Rob Levit | March 2014

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat – Strategies for Student Engagement

Today, we’re talking about strategies for student engagement. I am the Artist-in-Residence at a high school this week where the 10th graders are about to study Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre masterpiece The Black Cat. It’s a short story about a prisoner’s perspective on the events surrounding his wife’s death. It’s part fantastical story, confessional and complex event sequence. There is a lot going on in these five pages!

On my class visits, I could not help but notice a lack of student engagement and interest and the open use of social media, texting and headphones during instruction time. This is disturbing to me because there is no way that the deep concentration that the vocabulary and plot complexities of Edgar Allan Poe require can compete with the instant gratification of an iPhone or Droid. So, what to do? Here’s how I engaged the students. Keep in mind, when I arrived at the school they had not read The Black Cat yet.

  • Pre-selected slides to go with the story and asked students to write down observations for each picture. I chose evocative and provocative pictures that had different perspectives, emotional moods and tones and possibilities. Answers were not right or wrong because students were involved in the creative act of observation, simple idea documentation and brainstorming. The Project Zero Thinking Routine 10×2 was particularly helpful. The idea was to move quickly and get many ideas down on paper.
  • Invited students who had thoughts and ideas on pictures to come up and share. I asked them to point directly to the details on the smart board and encouraged them to use hand gestures like circling and tapping for added impact and presentation skills. This creates the sense that students aren’t just receiving information from the teacher but also transmitting it to the class. It gives them confidence to present their ideas. I usually do it in groups so they feel safe and not “in the spotlight.”
  • When a student presented an idea, I asked the ultimate go deeper question“What makes you say that?” This question gives students the opportunity to explore their opinion or hypothesis in a deeper way by offering supporting visual evidence or making connections beyond what appears in the picture.
  • Introduced key complex vocabulary words from The Black Cat and asked student engagement by looking at the pictures and investigate how the words and pictures potentially went together. For example, the house with the word premises. The prisoner with the words odious and intemperate. It was the students’ responsibility to discover the meaning of the words through the context in which they were used. Comprehending vocabulary was an active process of See/Think/Wonder rather than rote learning.
  • Finally, we created tableaus or frozen images for each of the scenes in the story. This allowed for all the student engagement to physically participate in not just learning the story, but shaping and understanding in a way that they could relate to and in a social way. They created this understanding together.

When I left the school, I was pretty sure I had reached a lot of students because when I asked “what did you learn and what will you carry with you?” several answered “to look deeper at images, search for context clues, that stories can come alive and I can learn vocabulary in a different way.”

I wish I could say that all students were engaged and that all cell phones were put away – that’s a deeper issue of school culture behavioral norms and expectations suitable for another time – but I feel confident that many students were engaged in such a way that learning became a vital and interesting part of their lives.

As educators, we are facing an all out assault on our ability to reach students because of disruptive technology. We cannot compete with this, because true learning is slow learning, but we can create ways of engaging students in deeper ways and also recommit our personal and team energy to student engagement.

About the Author

Rob Levit, an acclaimed musician and artist and 2013 Innovator of the Year from the Maryland Daily Record, has created award-winning innovative "Life-Skills Through The Arts" programs for adults with mental illness, the homeless, adults in drug and alcohol recovery, youth in domestic/sexual abuse counseling, foster children, hospital patients, veterans and many more. He is currently Executive Director of Creating Communities and was the first Artist-In-Residence at Hospice of the Chesapeake, where he created and infused healing activities for the well-being of staff, families and patients. Email Rob.