Friday, February 5, 2010

Excitement You Can't Hold In

Class date: Wednesday, Jan. 27th

As of today the students have forced me to restructure my class.

Can you remember the last time you met a friend for lunch, or picked up your child from school, and before you can even say hello they're bursting with exciting news they want to share. Now imagine fifteen such individuals all eager to share with you their thrilling news. Today, that's what I experienced, and I decided I had to adjust the way I conduct class.

As part of the daily ritual, whenever a teacher walks into the classroom, the whole class stands up and remains quiet while they are greeted by the teacher. As soon as I walked in, the excited uproar of comments over last night's reading started. I couldn't help but be swept up in the excitement and break with the ritual to listen, just a bit:

"Mr. Travers! Mr. Travers! It was dramatic!"
"It was disturbing!"
"I was scared!"
"It was sad! Tragic!"

It was all I could do to get everyone under control to greet me appropriately!

So, what was it that made the class so enthralled by last night's reading?
Three of the main characters, whose motivations we've studied in isolation of each other, came clashing together in an intensely dramatic few pages.

Claude Frollo, obsessed with Esmeralda, and jealous of Phoebus, finds out that the gypsy and the captain are to rendez-vous. The priest tracks Phoebus and is able to hide in the room where the lustful captain is to meet the enamored gypsy. (For more on Frollo's obsession, refer to the entry titled "Illustrating a Soul")

This is the first meeting between the two. Esmeralda, wholly in love with Phoebus, wants to be instructed in Phoebus's religion so that they may be married. However, Phoebus dismisses such a notion as nonsense and slinks his arm around her waist. At this point, Andy reminded us of the "opposite" views of love the two of them have. (For more on Phoebus's vs. Esmeralda's attitudes towards love see the entry titled "Opposites Attract?")

Meanwhile, the hidden Frollo, seething with jealousy, tests the point of a dagger against the tip of his finger. Several students, at this point of our discussion, uttered concerned moans.

As Phoebus leans in for the kiss Esmeralda is finally willing to allow, the demonic priest towers over Phoebus, stabs him, and kisses Esmeralda as she faints.

When Esmeralda wakes, she sees Phoebus’ body being carried away and hears, “She’s a witch who just stabbed a captain.” Several students sighed--Phoebus is probably dead, the wicked murderer escaped, and Esmeralda is blamed!

How could I blame the students for bursting with excitement after having reading that chapter? In fact, I'm now reserving a couple of minutes at the beginning of every class to hear their reactions!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Art Class- Part II (of two)

Class date: Tuesday, Jan. 26th

As we began class today, one student (I'll call her Rebecca) sheepishly asked if she could retrieve her literature binder which she had forgotten in another classroom.

"Perfect!" I thought to myself, "This will help illustrate the theme of today's class."

She was a little nervous because she would have to walk into a class already in session to retrieve her binder. I asked her how she felt about going. "Embarrassed!" she said. “Everyone will be staring at me!”

Upon her return we inquired how it went (yep, she noticed the stares), and we turned to some art.

We started by looking back at the three artworks we had examined during Thursday's class ("Art Class- part 1 of 2"). Despite showing vastly different subjects, the students noticed the similarities between Father Joseph, Ruby Bridges, and Venus:

1. Each of these characters was the center of attention.

2. They all seemed to be oblivious to the attention.

We then looked at a new painting:


In the center of a bevy of young women, a young boy (with wings) stands soaking up the attention. Cupid, the young boy, is being gazed upon adoringly and, as Adan put it, “he looks flattered by all the attention.” At this point I asked the students to recall a time when they had enjoyed positive attention. I saw several smiles of recollection: showing off a beautiful dress, receiving applause at a recital, etc.... In the painting, the young women corral their favorite god hoping to be the next one he pierces with his arrow, and he enjoys the attention.

Then came a slide of this same Cupid side by side with Joseph, Ruby, and Venus. After a few moments, I started hearing the "oohs"and "aahs" of realization--the similarities and, especially, the difference were becoming clear.

Unlike Joseph, Ruby, and Venus, Cupid is fully aware of the attention paid him--he is self-conscious... just like, as the students figured out, Rebecca was while retrieving her binder.

