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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 7

Old Texts and Opera—Inciting Students to Read

An enticing reading list and a willingness to get to know students helped turn troubled teens into engaged readers.

Old Texts and Opera—Inciting Students to Read- thumbnail
There they were, the not-so-little devils, already in the classroom waiting for me. Some stood on their chairs or desks, and one student was beating his chest while hooting the primeval call of Tarzan. It was the first day of class, and I was terrified.
When the head of the English Special Education and Basics department offered me the opportunity to teach a class of 12 “special” students at this secondary school in Ontario, he made it sound as though I had just won a major prize in the lottery. He said that this would be an excellent experience that would enhance my teaching skills. But all of my optimism over this grand prospect was soon shattered. It took about half the period to calm the students down. For weeks, I could not control the mayhem. I was in the grip of combat fatigue from my first day forward.
Many of these kids became “special” students because of their prodigious ability to drive teachers into nervous breakdowns. It was the mid-1970s, when the label special education—now largely extinct in Canadian education—applied to students who were unsuccessful learners, the perceived failures in our school system. They were the difficult kids, those with disciplinary problems, who had a good deal more aptitude and talent than shortsighted teachers and school administrators were willing to admit. They were fidgeting kids who could not sit still, but they were also some of the most talented and creative—albeit dysfunctional—students in the school. They had the potential to become successful physicists, Hollywood stars, or even our most gifted writers and artists. But too often, the system saw to it that they became unsuccessful in and out of school.
The curriculum was hardly helpful in this regard. Initially, I expended gargantuan efforts trying to follow it while attempting to meet the administration's preset “aims and objectives,” but I soon realized that zealously sticking to the curriculum was suicidal for this class. Besides the fact that my students found the prescribed course of study uninteresting, most of the kids in this 11th grade English class read at about a 4th or 5th grade level, as measured by the Ontario school system.

Love, Death, and Debauchery: The Lure of Enticing Tales

Getting secondary students who cannot read well to spend time reading is not an easy task. So I started by reading to them. I chose humorously indecent stories by Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Shakespeare, adapted into modern English. I believed these stories were guaranteed to sustain anyone's interest, even this rowdy crowd.
First, I read the beginning of Boccaccio's famous tale “Andreuccio of Perugia” from The Decameron. I stopped the story short at the point when Andreuccio, the main character, is swindled by a crafty woman and then falls through a rickety bathroom floor into a pool of sewage (Boccaccio, Waldman, & Usher, 1993). To find out how the story ended, I told the class, they would have to read the rest of it out loud. No one was forced to participate; we would only continue the story on a voluntary basis. The roster of volunteers gradually grew as the students gained confidence in their improving reading skills and as Andreuccio's misadventures continued to land him in even more precarious situations. When we finished they were so surprised that this “cool” story was written by a 14th century author that many of them had to verify this fact for themselves.
Likewise, Chaucer's “The Miller's Tale” from The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet sparked the students' interest. In “The Miller's Tale,” Chaucer offers a bawdy, comical story about infidelity in which all the characters but the shrewd young wife meet embarrassing ends (Chaucer, Hieatt, & Hieatt, 1961). Of course, Shakespeare's jokes, duels, forbidden romance, and famous joint suicide made Romeo and Juliet a staple of educational entertainment long ago. As with Boccaccio's Decameron, I taught these works in the vernacular. Otherwise, these masterpieces would never have been accessible to my students. Yet after the initial reading, the class was able to read and understand Romeo and Juliet in its original language.

Real-Life Dramas

Although the students' reading improved and they were a little less rowdy, what really mattered—the passion to read and learn—was still not in them. They were difficult students, but the heart of their troubles lay beyond the classroom. A month into the semester, I found myself talking with one of these students as he waited for his hour-long bus ride home. I discovered that his personal struggles were as bleak as the tales we'd been covering in class. Because his father was in jail, the boy's workload on the family farm had doubled, and he frequently argued with his mother and siblings.
To my shame I realized that I had never made an effort to get to know any of my students on a personal level. I felt compassion for these kids and wanted them to know I truly liked and cared about them. The next day I opened class by asking, “Is anyone here unhappy or in a bad mood? Let's spend a few minutes getting to know one another and helping each other overcome unhappy feelings.”
They were startled but willing. The boy I'd talked to at the bus stop shared his situation and the kids huddled around to help him feel better. Soon others began to unburden themselves. We did this a few minutes every day, becoming a whole new, bonded class. We agreed that our disclosures would be held in the strictest confidence and would only be offered on a voluntary basis.
Opening up about their lives seemed to help the students get excited about relevant writing. For their next reading assignment, I chose ancient Egyptian documents that I hoped would give the students historical perspective while also relating to their own struggles. One of these was a father's complaint about the unruly youths in his time. It contained the usual litany of complaints about youth: their loudness, their disrespect for authority, their utter disregard for spending their money wisely, and their lack of discipline (Simpson, Faulkner, & Wente, 1973). As I read excerpts to them, I again went out of my way to hide the fact that this literature was old. When I finally revealed the age of these stories, the students could not believe it. Still, they were willing to do further reading of these Egyptian pieces on their own as their interest in the material gradually overcame their prejudices about the past.

