Joanna Dolgin uttered only a few words during her first period “Tragedy” class one Monday last month, and she thought even those might have been too many.
Dolgin’s junior and senior English students at East Side Community High School were holding a formal discussion of Shakespeare’s Othello.
Tragedy is one of four English electives offered this semester at East Side, a small secondary school whose students, mostly Manhattan residents, are not required to take the full slate of Regents exams typically required for graduation. Instead, students complete projects, make presentations, and participate in discussions to show that they have mastered course material.
Dolgin’s Tragedy class is one of 52 high school courses citywide that the Department of Education has certified as being good preparation for college.
GothamSchools spent a morning in the class, observing as students discussed a central question about Othello’s plot. As when we have chronicled other classes in the past, we’ve included both a description of what we saw — and, in block quotes, a description of what the teacher was thinking.
9 a.m. “Who or what is to blame for Desdemona’s death?” The debate prompt was written on the board when students entering Dolgin’s makeshift classroom on the seventh floor of the Norman Thomas High School building, where East Side Community moved in October after its building was found to be structurally unsound.
As students took their seats, Dolgin handed out paper tickets. Each student got two tickets, representing the number of times Dolgin hoped they would contribute to the class discussion. Then, after asking for volunteers to begin, she listed off several names of students who would speak, in that order, without being called on again.
The conversation began with one serious disadvantage: the size and shape of the room in the temporary space, a half-classroom in which about 20 students sat with their backs against the walls.
“Ideally we would have an actual circle. I can’t in this shaped room with this number of kids,” Dolgin said. “There’s just not space to maneuver.”
9:10 a.m. By a few minutes into the period, students were deep into conversation, debating with each other about whether blame should lie with Iago, who engineers a scheme to make Desdemona’s husband, Othello, believe she is being unfaithful; Othello, who falls for Iago’s machinations and ultimately smothers Desdemona; or Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s servant, who is drawn into the plot and does not alert Desdemona.
Iago is considered the play’s villain, but a number of Dolgin’s students said Emilia became culpable when she put her husband’s wishes before her friend’s needs.
9:14 a.m. A student argued that pinning the murder on Emelia was unfair. “Iago was the one who was manipulating Othello and everything,” she said. “Iago was like the murder-whisperer for Othello.”
“The murder-whisperer! I like that!” Dolgin exclaimed before reeling off a list of the next three students who would speak.
Dolgin said she is always pleased when students disagree with each other, as long as they can draw evidence from the text they are discussing to support their position.
“I love this format for discussion. We call it accountable talk,” Dolgin said. “It has several components that I think reflect the type of learning we want students to do. The first is that they are discussing questions that matter. There is certainly no right answer.”
9:16 a.m. After two more students — both girls — took aim at Emilia for misplacing her loyalty, Dolgin pushed back slightly. “You guys are hating on Emelia!” she interrupted the second student before letting her go on. The student cited a line from the play that she said shows that Emelia cares only about making Iago happy.
“Really nice use of evidence,” Dolgin said.
As part of its rollout of new learning standards known as the Common Core, the Department of Education has asked city teachers to make sure they “require students to ground reading, writing, and discussion in evidence from text” this year. Dolgin said she has required that practice since long before the new standards were adopted.
“This discussion really reflects the Common Core standards — and what I want students to be able to do,” she said. “There’s been no change.”
9:20 a.m. One student took the unorthodox opinion that all characters are equally to blame — and she presented the idea in an equally unorthodox way. “The whole story was based on lies,” she said. “Nobody had, basically, the balls to tell the truth.”
Amid snickers, Dolgin asked, “Can you say that in a more academic way?” When the student faltered for a moment, Dolgin suggested, “Maybe ‘the courage’?” Then she pressed on, “Why does telling the truth require courage?”
Another advantage of “accountable talk” conversations, Dolgin said, is that students who are comfortable with academic language can speak on equal footing with classmates who are still learning how to present their ideas in ways that are appropriate for the classroom.
“There are also multiple entry points so all kids, no matter their skill level, can contribute,” Dolgin said.
9:22 a.m. A discussion of whether the theme of “love conquers all” can be detected in Othello — “In this case, love conquered reason and love conquered intelligence. Beautiful!” Dolgin said in response to one comment — led one student to bring up Oedipus Rex, the first tragic play the class read this year. But the student seemed to have forgotten that Oedipus is by Sophocles, not Shakespeare. Instead of simply correcting the error, Dolgin built on the comment.
“There are definitely connections you can make,” she said. “I’m hoping light bulbs are going off in your head! Oh, this is like when Oedipus wouldn’t listen — Othello’s kind of like that, right? I think there are real connections between them and that’s something we’re going to explore.”
9:23 a.m. When a new student entered the room in the middle of a discussion, sat down in the back, and put his head on his desk, Dolgin roused him with a wave from across the room. But the class did not miss a beat. Without pausing, the student who had been speaking continued to cast blame on Emelia.
Before transitioning to the next speaker, Dolgin said, “I would love if somebody is willing to defend Emelia at some point.”
Responding to Dolgin’s request, a student contended that Emilia’s choice to put her husband’s wishes above her friend’s made sense for the play’s time and place. “Women didn’t have that much power,” the student said.
