“Nothing, If Not Critical”: Learning Critical Thinking While Hanging Out with a Scholar

May 21st, 2020 | By | Category: BLTN Teachers, Featured, Spring 2020

Kayla Hostetler teaches at Aiken High School in Aiken, South Carolina. Having completed her first summer at BLSE, she is a BLTN Fellow and a Site Mentor for the BLTN NextGen South Carolina site.

One of the first courses I enrolled in last summer, as I began my Bread Loaf journey, was Dr. Britton’s Shakespeare and Race course. I selected this course purposefully. During the prior school year I was required to teach Othello for the first time, and that year I felt uncertain that I was helping my students get the most from the text. It had been ten years since I had studied Shakespeare at a university or taken a course on teaching Shakespeare. 

I had stumbled through teaching the play to my junior/senior mixed English course at Aiken High School in South Carolina. My classes reflect Aiken High School’s rich cultural and socioeconomic diversity. The school is located between three government housing complexes.There are many students who are not zoned for the school but choose to attend. As a result, I have students who do not have running water in their homes and I have students who drive BMWs to school. Close to half of a given class might have Spanish as their primary language, about 40% identify as African American, 30% Caucasian, and between 10 and 20 percent Latinx and Indian.  Several of my students typically have IEPs and 504 plans, and about 20% tend to identify as part of the LBGTQ community.

As members of such a diverse community, my students are attuned to issues of race, and they had many questions about the historical context and the racial implications of the play. I did my best to research these concepts as I was teaching. However, I felt like I was only putting out small fires as they arose during instruction. I finished the unit, determined to do much better the following year. 

Shakespeare and Race gave me the space and time to study the historical context of Othello and the contemporary racial implications of its themes and issues. As I studied for Dr. Britton’s course, I set aside items and concepts that I wanted to integrate into my unit with my juniors and seniors. One of the articles that Dr. Britton assigned was written by Dr. Emily Bartels, Dean of the Bread Loaf School of English. 

Lessons from the Mountain

I loved the article and committed to figure out a way to integrate it into my curriculum. At the end of my first summer session at Bread Loaf, I began to plan my Othello unit in detail. I realized quickly that the scholarly articles I read in Dr. Britton’s class helped me deconstruct ideas within Othello and I wanted my students to have this same experience. However, I knew that many of the articles I read would be difficult for my students.

I emailed Dr. Britton and asked him for resources that could help my students. He responded with an article and book foreword that were both accessible to my students and on the subject of race relations in Othello. After reading those articles and plotting to integrate them into my curriculum, I began to anticipate student questions that I would not be able to answer. I realized that I was not an expert on Shakespearean literature, yet I knew that I wanted to design a project that would bring the text to life for my students. I had a lot of ideas floating around in my head and I needed help to organize them. I decided to reach out to Dr. Bartels. 

When I contacted Dr. Bartels, explained some of my ideas, asked her for resources, whether she might would be willing to video conference with my classes to answer their questions, she responded immediately and positively. She suggested resources for me and my students. She gave me feedback on my idea to have the students do a mock trial with Iago as a defendant, helping me think through and modify this assignment to have the students be text detectives first and to let them select whom to put on trial and what charges to file. 

She also agreed to have several Google Hangout video conferences with us. I invited her to my classroom to interact with the students in person, too, at the end of the unit. (Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we were not able to meet face to face with Dr. Bartels as originally planned.)  I knew that my students would benefit from the opportunity to interact with a Shakespearean scholar, but we were all a bit nervous.

Meeting a Scholar

My students were excited yet hesitant prior to our first meeting. Several students were worried about sounding “dumb”. They told me that they went home and researched Dr. Bartels’ academic work and saw she had a PhD from Harvard. I reassured them that Dr. Bartels was amazing and would love them. Before each meeting with Dr. Bartels, my students would read articles and an act of Othello. They would annotate the text and then create a list of questions for her.

Dr. Bartels put my students at ease. She answered their questions and asked them their thoughts on what they read. She gave them positive feedback and stated several times “that their interpretations were just as valid as her own”. She helped them understand that everyone’s analysis of a text is valid, if they are able to support it with textual evidence. Students had many questions about racial interactions and women’s roles during the time period. Dr. Bartels was able to answer their questions clearly and make connections to race and women’s roles in contemporary society. After the first meeting, I asked my students what they thought. Several students were in awe of Dr. Bartels. One young man, Jack, commented that she was “very cool and easy to talk with”. Another young lady, Maria, stated that “she made her excited to go to college, if that is how college professors are”. Numerous students also reflected that she helped them understand what they were reading just as she posed questions that made them think more about the text. 

After students started engaging with the text in depth, individuals started asking Dr. Bartels what she thought of Iago and his actions. They wanted to know what she thought about his intentions. They wanted to know if Dr. Bartels thought Iago was a “snake” and wanted to know why Othello could not see that Iago is “a snake”. Dr. Bartels first asked the students if they ever had a friend who deceived them. She conveyed the idea that Iago’s actions were timeless and transcended the time period. Dr. Bartels communicated to the students that a play challenges us in ways similar to the challenges of interacting with each other in society. On a stage we have to select what characters to pay attention to and we have to interpret their intentions from their actions, just as in life we watch others’ actions and speech to determine their intentions. We often cannot hear characters’ thoughts in plays, just like we cannot hear people’s internal thoughts in real life. This concept energized my students; they were blown away by this idea. After the video conference, they kept repeating versions of “I never thought about plays in that way. I never made that connection before.”