Teaching: A Manipulative Art

So far, the class's reading was improving, thanks to a combination of carefully selected, captivating works of literature and my strategy of hiding the age of the materials to overcome my students' initial lack of interest in anything “old.” For our next endeavor, I chose a work rich in passion, intrigue, and tragedy, which I introduced through similarly secretive tactics. I wanted to teach the class an opera, specifically Ruggero Leoncavallo's celebrated I Pagliacci (Leoncavallo, 1892). Viewing opera as just another drama or comedy with more music than Shakespeare's plays, I knew the story could captivate them. But getting secondary school students, specifically “special” students, genuinely interested in an opera would mean avoiding this taboo word because it carried negative connotations for them.
While omitting the word opera was my cardinal rule, I also avoided telling the students that the story I was teaching had anything to do with music. I didn't even tell them the name of the opera until much later. This may seem highly manipulative, but I argue that teaching is just that—a highly manipulative art of communication, performance, and positive anxiety that bridges the gap between course materials and students' interests.
Over the next couple of days, before their lessons in grammar and other tasks, I told the class the libretto, or story, of the opera, in which a young wife falls in love with a villager and breaks her older husband's heart. I used slang and milked the “love triangle” aspect. Between my embellishments and the inevitable comments of the students, it took some time to finish the tale, but the class was intrigued by the plot with its double murder and suicide. When we reached the end of the tale, I mentioned, very nonchalantly, that someone had actually written a musical for this tragic story. I hoped they would take the bait. As with Boccaccio's “Andreuccio of Perugia,” further discussion of this tale would have been senseless if the students were not interested in the material.
Two days went by, and I wondered whether my hint about the accompanying music to the tale had gone unnoticed. If it had, I would have concluded that I hadn't done a very good job of telling the story. But I was not disappointed. On the third day, a student asked whether I could bring in the music from the story and play it for the class. His classmates concurred. So I slyly told them I would try to hunt down the record. When I did not bring it in the next day, they asked once more to hear the music. I took advantage of their curiosity, building anticipation, waiting until their interest reached a heightened pitch, at which point the show could go on.

Singing a New Tune: The Opera

I first presented I Pagliacci's “Vesti la giubba,” the most famous aria in the opera. I explained that the “musical” was written in Italian, showing the class the original text through an overhead projector. We read the words with the proper Italian pronunciation. I then added the English translation side by side with the Italian. I taped the records so I could teach the music better by locating examples readily and conveniently. Before playing the music, I reminded the students of the song's setting: Unable to catch his wife's lover, the husband is in despair. He knows his marriage is over and believes there is no reason to go on living. He then pours all his suffering and remorse into this great song.
We listened as singer Jussi Björling performed the aria on a recording of I Pagliacci featuring the great conductor Renato Cellini (Leoncavallo et al., 1970). As the students listened, they were moved. Some even had tears in their eyes.
The kids were hooked. They asked to hear the rest of the music and learn more about it. I told them it was called I Pagliacci, which means “the clown” in Italian. The next day, I brought in the audiotape and the entire text of the opera in English and Italian. In no time at all, the class became familiar with the Italian language and the music. I now began to use the word opera openly, but they didn't believe this was an opera. It was a musical, they argued. I then explained that all operas are musical dramas, and all musicals are intrinsically either operas or operettas; the word opera is just the Italian word for musical drama.
In time they knew I Pagliacci almost as well as many scholars of music. They knew the history of the libretto, the life of the composer, and the history of his time. We learned about the intense, dedicated training that singers, instrumentalists, and conductors go through to perform in a manner that brings it all together. My students were thrilled by their knowledge of the opera and shed their prejudice against this venerable art form as they had shed their disdain for older literature.

Expanded Horizons

That season the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts was featuring “our” opera, I Pagliacci. When I asked my students if they would like to go to Toronto to see it, I was shocked to discover that this small group—which had been exploring works from Italy, England, and Egypt—had never been to Toronto. They were overwhelmed and excited by the suggestion but warned me they would not be allowed to go. The principal confirmed the students' fears, telling me that school policy forbade “basic” or “special” students from going on field trips. He said they were too rowdy and could not be trusted. Kids of that age hated opera and could not honestly be interested in attending a live performance, he claimed. Earlier in the year, the principal had scolded me severely over the “scandalous” nature of the class's reading materials, although when I continued using unconventional readings, he left me alone. After much persuasion, he also agreed to the field trip and even accepted my suggestion that he join us.
The trip down to Toronto was a little on the wild side but ultimately quite tolerable. The students did what all students do on buses. They were happy, boisterous, and a little uninhibited, but they knew the principal was there and were anxious to show him that they had been misjudged. They wanted to prove themselves worthy of field trips.
After attending a dress rehearsal performed by the Canadian Opera Company, the students dissected the performance on their return trip. The principal and I listened as they discussed the sets, criticized the acting, and praised the orchestra and conductor. Compared to Björling's performance, they found the singing inferior. They argued that the singers should have given their best performance even for a rehearsal. I found their comments right on the mark.
On the way back from that splendid trip, I reflected that perhaps I did win a kind of lottery in being assigned that “special” class in my early teaching years. Once we hit our stride, teaching these students became a pleasurable challenge. Two students from this group of supposed “losers” later became well-known, respected professionals, one a remarkable composer and the other a fine teacher. As for me, long after the experience I can still clearly see the faces of these students, and I know I will never forget them. Although they would never have believed it, I learned more from them than they ever did from me.

Boccaccio, G., Waldman, G., & Usher, J. (1993). The Decameron. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Chaucer, G., Hieatt, C. B. (Ed.), & Hieatt, A. K. (Ed.). (1961). The Canterbury tales of Geoffrey Chaucer. New York: Golden Press.

Leoncavallo, R. (1892). Pagliacci: Opera in two acts. English adaptation by H. G. Chapman. New York: G. Schirmer.

Leoncavallo, R., Angeles, V. d. l., Björling, J., Warren, L., Merrill, R., Franke, P., et al. (1970). I Pagliacci [opera; 2 sound discs (90 min.)]. New York: Seraphim.

Simpson, W. K., Faulkner, R. O., & Wente, E. F. (1973). The literature of ancient Egypt: An anthology of stories, instructions, and poetry. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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