A collaboration between teachers and grades transported junior high students to ancient Greece and a futuristic world this week. Together, they explored the meanings of allegory, free will, and enlightenment.
“The Allegory of the Cave” is the work of Plato. In the story, there are prisoners who are chained to their seats and can only see passing shadows on the wall of the cave. Since they are unaware of the source of those shadows, they, of course, assume them to be reality. When one prisoner breaks free, he suddenly realizes that he and his fellow den mates know nothing. He then embarks upon the difficult journey outside the cave and discovers the source of all things in the visible world. When he stumbles back into the cave to share his knowledge, the cave dwellers decide there should be a rule about people ascending, and that such people should be put to death.
Collaborating on this lesson were: James Kinkaid, who teaches two sections of “English 8”; Kristie Stevens, who teaches one section of English 8 and all sections of “English 7”; and Lauren Underwood, the Junior High gifted coordinator. They are excited about the potential of future collaboration across grade level. As the Ottawa Hills Junior High consists only of two grades (7th and 8th), the shared assignment had the effect of not only blending students of different ages, abilities, and grades, but also of uniting the building.
“Kristie and I discussed a collaboration project over the summer,” Mr. Kinkaid said. “Not only are our classrooms close together, but these students are familiar with each other from having gone to school together for years. So taking the next step – teaching an English unit together that crossed grades – seemed worthy of experimentation.”
Added Mrs. Stevens: “Combining students of mixed-grade levels, fostering collaboration, and infusing best practices into the junior high English curriculum is an exciting prospect.”
Mr. Kinkaid and Mrs. Stevens plan to collaborate with their respective 7th and 8th grade classes whenever possible this year.
The texts used for the collaborative experiment are separated by thousands of years: Louis Lowry’s “The Giver” from 1993 and Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” from the mid-300s B.C. The works share themes of confronting reality, becoming free, and embracing enlightenment.
Even before this week’s shared mini-stage adaptation of “The Allegory of the Cave” and the breakout sessions that followed, the students were acquiring knowledge together. This summer, all 86 incoming 7th graders and 86 incoming 8th graders were assigned to read “The Giver.” The fictional novel is set in a futuristic “perfect” society in which no one knows pain, sees differences, or thinks for themselves. The main character, 11-year-old Jonas, has an epiphany that there is more to know and eventually frees everyone from their ignorance.
The combined-grade assignment took on a new dimension this week, when high school students helped to present a modest stage adaptation of “The Allegory.” During the performance, 7th and 8th graders played the role of prisoners, pretending to be chained in their seats and unable to move their heads. They saw only the “shadows” cast by the cave’s fire – representing the artificial reality that Plato said defined unenlightened existence. In keeping with the form of Plato’s original work, students also recited answers in response to the narrator’s questions.
Following the performance, students were assigned to one of two classrooms regardless of grade. Back in the classrooms, they examined the performance and the two texts - first by themselves and then in groups, by using four progressively more abstract (and difficult) levels of reasoning. Hopefully, such projects will not only build skills and collaboration, but also help students understand their role in the pursuit of learning, the ‘steep and rugged ascent’ toward the light.