R J Comeau - Curriculum Design & Research

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Experiential learning

Learning by doing comes in many forms. Taking students beyond the printed page is important for many reasons, including its power to develop and reinforce analytical skills. It also provides access to the curriculum through multiple modalities, in the spirit of Universal Design for Learning. This page reflects my 16 years of experience teaching senior English, designing and implementing experiential learning to complement and augment the daily seminars of my world literature course.


Physical analogies - concepts in motion

Physical analogies are a way to model concepts for students, and sometimes with them, using objects, activities, performances, and simulations. Below you'll find brief examples, and some links to resources from my world literature seminar.

Concepts illustrated: theoretical definition, Platonic cave, close reading, large structure allegory, close reading of allegory, the fluid nature of the identity, moral calculus, utilitarianism, economic theory, hunter-gatherers vs. market economy, the invisible hand in Smith,

Texts addressed: Platonic dialogues, Dante's Inferno, Don Quixote, Enlightenment thinker Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, The Wealth of Nations,

Together, craft a theoretical definition, to demonstrate the challenge of defining concepts like piety and justice in Platonic dialogues. We make a group effort at defining a chair, and I treat various objects (tables, students) as a chair until we improve our definition. After, I remove essential parts of the chair until it no longer fits our definition, illustrating Plato's concepts that ideas are permanent, and objects ephemeral -- making ideas more real than things.

Simulate the Platonic cave, with a class of prisoners, reciting the name of shadows I make on the projector screen, until one brave prisoner breaks free and sees what's really outside the cave. Since I've drawn the shades and turned out the lights in the classroom, as I pull the curtain back to reveal the daylight outside, he is blinded at first, and only slowly begins to see what's really out there. He comes back to tell the prisoners of the real... and is met with hate and violence. We discuss the illustration of Plato's theories on knowledge, society, and the work of the philosopher. We also explore the political and educational implications for Plato, and for us.

For a concrete model of close reading, simulate two ways of doing the nightly reading. First, run with the students down the hall, maybe a quarter way, then quickly come back. Ask them what they saw. "I saw a hallway," will often be the answer. I explain that this is sometimes how students do their nightly reading -- quick and incomplete. It yields very basic analysis: "I saw a hallway." Next, simulate a close reading, by going back into the hall, and carefully notice small details, working to dig at their deeper meanings. Students always see things anew, though they had passed them hundreds of times. They have noticed the shade of gray paint on the walls, the safety glass in the windows, the dingy tiles, the peeling paint, then analyze the mood and tone of a school building, and all the history behind it. We talk about trying to read the entire hallway this way, which would be impractical. I ask them to pick one or two spots for close reading in their homework that night, to bring deeper, slower insights to class discussion tomorrow.


To simulate the large structure allegory of Dante's Inferno, I perform the physical journey of Dante from the light into the darkness, explaining as I go the Christian and Aristotelian ethics behind the allegory. I begin oriented to the sun, the light and love of God, conveniently climbing in the sky outside my classroom window. I next begin to get distracted by the physical pleasures of the world, symbolized by my overindulgence in coffee, conveniently sitting in a travel cup on my desk. As I re-orient myself to the physical, I disorient myself from the spiritual, and by the time I'm indulging in gluttony with my coffee, I have begun to turn my back on the light, on God, in Dante's medieval allegory. Pleasures of the body are venial in Catholic ethics, and Dante locates them in upper hell. A life that focuses too much on sex, food, money, or emotions is far too bodily, but since these desires are natural and healthy if moderated, Dante sees them as more forgivable. At this point, I am half-way turned from the sun, and really have no malice against God. I'm distracted, I explain, as I vacantly sip on my coffee. The next step is more serious. There's a walled city within Dante's Inferno, called Dis, and to get into lower hell takes an act of will, a denial of God. I ask my students to pretend that the circle of desks is a division of hell (no great stretch for a weary senior). I explain that to leap into this circle takes an act of malic, of violence, and as I leap over the tables into the inner circle of our seminar (landing heavily for effect), I explain that for Dante, denial of God is the first step of violence. The beginning of lower hell is populated by heretics, those who denied the immortality of the soul. I ask the class to notice that I have now willfully turned my back to the sun, to God, and to Dante, this is the beginning of a willful march into evil. Next comes murder, suicide, and crimes against nature. Dante includes homosexuals and money lenders here, and I explain to the class that we'll debate this and many other elements of his ethics. Here, I'm openly harming others or myself, which is evil. But the lowest pits of hell is reserved for those who sin through fraud. We'll meet pimps and seducers, thieves and liars. The lowest pit is reserved for those who sinned against those to whom we have special ties: our country, family, guests and hosts, lords and masters. At the middle of the room, I explain that the devil himself lies here, in a freezing hell, symbolizing the farthest distance one can get from the light and love of God, through treachery. And still he rebels, flapping his wings (as I flap my arms), trying to escape, but the cold wind from his bat wings only freezes him faster. Dante shows us this route to hell to show us how to escape it by living a good life. I begin to walk out of the middle of the class, as I lay out Dante's positive ethics. Honor defeats betrayal, and love conquers violence. I leap back out of the circle of tables, and explain that wisdom moderates incontinence, as I sit back at my desk, and put my coffee aside.


