Sonya's First Draft
January 31, 2000
Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the few pieces of literature I remember from my high school days, mostly because I can still vividly picture dreaming about it freshman year. It is also one of the more uplifting pieces that my World Traditions class read during a semester of Animal Farm, Macbeth, and All
Quiet on the Western Front. Although it does have some battle scenes, for the most part, Cyrano is the story of a man with a "huge schnoz" (as one of my students put it) who helps a more handsome
man win the girl that he himself loves. Insecurity, favoring beauty over talent and wit, being in love with someone you never thought you could win—these are all themes in Cyrano that I felt my students could relate to on many different levels. My mission, which I had accepted, was to take my students through this play in exactly twelve days, encouraging them to think about the characters and themes they encountered while following the story of Cyrano, Roxane and Christian. After a month of carefully thinking about my different options and crafting a plan I felt was doable, I thought I was prepared. In some ways, I was, but in many ways, I couldn't have anticipated the paths we would take in our quest to better understand this play.
The school where I teach, Harry Elkins Widener High School, is a lot like the high school I went to. The city of Fairview is a fairly affluent area made up
of Silicon Valley types, with most of the population consisting of upper middle class families. The school has just over sixteen hundred students, most of whom are Caucasian or Asian. About a sixth of
the school is made up of African-American and Latino students, and a good number of these students tend to be tracked into the lower level classes. The school campus itself is beautiful, with a large quad area
where students can congregate, a sizeable theater that the community also uses, and numerous fields for the athletics program. The school also has received funding to be used for remodeling, so the English
department has spent the last year teaching out of a series of portables affectionately known as "Titan Village;" these portables form a L at the side of the school nearest the fields.
Gunn tracks many of its classes, including English classes, although that tracking system is a little more lax during the freshman/sophomore years when students are allowed to decide if they
want to be in an Advanced or General English class. State funding has made it possible for freshman/sophomore English classes to be limited to no more than twenty-four students, which results in a great
learning environment for the first two years of high school English. Widener High has also combined its junior/senior English classes, although those tend to have around thirty to thirty-five students per
class. English classes switch at the semester and each semester is a separate course with all different students. Because of the combined frosh/soph classes, courses are taught every other year so that
students don't get the same material twice. Last year, students studied Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Flies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, To Kill a Mockingbird, Tale of Two Cities, and Othello.
This year, the two courses being offered are Communications, which is primarily a public speaking class, and World Cultures/Traditions, a literature-based class.
My B period class is a General English class, World Traditions, where we read Animal Farm, Macbeth, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Cyrano de Bergerac.
There are thirteen students in the class, three of whom are female. The class consists of seven Caucasian students, three Asian students, two African-American students and one Latina student. The class also
has six special needs students, so in addition to Jessica and me, there is also Julie Haggerty, a special needs aide who helps with the assignments. The students have become very close since the beginning of
the semester even though there are a wide range of skills among them. Two of my students are second language learners, three of them are "new" readers which means they have very low-level reading needs, and
the other eight are fairly strong readers. For most of the semester Jessica has been the primary teacher. During Animal Farm and Macbeth, she led most of the instruction, although I had been
experimented with leading a few discussions during All Quiet.
The semester has primarily centered around the four texts in our course; because most of our students were having difficulty just getting through the material, most of our lessons related
back to the plot and encouraged students to make their own connections to the text. Throughout Animal Farm, we explored the ideas of rebellion and corruption; with Macbeth, we discussed fate,
prophecy and ambition; and with All Quiet, we spent quite a bit of time discussing the idea of war and what causes war. All through the semester, we worked assiduously on getting our students to develop
strategies for selecting good evidence they could use to support their thesis statements. A lot of the exercises we used to promote these skills were structured pieces where we either provided students with a
quote and had them interpret it through a series of questions or where we gave students a thesis idea and had them find the evidence in the text themselves. We spent a few periods of class time throughout the
three units working with students individually and assessing their progress, as well as getting them to practice these skills by writing essays at the end of each unit.
Since I spent time planning the unit on Cyrano, Jessica and I agreed that I would be the primary teacher, something the students had not yet experienced. Because the unit was being
taught right after winter break, we decided that the switch would be easier for them to adjust to than if Jessica started off teaching the unit and I gradually took over. Besides, with only twelve days to work with
Cyrano, it was easiest for me to handle the entire unit, especially since I felt confident that I had a better sense of how to work with this mix of students than I did when we started in September.
The main reason we were teaching Cyrano was because it is a text required by the department for this course. When I was planning my unit, I found that even though I had started
off focusing on the idea of beauty and how beauty influences people, I really became more interested in the character development that revealed itself during the course of the play. My main goal for the unit,
besides getting my students to understand the plot, was to have them think about and better understand the motivation behind why the characters act the way they do. Cyrano was my main focus because he is the
character with the most to think about; he sacrifices his love to help the woman he loves get her man, remains fiercely independent throughout the play, yet breaks down and reads Roxane his letter (Christian's last
letter) the day he dies. Not to mention the fact that he is insanely temperamental about his nose and spends quite a bit of the play challenging people who insult him. Roxane and her underlying
motivations also provide some food for thought, even though most students just see her as manipulative and evil, and I wanted to get my students past that instinctive reaction and have them really understand the
options she did have (which weren't many). I also wanted them to think about Christian and how he finally ends up wanting Roxane to love him for himself and not just because he is beautiful, even if he can't
woo her with intelligent, witty words to save his life. I knew that twelve days were not very many, especially with a group that was very unreliable when it came time to read at home, so I approached the text
with the intention of following the main plot and getting them to think about these character motivations and developments. We hadn't spent much time on character development, and I thought it would be an
interesting take to the play, one that they could latch onto and enjoy.
