Beautiful to take a chance
And if you fall you fall
And I’m thinking I wouldn’t mind at all
–Burke/Van Heusen, “But Beautiful”
My high school students (grades 9-12) recently completed an inquiry unit I’d wanted to teach since I started this gig in 2012, but, for whatever reason, hadn’t. I spent some time this summer planning it, and, despite its sprawl from 6 to 9 weeks, I’m very pleased with the results, for several reasons.
The first is that the “Beauty Unit” served as a vehicle for students to learn and practice the important skills of analysis and synthesis. We started small, with Anne Frank’s sentence, “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.” Students were amazed by how big such a little sentence could get when we broke it down and investigated the meanings of individual words such as “think” and “still” and “you” and “be.” We analyzed visual texts, too, and I experienced some serendipity when technical issues prevented us from analyzing a digital image and I “resorted” to a poster I’ve had on my wall for years, of Miles Davis playing at Birdland in 1958.
This turned out well because students realized they’d looked at this photo for years but had never “seen” it. It didn’t hurt, either, that I exposed them to a fair bit of Miles Davis’s music while they looked and took notes and discussed what they saw. In their short essays analyzing the poster, many described how the process of looking carefully and thoughtfully at the poster changed how they felt about it, and that they were able to see beauty in it through their interrogations and dialogue. That was some currency I hoped I’d see them spend on their culminating projects at the end of the unit.
The second reason I’m pleased with this project, which was more of a surprise than the first, is that every student found it more difficult than they expected. Nearly every student had a very easy time choosing the topic for their culminating project (which was to be a presentation answering the question, “What is beauty to you, and what role does it play in your life?”), yet when it came down to meaningfully answering the question most of them struggled. Seeing them struggle wasn’t what pleased me; seeing them not give up did. “Beautiful to take a chance / And if you fall you fall / And I’m thinking I wouldn’t mind at all.” I did not mind, at all, watching them take chances, fall down, and get back up again for more on their way to discovering some moving things about themselves and their world.
But the best reason this unit pleased me is that nearly everyone was moved multiply by it. They moved themselves in creating and presenting their projects to their peers, and they were moved watching their peers become moved while presenting, and they were moved simply from watching presentations of such variety and depth. The power in all this, for me and them (whether they realize it or not, although I’ve tried to make this clear to them), is that most of my students were able to allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of their classmates. Many cried, some temporarily lost control, and most were surprised by their emotion. But nobody was ashamed, and everyone was supportive and appreciative. It was truly beautiful. Nothing I’ve shared with them or exposed them to has come close to creating this kind of space.
Their culminating projects included a reflective essay about their process and learning during the unit. I often include reflective essays at the ends of units, and think often of John Dewey’s remark that we don’t learn from experience, but rather from reflecting on it. My hope is that these students’ reflections on the experience of thinking about and presenting their ideas on beauty will stay with them and help them see more in their increasingly alienating world, where the superficiality of social media tends, or threatens, to dominate their existence. Time, I guess, will tell.
Still, we’re left with some artifacts I think are impressive and would like to share. Most students opted to make a Google Slides presentation, which I can’t share very easily. The topics included: sadness; eye contact; the ocean; the sound and smell of rain; the first snow; music and poetry; cattle brands; friendship; death; writing; chicken tortellini Alfredo; spring snow melt; bow hunting; brownies; sleep; memory; motocross; bull riding; irony; a piglet named Judy; time; horses; a particular mountain associated with a very-recently-passed great-grandfather; a particular mother fighting cancer; a particular uncle who’d passed away just before the student presented.
Some made videos, some of which I’ve posted below. Enjoy.
PS: I want to thank super teachers Katie Rotchford and Anna Daley, and the participating teachers in the Boise State Writing Project’s Summer Inquiry Institute last June for their helpful suggestions in planning this unit.