To do a close reading of an allegory, we read together a short passage from the carnal hurricane in the canto where we meet the lustful. Next, to bring the passage home, I simulate the drama with a volunteer. I bring my rolling chair into the middle of the seminar circle, and ask for a volunteer of slight build. I begin to spin the student in a circle, simulating the motion of the infernal torture, explaining that the motion is like the playful pursuit of desires on earth, fun at first, until one loses control. We spin faster and faster, as I narrate the loss of control and the tragic ends in Dante's text - Cleopatra, Dido, Francesca. The repetition of the spinning circle, the inability to really satisfy an empty desire, and the disorienting effect of chasing unworthy goals, plus our plain dizziness, serve to illuminate several aspects of the allegory for students. After the demonstration, we debrief, first with the victim in the chair. She talks about how it felt, and what the allegory tells us about Dante's take on a life based on lust. Peers join in the analysis, and the conversation is always more lively and engaging after the simulation than the conversation on the text alone.


In an introduction to Don Quixote, we watch a slide show on dress, the self, and the fluid nature of identity. Students reflect on the hero of the Spanish novel, who dresses up like a knight, and in a way becoming much more through the change, but often, crashing lower as his noble efforts fail. Don Quixote might look crazy, but if he is, so aren't all modern people. We take a look at contemporary modes of changing the self through dress, from urban hipsters to wannabe gangsters, to their humble teacher wearing oxford shirt and shoes and dress slacks. I explain how I ditched the jeans and t-shirts of my working class roots for the costume of the middle class. We move the conversation further into the room, analyzing various costumes at work among students, from basketball sneakers on non-athletes, to fake designer purses. Moving from the text to the actual clothing present in the classroom has broadened understanding and interest of this ingenious novel, and the concept of the fluid nature of identity in the modern world.


Students need help to grasp the ideas of Enlightenment thinker Jeremy Bentham, who invented a kind of moral mathematics to coolly judge the utility of our actions and government policies. We move from a passage of his Principles of Morals and Legislation to an Excel spreadsheet that represents the moral calculus of any ethical decision. I ask students for a test case of a moral decision. Last year, a student suggested the question of standing up for an old person on the bus. We go through the spreadsheet, assigning values to the amount of pleasure one gets for standing up, vs. the amount of pain one suffers from standing, and all the other factors that go into Bentham's calculations. After the spreadsheet calculates the total pleasure and total pain from the event, we discuss the results, and the idea of putting numbers to our actions, and our ethics. Next, we go into group work, where students select an ethical dilemma to explore, described in this handout, designed to test the benefits and limits of utilitarianism. After designing a scenario together, and putting numbers to a moral calculus of its ethics in this handout, students perform their piece for their peers. Each group analyzes the math of morals, and evaluates the ability of moral calculus and utilitarianism to improve our lives together. Brining the abstract work of Bentham to life through performance has generated lively discussion, sharp debate, and a lot of fun.


Simulations can help students experience concepts within economic theory in a small economy that they experience daily -- our class discussion. During our readings of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, students struggle with the challenging texts, so activities that bring them to life are especially important. During our reading of Smith's Wealth of Nations, I hold a class discussion in an assembly line, with one student starting discussion, the next adding to the point, the third contradicting the point, the fourth starting a new topic. Students work as quick as they can, for more "product." Afterward, we discuss the pros and cons. During Marx readings, I announce in one class that the discussion points will be redistributed among all workers, so everyone gets the average points of the whole class, and after a time, we discuss the pros and cons. When we hold a debate in which students choose to defend Smith or Marx, I explain that if team Smith wins, the top three performers in that group will take 10% of the grade from each worker in team Marx. If team Marx wins, they take 10% of the grade from team Smith, but distribute all grades equally among their collective.


At the start of Wealth of Nations, Smith explains why societies of hunter/gatherers are less productive, and less wealthy, than societies of modern market economies, even though members of the former work harder than members of the latter. To illustrate the ideas of specialized labor and trade, I simulate the conditions for each kind of economy with students.


First, you need five volunteers to be hunters and gatherers.

