Literary Ramblings: A Unique Approach to Teaching English
by Dr. Daniel Block, US English Faculty

On a beautiful afternoon last fall, students in my English 10 Honors classes had the pleasure of reading, writing, and brainstorming while walking. The immediate goal was to generate ideas for a writing project that asked students to envision a cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) - a classic horror novel exploring the conflict between Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. Rather than sit in their chairs and worry about the upcoming assignment, we strolled over to the sports fields for what I call a "literary ramble."

The exercise – in all senses of the term – really got going when students began to experiment with Twitter, Instagram, camera phones, electronic notepads, or dictation software as they walked along. Some even tried pen and paper and found themselves reevaluating their approach to composition as a result. As one might expect, it is difficult, if not impossible, to compose full sentences while walking. In fact, the activity was expressly designed to resist focused writing in an effort to mitigate stress and mental fatigue. Instead, the literary ramble invited students to explore the possibility that "messy" writing, non-linear thinking, and a meditative awareness of one's surroundings are generative in their own way. Taking a stroll offered the class the breathing room to let the ideas flow freely without the pressure to get the words exactly right, and many students found themselves enjoying the pre-writing process. At the end of our hour-long walking session, students did not come away with polished sentences. Rather, they identified a set of nascent ideas that were subsequently developed into freshly authentic essays.

My premise is that ambulatory composition frees up the mind to wander from one topic to the next, generate new ideas, get momentarily distracted by the scenery before returning with an unexpected insight. Activating the body also activates the mind, I would argue, most especially for adolescents who can become cognitively stifled by the physiological demands of sitting in one place for an extended period of time.

Within the context of a unit on Frankenstein, the exercise of reading, writing, and brainstorming on the go has particular usefulness as a strategy for not just conceptualizing the characters but experiencing the visceral power of Mary Shelley's language. Famously, James Whale's 1931 film adaptation of the novel made the creature into a lumbering, inarticulate monster and Victor Frankenstein into a mad scientist. So when students turned to the text, they were surprised to discover that Shelley originally imagined the characters quite differently: unbridled rage is the hallmark of Victor's character whereas the creature stands out for his uncanny eloquence and sympathetic disposition.

To get behind the popular misconceptions fostered by Hollywood, I encouraged students to enact dramatic readings of Shelley's dialogue at maximum volume. And since we were outside, no one was bothered by the noise. Before too long, students were standing atop the embankment running parallel to the field hockey field giving full vent to Victor's fury at his creation: "Devil... do you dare approach me? and do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head?" A young man reacted by climbing onto the nearby bleachers to deliver the creature's measured response as if he were eight feet tall: "I expected this reception... All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!."

Rather than work through a close textual analysis of the dialogue as we usually do in class, the experience of reading outside and on the go enabled students to inhabit the characters, experience the intensity of emotion through their dramatization, and perhaps connect with the material on a deeper level. On our admittedly reluctant return to the classroom, students were enlivened by the exercise and primed to strengthen the connection between thought and experience, reflection and action, their work in class and out.