In high school, after my best friend’s parents sent her away to boarding school and my parents didn’t, school became a pretty lonely scene for me. Not only because of her absence and my grappling with my lesbian identity in a pre- Gay-Straight Alliance world, but maybe even more so because I was a wanna-be intellectual in a population where, in a typical year, only about 40% of the graduating class would go on to attend a four-year college.
Being engaged with the wider world of ideas landed me in a pretty small club. There were sometimes opportunities to take courses at an honors or Advanced Placement level, but it depended on interest and ability — my senior year, the AP English Literature course that I would have loved to take didn’t “run.” The rules of regular English let me test out of some of the units I could demonstrate mastery of, so Mrs. McLain found herself writing me pass after pass to the library, where I stumbled upon a video of a PBS special featuring a young Ian McKellen entitled, “Acting Shakespeare.” I was absolutely spellbound.
I watched the video over the course of multiple days and then, when I’d reached the end, re-wound it and started again. I even created my own index of what scenes appeared at what point in the recording — effectively creating a “chapter selection” option in a pre-DVD world.
Somehow Mrs. McLain found out how I was spending my “release time,” and issued me a challenge — could I memorize some Shakespeare? She must have known by then that I have a positive orientation towards challenge. I said, “Sure.” It was the only time outside of drama classes that I’d ever been asked to memorize anything. For several weeks, then, I immersed myself in Shakespeare, watching the video during school hours, then scouring the plays at night for selections that I would want to memorize. Mrs. McLain was my spark and the ultimate audience for my memorized soliloquies, but she made sure to leave me plenty of room to make the work my own.
And to this day I can recite satisfying chunks of Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew.
What made this a powerful learning experience? Here are some of the elements that seem like contributing factors:
* a strong and warm connection to my teacher
* a move from feeling isolated to feeling connected
* a chance to revel in someone else’s mastery (Shakespeare AND McKellen!)
* “opt-in” — this was essentially work I assigned myself
* challenge — I respond well to challenge
* customization
* immersion — I was spending time on this both in and out of school
* resonance — during what was an emotional time for me personally, I was able to engage with art that had strong emotional content
If anyone is interested, I’ve written up a few other stories of powerful learning experiences and posted them on my blog at (look for entries from May 8th & May 16th)
Thanks to everyone who is sharing here… some moving and thought-provoking stuff!