We Are The Weirdos: How "Reading in the Dark" Builds Classroom Community
A year ago I was Chair of our English Department and challenged my colleagues to create a fresh selection of senior level English courses, as our student surveys revealed that seniors wanted more options to explore their varied interests. I was blown away by the creative offerings that each colleague brought to the table, and the result was the creation of several classroom communities rich with camaraderie and shared passions. In the following reflection, teachers Jessica Bailey, Kyle Lee, and Corby Baxter tell the story of their journey to create our beloved “Reading in the Dark” senior English course through the origin stories of the class, their decision to read I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and how imagining post-apocalyptic survival created community in their classes. Enjoy! - Kate Schenck
THE CLASS: ORIGIN, GENESIS AND PROPOSAL BY JESSICA BAILEY
I have been fascinated with the macabre since I can remember. As a little girl, I preferred Grimm’s classic fairy tales over Disney’s animated versions, even if I did listen or watch with one ear or eye peeking out from under my blankie. I had books with pictures of haunted castles covered in vines, cold-hearted villains and gnarled monsters that I would cautiously pry open after my mom kissed me goodnight just to get that rush of adrenalin, the hollow sensation in my belly, the rapid thump in my chest, and then I’d quickly slam the cover shut and let out a satisfied sigh. The pull to the shadows and dark places in my mind continued as I got older and enjoyed late nights watching scary movies with my high school friends, or cowering behind them as we navigated industrial-sized haunted theme parks around Halloween – my favorite holiday, naturally.
As an adult, I continue to gravitate toward mystery-thriller novels, true-crime television shows, and binging podcasts about serial killers, mass murders and cults to feel the rush of terror from the safety of my couch or mom-taxi. It wasn’t until last year that it dawned on me that my morbid captivation must be fairly mainstream when I bought a hoodie from Target that aptly reads “Glass of Wine, True-Crime, In Bed by Nine”, which got me thinking: why can’t we explore this grim obscurity and curiosity in a class? What if we approached tension, suspense, fear, mystery, the absurd, the grotesque, and a good old jump-scare from an academic lens? I wanted to encourage all the “freaks” to come out and play and maybe realize we really aren’t all that freaky.
With these questions keeping me up at night and potential book-lists swimming in my mind, I got to work and a proposal for “Reading in the Dark,” a senior level English course, emerged from the shadows of my imagination. After pitching the course, I had an incredible response from my colleagues and was so pleased that I wasn’t exposing myself and my “weird” affinity for the grim, nor would I have to teach this course alone. Two of my peers whom I admire, Dr. Corby Baxter and Mr. Kyle Lee, actually wanted to teach the course with me. And thus, our little “Reading in the Dark” community came to life. Based on an incredible student response, our thrill-seeking company grew to four class sections with eighteen or nineteen students in each. I had found my people.
THE BOOK: LEGACY AND REALITY BY KYLE LEE
I’ve long been intrigued by what inspires authors to write what they write and who they looked up to as literary heroes. Being a fan of Stephen King, I knew Richard Matheson is one of his greatest, if not the greatest, inspiration. Over Matheson’s prolific career, most point to I Am Legend as his seminal work while many of those same people state I Am Legend to be one of the most significant vampire novels of all time; few conversations involving these lists neglect to place I Am Legend with Dracula. My own experience with the novel was formational as a fan of the horror genre and as a writer.
With the opportunity to teach “Reading in the Dark”, I knew I could grow as a professional while speaking from my wheelhouse. Though guarded in my position as a new teacher, there were certain things I wanted to push for, chief among them I Am Legend.
In my mind, students need to see a teacher’s enthusiasm for a class to be successful. By extension, this gives students a reason to care. If they are already taking Gothic literature because the subject interests them, why not give them a relevant text to fuel that intrigue.
Science fiction very much springs from the Gothic but there’s a prevailing sense of “either/or.” I Am Legend provides both and, in many ways, we found the book to be much more accessible to students than Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Accessibility was a key point in our collaborative discussions as a teaching team and led us away from texts such as Frankenstein. Ultimately, I Am Legend surpassed our expectations.
THE PROJECT: ADAPTATION AND APOCALYPSES BY DR. CORBY BAXTER
One of the things that struck us when preparing for I Am Legend was character; Neville is the last man on Earth, and it’s his character that drives the narrative. The story—setting, antagonist, plot, etc.—all moves through character, and it’s Neville that defines the way(s) we experience the world. In this way, it’s also his character that influences the way(s) we see the twist ending, since (unless we look for it) we take for granted the normal associations of monster/human, which allows Matheson to trick his readers. In this context, we knew we wanted to use this book to work with character.
