Thursday, December 21, 2006

analysing Rudolf

In the run up to Christmas break my students have begun a familiar campaign to mark the holiday season by trying to avoid normal school work in favor of something more "fun". In a couple of classes I rendered the effort moot by scheduling a test on their last day. It was a difficult test which took everyone right up to the bell...I offered them as a holiday "cadeau" no homework for the break. They were good sports about it and smiled at my lame teacher humor.
In another class, I gave the class a reading/writing prompt that I told them was due by the end of the period. I rightly suspected that they would run out of time...I watched for signs of stress/frustration and then announced that as a holiday "cadeau" I'd let them finish the assignment at home over the break...mostly they were relieved...funny how expectations color reactions to outcomes.
Today, I decided to try something a little more topical...fun... maybe, but that's a bar I've learned not to strive too hard to attain...fun is hard to plan...it just happens or not, and besides, why schedule fun? Why not leave open the possibility that fun might be a by-product of any kind of experience?
I decided to lead the class in an analyse de texte of Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer. As Christmas songs go it has a couple of advantages. First, it is secular in content and therefore safe. Second, it features a narrative line that is both accessible and amenable to analysis, however superficial.
I begin in a somewhat covert manner, telling my students that I was simply going to tell them a story. Their job is to identify the 5 W's in the story as I told it to them.
I endeavor to evoke the realm of the North Pole...and a community of reindeer families...very white bread as reindeer communitites go... except that one day a there is a new arrival that changes the complexion of life there...a strange birth in one of the reindeer households...a baby born with a birth defect, a disfigurement of sorts, a bulbous, red, lamplike nose... from this point forward in the story it seems inevitable that everyone will know more or less where the story is going, but this is an English class in a French lycee and the language difficulties and cultural differences are such that not everyone "gets" it right away...so I withhold Rudolf's name. I describe the difficult childhood, the isolation and the cruelty of adolescence. (I leave out the girlfriend character from the Burl Ives tv special)
I then skip to the morning of Christmas Eve and Santa standing at his cottage window, his brow furrowed by concern. Out there, he can see nothing but dark,spectral grey. It has been like this for days, unprecedented and untimely. Everyone in the North Pole has witnessed the remarkable weather, and everyone has been visited by the same inescapable conclusion...no reindeer will fly in such skies. Santa has just concluded in his own mind that he will have to do the unthinkable and cancel Christmas, when his train of thought is diverted by a pinpoint of color in the distance. Santa rubs his eyes but when he looks again the pinprick of color is still there and what's more it appears to be growing more intense. At length, he discerns that it is approaching him. Santa begins to comprehend how miraculously far that light has penetrated the fog to reach him at his windowpane. It is then that the form of a reindeer emerges from the fog...it as if the clouds have parted. Excited, Santa hurries outside, nearly frightening away the shy young deer.
What is your name? says Santa. The reindeer braces for some sort of reproach...experience has taught him to expect little else from others, though to be fair Santa's reputation for precedes him here.
What is your name, repeats Santa.
Rudolf, says the reindeer.
Amazingly, Santa cannot seem to place this young reindeer. It is as if he materialized out of the very fog itself, as an answer to Santa's prayers. The Red-nosed Reindeer...Rudolf. Santa regards the young reindeer for a moment and then he asks him the famous question...the one that makes Christmas history and transforms Rudolf into a beloved hero among reindeer folk.
All the while I'm spinning this tale I'm mentally preparing for the next phase of the lesson...The classical French approach to textual analysis:
What sort of text/document is this?
From what point of view is the text written?
What are the key lexical and grammatical structures?
What are the essential elements of the story/argument?
How does the story attempt to effect the reader?
What is the reader's response to the text?
and so on...
But of course this approach needs a text, nothing as ephemeral as the oral tradition. So I write the lyrics of the song on the board and have the class copy them into their copybooks. In America I would have been tempted to google the lyrics, print them out, and dash to the xerox room and make copies for everyone. The French tradition of the trace ecrite kicks in nicely...for five or ten quiet minutes everyone earnestly records the lyrics by hand. I then read the lyrics aloud, using hand gestures to illustrate certain words like "foggy" and "glows". Next come the questions and the responses. It is satisfying to perform this ritual in this way since it it is designed to prepare students to furnish answers. We proceed methodically, inventorying the elements of the song, dissecting it. And then,impulsively, I ask them, "Why is this story so sad?"
They look at me blankly for a moment...it isn't the difficulty of the language that stops them...they all know "sad"...it's a staple of English expression for them, covering nearly one half of the possible emotional states of being. I repeat the question. Why is this story a sad story? I feel like Santa looking into the fog...and also, I perceive a little light here and there. Finally, a hand goes up. Ysoline says, "They didn't like him before."
"And now they do?"
"Yes...but maybe not really?"
"No?"
Another hand. Margaux says, "Maybe only because he helps them."
"Is that a reason to like someone?"
"Yes, but it isn't a true friend."
Alexis adds, "Perhaps they only...how do you say, manipulez..."
"Manipulate."
"They manipulate him."
"His friends manipulate him...because he helps them?"
"I don't know...it's possible."
"That is sad." I say. I think to myself what a bummer note you're ending this lesson on...I reach for something.
"Well, at least he's important now... Santa seems to think so."
I can't tell if they're buying it...
Alright, I say, let's learn how to sing this thing...
so we do...it's actually a good song to teach language learners. Lines like, "and they shouted out with glee..." fall trippingly off the tongue or slide sidewise out of the mouth and before long we're diverted and laughing at each other's accents and missteps...by the time the bell rings, there are smiles all around and there is a lightness in the room...fun.
K

p. s. - photo is december 2005

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