Classics can also be "cool". How to turn "Pan Tadeusz" (Mister Thaddeus) into Mickiewicz 2.0

"It happened sometimes that someone boasted that he or she had passed matriculation by writing about Winnie the Pooh or Shrek," laments Joanna Kwiatkowska, a teacher from the Koło Circle, who hopes that the new, more difficult Polish language exam will encourage young people to read books.

As she says, there are reads, bestsellers and masterpieces. And teachers of Polish literature do everything to encourage students to read the latter. Why don't young people want to reach for the pearls of Polish literature? And how can this reluctance be overcome?

Participants of the competition for primary and secondary school students "Designers of Education", organised by the publishing house "Nowa Era", are looking for the answers. In the recently concluded edition, the main prize was awarded to five applied projects, which included setting up a photographic darkroom or creating anti-stress objects. But among the 75 grants awarded at the first stage, there were many original cultural projects promoting reading. And in works referring to literature, which made it to the final stage, special recognition was given to Adam Mickiewicz, the national poet, who wrote a great poem in the now incomprehensible thirteen-verse.

"Dziady" ("Forefathers' Eve") and Lego bricks

"We are a group of creative students who are not afraid of new challenges," wrote the participants from the Queen Jadwiga Primary School No. 1 in Oświęcim in their application to the competition. They wanted to prove that the classics can also be "cool. As part of their extracurricular activities, they created a time-lapse film (that is a film in which a sequence of photographs is shown at an accelerated pace), which is an adaptation of the second part of " Forefathers' Eve" by Adam Mickiewicz.

"At our school we run a 'Creative Mind' club. The subject of time-lapse film enjoys great interest during the classes. Students from eighth grade take part in them, hence the idea to make such a film at the end of our several years' cycle of meetings," says Angelika Michniak, a Polish language teacher and coordinator of the project " Frame by frame: "Forefathers' Eve Part II by Adam Mickiewicz".
Scene from "Forefathers' Eve" as staged by Stanisław Wyspiański - Municipal Theatre in Kraków, premiere 31 October 1901. Photo: Józef Sebald, Salon of Polish Painters -, Public domain,
The pupils considered making a film adaptation of "Forefathers' Eve" or "Balladyna". Eventually, they chose Mickiewicz's drama, which they had discussed in class seven. "They were interested in the theme of summoning ghosts, folk beliefs, old habits; they wanted to reach back to the roots", says Angelika Michniak. She believes that the interest in "Forefathers' Eve" may have been influenced by the fact that Slavic culture is now present in pop culture. For example, students associate the character of Sorcerer with the computer game "The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt", in which Sorcerer also appears and where the motif of the ritual of Forefathers' Eve appears.

"The beauty of this project is the pupils who became scriptwriters, directors, cameramen, set designers, etc. during the implementation. We proved that combining many subjects can be interesting," recalls Lucyna Kajstura, a maths teacher who supported the project.

To create the time-lapse film, the contestants took several thousand photographs. The film set was created mainly out of Lego bricks. "We had to be inventive in order to arrange the Lego figurines properly to depict scenes from the piece," recalls Julia Klęczar. Some elements, such as the choir of night birds, were made from cut-out drawings. The soundtrack consists of lines spoken by the students from the second part of "Forefathers' Eve". The film lasts 20 minutes and can be viewed on YouTube.

"It was an interesting form of recreation and integration. Thanks to this project I got deeper into stop motion animation and the reading of " Forefathers' Eve Part II", says Zuzanna Baczyńska. Even though the girls were eager to participate in the project, they worked hard on it. Kornelia Nycz: "Long hours of work, drawing, division of roles, fatigue and nerves; the work also lasted during the pandemic and e-learning...".

The difficulties were not only physical and technical, related to the video coding process that the pupils and coordinating teachers had to learn, but also of a... linguistic nature, at the level of understanding the text. And these were probably the most important.

"For students this language is very archaic. They don't know it, they don't use it. We often had to use dictionaries. When we discussed 'Forefathers' Eve' during Polish lessons, some of them admitted that they read it twice because the first time the text was completely incomprehensible to them," admits Angelika Michniak.

Today the eighth-graders are happy that thanks to the project they faced the text. "'Forerefathers' Eve, Part II' was not the easiest piece to interpret, but I think that with the group we were up to the challenge," says Kornelia Korbel. Her friend and namesake Kornelia Nycz adds: "By completing this stage of our education we leave behind a memento for others".

They want to become researchers, if only of literature

There are readings which, unlike " Forefathers' Eve" or "Balladyna", do not appeal to pupils despite their best efforts. For example, they find "Quo vadis" boring and too long, and they are not interested in ancient Rome! But they are not averse to Henryk Sienkiewicz's writings, and they liked "Lighthouse Keeper" very much.

