Teaching Player Piano

Teaching Player Piano – Finding Purpose at the Meadows

Dan Gathman
FOCUS English
Burke High School

As a teacher it is my job to make sure that students are not only able to understand the information put in front of them, but also to use it in a manner that leads to success in both the classroom and life in general.  In July 2015, I became the student when given the privilege of attending the Teaching Vonnegut seminars at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.  It was put on me to make sure that I used the information shared for success.  Once home, I went to work figuring out which Vonnegut novels would best fit my classes.
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In an age where smart phones and tablets seem permanently affixed to hands, a book that questions humanity’s purpose in relation to the benefits and detriments of advanced technology seemed an obvious choice.  Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, became the first Vonnegut novel taught in my classroom.  This post is not a post about what is, but a post about what could be.

Discussions, journals, activities, reading, and writing about Vonnegut and his novel took place like with any piece of literature, but then it became time for the students to prove themselves academically (and not-so-academically).  Teams were created, colors chosen, songs written and performed.  Competition at the Meadows had begun.
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Intermixed with the academia of the situation the students took part in two games per day through the second half of the unit.  They were forced to work together in some and choose different representatives for others all while trying to make sure that their team would end the unit victorious.  Ranging from trash can basketball to a rock-paper-scissors tournament to memorization games the competitions served as brain breaks while the students got to know Vonnegut, his writing, and his characters.

As teams took and lost the overall lead throughout the unit, class discussions also became more compelling.  It was Reverend Lasher himself that said, “It isn’t knowledge that’s making trouble, but the uses it’s put to” (Vonnegut 92).  The students worked to make sure they were prepared for each day, and as we got deeper into both the book and our conversations it was the Shah’s question to EPICAC XIV that led to the unit’s final project.

“Before we take the first step, please, would you ask EPICAC what people are for?” (320).
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The students were then given the task of answering the question through a RAFT.  A RAFT is a writing assignment in which the writer takes on the Role of a character, writes to a particular Audience, in a specified Format, about a certain Topic.  Each character existed in the world Vonnegut created for a reason, and now it was the job of my students to show their classmates why.  They had time in class over the course of a week to write their drafts and final copies before presenting in front of their peers.

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