With this plan in mind, I started the play the Monday after break. My students were still somewhat groggy after coming off two weeks of rest, and we spent about half the period
discussing movies with love stories and their ideas on why people fall in love. We focused on characters and stories they had introduced during the movie check-in and talked about what qualities a beautiful woman
had, as well as what factors led to different people falling in love in different ways. A lot of the conversation incorporated The Matrix, and I was secretly glad I had re-watched the movie over break
because otherwise I would have been somewhat out of the loop. Talking about movies and love in general seemed to engage their interest, as did the idea of having a free-form discussion. As I wrapped up
the discussion, one student asked, "Are we going to have more discussions like that? I like just having time to talk about things." At the end of class, Jessica took some time to pass back All Quiet essays and we passed out Cyrano books so students could get acquainted with the strange French names that night.
The second day of the unit, I spent some time familiarizing students with the French names so they wouldn't be so intimidated by the language in the play. Although I didn't structure
this activity as effectively as I would have liked, students were receptive to the pronunciation handout I gave them; we spent some time reading through the names and orienting ourselves to whom we'd be focusing on
in the play. The main focus of this lesson was getting students into the play, so we spent some time discussing plays they had seen and the previous play we had read, Macbeth. In order to get them to
understand the setting of Cyrano, I related French plays to Gunn assemblies, where people are more interested in who they can see across the gym than what's actually going on, and I showed them the opening scene
from the De Pardieu film so they could better visualize what was happening in the first few pages of Cyrano. Once we had a chance to see the film and clear up questions like "Why do all the Marquis sit
on the stage when they just get sprayed with fog?" we moved into reading the play aloud. This was the hardest part to maintain because I had not anticipated the difficulty of following the strange format;
students tended to stumble over that, which made it hard to maintain a fluent reading pace. A few of my lower-level readers tuned out, and I found myself explaining more than I had expected. Overall,
students still seemed to be excited about the play and were quite interested in what was happening.
My reality check arrived the third day into my unit. Because Gunn is on a modified block system, I see my students at different times during the day. On Wednesdays, I see them right before lunch and then don't
see them again until Friday. During this first Wednesday back from break, I felt that I had an ok lesson, even though I knew I hadn't planned it out entirely thoroughly. I had not taken into account the
extra energy that accompanies a pre-lunch class and realized halfway through my lesson that it was not planned out well enough. I was also entirely on my own that day, since Jessica had a meeting at the District
Office and Julie only stays for ten minutes on Wednesdays. My lack of planning, combined with the generally held sense that Jessica, not I, is the "real" teacher, resulted in a
general sense of chaos that was very hard to focus and move toward productivity. I left the class feeling quite frustrated, unhappy and unsuccessful, which was doubled by the fact that I am sure most of my
students were as frustrated as I was with the day's lesson.
The following Wednesday, I decided that I needed to really think through the lesson and design appropriate activities for the extra energy I was anticipating. The previous day, we had closely examined the
speech where Cyrano explains why he refuses to be beholden to a patron (which has been affectionately dubbed the "No Thanks" speech by the English department). I had given my students a very unstructured homework
assignment, something along the lines of coming up with three of their own "No Thanks" statements. I decided that the "No Thanks" speech was worth spending more time on and was a good opportunity for my
students to make direct personal connections with the text, so my opening activity involved revisiting the speech and providing my students with a better structure for their statements. I also wanted to read
through the section where Cyrano and Christian make a pact to woo Roxane together, and then discuss what the motivations were behind both men's actions. I felt that this was an appropriate amount of material
to cover for the day, especially since my students often get distracted by transitions and I didn't want to switch gears too many times. This lesson was also being videotaped, something that had the potential
to get them off-topic and even more unfocused than usual.
In order to create this sense of being focused, I started off the lesson by placing yellow stickies with students' names on the floor. The day before, we had assigned each student a section of the "No Thanks"
speech and had them explain what Cyrano was talking about. I arranged the students in a circle using the order of their speech lines as a guide. The "No Thanks" speech has 3 different parts: what Cyrano
won't do, what he will do, and why. I had each student read through his or her line, and then we looked at the circle as a whole and discussed its structure. With these aspects covered, I then told my students to
come up with three statements of their own: something they won't do at any cost, something they will do no matter what, and an explanation of why for both.
After ten to fifteen minutes of quiet reflection and writing, I had a few students share their statements. We made connections between their statements and Cyrano's, finding common themes of independence,
self-respect and not wanting to sell out. With these connections made, we briefly discussed why Cyrano would give Roxane his word that he'd protect Christian. From there, we moved on to the scene where the two
men meet for the first time and where the pact between them forms.
This scene reading took place in trios, since I had learned that reading in groups tended to keep my students more focused than a whole class set.