Zombies Help Stretch Innovative Teaching at Revere High School

October 1, 2016
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By Seth Daniel

Flesh-eating Zombies have been slowly taking over one Revere High School (RHS) classroom this school year, but there isn’t anyone fighting it, and in fact the educational experiment has become celebrated.

In response to the hugely-popular, Zombie-laden television show, ‘The Walking Dead,’ among students at RHS, teacher Nancy Barile has capitalized on that enthusiasm to use the show as a way to pound home concepts like character development, elements of fiction and essay writing – things teens in almost any classroom would grimace at the mere mention.

But Barile said her new ‘Walking Dead’ class, which is for juniors and seniors, has taught students just those very things that many teachers struggle to convey using conventional methods. Now, she said her students are enthusiastically analyzing the popular television show, which features a team of young people fighting to remain human and not being turned into a ‘Walker,’ or flesh-eating Zombie.

“If kids are your business, you have to know your business,” she said last week with a laugh, now having about one month of classes completed. “I spent hours and hours developing the curriculum over the summer. It was very, very time intensive and it’s a work in progress. It’s got to be the right blend of watching, writing, talking and analyzing. When you get kids turning in a four-page typewritten essay that’s only supposed to be two pages, and they turn it in two days early, that’s success. The kids are really taking it seriously and they’re very proud of their work.”

That’s the case for several students who are giving the class high ratings, and not just because it involves watching their favorite television show. Rather, it’s because it is a way to learn really important concepts in a low-stress way.

“I love this class because it’s a change from all the high-stress activity going on throughout the day,” said Audra Dimasso-Scott. “This class allows the opportunity to relax, while still learning and becoming a better writer. I’ve always been a long time super fan of ‘The Walking Dead,’ and I never would have imagined I’d be watching it in school and analyzing the episodes down to every detail. This class is truly a dream come true for students who really want to learn, but aren’t into just sitting down and take notes all day.”

Said student Dominic DeVitto, “What I like about this class is, yes even though we watch ‘The Walking Dead,’ the class has a higher dynamic to it, by looking for certain key points, change in character, changes in relationships, and analyzing how each person contributes to the show itself. What’s awesome so far in this class about deconstructing ‘The Walking Dead’ in a high school class is that it allows us to look at how the developers make each specific choice in the show from plot, who lives/dies, how people handle certain situations, but more importantly how the characters lose who they once were and must adapt in order to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.”

The idea came last year when student Jordan Toledo, who Barile said is a very good student, did not want to do his reading assignments at home. Toledo contended that in order to learn, he didn’t need to read because all of the concepts were online or on television. A huge fan of ‘The Walking Dead,’ he told Barile all of the concepts she was teaching were contained in the show. They made an agreement that if she would give the show an “academic” viewing, he would read at home.

“He told me that everything I was trying to teach was in the ‘Walking Dead,’ including symbolism, character development, paradox and allegory,” she said. “I couldn’t get into it at first, but on Thanksgiving Break last year I gave it another chance and I got hooked on it. I ended up watching all five episodes in a weekend.”

Once that happened, she noticed that the kids in her various classes couldn’t stop talking about the show on Mondays. And she said she realized that they were talking about things in the show that she was trying to teach in the classroom. Soon, she began to think about trying to hook into that enthusiasm and use it to her benefit. After spending all summer working on how to make such a class into an honest academic effort.

The class was an instant hit, with about 81 signing up and 65 staying on to study the show in-depth.

“I think next year it’s going to have to be Advanced Placement Walking Dead,” she joked. “I really tried to do all very high level things in it. When kids came in and found it was no joke, some of them dropped it. A lot of them thought we were going to just sit down and talk about their favorite show. I’m at 65 now in two sections and they are serious and it’s really pretty amazing.”

Some of the activities in the class include a group project where each participant has to prepare a ‘To Go’ bag with only three items that could be used for survival. Such an activity mimics the show in that the human characters always have to be on the move and have to carry a small, but critically important, bag of supplies.

Similarly, the class will begin analyzing later in the semester a study of Boy Scouts and group behavior done in the 1950s by Muzahor Sherif – a study commonly referred to as Robber’s Cove.

Just like the show, where group identity is key for survival, the class will analyze how group identity in the Robber’s Cove study changed when survival was at stake – and how it worked against collaboration when things were provided.

Already, the class has Skyped during school hours with a cast member of the show who plays one of the major Zombies, and he told the students what it takes to get into his Zombie costume. He also explained how the writers go over the script and how each actor or actress has to study the development and changes in their characters.

“The final exam will be that they have to pick a character to follow in the show and pick out how that character develops and changes throughout the course of the season,” Barile said. “It’s no joke. That won’t be an easy thing to do.”

Barile said what started as a quirky idea has now blossomed into something that could take the country by storm – at least within the walls of high schools.

“I am pretty sure we’re the only high school in the country teaching a high-level ‘Walking Dead’ class,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to get the man who plays Daryl – the main character – to come into our class and speak with the students about the concepts we’re learning. A lot of people in the education world are interested in what we’re doing with this. I get e-mails all the time from people who want me to put the course online. I’ve had those kinds of requests from people as far away as El Paso.”

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