Before introducing metaphysical poetry to my AP Literature students, I often take a page out of the fictional Professor Keating’s book. My students and I take a little “field trip” to the front of the school, where photographs of students dating back to the first graduating class of 1901 line the foyer. I ask my students to write down their observations. When we return to class, I ask them to share. They often cite racial homogeny right off the bat. Our student population is incredibly diverse, and they cannot imagine an exclusively white school. A discussion about desegregation of schools inevitably follows, as does a conversation about the surprising number of females in the early graduating classes. We also talk about the devastation the World Wars had on the young men in those faded photographs. How many of them survived? They wonder: how did our graduating class grow from 6 to approximately 1100?
After what never fails to be a rich conversation, and the students’ realization that they have walked past those photos everyday without ever looking at them (a life lesson in itself), we watch the film clip from Dead Poets Society in which Keating, played by Robin Williams, engages his students in a similar activity. He explores the concept of “carpe diem” and mortality. Following this clip, I invite my students to write their response to carpe diem. They might write about what it means to them, whether they embrace this philosophy, or any other thoughts or feelings that the saying evokes.
After a few minutes of writing, I ask for volunteers to share their thoughts. In a recent discussion, some students found the idea of carpe diem “frivolous” and thought that people should always stay focused on future goals. To them, “living for today” was short-sighted and irresponsible. This makes sense for teens who are driven to go to the right college and earn the right degree to live a “good” life. Other students said that since none of us are guaranteed a future and we’re “all going to die,” we should do something today: something of value, something productive. Such responses received a great deal of agreement, though students realized that “value” and “productive” are relative, subjective terms. One student wisely noted that we should remember that while we’re trying to live our best lives, others are as well. They discussed the complexities of when the lives of people with different goals intersect. Ultimately, my students saw how their seemingly disparate ideas actually overlapped a great deal, and they separated carpe diem from the trite YOLO idea that many of them initially equated as the same concept.
After a 20-30 minute discussion of carpe diem, my students not only understood the concept, but they also understood their relationship to the aphorism as well as its universal appeal. Onward to metaphysical poetry analysis!
I shared this teaching anecdote to underscore the importance of setting up and maintaining a safe workshop environment in which students expect to read, write, think, share, and work together to construct meaning. My students fearlessly followed me, willing to discuss observations even when issues such as race were broached. I could have presented them with the definition of “carpe diem” or asked them to draw on prior knowledge as a quick basis for launching into the unit of study, but by giving them the space and opportunity to explore the concept, they built a stronger foundation of understanding that will ultimately translate into better reading, writing, and thinking. We make choices everyday about when to lecture and when to facilitate; when possible, we must “seize” the opportunity to trust our students to delve deep beneath surface-level understandings and reach true depths of meaning.