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Some pupils in general approach literature with antipathy. According to Angelika Michniak, this is because they haven't found 'their book' yet. They are discouraged by the fact that the core curriculum includes many works which they find difficult, archaic. Some, like "Mister Thaddeus", perhaps appear in their lives too early. "We are discussing 'Mister Thaddeus' in the eighth grade and I have the impression that it is too difficult for students at this age," says the Polish language teacher.

Students are certainly not helped in reading by social media, where they lead a second or even first life. On top of that, they tend to pick up everything in a shortened version to make it easier and faster. "Some students say they won't read a book because they'd rather watch a movie or series on Netflix. Others find it easier to listen to audiobooks, which I don't forbid because they also absorb the content of the reading that way. But this can create a problem, as we memorise spelling patterns when we read. So by solving one problem, you can easily create another one", says Angelika Michniak with concern.

There are also the ill effects of e-learning, which was a necessity in the era of the pandemic: the lack of systematisation of students' knowledge. In on-site classes, when the teacher has direct contact with the student, "it is often enough for him to glance at the student to know if he is having trouble understanding the issue". E-learning is not the same.

Angelika Michniak looks for ways to combat what adversely affects students' development; she encourages them to read, acquire knowledge and think creatively: "I tell them that during Polish language lessons they are not students, but researchers of literature. It's not like I'm going to state a thesis and then require the students to agree with me. I encourage them to try to come to their own conclusions. And they really get into the role of researchers. They really enjoy it".

As she says, young people like to read fantasy, e.g. "The Hobbit", and sci-fi novels about the development of civilisation and new technologies. While discussing the readings, the teacher deliberately refers to contemporary trends; to films, computer games and pop culture in general, to encourage pupils to read. She even plans to create a computer RPG game with her pupils, which will be an adaptation of one of the school readings.

Manuscript for the Bard

As part of the 'Education Designers' competition, pupils from Adam Mickiewicz Primary School No. 4 in Lublin decided to handwrite 'Pan Tadeusz'. The "Mickiewicz 2.0. I LIKE IT!" project, carried out before the end of last year, was a gift from the school community to its patron on the occasion of the 223rd anniversary of the poet's birthday, which falls on 24 December 2021. It is also an element of the celebrations of the Year of Polish Romanticism.
The manuscript of "Mr Thaddeus". Photo: Pleple2000 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
The motto of the project was: " From The Fourth is heard: this is a manuscript for the Bard! The work lasted almost two months and involved over 130 people. "Students, teachers, parents and grandparents, as well as friends and supporters of our school joined in the rewriting of Adam Mickiewicz's work. I am very happy that the response of the school community was so great that we managed to integrate and work together on something which will be a lasting memento," says Joanna Hałoń-Gnutek, a Polish language teacher, initiator and coordinator of the project.

Before starting the work, consultations took place in the bookbinding workshop at the Dom Słów (House of Words) in Lublin, an educational and artistic institution belonging to the "Grodzka Gate - NN Theatre" Centre. They helped to prepare for the technical side of the work. "We had to choose an appropriate paper, which would not bleed through if someone wanted to write with a pen. And also the way of binding. We decided on a binding with special bookbinding screws, which allows for assembling the book from single pages. This made it easier to complete the project in such a short time," says Alicja Magiera, who runs the bookbinding workshop at the Dom Słów - Izba Drukarstwa.

The pupils divided their tasks, and specialists from several disciplines were involved in coordinating the work: art teacher Agnieszka Sim, librarian Renata Śniadecka-Mandryk, and Polish language teacher Ewa Wiorko. Three sections were created: logistics, responsible for purchasing materials, distributing sheets and collecting them (once they had been written down), and, importantly, checking the transcribed text; art, which created decorative elements for the manuscript, including ornaments in linocut; and calligraphy and bookbinding, whose tasks included preparing the manuscript's title pages and binding it during bookbinding workshops.

Once the text had been handwritten, a two-day bookbinding workshop took place at the Dom Słów under the guidance of Alicja Magiera, during which the book (in A3 format) was bound and decorated with linocuts. "The pupils did everything themselves. Of course, I first explained and showed them what their tasks would be. They were divided into groups. The role of one of them was, for example, to perforate each page, which involved one repetitive action. At first, the pupils found it tedious, but they became immersed in their tasks and later said that the time passed quickly," says Alicja Magiera.

After binding, the book went to the school library. In addition to the Dom Słów (the "Grodzka Gate - NN Theatre" Centre), the rewriting of "Mr Thaddeus" was under the patronage of the Foundation for the Development of Education in Lublin, as well as UNICEF Poland and the Santander Bank Poland Foundation as part of the "TO(działa)MY!" project. It is important that so many people and institutions have joined in one project to promote the Polish bard.