Whether the attention paid them was positive or negative, Joseph, Ruby, and Venus were, on the other hand, oblivious to it. They weren’t even ignoring the others--which implies awareness--they were “in their own world”—unself-conscious.

So what did this identification of being self-conscious versus unself-conscious have to do with The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

Hands were being raised as lightbulbs were turning on. Before they said too much about Esmeralda, I showed them one more painting--actually, the lower half of a painting: a crowd of rugged looking medieval folk shouting and pointing up at something. As the students were starting to remember the scene, I showed the top half: Esmeralda offering water to Quasimodo on the pillory oblivious to the agitated crowd.

Though a seemingly minor trait of Esmeralda's, she might not have been capable of her "sublime" act were she self-conscious.

For pre-teens feeling the pressures of conformity and popularity, Esmeralda provides an image of self-assurance under scrutiny.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Illustrating a Soul

Class date: Monday, Jan. 25th

Today in Class we got to know the most enigmatic character of the novel—Claude Frollo. Part of the class likes him, the other part isn't sure. Part of the class thinks he hates Esmeralda, and another part thinks that he likes her.

Throughout his life Frollo has been a dedicated priest and a devoted brother. And though he has expressed hatred towards Esmeralda, whom we all like, he did save the infant Quasimodo when others were bent on burning him alive. And in spite of the Parisian populace thinking he is sorcerer, he is committed to his pursuit of divine knowledge, alchemy.

In this chapter we discover that some powerful feelings are interfering with his pursuit of alchemy.

As he tries to work, two names keep coming to mind, “Esmeralda” and “Pheobus.” He cannot concentrate--he is tortured with desire and jealousy. He, a priest, is in love with a gypsy girl.

Later in the scene, as he consults with a fellow alchemist, he notices a fly caught in a web in the corner of a window. To the bemusement of his colleague, he begins to explain how the fly and spider are a reflection of himself. And, having just seen him struggle in his concentration, we were able to piece together the metaphor.

Frollo, as he explains, is the little fly fluttering towards the sun outside—a na├»ve pursuer of divine knowledge. The fly, on it’s way to enlightenment, is suddenly caught in a web with a spider lying in wait. The spider, again, is Frollo—another part of him: his obsession with Esmeralda. He is a man fighting his feelings as he strives for his goal, and losing.

Having strong emotions keeping us from concentrating is a state of mind the students were all able to identify with. We will soon see how Frollo handles his feelings. But with Frollo's own sinister metaphor, the fly does not seem to have much of a chance against the spider.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Art Class- Part I (of two)

Class date: Friday, Jan. 22nd

For today, instead of literature class, I will share with you a glimpse of our art appreciation class.

We looked closely at three paintings featuring a 17th c. priest, a Roman deity, and a young girl from Louisiana, respectively. So what do these have to do with The Hunchback of Notre Dame? As Andy said, "You always have a reason, Mr. Travers." But, for now, enjoy the art!

When introducing a work of art, I have the students do a "reading"--they write everything they see in the image as they are seeing it, for five minutes. Their pencil does not leave their paper. When they're done, we share with each other the descriptions, identify the insightful observations, and start to piece together the moment being depicted.

Today, with the help of the students' "readings", I will introduce you to each of the artworks. (The links take you directly to high quality images of the artworks. All quotes below, unless otherwise noted, are drawn from the students' own "readings".)

The Gray Cardinal

A group of colorfully arrayed fops are "tipping their hats and bowing" as they climb a grand staircase. They all bow towards an emaciated priest in a worn brown cassock. He, surprisingly, does not seem to take notice of the adulation. (At this point, I asked the students how they’d feel if everyone in the class bowed down to them as they walked in! "I'd love it," exclaimed one of them.) The priest, rather, is absorbed in his book "minding his own business". (Even the guard and the figure on the top balcony are staring at him!).

Father Joseph, the priest, was the handpicked confidant of Cardinal Richelieu. The most powerful figure on the staircase was specifically chosen because he took no notice of power.

