These were based on some notes I took when I was doing observations in my teaching program. This was with 7th Grade classes that were watching Dead Poets Society after taking a rather exhausting statewide assessment.
The observations crystallized a point about literature about how students learn. One of those is that students should be encouraged to have wonderful ideas. It is important to note that wonderful ideas are about what the student learns, rather than the teacher. There was an example in the class of a student having an insight that might otherwise be ignored. The film was paused to allow the students to write in their journals, and Ms. Smith (not the real name) asked the class what they felt had been important in the first half of the hour. Sander (student names are pseudonyms) said that he thought the reference to “O Captain” was important. Ms. Smith asked why. Sander responded that there were numerous reference to Walter Whitman (sic) who seemed to be the hero of Robin Williams’ character. Ms. Smith complimented him on making a good point, and noted that it tied into an Essential question for the unit on the nature of heroes. I’ve known “O’Captain” as a pop culture reference for several years, so it’s easy for me to ignore this particular insight, but it was valuable in this case.
When children wrote essays about the film, many had similar observations, picking up on similar themes. They wrote about a particular subplot about a boy who wanted to be an actor, and disappointed his parents. They also wrote about the struggle between what’s expected and what’s right. The idea that so many hit on the same themes is perfectly appropriate. It’s a normal part of the process. There were some interesting exceptions, and those were a joy to read. One student was sympathetic to the establishment, determining that they had reasons for doing things the way they did. One student considered the subplot of a boy who was expelled, and its significance. Another suggested that the film ended on a false triumph. One description of the final scene tied it into an earlier scene where a student was taught how to yawp. Jessica made a digression into her hatred of eating bread, while referencing the concept of free write. Fatima was more sensitive to race, describing the implications of the setting in a story in a school that only has white male students, and how this form of exclusion is wrong.
Many students are going to reach conclusions about stories that may seem obvious to teachers, and this is something where some people (myself included) would have to tread carefully. It’s going to take kids some time to realize the stuff that we’ve known for a long time, but that at some point, took us a while to realize. We have to allow for both with the conclusions that are unique, and the conclusions that are shared.