What Do You Think?

During the course of her visits, Dr. Bartels would routinely ask students,  “What do you think?” Students would in turn tell me that they could not believe that an expert wanted to know their thoughts on the play. This dynamic charged our preparation for each visit. Students knew Dr. Bartels was going to ask them questions and they wanted to be prepared. The students were excited on our video conferencing days. They would come in smiling, saying “Today we get to talk to Dr. B.” (I have learned that when you become “Ms. H.” or “Dr. B.”, you have earned their respect.) Students also started to borrow her books that I had sitting in the front of the room and several asked for copies of articles she wrote. They wanted to know more about what Dr. Bartels wrote. They took turns borrowing her books and articles. They would come to me after reading and say, “She is a genius”. 

During the mock trial prep, I would hear them say phrases such as “In Dr. Bartels’ book it says…” or “During our conversation with Dr. Bartels, she said…”. My students became Dr. Bartels fans. 

Learning Together

The experience of video conferencing with Dr. Bartels engaged my students deeply in the text, Othello, and made them excited to read scholarly articles. They easily transitioned into text detectives and held phenomenal mock trials in each class. During video conferences, I found myself taking notes on comments Dr. Bartels said to my students. We would have a discussion the following day after conferences. We would discuss what “ah-ha” moments they had during the video conference. I would share my “ah-ha moments” with the students, telling them what I was learning as well. 

This entire experience taught me how transformational educational experiences can be for students when high school English teachers reach out to literary scholars and professors who are experts on texts. My early emails with Dr. Britton and Dr. Bartels helped me access resources for the unit —resources that helped me better instruct my students. Being able to write through ideas with feedback from a Shakespearean scholar helped me tailor my lesson activities to help my students interpret the text independently. Students having access to Dr. Bartels to ask her questions directly motivated them to continue analyzing Othello and gave them a resource to answer complex questions. 

A Different Kind of Virtual Learning

COVID-19 is requiring all of us to shift our learning to digital interactions. While this shift creates limitations, it also highlights our opportunity to invite experts into our classroom via video conferencing. There is a plethora of articles about how students are not prepared to transition to college. Interactions like the ones my students had with Dr. Bartels are one way to help students bridge the gap from high school to college. Dr. Bartels’ faith in students’ ideas, and her demonstration to students that university faculty can help them connect their own fresh ideas to those of the past were deeply encouraging to all of us. 

I am grateful to Dr. Emily Bartels for volunteering her time and motivating us all to read and see the relevance of Shakespearean texts. I would like to think that we have all emerged better equipped to see the choices characters make in plays, and to understand both the limitations and the power of our own interpretation of events.  In Act 2 of Othello, Iago jokes with Desdemona, saying, “For I am nothing, if not critical.” Of course, like so much in the play, the exchange is full of irony. But  I’d like to think that my students will leave this year with a fresh blend of curiosity and faith in their own ideas, and in the best sense, be “nothing, if not critical.” 

What a joy to engage with Kayla Hostetler and her students — to join their deeply thoughtful and creative exploration of Othello. In our exchanges, the students, well-primed by their own investigations, raised provocative questions, as important to the play as to our own moment: why do so many citizens fall prey to the lies of a self-serving, other-destroying con-man? how does racial, sexual, or gender bias factor into a society’s embrace or excoriation of its subjects? how can we read interiors – “love,” “feeling,” “motive” – in a world where representation is all we’ve got? I left our conversations eager to go back to Othello, impressed by the students’ ability to grapple with the toughest parts of Shakespeare and by their willingness to take real intellectual risks – in front, no less, of a stranger beaming in from cyberspace. These young people and their teacher demonstrate the best of teaching and learning, and we are all lucky that our future is in their hands. 

Emily Bartels, Dean, Bread Loaf School of English

3 Comments to ““Nothing, If Not Critical”: Learning Critical Thinking While Hanging Out with a Scholar”

  1. Eric Miller says:

    This article is very encouraging, thank you, Kayla! I also work with students in a rural, southern community who often feel left behind, or that their opinions do not matter. I love how Emily Bartels engaged with your students, empowering them to share their interpretations, and promoting scholarly research. I share in the anxiety of not knowing enough or not being the expert that I expect myself to be, which can sidetrack me from engaging with my students and focusing on what I do know. It is such a relief to know that we do not have to do this alone!

  2. Kurt Ostrow says:

    I really love this. I particularly like that interacting with a college professor around scholarly work made the prospect of attending college less intimidating. I love that Emily would turn the questions back around on your students, too, reminding them that we’re all going to make up our own answers. That that’s what scholarship is! Really super cool, Kayla! The mock trial is fun, too.

  3. Gregory Booth says:

    1. To interact with Emily Bartels is to love Emily Bartels.
    2. This is a really inspiring project, likely transformational for your students.

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