9:25 a.m. The discussion zoomed in on the handkerchief that Iago presents to Othello as evidence that Desdemona has betrayed him. Some students argued that the handkerchief drives Othello mad with rage, but another pointed out that his anger predates Iago’s discovery of the handkerchief.
“I feel like the handkerchief was just an excuse for Othello,” the student said, prompting Dolgin to write on the board for the first time since class began: “Handkerchief as excuse or cause of the problems?”
Dolgin said out loud, “How you answer that really I think really helps answer this question about who’s to blame for Desdemona’s death.”
Dolgin said she generally tries to stay on the sidelines during formal student discussions but sometimes cannot help but assert herself. Today, she said, “I just felt like there were a few things that I wanted to make sure everybody heard.”
But that’s not always a good thing, she said. “Some of this is my anxiety. When I let them have the floor, they have it,” she said. “But sometimes … when I get excited about the idea, I sort of say something. But I don’t think they needed me to jump in at all, frankly.”
9:32 a.m. For several minutes, Dolgin had been asking for “two-ticket” students — those who hadn’t yet contributed to the conversation — to join the queue of speakers. But not all heeded the request, so Dolgin called on a girl who had been silent all period. (Ultimately, all but two students spoke.)
After Dolgin asked her why she thought Othello believed Iago instead of Desdemona, the student answered, “Well, bros before hos.” The response elicited another request from Dolgin to rephrase “in a more academic way,” which the student did easily. “It’s natural for a guy to believe their best friend over their girlfriend,” she said.
9:38 a.m. A different student pointed out a tension in the conversation. “I think it’s kind of crazy how we’re saying … how Othello chose Iago over asking Desdemona, but then people see it the same when Emelia couldn’t pick her best friend over Iago,” she said. “It’s kind of like we’re being hypocrites about that.”
Other students piped up to challenge and defend the observation. One said, “I feel that Othello and Desdemona are just victims of Iago and Emelia’s relationship.”
Dolgin said that she stayed out of the conversation because it was going so well. That’s not always the case, she said.
“When these don’t go well, I stop [the conversation] earlier and say, ‘What do we notice is happening? What suggestions do we have to improve it?” Dolgin said. She said might redirect the conversation “if they’re not using evidence, or if there are only two kids talking, or something like that.”
9:42 a.m. The student who arrived latest spoke for the first time, asserting an opinion that hadn’t been aired before: “I’m blaming Desdemona for her own death,” he said.
“Oh snap! This is new!” another student exclaimed.
“That’s why we keep him around,” Dolgin said, adding to the student, “Thanks for rabble-rousing.” Dolgin asked for a line from the play to justify the accusation, and the student delivered, explaining in more detail when Dolgin asked him to paraphrase in his own words.
9:46 a.m. While one student argued that it is not fair to blame Desdemona for her own demise, Dolgin wordlessly pressed herself against the wall to slide behind a row of chairs to reach a student who had nodded off. Dolgin shook the girl’s shoulder and said quietly, “Stay with me,” as the conversation continued.
9:49 a.m. With only a few minutes left in the period, Dolgin told her students, “We are going to end here” — to a chorus of protestations. “Sorry!” she said.
Dolgin said the discussion had gone about as well as she could have hoped.
“The students ran the show. They listened and responded to one another with very little guidance from me. To me, that’s amazing!” she said. “The kids took their learning and opinions seriously and were eager to make their positions clearly understood. It’s not about answering a teacher’s prompt or getting at a ‘right’ answer.”
9:50 a.m. But before students left, Dolgin had some parting words. “I want to point out a couple of things that I noticed and get some feedback from you,” she said. “I really appreciate how many people participated; that was awesome. I appreciated your use of evidence. And I appreciated how well you responded to one another. Any other feedback on how this went?”
When a single “Very well” broke the silence, Dolgin groaned.
Being in temporary space has been a challenge, Dolgin said, because in adapting its schedule to fit with the others schools’ in the building, East Side Community had to shorten class periods from 55 minutes to 45. That means the normal tradeoffs about time are more acute.
“The conversation was going so I kept it going — it was so exciting to hear their opinions and I didnt feel like it was repetitive,” Dolgin said. “But I would have liked to do a more legitimate debrief of how it went and what they noticed. Instead I just sort of did it, because I was anxious about time.”
9:51 a.m. Dolgin then moved on to re-explain the homework assignment: for students to write a paragraph explaining “who disagreed with you, what were they are arguing, and why are you still right.”
Dolgin said, “Good news! You all disagreed with each other, so it shouldn’t be that hard to come up with!”
The goal of the assignment is to get students to dig even deeper into the text to support their arguments, Dolgin said.
“You have to show that you understand why someone would disagree with you, and how do you — you dont know have to say that they’re wrong — but how do you maintain that your point of view still makes sense?” she said. “I think all heard differences that they have to incorporate” into their essays.
“I think the type of analysis that they’re doing around Othello is exactly the type of analysis I want them to be doing, and Othello is so rich.”
The bell rang, and students streamed out of the tightly packed room, which later would turn into a math classroom. Dolgin offered some parting words of advice, to laughter: “Don’t lose any handkerchiefs! Don’t fall victim to other people’s relationships!”