Life of Pi is an endearing novel, if such can be said about a book that deals with isolation, unspeakable brutality and cannibalism, among other things. I found myself being charmed and disarmed as I made my way through it over Christmas while we traveled through Australia. My purpose, as is true for nearly everything I read, was how to compass its idiosyncratic nature within the confines of a classroom study.
There are of course plenty of online resources for this kind of thing. But I have learned to my chagrin that any novel study that I take from the internet can be answered by my students in the like same manner. Tit-for-tat, as it were. Besides, online studies have a tendency to ask closed questions (‘How many animals were on the boat?’, for example) instead of open ones (‘If the hyena were a man, what would he be like?’). The objective of a closed question is to determine if the student read the chapter. The objectives of an open question are to ensure that the student not only read , but understood the chapter, encourage discussion and inquiry, and stimulate the student into writing which is going to strengthen his/her abilty in English. Like most in my profession, I cheerfully despise closed questions.
I determined on a structure that divided the text into nineteen sections of about 24 pages each, with two open questions per section. My intention was to have the students read the section aloud in their small group, discuss the two questions for that day, and write down a one page answer for each. What was not done in class would become homework. I must confess I had my doubts when none of the groups even finished the reading on the first day, but I made adjustments. I scrapped the ten minute lesson on grammar that I had used in the first unit, and kept my opening remarks to ten minutes, no more. By the end of the first week my students were meeting my objectives.
Then I had to introduce the essay topic for this unit: a fifteen hundred word research paper that had to cite at least half a dozen secondary sources. Some of the students had been through this process last term; some were brand new to this task. I booked library computer time, went through the MLA style guide in painstaking detail and met individually with dozens of students. The results were impressive. Some papers had bibliographies that ran to fifteen entries; some were absolutely letter perfect in their grammar; most pursued their thesis with consistent vigour; nearly all passed through the SafeAssign plagiarism check with flying colours.
The unit fell exactly within the time parameters I had planned. I collected their response journals in which they recorded their answers to the forty questions on the novel, and they were as impressive as the essays. We even had time for a fun day of illustrating a scene from the novel, and a day to get them prepared for a reading assignment over the March Break. On top of all that I got all of their marks for this unit uploaded to Markbook and sent off to admin in time for their mid-term report.
Those who do this for a living will understand what this feels like. For those who do different things, it’s like building a bookcase that you have planned, or writing a program that does exactly when you wanted it to do. A well planned and executed unit is a deeply satisfying experience. My students feel accomplished and well rewarded for their labours, and so do I. We part company for a week happy in how far we have come this term, and confident in our continued success. Both us deserve a week to rest and renew ourselves, and I plan to do just that.