“Digesting The Walking Dead” - There are No Zombies in this Classroom

Even though I’ve been teaching English Language Arts in a low-income, urban high school near Boston for twenty-two years, I’m still always looking for new ways to connect with my students and to create effective student-centered learning experiences for them. I also try to keep my finger on the pulse of what my students find interesting.

Last year Jordan was a student in my college level sophomore English class. Jordan was a tough kid, and I wouldn’t necessarily call him “academically inclined.” Almost immediately, however, it became apparent that Jordan was a bit obsessed with The Walking Dead television series. He talked about the show constantly, and he even dressed in a leather vest with angel wings like his favorite character, Daryl Dixon.

Jordan loved talking about The Walking Dead, and he often asked me if I watched the show. “No, Jordan,” I told him. “I’m not into blood and guts and gore, and I have no interest in the zombie apocalypse.” “Well, you should really watch it,” he said. “It’s got all that stuff you like - character development, imagery, symbolism. Then we could talk about it in class.”

As the year went on, I found that I could engage Jordan during class, but when I assigned work for him to do at home, he ignored it. I spoke with him several times, and while always respectful, he made it clear: he was too busy to do any reading at home. When his quarter grade entered the danger zone, I pleaded with him, “What do I have to do to get you to read at home?” He replied, “Watch The Walking Dead. If you watch, I’ll read.”

Now there are probably some readers who will say I shouldn’t bargain with a kid. But I like a feisty student, and I love that my relationship with Jordan was strong enough that he felt comfortable issuing a challenge. I also respected my student enough to at least try to view one episode. So over the Thanksgiving holiday I started watching. It took a bit of time for me to get through that first show (okay, the first five minutes), but I persevered. By the New Year, I had devoured all five seasons.

Jordan lived up to his end of the deal and read at home. Since almost all of my students watched The Walking Dead, I now had some common ground with them. Every Monday morning, I’d take the first 5 minutes of class to discuss and deconstruct the previous night’s episode. And Jordan was right – there was a great deal to examine. The show was loaded with symbolism, allegory, and paradox. One day Jordan said, “We should have a Walking Dead class.” I laughed and then thought, “Hmmm, that might not be a bad idea.” I went to my Director, Dr. Christina Porter, and jokingly told her Jordan’s suggestion. A fan of the show herself, she surprisingly agreed. If I were willing to develop a rigorous curriculum around the show, she would let me teach a class on it. And so “Digesting the Walking Dead” was born.

All summer I worked tirelessly on developing a curriculum around the show that would be both engaging and effective. Because I wanted students to make a personal connection with the characters, their first essays focused on what they would pack in their “To-Go” bag and why, and what three people from their lives they’d take with them into a post-apocalyptic world. For their first research project, these city kids created presentations on how to find water in the wilderness, how to build a shelter, and how to start a fire without a lighter or matches. I used Saphier’s Making Student Thinking Visible model for creating a strong talk environment in the classroom; I wrote powerful discussion questions for before and after viewing each episode so students could reflect on the challenging issues the characters faced on the show like “What is necessary to survive? Whom should you trust? How do you balance individualism and community? Freedom and security?

Starting with the first episode, students chart the development of their favorite character – their final exam is to discuss that character’s arc throughout the series. They read online critical reviews of the first four episodes and then, after watching the fifth episode, write their own review. (When one group handed in their paper two days early and two pages over the requirement, I knew something amazing was happening.)

I created lessons that intersect with other disciplines including psychology, sociology, business, ethics, and international relations. Students are often called upon to apply criteria to investigate a character’s actions. They look at leadership models to decide whether Rick is a good leader. They explore group identity theory. They use the “dark tetrad” concept to evaluate Shane’s behavior. They read how emotionally intelligent people handle toxic people and then examine the relationship between brothers Merle and Daryl. They discuss censorship. They do a rhetorical analysis of Rick’s and the Governor’s speeches. They learn international relationships theory and apply it to the show. They use a critical lens to explore feminism and to question male narratives in the series.

Sixty-six juniors and seniors are now taking the class (parents/guardians must sign a permission slip), and I have never seen students more excited about learning. As I walk around the room during their discussions, I am impressed with their level of discourse. I am captivated by the quality of their papers and thrilled with their presentations. The curriculum is rigorous and challenging, but we are all having a blast.

And now my students and I have one dream – we’d like to invite Norman Reedus - aka Daryl Dixon - to visit or even just to Skype with us. My students would love to meet their idol (he is overwhelmingly the class’s favorite character), and I think he would be impressed with their hard work and dedication in this course. So if anyone out there knows Norman, please pass this on to him, and tell him to call me.

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