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In addition, there are plans to create a mural commemorating Adam Mickiewicz next to the library. And also - in front of the school entrance - a signpost with the information how many kilometres there are between the school and the places which were important for the poet, such as Zaosie, Nowogródek, Vilnius, Paris, Dresden, Lausanne etc. (there will be information about the poet's associations with these places).

Discover a passion for reading

– " 'Mr Thaddeus' is a national epic. We should bow before this work, we should see its great value. This is a gem of Polish literature and I hope that this project has contributed to the fact that our students have discovered this value," said Joanna Hałoń-Gnutek.

But she admits that young people have an inner resistance to compulsory reading. They treat it as an unpleasant obligation, reading a literary text under duress. "Sometimes it is a text that does not fully correspond to the interests of young people or the problems they are currently struggling with," continues the Polish language teacher.

In her opinion, young people generally like to read, just books that are not always required in school. "Students like to decide what they read. They like to read detective stories, adventure texts, reports, fantasy literature. I hear them talking about them or writing about them in creative works. Some of them even try to write their own literary texts, according to their own interests and skills, of course. These texts are varied, interesting and ambitious, and in many cases very successful," she praises her students.

As we all know, modern technologies are a serious competition for books, sometimes being the main source of knowledge. That is why persuading young people to enter the world of literature and imagination, to realise the value of a literary text and contact with a "good word", is, in the opinion of the Polish language teacher, a challenge of our times.

"We look for ways to promote reading among young people. But these have to be forms that combine reading a text with some experience: challenge, adventure, teamwork. The text should be a contribution to a discussion about values. And to carry out a certain task, especially if there is an opportunity to present the results of the work afterwards. Then the text becomes alive, it is repeatedly worked on, read and discussed by students," says Joanna Hałoń-Gnutek.

That is why she encourages participation in various competitions. Recently, as part of the "Education through Reading" programme of the ABCXXI Foundation "All of Poland Reads to Kids", her pupils won the main prize in a nationwide competition for a film presentation. They created a film (using stop-motion animation, by the way) about one of the stories from the collection "Gorzka Czekolada i inne opowiadania o ważnych sprawach" [Bitter Chocolate and Other Stories about Important Matters].

The Polish language teacher emphasises that not only the school, but also the family home plays a significant role in encouraging reading: " If there is a culture of reading at home, then it will be easier for the child to become interested in literature. But if there is no culture of reading at home, it doesn't mean that passion for books is impossible. You can discover it in yourself. But sometimes you need a little more time for that".
Micha Żebrowski as Tadeusz Soplica and Alicja Bachleda-Curuś as Zosia in the film adaptation of " Mr. Thaddeus" directed by Andrzej Wajda, photo arch. TVP
Infected with love for "Tadek”

"Mickiewicz 2.0. I LIKE IT!" was not the only project related to " Mister Thaddeus" in this year's edition of "Designers of Education". Fifteen students from class 3Ag ( final year) of Kazimierz Wielki High School in Koło played the role of journalists and created a magazine "Kurier Litewski" ("Lithuanian Courier"), dated 13 August 1811.

Why "Mr Thaddeus"? Joanna Kwiatkowska, a Polish language teacher and project supervisor, answers:"It is said that there are three terms that refer to a book: a read, a bestseller and a masterpiece. Adam Mickiewicz's poem is a masterpiece, a gem of the Polish literary classics. Besides, I want to challenge students, because they are willing to do something creative, but they need to be motivated to do it; they need to see a certain measurable benefit in it. The project was also an excellent form of repeating the material for the secondary school final exam (indeed, this year's final exam included an essay on "Mr Taddeus").

The magazine contains original articles and interviews written in colourful language. The topics are very diverse. "The Lithuanian Courier, as its authors wrote about it, "will allow you to look deep into the Lithuanian forest to find out what really happened during the bear hunt. An interview with priest Robak will give an answer to the question whether a man is capable of redeeming his guilt. The conversation with Telimena will reveal the secrets of the art of seducing men. We will also have the opportunity to admire the nobility's costumes, both for women and for men. We will see that even the most heated argument can find a happy ending". (…)”.

There is also the plot of mushroom picking, the Polonaise, or the course of the attack on Soplicowo. There is a culinary section, where we learn an Old Polish recipe for stew from Bielejewo, black soup from Białystok and delicious Sopliców coffee. At the end of the edition there is a crossword puzzle and Jacek Soplica's obituary. The articles are illustrated.

"Nowadays, detective stories and thrillers are popular. But in 'Mr. Thaddeus', the sensation is also present, only the form of the work, its language make the students discouraged. They assume in advance that they will not be able to understand the content. Meanwhile, young people in our project have analysed the issues contained in the reading, and then translated them into contemporary language very nicely," notes Joanna Kwiatkowska.

"The language of the poem may not be contemporary, but reading it is so pleasant that it did not cause us any problems," stresses Kinga Krych, this year's secondary school graduate and editor-in-chief of "Lithuanian Courierer". She adds that " Mr. Thaddeus" was in the canon of favourite readings in her class. And the value of the project was that they could work together and create this magazine, have fun with it.

