Last year, my students slogged through Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, blogged a little about its language, and begged for a Hollywood movie version of the story, even though we had seen a live performance based on the classic story. This was a pretty typical response, I’d say, based on my experience teaching most heavy-duty literature outside that was outside the realm of my students’ experience.
So this year I shook things up a bit and explored Dickens’s story by blending a number of venues, both online and face-to-face, that we use to learn today: performance, reading and discussion, interactive games, research, and experience.
We are lucky to have an yearly production of A Christmas Carol staged by the Alley Theater in Houston, and the sixth grade looks forward to its second-quarter field trip to the theater. As it happened, this year I arranged too late for our tickets, and we were only able to secure seats for its earliest performances, before we had had a chance to read Dickens’s story. Serendipitously, this live performance turned out to be just the thing to rev up my students’ interest and to provide a visual context for an era they knew little about.
I’ve consistently resisted my students’ calls for the more recent Hollywood versions of Dickens’s story. I even eschewed my childhood favorite, the Mr. Magoo version, despite its animated charm. Perhaps I want my students to imagine Marley’s Ghost and company without the overdone special effects of contemporary film. Instead, I steered them towards an audio version of the story available online — Jonathan Winters’s tremendously entertaining reading of A Christmas Carol — so they could hear the words of a great writer in a great actor’s voice.
Reading and Discussion
Because my students had already viewed a theatrical version of the Dickens tale, they jumped into their reading of the text without their usual hesitation. I led them towards a deeper understanding of the book’s setting as it appeared on the page, and we began to make lists of how the story depicted its Christmas setting. What do we learn from visiting Scrooge’s office? How do the ghosts carry Scrooge into different Christmas scenes, and what do they tell us? What can we learn from the original illustrations of the text, available online at the Gutenberg project or downloadable as an interactive application?
Reading A Christmas Carol provides a wonderful opportunity for blogging about language as well. With more time in the future,I would bring back and integrate the blogging I had students do last year about the story’s language. Students chose a sentence from the text to annotate by examining the language more closely, looking for copyright-free images, and doing online research.
Gaming (A Side Note)
The animations in the app for A Christmas Carol, which I introduced my students to previously, led me to consider the role of gaming in the story. Scrooge’s visit to his nephew’s house with the Ghost of Christmas Present depicts the joy to be shared in simple Victorian parlour games without the use of gadgets or electronics, and this certainly piqued my students’ curiosity.
As a result, my students flocked to research about games of the period, produced a “how to” video on the games they studied, and introduced games like “Find the Thimble” to their peers at our culminating activity. The sharing of information about games via video first captured their interest and provided their own version of “flipped” instruction for learning.
Independent Multi-Disciplinary Research
But I get ahead of myself. The real shift happened when I joined forces with our Social Studies teacher for a shared research project using A Christmas Carol as a starting point for putting together a Victorian Christmas party. Our students would use online tools and research with a project students could literally sink their teeth into.
We formed committees of students to help us create a Victorian Christmas party that could be as historically accurate as possible. Students would collaborate to research recipes, decorations, traditions, entertainment, and clothing options.
The project was launched with a standard K-W-L pre-writing exercise — our students already knew a bit about their topic from their experience with A Christmas Carol. My colleague reviewed primary sources and how to evaluate a website. I helped students with key word search ideas, advanced Google search settings, and an introduction to SweetSearch. We discussed how best to use Wikipedia — as a starting place — and a few other good websites for initial investigations: The BBC’s “Make Your Own Victorian Christmas” and The Complete Victorian’s “Victorian Christmas.”
On one occasion, a student asked, “Can I use something on Ebay as a source?” I hesitated, then remembered that Laura Hillenbrand had used Ebay extensively to research her remarkable book Seabiscuit. “Sure,” I said, “and how about Pinterest as well?” With either online tool, students could possibly find primary source materials, decoration ideas, recipe books, and party games. They would only need to evaluate the information shared there, just as they would for any other site.
During the research process, students kept a digital log with brief summaries of their best sources (including one primary source). They also shared out their findings to their classmates on our lino board.
At our Victorian Christmas Party, students made traditional Victorian Christmas cards in a room decorated with hand-made wreaths and table centerpieces. A Christmas tree decorated with paper chains and cloth ornaments connected childhood pastimes to their origination in the Victorian era.
Students shared PowerPoint presentations on Victorian dress and demonstrated their knowledge of Victorian parlour games with a DIY video. Others led groups of students in rounds of Blind Man’s Bluff and Charades as the food committees dished up hot chocolate, trifle, and plum cake. Finally, students were seated at tables with formal placecards (made by the decorating committee) to sample potatoes, sausages, and punch.
Blended Learning for a Common Goal
As I design any learning experience for my students, I like to think about what needs to be learned in a classroom and what is better moved to a digital setting. For our project, I think it was important that we bookended their experiences with face-to-face learning: opening with a live theater performance and closing with real-life applications of their learning. In-between my students conducted independent research, much of it on their own, with a meaningful purpose in mind.
At the same time, I recognize the importance of providing a digital space for students to share their learning with one another. Our lino board allowed learning to continue outside the classroom. With their tutorial video, students essentially “flipped” a lesson about Victorian games while encouraging students to rediscover the value of face-to-face gaming.
The joy my students felt in the learning process, even as they built upon reading a stuffy old primary source like A Christmas Carol, was palpable. By blending learning environments for my students in a collaborative project, I was able to design an experience that both engaged them more effectively and that encouraged them to go deeper with their learning.
Dickens would have been pleased.