The Problem We All Live With

A sweet young African-American girl marches forward in the middle of four serious-looking "men with suits and badges" who are "escorting her." A tomato "looks as if [it] has been thrown" from where the viewer stands. A racial epithet is graffitied on the wall. An angry crowd is implied. The young girl, "school supplies in her hand", is un-fazed by the belligerent onlookers. She takes long strides, eyes forward, fists clenched—"she is walking like the guards" remarked Hank, observantly. She is mimicking them.

In her memoirs, Mrs. Bridges recalled that when she arrived for her first day of school--the first day of integrated schools in Louisiana--she wondered if the crowd outside the school was celebrating Mardi Gras.

The Birth of Venus

The beautiful goddess of love stands surrounded by a group of nymphs "hugging their husbands" and cupids. "All eyes are fixed on her", "admiring the goddess." (Several of the students, with their knowledge of the attributes of Greco-Roman gods learned last year, identified her in their readings!) The celebration of her birth is accentuated by the male figures "blowing conch shells", the spiraling cloud of "cupids flying around" like a flock of celebratory doves being released, and a dolphin drawn shell-chariot. The goddess has her eyes half-closed and "is oblivious" to the attention she receives. (As Adan identified, her pose suggests that she is waking up!)

So, what do these paintings all have in common? And how are they related to our novel?

Stay tuned!

(The conclusion of the art class will be in the entry for Tuesday, Jan. 26th)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Opposites Attract?

Class date: Thursday, Jan. 21st

Today we got to know Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers—the heroic captain of the King’s archers who came to the rescue of Esmeralda as she was being kidnapped by a villainous hunchback!

Prior to this chapter, all we knew about him was that he is handsome and that Esmeralda loves him.

The chapter opened with the dapper captain in a place he'd rather not be: the home of his betrothed, Fleur-de-Lys. Uncomfortable with the aristocratic young lady, and, more so, with the prospect of marriage, Phoebus is forced into awkward conversation with her by his future mother-in-law. The poor girl, who hears him ask her the same inane question for the third time, yearns for some indication that he loves her, or, at least, is looking forward to their marriage. However, we learn that Phoebus is vain and shallow, and would rather go to taverns than come visit his betrothed. So, when everyone's attention is drawn to a pretty gypsy dancing outside, he immediately welcomes the distraction... and the pretty gypsy.

So far, in our study of the novel, we've used a couple of different approaches to better understand the characters. We've visualized them ("Bringing Quasimodo to Life"), charted their relationship to other characters ("Character web"), and personally connected with them ("Something Precious... to Me"). But, this time, we used a different approach to clarify our understanding of Phoebus.

After having gotten a sense of Phoebus' character, I asked the students to compare Phoebus to Esmeralda.

“He’s the opposite!” said Katy, starting us off in the right direction.

After several more student comments along the lines of, “Phoebus only cares for himself, but Esmeralda thinks of others,” we came to the two characters' attitudes to love.

As the students had read, Phoebus does not seem to take love seriously. It’s a chore for him to spend time with the one he is supposed to love for the rest of his life.

When I asked what love meant for Esmeralda, Andy raised his hand immediately and answered by quoting a line we read last week, “For Esmeralda, love ‘is being two and yet being only one.’” In my excitement at his answer, I interrupted with praise before he finished the rest of the quote: “A man and a woman fused into an angel. It’s heaven!”

Not only did the differentiation of the two characters clarify what was important to them, but it gave the students the sense of a potential conflict to come--Esmeralda loves a man who does not share her sacred view of love.

And, furthermore, the seeds for an understanding of the deeper meaning of the novel have been planted.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Tear for a Drink of Water

Class date: Wednesday, Jan. 20th

One of my favorite parts of teaching literature is reading aloud the final chapter of a book to the students. But that's only the final chapter, and they read the rest at home. I wish I could partake more in their experience!

That was the case, especially for last night’s reading. At the end of yesterday’s class, I told the students that they would be reading the most dramatic scene, so far, in the novel...

“I cried last night,” said one of the students before today’s class started.

But he was not the only one to get emotional during last night’s reading. Along with the tears, the students expressed outrage, compassion, and adoration.

