Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Like a Chimpanzee in Captivity"

Making medieval life relatable to adolescents in 21st century is a challenge.  But in imperial China people studied long and hard for civil service exams and then waited anxiously for the results hoping they would earn a high enough score to enable them to work in a coveted career.  Similarly many jobs in law enforcement, medicine, law, and education depend on scoring well on licensure and civil service examinations today, I am quite familiar with spending hours and hours studying for my MTEL and for my Massachusetts Bar Exam and waiting on pins and needles praying that my time and effort had paid off.  I was one of the lucky ones in both instances.

So a great response to students who ask why they have to learn about medieval world history is that it tells us the roots of our modern system.  Indeed, the modern examination system will likely be a part of many of my students' lives as they journey toward their own career choices.  In fact, as I type this, they are taking a well-deserved break after toiling away at their second-to-last MCAS exam of the school year.  So they are already experienced with exam requirements since they must pass MCAS in order to graduate successfully from high school.

Pu Songling was not one of the lucky ones.
Pu Songling (1640-1715)

Pu Songling was born to a poor landlord-merchant family and yearned to have a high profile career in the imperial government.  Like many others in China, he studied for hours and hours for the civil service examinations.  As part of his studies, he became rather talented at reading literature and writing his own compositions.  One of his most famous is called "Seven Likenesses of a Candidate" describes the disappointing and frustrating process of studying for the exam, taking the exam, waiting for the results, learning of the failure, and deicing to try again.  Princeton University's Berkshire Encyclopedia of China conveniently includes Pu Songling's writing within its well-written article about civil service examinations in general.  It provides nice context and historical background for students.

In Pu Songling's descriptive account, he uses imagery and simile to describe the roller coaster of emotions an exam candidate must go through.
Excerpted from Berkshire Encyclopedia of China
He humorously compares an exam candidate to 7 vivid images:
  • a beggar
  • a prisoner
  • a cold bee in late autumn
  • a sick bird out of a cage
  • a chimpanzee in captivity
  • a poisoned fly no longer able to move
  • a turtle dove just hatched
I saw an opportunity to help my students with primary source analysis alongside teaching literary techniques such as simile and imagery.  But, of course, since they are teenagers something technological has to be included to keep them interested.  So, I decided we would make a video project together as a class within one 45 minute class period.

First we read the passage and identified the "Seven Likenesses".  Then I divided up the passage into 7 parts.
This is how I divided it up:

Next I assigned the students to 8 groups.  Seven of the groups each got one of the parts of the passage and the 8th group was in charge of the introduction.  I projected these simple instructions on the Smartboard and told them to get started.

We used the last 15 minutes of class to do the actual filming.  Because everything was already scripted and rehearsed, some classes did it in on the first or second try.  By the end of the class period we had filmed the video and even uploaded it to YouTube!

Here are some of the final products!