Teachers Convene At Quarry Farm and Elmira College to Discuss Mark Twain and Generation Z
A group of forty-six K-12 teachers, librarians, and other educators gathered in Elmira this week for the 2019 Summer Teachers Institute to discuss the challenges and opportunities created by using Mark Twain’s life and work with students from “Generation Z.” The Institute was led by Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recent President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and author of numerous books on literature and literacy education.
Dr. Chadwick began the Institute by defining what she means by “Generation Z,” a category loosely describing those born after 9/11 and encompassing all the students currently working their way through the K-12 system. Over the past several years, Dr. Chadwick has been conducting fieldwork for NCTE, NBC Learn, and Pearson Publishing by visiting classrooms across the country and conducting interviews with students and teachers. She shared selections from a couple of those interviews and discussed what she was learning about this generation and their educational environments. She described a young student who proclaimed there was no longer any “American Dream,” and suggested that this was indicative of a broader dissatisfaction among Gen Z students with the idea of education as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself. Dr. Chadwick assured the audience of teachers that their students will do the work if they are persuaded that the texts and tasks being assigned are directly and immediately relevant to their lives and communities. Furthermore, she insisted, Twain’s enormous body of public and private writings is well-suited to addressing many of Gen Z’s most common concerns, including financial precarity, community service, blended families, and technological change.
During the second session, Matt Seybold, the resident scholar from the Center for Mark Twain Studies, used the example of social media as something which Gen Z students and their teachers were likely to have strong opinions about. Using demographic tables from the U.S. Census, Dr. Seybold summarized the media environment of Twain’s life, as new printing technology made periodicals less expensive, more accessible, and more diversified. He asked participants to imagine the butterfly effects of changing, over the course of a few decades, from a nation with a few hundred periodicals concentrated on the eastern seaboard to one which published 2.5 billion issues in a single year. Participants speculated that people would be more informed and more inclined to imagine the world beyond their daily experiences, but would also be unprepared to be discerning about what they were reading and might depend primarily upon publications that reinforced their existing beliefs. Dr. Seybold also pointed out that celebrities like Mark Twain (or Taylor Swift) are one manifestation of Americans’ desire for national identity amidst this cultural cacophony.
During the first breakout session, small groups of teachers discussed how the generic Generation Z student who Dr. Chadwick described resembled students in their classes and how some of the Twain texts they had read could be used to generate or supplement discussion of the topics which resonated with such students. Upon reconvening, one group of primarily elementary instructors reported that unconventional and fractured family structures were common in their districts and that students were likely to empathize with characters and narrators who felt insecure and who struggled to adjust to changing environments. A second group of elementary instructors were drawn to the theme of community-building and also community exclusivity, as in Adventures of Tom Sawyer and “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg.” They suggested that these texts could be leveraged to increase student “buy-in” for cross-curricular and blended classrooms. They wanted to look particularly for ways Twain could be paired with historical contexts and visual arts projects. They also expressed a desire for texts which dealt with diversity and human rights, but did so without vulgarity or other potentially incendiary content.
A group of middle school teachers reiterated the desire for pairing and blending fiction with non-fiction, literature with history, literacy with other subject matter instruction. They wanted to know more about how Twain used games to educate his own children. With reference to “disenfranchised students,” they were looking for how Twain represented struggles for self-definition and self-esteem. A group of secondary teachers reiterated the importance of framing texts around the inevitable questions of adolescence and young-adulthood: “What I am doing and why am I doing it?”, “Where am I going and how do I get there?,” and “Who am I?” They also acknowledged the sticky wicket which they need to navigate: they want to engage with topics that are important to their students but they also want to teach texts which create a safe distance between the classroom and the frightful world. They want relevance to Gen Z, but without making students feel “at risk.”
After lunch, Dr. Seybold gave a brief history of Mark Twain’s connection to Elmira with particular attention to the domestic instability of Samuel Clemens’s youth and the conflict between his habitual itineracy and his desire to provide his wife and daughters with a stable home. Dr. Chadwick proceeded to address some of the cross-curricular opportunities which could be explored using primary sources, including Bills of Sale from slave auctions, selections from African-American Newspapers, artwork by Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival, and speeches by Frederick Douglass. The first day closed with an open-ended discussion, as Dr. Chadwick called upon individual teachers to articulate what had surprised them about either Generation Z or Mark Twain during the first day of the Institute. Several teachers expressed surprise at the breadth and diversity of Twain’s writing and particularly at the potential to move away from teaching Twain exclusively as a commentator on race in America. Others admitted to being unaware of how influential Twain became in his own lifetime, amassing enough cultural power to influence political campaigns, amplify the voices of younger artists and activists, and bring publicity to colonial atrocities.
On Thursday morning, Institute participants congregated on the porch at Quarry Farm. After breakfast, Dr. Chadwick led a session on one of her favorite subjects: using Twain’s fiction as a model for teaching the formal elements of writing, particularly as they are outline in the education standards of New York State. For more than an hour, the group discussed how a single famous passage from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could be used to teach genre, audience, allusion, symbolism, anaphora, verisimilitude, and many other ELA terms and concepts. During the breakout session, participants analyzed other passages of their choosing from the reader and shared their ideas for using these passages to teach close-reading and writing. Selections discussed came from Twain’s poems, speeches, sketches, and letters, as well as his novels. Several groups recommended pairing with texts by other authors, from Harper Lee and Toni Morrison to Pope Urban II and The Beatles.
The second session of the day began with Dr. Chadwick reading Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word For Word As I Heard It” on the very spot which the story is set. After her reading, Dr. Chadwick led a wide-ranging discussion of the story.
During lunch, teachers toured the grounds at Quarry Farm and mingled with one another, as well as with a few fourth-graders from Michelle Halperin’s class at Hendy Elementary in Elmira. During the Spring term, Dr. Chadwick visited Mrs. Halperin’s class both via video-conferencing and in person to discuss what they had been doing with Twain, including reading “A True Story” and Adventures of Tom Sawyer. After lunch, the students joined the teachers on the porch and answered questions about their experiences reading and listening to Twain’s works. These precocious young Elmirans felt that Tom Sawyer, in particular, compelled them and their classmates to be imaginative, even those who weren’t naturally inclined to be. They were able to remember specific details from the story and even half-remember direct quotations. Even under pressure they refused to admit that any of their classmates had not been enthusiastically engaged by the material. If nothing else, this proves they had learned to consider their audience.
The final session of the Institute focused on memory and memorization. Dr. Seybold began by reading a short selection from a work-in-progress about how Twain used specific works of music to memorialize his wife and daughters after they died. He listened to these specific works of music almost daily, using them to stimulate both his memory and his imagination. In other places, like the speech “Memory & Morals,” Twain discusses the importance of converting the vagaries of memory into productive lessons. Dr. Seybold also summarized some of the games and pneumonic devices Twain developed for the purposes of memorizing historical facts and his own lectures. This prefaced a discussion of what we require students to remember and why. What are the justifications for memorization and how can memorization be better integrated with imaginative and creative work?
Dr. Chadwick and the Center for Mark Twain Studies left the Institute with promises of updated resources and continued support. In addition to the provided reader, Institute participants have access to a digital archive of primary sources, opportunities for continued engagement with Dr. Chadwick and other Twain scholars, including eligibility for a six-week graduate course at Elmira College during Fall semester.