after his proclamation of greatness was supposed to inspire "[d]espair" in those standing before him.
You are to write out the full poem -- word for word, punctuation mark for punctuation mark -- without making a single mistake of any type. Not even a single comma out of place or a missing moment of capitalization. Perfection, in other words.
There are 2 possible grades: "zero" or "A+". Nothing in between. Until you ace it, you'll have a "big fat zero" in the gradebook for an assignment that is the equivalent of a major essay.
Granted, you can re-take the challenge over and over again (outside of class) anytime this quarter until you ace it...but don't be tempted to wait too long to get it done. Trust me. You do not want to be trying to 're-memorize' it weeks from now after forgetting about the assignment as the rest of the syllabus takes over.
That being said, this will be a real test for many of you. And it'll be a great warm-up as we prime our brains/imaginations for doing similar work -- on paper and in front of an 'audience' -- once Shakespeare comes knocking on the classroom door later this semester.
Funny. A few weeks later, I was in Philly for EduCon 2.0. Mentioned this assignment/challenge to a few new colleagues during one of the breakout workshops centered on 'authentic' assignments. Still struck by one of the very well-intentioned educators who immediately responded:
"What? You're really going to make every one of your students memorize the entire poem without even a single mistake? Can they really do this? I don't think they can. Personally, I think it's a mistake."
Wow. A Mistake. And she wasn't kidding.
As of yesterday, I'm only 4 kids away -- out of the ENTIRE 10th grade -- from having 100% success with this project. This includes the natural actors; it also includes the ESL and alternative-learning-modality kiddos, too. No exceptions.
To get there, we didn't even use a blog or Twitter-tweets or wiki-up our thoughts. Nope. Used pretty antiquated tools, to be honest. Just time, brains, paper, a book, and zero apologies. Even a blackboard (the dry erase type with no 'smart' nuttin' plugged in).
In spite of all the hyper-attention given to bleeding-edge technologies and ramped-up global collaboration these days, sometimes the really epic 'teaching/learning' moments happen when you put a non-negotiable line in the sand for EVERY kid that demands an all-or-nothing approach with zero apologies for having done so. Amazing what happens when something that challenges even your best-n-brightest is something the not-so-strong kiddos pull off also. Pretty much levels the playing field for the rest of the year so we can get down to the business of really pushing hard on ideas in class.
These kids will never forget this poem. Never. Heck, I still remembered after 21 years because my own 11th grade English teacher pulled this crazy business on us, too. And a few just like "P" -- kids who normally 'tread water' through their English class -- discovered that through 'authentic' old-skool challenge, a real passion for something 'academic' happened beyond their control.
See below for the link to read the full poem.
Maybe you'll even take on the challenge of memorizing it yourself. Spring Break is coming up. Might be a nice change from mowing the lawn or hanging out on the beach.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert... Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.