So, what did we do in class? We reread parts of the chapter, of course :-)

Quasimodo is placed on a pillory to be lashed publicly, then displayed ignominiously for the attempted kidnapping of Esmeralda. The crowd in the Place de Greve, who had paraded him through the very same square the previous day, was, now, vengefully yelling insults and throwing stones at the hunchback. Confused and angered, Quasimodo first struggles helplessly against his bonds, then resigns himself to his suffering. “I feel bad for him,” said several students with hurt looks on their faces.

Suddenly, a ray of hope! His protector and father, Claude Frollo, appears in the crowd. But, just as suddenly, he lowers his head, turns around, and leaves. Daly was particularly indignant and agreed whole-heartedly that Frollo, to whom Quasimodo was so devoted, was a jerk.

After nearly being stoned to death, Quasimodo cries out one desperate word—“Water!” The response: his suffering is mocked even more, and a pitcher is thrown at him, breaking over his deformed back. Then, in this atmosphere of anger and hatred, suddenly, calm--but not a ray of hope. To the hunchback’s horror, Esmeralda is walking up the pillory stairs—he thinks she comes for revenge. Coming near him, she opens a gourd, and, to his shock, she holds the water to his mouth—an act of compassion the persecuted Quasimodo has never experienced before and which his adoptive father was incapable of. He sheds a tear for the first time in his life. He wasn't the only one to tear up.

Part of the purpose of rereading dramatic scenes as a class is to discuss and understand explicitly what makes the scene so powerful—to understand the reasons for our emotional responses.

And, another part... well, that's my ulterior motive--to relish in the students' reactions.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Tipping Point

Class date: Tuesday, Jan. 19th

When I was a teenager, I once stayed up all night reading a novel called The Albatross. The story opens with a sailboat sinking and the few survivors having to face the immediate challenge of survival on their little lifeboat. I was riveted.

When someone, today, asks me if I’ve read a certain book, my answer is, pretty often, "Well... I started it." Other times, the first part of a book will drag a little for me, until suddenly, I'm into it! I get over the hump and it's all downhill enjoyment from there.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is likely the most complex and difficult book most of the students have read. And, were I their age, I might not have the patience to get through the first 70 pages on my own. By the time Hugo has finished describing the Palace of Justice in chapter one, the sailboat in the The Albatross has already sunk and the survivors probably attacked by sharks.

Through the first 70 pages our novel, we waded through exposition. And though the characters are fascinating and the settings evocative, the main story-line isn't developed much--a pretty big hump! In fact, the one hint of action, so far, fills about two pages—the attempted kidnapping of Esmeralda by Quasimodo, and the subsequent rescue by Captain Phoebus.

Today, however, at the end of class, I heard an enthusiastic chorus of students shouting: "I LOVE this book!" And, the interesting thing is, last night's reading... was more exposition.

There wasn't anything particularly suspenseful or which advanced the plot. The chapter we read described a seemingly new character's back-story. So, what was it that got the students hooked?

We were introduced to Pacquette Chantefleurie, but as many students discovered on their own, or figured out during class, she isn’t as unknown to us as she’s made out to be. Picking up from the clues in the chapter, and connecting those to what they knew of the other characters, they started seeing links:

The horrible creature left in the crib belonging to Paquette's stolen baby daughter was, they figured out, Quasimodo.

“She’s the recluse in Roland tower who hates Esmeralda!” one student observed enthusiastically, referring to a character briefly introduced 40 pages earlier.

And, in their excitement at seeing the story's threads come together, the students started sharing their hypotheses for more potential connections. "Pacquette is Esmeralda's mother!" suggested Cal excitedly.

As the students started preparing for the next class, I heard one sentence repeated several times midst the chorus described above: “It’s all CONNECTING!”

It wasn't shark attacks or sinking ships which was thrilling them. It was the integrations they were starting to make on their own. The puzzle pieces, gathered through the first 70 pages, were coming together, and their minds were smoothly piecing them in place.

As one student would later tell me in private, “I thought this book was kinda boring, but now I love it!”

Yep, they’ve gotten over the hump, and they're hooked!