What I witnessed was a seventh/eighth-grade humanities class at Oak Meadow Montessori School in Littleton, Massachusetts. The students were getting started reading Antigone, but teacher Karen Kelley is all about pushing the human, the personal side of student understanding, and so she was getting the students revved up to explore the moral questions raised by Sophocles by having asked them, as homework the night before, to take a favorite character in literature, film, or even television and decide where that character might fall on the scale of Laurence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. They’d already spent class time talking about Kohlberg’s work.
If I thought the approach was cool and likely to be fruitful (and I sure did), I was blown away by the kids’ responses. In a seminar that would be the envy of anyone working at a Harkness table or even plenty of graduate school literature professors, students took the discussion ball and ran with it: politely, smartly, each kid fully engaged and fully immersed in the learning. I heard kids talk about the moral development of SpongeBob SquarePants, Ferris Bueller (and Dean Rooney), and both sides of the Syrian conflict; one girl made the anguished observation that a character she deeply admires—Katniss from The Hunger Games—isn’t really very far along, and “it makes me really sad to have to admit this.” With only minor clarifications and gentle probing from their teacher, the students created a discussion that was lively, balanced, and intellectually and even affectively provocative. They kids listened to one another and pretty clearly worked to understand where their classmates were coming from, as we used to say. Unlike so many seminars I have seen (and occasionally taught), no one felt to need to prove himself or herself the winner. Everybody won.