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Wiktoria Pluskot, the author of the report on the bear hunt, is even considering studying editing or journalism after this experience. "The project was a new and interesting experience for us. Difficulties? Personally, I did not encounter any. A lot depends on how the reading is discussed, and Ms Joanna Kwiatkowska gave us the love for 'Mr Thaddeus'," says the graduating student.

"Our Polish language teacher made us love this reading like probably no one else," echoes Łucja Andrzejczak, the author of an interview with Father Robak. "I was very intrigued by the character of Father Robak, and the interview itself was about the transformation of the protagonist. It was an unusual experience for me because I had never before had the opportunity to play the role of a journalist," she adds.

It is worth noting that the group of students who created " Lithuanian Courier" attended the class of mathematics and physics profile ("but - according to their teacher - they were very talented, ambitious, they showed talents in Polish language").

In April, the magazine was presented at the Senior Citizens' Club at the Third Age University of the Kazimierz Wielki High School in Koło. Earlier, in February, after completing the first stage of the competition, Joanna Kwiatkowska and Kinga Krych appeared in the programme "Witaj Wielkopolsko!" ("Welcome to Wielkopolska!") on TVP Poznań, in which they talked about their project.

Lament of the unread

The teacher hopes that " Lithuanian Courier" will prove useful in the further work of a Polish language teacher - not only for her, but also for others who would like to encourage students to read "Mr Thaddeus" in an interesting and synthetic way. The more so as most students do not share the magazine's authors' love for this reading.

What is more, as the Polish language teacher observes, Mickiewicz's poem - its volume, form, language - arouses fear. "'Mr Thahaddeus' is our national epic, which we should know. However, the works that are at hand are often unknown or underestimated. There is a beautiful poem by Roman Brandstaetter, 'The Lament of the Unread Bible'. I can say that I have often heard 'Lament of the unread Mr Thaddeus'," says Joanna Kwiatkowska. - says Joanna Kwiatkowska.

Many pupils refer to the readings with disapproval. They only read summaries of the books and this is reflected in their level of knowledge. "It is getting lower and lower. But if young people mainly watch films and surf the Internet, what can you expect? You can really see it in the works we read," says the Polish language teacher bitterly. Although she stresses that, in her opinion, discussing " Mr Thaddeus" in its entirety already at primary school level is bizarre, too difficult for pupils.
In order to convince young people to read, in this case "Mr Thaddeus", Joanna Kwiatkowska tries to inspire them with the richness offered by the poem: "Firstly, it shows our national characteristics. Secondly, the artistic qualities of this reading continue to impress viewers. 'Mr Thaddeus' inspires many artists, musicians, painters... And if someone is not able to read the book, at least let them watch the film. You have to look for a way, because you can't throw 'Mr Thaddeus' out of the reading canon. This is the most important work!'.

And she adds: "I explain to the students that if they take the time to read instead of reaching for the summary, they will never make a cardinal error. This will always pay off. Their knowledge will be incomparably greater than those who read only the summary".

We don't know how many students she has convinced, but Łucja Andrzejczak certainly enjoys reading books, including classics, which, as she points out, allow you to get to know history and learn a lot. Like her Polish language teacher, she says: "Every Pole should know 'Mr Thaddeus', which presents a picture of the nobility, the richness of our tradition, and is also a beautiful story about family and love”.

The "Shrek" baccalaureate

One of the problems of the education system is the level of the Polish Baccalaureate. This is to change from next year, with the entry into force of a new, much more difficult high school leaving exam. "There will be a historical-literary test, the solution of which will require comprehensive knowledge of all the readings, of each epoch. That is why young people cannot avoid reading, because a summary will not replace it", explains Joanna Kwiatkowska, a Polish language teacher.

The essay is to be much more difficult - it is to be longer and you will not be able to refer to films in it, as well as base the essay mainly on any cultural text, which happened in previous years.

"The Polish Baccalaureate needed reform. Classes are getting weaker and students' work is at a lower and lower level. This is due to the fact that students are not reading. I suspect that there will be a high percentage of people who will not pass the new exam... But maybe they will wake up and understand that they have to read to pass it? Let's hope that the new requirements will make them more responsible for preparing for the maturity exam," says the Polish language teacher.

Finally, she adds: "I don't know if this is comforting. But we have to defend the prestige of the baccalaureate, because it is losing its value. It used to happen that someone boasted about having passed high school leaving exam by writing about 'Winnie the Pooh' or 'Shrek'".

– Łukasz Lubański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: Still from the film " Mr. Thaddeus", directed by Andrzej Wajda, in the group scene with, among others, Daniel Olbrychski as Gerwazy Rêbajło. Photo: arch. TVP
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