Ms. Holmes is my dear friend and currently an 8th grade English teacher at a public school in New Jersey. Reading with Ms. Holmes is an occasional series in which I write about my experience reading along with her students (and keeping up with the homework too!) in addition to my own thoughts on the book itself.
Miracle Worker is a play about Helen Keller – which, admittedly, doesn’t sound like a promising start for an excellent middle school English text. Helen Keller has largely become a figurine, a means for adults to expound on certain virtues to children. “Perseverance is key to success,” many an elementary school teacher proclaims. “Look at how much Helen Keller was able to accomplish and she was blind and deaf! Look how many challenges she overcame!”
But how did she overcome? On this, they are silent. Enter William Gibson’s Miracle Worker, a play which shows the story of how Helen learned to sign, thanks to the persistence of her tutor, Annie Sullivan. As a result, the play presents a challenge to middle schoolers in both style and content, but that challenge is achievable (the best kind) and Ms. Holmes’ students were making sophisticated comments about characters and their development by the end of their unit.
The first challenge of Miracle Worker is that the main character – Helen – doesn’t ever speak. The second challenge is related: reading stage directions and understanding Helen’s character requires making inferences. Not an easy task.
Many of Ms. Holmes’ students had never read a play before. They needed support to understand the conventions of plays and make meaning from them. Many of them struggled to understand how smart and manipulative Helen is, even before she gains a traditional means of communication. This might seem to put Miracle Worker out of reach of eighth graders. Its saving grace? The film version, starring Anne Bancroft as Annie and Patty Duke as Helen, both of whom won well-deserved Oscars for their roles. The value of showing the movie goes beyond the classic “compare and contrast” exercise indicated by the Common Core State Standards (RL.8.7). Ms. Holmes used the film version of Miracle Worker to illuminate the interpretive and imaginative work students need to do while just reading a play. She used it to reinforce the student’s understanding of the play, as opposed to simply supplementing it.
Ms. Holmes’s final lesson asked the students to think about how characters and their relationships had changed over the course of the play. Their comments were clear and insightful and, despite that many of them had early difficulties with comprehending the form, they were able to articulate the significant changes and themes. This is a play about learning and growth and love and, yes, perseverance. It shows Helen Keller as a three-dimensional human being. Helen’s life is arguably better by the end; Annie’s definitely is. But the efforts by all involved to get Helen to this point are not without sacrifices. Ms. Holmes’ students articulated that the play does not end with a “happily ever after;” they understood that learning and growth and change have complex consequences.
Two necessities of a middle school English text? A moderate reading level and complex consequences. Ms. Holmes, I think you’d agree.
Ms. Holmes next unit? Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals, a memoir about the Little Rock Nine