At the start of the year, we asked students to read pieces from Masters’ Spoon River Anthology before having them create their own classroom “town.” We called the assignment “Bear River” (our school mascot is a bear), and the students worked to: 1) collectively define “Bear River” (what will our “town” look like, etc.), 2) create individual characters, and 3) identify their character’s relationship to other characters. The assignment was designed to be an “ice breaker”—a way for students to introduce themselves—and our goal was to get students comfortable in the community space. In this way, the assignment was intentionally about community.
We wanted a similar assignment for the second semester—one that was about community—and I mentioned to Kyle and Jessica an old assignment I used during a unit on apocalyptic literature where the students research a “historical crisis,” create a logical case that crisis is apocalyptic, design a bug-out plan to survive the apocalypse, and then have to survive a series of daily challenges I give them based off their particular plan. The original assignment had different outcomes—it was about research and understanding apocalyptic literature—but we felt the bones of the assignment would work. So, we started discussing way(s) we would adapt it to our needs.
For the assignment, which we titled “You are Legend,” we put students in groups and asked each group to explore a type of apocalypse: nuclear, biological, ecological, supernatural. From this, students picked a specific issue (i.e. polar ice caps melting) as the setting for their characters. Once selected, students built their shelters, gathered their supplies, populated the world with up to five “experts” (Elon Musk was a common choice), and created an “adversary” for their apocalypse. They then created their own characters, which included defining their role in the group, and incorporating 3-4 details that helped add depth to their character. Our goal with this portion: we wanted students to create a “world” together.
Of course, we also wanted students to show an understanding of character, so the second part of the assignment was about asking them to “live in” the world they have created. For this portion, we, the teachers, used the groups’ bug-out plans to create daily problems for each group to solve. These problems were specific to the group and meant to incorporate the various details of their characters and situation. More specifically, the problems introduced conflict (the basis of narrative) and gave students “material” to create character and to engage with each other. For example, a student created a character that was constantly paranoid of the other group members, so the first challenge I gave the group revolved around missing equipment; they had to figure out who stole the equipment while also avoiding suspicion toward each other. Importantly, and because the problems we gave them were narrative based, the students and teacher worked together with each scenario to create a specific story for each group; it became an exercise in collaborative storytelling.
Click here to see a complete sample prepper manual.
Sample bugout plan:
To complete the assignment, we asked the students to create a fictional journal for their character. The journal recorded their interactions, and their reactions to the problems that arose in the daily group activities. We asked them to consider questions such as “what are their internal conflicts? How are they handling the crisis and the situation? How is the character responding to the group?” Here, we wanted students to consider the ways character drives narrative, while also asking them to build that character in context of the community.
THE MAGIC OF A PARANORMAL POSSE BY JESSICA BAILEY
There is nothing more affirming for a teacher than authentic student engagement. What is even better is when you as the teacher get to share something with your students that you genuinely love that they also relate to because they sense your genuine enthusiasm and develop a stronger affinity with you and the content. Students expect their English teachers to “teach” the classics, often struggling to understand the hype about Melville’s Moby Dick or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and even the “edgier” tomes like Orwell’s 1984 or Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye fail to truly capture the adolescent audience no matter how hard the teacher works to impart the novel’s influence or impact. “Reading in the Dark” created an opportunity for students to reference the adolescent binge worthy series that are brilliantly directed and produced that capture their attention, even provoking them to put off their homework reading for English class just to watch one more episode. Instead, we assign the types of texts and multimedia that they are choosing to watch anyway and, to be quite honest, that we, the teachers, want to read, watch, and teach as well.
As a wayward sophomore in high school, I vividly remember being on my own in my bedroom on a Friday night, watching The Craft (1996), a teen supernatural horror flick about a new transfer student at a Catholic prep school who finds her place with a trio of outcast girls practicing witchcraft, for the umpteenth time. I desperately wanted to find my own trio of gothic girlfriends. In the movie, there is a memorable scene where a kind bus driver warns the girls to watch out for the “weirdos” in the world waiting to harm them. Nancy, played by Fairuza Balk, looks at the bus driver point-blank and says, “We are the weirdos, mister” affirming their autonomy and empowerment amongst like-minded peers – the tiny community they found amidst all the other teen stereotypes who tortured them. I never would have thought I would finally find my own paranormal posse more than twenty years later teaching a class I would have died to take as the little freak that I was back then and still proudly am today.
Jessica Bailey is Our Gothic Queen Bee Who Reigns Under the Yellow Banner of the Second Year, Sometimes Subject of Spontaneous Photography
Corby Baxter is a collector of books, a reader of the stars, and a librarian among the shelves of the Library of Babel
Kyle Lee is our Literary Hephaestion and Occasional Vocational Tumbleweed