Classroom of the Week: Critical thinking and expression transform students in Mike Rosenthal's class

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GREAT BARRINGTON —Even though she left the school, Sarah Michaels has taken with her the lessons from her ninth-grade Honors English class with Mike Rosenthal at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

"His door is always open and welcoming to any student. He teaches not only about allegories, metaphors and similes, but also about the meaning behind songs, the deeper meaning behind writing. He teaches the academic aspect, but also the social aspect," Michaels writes in her letter nominating Rosenthal's room as a "Classroom of the Week."

Next to the door of his classroom, B-12, is a sign that reads, "True Revolutions begin in the Mind."

Rosenthal says he and his fellow English Department colleagues are perpetually developing ways to engage students with books and writing in a way that leads them to self-exploration and personal revelation as they explore texts and genres.

There are other signs around the room that indicate that this is no ordinary classroom.

On one wall, a poster of education activist Malala Yousafzai looks across the room at another poster, one of American rapper Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G. The other opposing sides of the room have posters of writers and activists W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells across from a wall of film posters and a section of famous rappers, which includes a staged mugshot of Rosenthal himself. His crime? "Reading books."

And at the head of the class, sitting behind Rosenthal, is an iconic photo of prolific author James Baldwin by Dmitri Kasterine for Esquire magazine. The teacher said there is no writing more revolutionary than Baldwin's in terms of examining oneself within the greater context of the world.

Rosenthal has taught ninth-grade English at the school for the past eight years and said he's learned never to take the youth of the school for granted because of their age.

"The power of their voices is something continually being reinforced here. I've pushed that Socratic self-examination piece more and more to how they're responding to the world, and I've become more bold in bringing social issues into the classroom," he said.

For his ninth-grade Honors English final for the past two years, he's put forth to his students a month-long "individual learning pursuit" of their own design. Rosenthal explained how he's expecting a range of responses, from short collections of poems and personal essays to demonstrations, artwork and creative cuisine. "Planning and thoroughly completing a fulfilling project that most closely corresponds with a sincere, and deep-seated interest is the only major requirement of this project," the teacher wrote in the syllabus.

As one of his ninth-grade Honors English sections sat at their desks, arranged in a circle, they shared their highlights and criticisms of the course and content. They seemingly all agreed that having the freedom to explore and share their own interests was an important and valuable class component.

Parker Bell-Devaney and a few of his classmates said October's field trip to Pittsfield's Barrington Stage Company to see the production "Camping with Henry and Tom," was a unique opportunity. The trip involved all English students, not just the Honors English classes. The play was inspired by a 1921 camping trip involving Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and President Warren G. Harding and explores the themes of politics, friendship and leadership. It inspired further workshops and conversations in the class during the weeks following the trip.

In addition to texts — ranging from the 1954 William Golding novel, "Lord of the Flies" to John Green's 2008 novel, "Paper Towns" — the freshman Honors English class also views and analyzes themes, writing and language used in documentary films, spoken word videos and even music videos.

Sadie Cotler, a self-proclaimed former hater of poetry, said she's since taken quite a liking to it, due to the course. "I think it's really important that you gave us the chance to express ourselves. You're one of the only teachers who have given us a voice. You care about what we think, and that's great," she told Rosenthal in Thursday's class.

The students were also not shy in expressing critical feedback, as Cotler also did, in commenting how the "Lord of the Flies" unit was too long. In the classes' great divide on "Paper Towns," which Rosenthal piloted this year, Will McLaughlin politely suggested that this summer might be Rosenthal's "time to try out a new book," versus continuing on with it next year. That matter's still up in the air.

But what does matter is that students have the platform for honest dialogue and action in the class.

Rosenthal's been putting an emphasis on public speaking this year, which involved students having to write campaign speeches about what they'd like to see change in the school. After hearing the speeches, several students encouraged their peers to take their ideas straight to the school principal.

Former student Sarah Michaels recalls having that same feeling of growth and change throughout her experience in the class.

"His classroom is not only a learning environment full of students, but a safe haven with a family," she said. "The students he teaches are accurate representations of how a teacher can impact kids. They all end up maturing immensely from the time they walk in that door on the first day of school, to the time they leave in June."

Rosenthal said he hopes his students continue to make connections with the work that they do and the people that they meet through the class and field trips.

"When you feel you have a voice in the community and a relationship [with it], it's a powerful thing," he said.


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