Directions to students:

- You must go to five stations, and gather five things you need to survive

-          Each station has a different color marker, where you must write the appropriate word in the right color on the sheets of paper provided there. By writing the word in the correct color, you are "producing" that good. Do not take the marker from the station. You have three minutes to gather what you need to survive.

o   Food: Green (write the word "Food" in green, on a piece of paper)

o   Water: Blue (write the word "Water" in blue, on another piece of paper)

o   Fuel: Red (write the word "Fuel" in red, on another piece)

o   Shelter: Orange (write the word "Shelter" in orange, on another piece)

o   Tools: {Pencil; (write the word "Tools" in pencil, on another piece)

-          At the end of three minutes, students return to their seats and take inventory, counting how much they produced. As students rush around to gather what they need, I flick the lights on and off, to simulate the coming night. I announce that anyone who fails to gather what they need for the day will perish as night falls. Inevitably, some students fail to gather everything they need, and it's pretty much everyone for themselves. Often, markers or paper get hoarded, or stolen, from peers. There's a lot of time spent rushing from one resource to the next during the exercise. Students hold a rich discussion on the activity afterward. Next, it's time to simulate a market economy with specialized labor.

-          Group 2: Five students. Divide your labor so each student takes one station. Each of you will specialize in the production of your goods. Write your word in the appropriate color on as many pieces of paper as you can in two minutes. Next, take a minute to gather and trade so that you have at least one of each good that you need to survive.  At the end of three minutes, return to your seats and take inventory.

-          At the end of three minutes, students return to their seats and take inventory, counting how much they produced. Students in this system always produce more than the first group, and students have good observations about why. There is less chaos in the production mode of this system, and generally more order in the marketplace than in the state of nature, though there are still "winners and losers." Students who observed the market trading from the outside have commented on the cooperation they saw there. Students on the inside explain that they were only out for themselves, but this led to sharing resources through trade. I introduce the idea of the invisible hand in Smith. Overall, students enjoy the lesson, which produces good insights into the economy, and a lot of fun.




Physical analogy: act out the myth of Sisyphus, writing one line of poetry each on a paper, passing it along for the next student to add a line, then to a third, who adds the next line. They pass it along to the fourth student, who destroys it. Start again.

Physical analogy: Perform a semiotic chain, leaping from one metaphor to the next, to illustrate Nietzsche's point about language in "Truth and Lying."

Artifacts of culture: students bring in images and objects for close reading via critical consciousness





Visual form in art history - practicing close reading

Field trip! Close reading of the statue of the hammer thrower

Slide show: art inspired by the Inferno over the centuries

Olivier's Hamlet

The Enlightenment and Neoclassical art

Romanticism in art history

Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience

World War I and Modernism

- Women's fashions from the 19th to 20th century

- Swan Hilde v. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring

- Picasso

Apocalypse Now


A sketch of history



Visual form in architecture - practicing close reading

Slide show: My trip to Rome -- ancient ruins and early churches -- tracing the transfer of architectural language from Pagan temples and Imperial power centers, to Christian Basilicas.

Slide show: My trip to Florence - medieval v. Renaissance churches, and Dante straddling two worlds


Slide show: My trip to Rome -- fascism and the modern city: Mussolini's (name?)


Slide show: My trip to Paris - Renaissance v. Neoclassical architecture


Slide show: Boston and Paris - urban planning, neoclassical, romantic and modern buildings


Slide show: My trip to Paris - Renaissance v. Neoclassical architecture


Slide show: My trip to Paris - postmodern architecture and the spirit of May 1968


Slide show: My trip to Paris - the Colonial Exposition, Museum of Immigration, and the Paris suburb - race and class in the imperial city


Audio analogies - listening to form and content

Tone in Quranic recitation

Ancient Chinese music and the spirit of poetry

Enlightenment to Romanticism - composers?

Romanticism to Modernism - Swan Hilde v. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring


Field trip! Physical forms of intellectual history: Exploring Boston's Back Bay


In 2013, my class explored Boston's Back Bay, in a field trip designed by me and my student teacher that year, Josh Tetenbaum. Each student received a reflective journal to write on their experiences and impressions of each stop on our exploration. We connected the physical and cultural scenes of Boston to our readings in the Enlightenment, Romantic, Modernist and Existential movements. Students also wrote about their identity, and how they felt connected, or set apart, from the scene. Most of our students are Black and Hispanic, from working-class families. Most of them rarely come to the Back Bay, and reported that they felt out of place there, in the mostly White neighborhood. Through reflective writing, we practiced close reading of art, architecture, history and culture, and how the city's geography interplays with race and class. Afterward, we discussed how to make a place your own, whether it's a stop in the affluent Back Bay, or a new campus during freshman year in college.


Check out the field trip's reflective writing guide.





Physical analogies - concepts in motion


Visual form in art history - practicing close reading


Visual form in architecture - practicing close reading


Audio analogies - listening to form and content


Field trip! Physical forms of intellectual history: Exploring Boston's Back Bay






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 Copyright 2013-2015 Robert J. Comeau