Welcome to the coolest high school class in the country. These Massachusetts students watch—and study—AMC’s hottest show, The Walking Dead.
By Wayne D’Orio, School Leaders Now senior editor
Revere High School English teacher Nancy Barile had a common problem. One of her students last year was refusing to do any homework. The student, Jordan Toledo, then a 10th grader, was doing well in class, but started to lose ground because of his homework deficit.
“I begged, I cajoled,” says Barile, a 22-year veteran. Jordan wouldn’t budge. Because they had a good relationship, Barile knew Jordan liked the TV show The Walking Dead.
He finally offered her a deal. He would read the book in question if she would watch his favorite show. Barile declined, telling him “I’m not into zombies and blood-and-guts.” He said to her, “Miss, it’s got everything you like: symbolism, allegory, paradox.” For non-fans, The Walking Dead is a serial drama about a zombie apocalypse. Survivors struggle to survive in the Atlanta area. Now in the middle of its seventh season on AMC, the show is the most popular cable program on television.
When Barile finally relented, she got only five minutes into the first episode before she turned it off. She didn’t like the seemingly random violence. In the meantime, Jordan read the first chapter of Night Hoops, a story about two boys’ friendship during a basketball season. (“I didn’t really like it,” he admits.)
After one more aborted effort, Barile finally finished the first episode around Thanksgiving of last year. “By the end of winter break, I was all caught up,” she recounts with a laugh. She pored through five seasons in a little more than five weeks. Jordan kept up his end of the bargain, completing homework and boosting his grade.
If the story ended there, it would be another case of a teacher going above and beyond to help motivate a student. But once Barile started to discuss the show with Jordan, he quickly suggested she create a Walking Dead course the next year. Long story short, she did, and now Barile is teaching “Digesting the Walking Dead,” the only high school class in the country based on the popular program.
Engaged Students, Committed Teachers
It’s not easy to create a class from scratch. Barile teaches AP English at the 1.800-student school so she knows what a rigorous course looks like. Although the University of California, Irvine, created a MOOC about The Walking Dead in 2013, there were no materials online that Barile could crib from. “I really had to start at square one,” she says, adding that she consulted with Jordan and her 17-year-old nephew as she put materials together.
The first hint she might have a hit came during registration. For a school that also offers classes on Breaking Bad and ABC’s fairytale drama Once Upon a Time, Barile’s class drew 81 students. (Registration dropped to 68 when students “found out we were going to do more than watch the show,” Barile says. Because of the show’s content, students need a permission slip to take the class.)
It was a “no brainer” to approve the course, says Christina Porter, the school’s director of humanities (and a student of Barile’s when the English teacher was a rookie). Besides being a big fan of the show, she adds, “We really believe in a student-centered approach to teaching and learning. To do that, you have to include students’ voices in the choices you make.” The school, which is six miles from downtown Boston, also offers classes on Black Lit Matters and urban wilderness.
“It’s a ton of work to create a curriculum from scratch so we are lucky to have educators who are willing to do that to engage our students,” Porter adds.
“The Keys to the Kingdom”
Barile’s first lesson was to have students identify what they would put in their ‘to-go’ bag and why. Students then read critical reviews of the first four episodes. For the fifth episode, they wrote their own review.
Confirmation about the class’s success came in two separate incidents recently. In the first, students were assigned to write a two-page midterm paper that tracked one character’s development through the show’s first two years. The papers were due on a Thursday. The week before they were due, students starting turning in papers that ran to 10 pages. “That’s never happened before,” Barile says.
The second incident occurred when some students approached Barile and said they were thinking of taking the class next year but they heard it was “really hard.” “I thought mission accomplished,” she says. “I didn’t want them to think it was going to be a blow off course.”
The teacher says creating strong student engagement, like this class has, “is the key to the kingdom. I can get kids to do anything now. We do deep psychological analysis of PTSD. We read about torture. Is it effective? That’s timely with a president-elect who wants to bring back torture.”
Success, On More Than One Level
A few months into the class, Jordan admits he still can’t believe he’s taking a class centered on his favorite program.
Jordan’s favorite character is Daryl Dixon, played by Norman Reedus. “I thought I’d be a Glenn [Rhee] person, but I am hooked on Daryl.” He admits that studying the show has made him even more of a fan.
“I always appreciated the depth and the time and effort that went into making it,” Jordan says. “I definitely look into the show more. At home, I didn’t take notes about Daryl. Now I have a whole book about him.” Jordan also sports a homemade leather jacket adorned with angel wings, just like Reedus’s character.
Now he hopes this class can spread to other high schools. “I want everyone to experience it. It’s a good show.” When asked how he’s doing, the junior says, “It’s my only A+. Everything else is a B or a C.”
For more information about Barile’s unique class, see her story on Huffington Post.