Category Archives: Modern relevance

#walkmyworld: Perspective

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Learning Event #9 connects the previous events into a story and a reflection. From the opening of the first door through the connections of high five, the reflections of dreams and totems, and an exploration of heroics, #walkmyworld is a journey of identity, discovery, and connection. The Story of Us is that, underneath the trappings of culture and training, we are all the same, reaching for the bright lights of a future yet unseen, pressing on toward a world that is better and brighter than the one we leave behind.

The Journey

The Journey

“Our story is never written in isolation. We do not act in a one-man play. We can do nothing that does not affect other people, no matter how loudly we say, “It’s my own business.”
Madeleine L’Engle (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art)

#walkmyworld: Reflection

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Back in late 1988, Michael Jackson released his album, Bad. I was student teaching 7th grade in Arroyo Grande, CA at the time, and decided to create a unit about taking personal responsibility for making the world around them better. Jackson was near the height of his popularity, so I used his song, “Man in the Mirror” as my central theme.  Of course, the internet didn’t exist, and even MTV was so new that it actually played music videos, but Jackson being who he was, every student knew the song. I recorded the song from the radio for reference and as a class we decoded the lyrics and analyzed them (I was cutting edge even then!) We created “mirrors” of tinfoil and constructed paper frames, writing poems on the silver about personal change. We discussed current events: the Cold War just ending, human rights issues in the Soviet Union,  uncertainty over China’s policies, economic challenges in the US, drugs, drought, and increasing Anti-Semitism. The bulletin board reflected light from the foil, while the students reflected for a moment the power of attitude. I discovered the role of relevance in the classroom.

Skip ahead a whole bunch of years, and #walkmyworld again considers self reflection, addressing the man in the mirror. Looking back at the headlines from 1988 and comparing them to headlines in 2015, and the stories are largely the same: wars and rumors of wars, human rights issues around the world, uncertainty over foreign policies, economic challenges, drugs, drought, and a rise in violence in the Middle East, a symbol of increasing (again) anti-Semitism. The old aphorism, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” sings true. In his poem, “Two Fusiliers,” Robert Graves wonders, “And have we done with War at last?”  The 2014 movie American Sniper was a huge box office success that told the story of the bond between war veterans because of the “wet bond of blood” they share. We have not done with war, as Graves had hoped. If anything, war is a constant in the 21st century.

 

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Putting my foot down for personal change.

 

So this brings me to the reflection of this week. Jackson’s song is a call to take responsibility for making the world better, not on a global scale, but by reaching out to the needy nearest us first. While we wait for governments to “fix” society, it continues its decline. The best of times are when individuals come together. We saw this as a nation in the weeks following 9/11. Jackson calls our normal state a “selfish kind of love” that needs to be replaced with personal change that makes a way to improve life for someone ELSE. It doesn’t take wealth or fame or influence to give of oneself.  The smallest things matter. I have given countless hats and scarves from my own head and neck to individuals who needed them more than I. It takes just a few seconds. I have sorted shoes for donations, served lunch in rescue missions, sung in nursing homes on Christmas day, and photographed memories for strangers who couldn’t afford a photographer for their events. I’m nothing special, but I did look in the mirror back in the 1980s and vowed to make a change that makes me see others in a different way.

To take this concept to the classroom would be such a easy thing: trash collection, scrubbing dirty and graffiti tagged walls, food drives or clothing drives to replenish the stores of the local rescue mission, and any number of other things that students can imagine. Let students brainstorm ideas. Give them ownership of the new vision and give them power to make it happen. Connect the service to poetry or song lyrics and biographies of people who have given of themselves (Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Eric Liddell come immediately to mind). This particular learning event can serve as a springboard to all sorts of positive changes, one student looking in the mirror at a time.

Graves, R. (1918). “Two Fusillers”. Fairies and Fusillers.  Retrived from http://www.bartleby.com/120/4.html

#walkmyworld: Totem-style

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#walkmyworld: Totem-style

Totems are not things I generally consider often. I associate them with trips to Seattle and thoughts about Alaska, but as a general rule, they’re just not on my personal radar. And then came learning event 5:  http://bit.ly/walk2015le5.

By definition, a totem is a sacred object that represents a group of people connected by lineage, family, or tribe. When families are fractured, however, the ideal symbol is elusive. One side of my family may be best symbolized by wheels: trucks, race cars, go carts, and gears. The other side is less connected, some sharing a similar faith, some a love for words or music, and others deeply patriotic. There isn’t a real shared tradition or history; in fact, it is difficult to trace back even names more than two generations removed.

2014WEB02So the idea of a totem has to be rethought. My last 30 years have been spent creating a family with the guy I married at 22. On our 25th wedding anniversary I created a book that contained some of the best memories. It’s certainly not sacred, but it is a symbol of our life together.

 

 

 

 

“Maybe it comes and goes. Maybe it’s always there.” Jonathan Levitt

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Feelings often do come and go, but the commitment represented by any totemic symbolism is always present as underscore and foundation upon which the rest is built. The challenges of mortgages, moves, career changes, and loss are balanced with the satisfaction of raising three independent young women and still actually liking each other at the end of each day.

 

 

 

And so, more than 30 years since our first date, our totem rises higher and higher, represented in thousands of photographs, lived out by the real people who make up our family.

Thanksgiving 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

For the full book, click here.

#walkmyworld: Identity Non-Crisis

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As a teacher of young adults, I am intensely aware of the search for identity and significance most young people face. My texts are often selected partly because they afford an opportunity to discuss and reflect about how one transforms from a child whose parents must be right to teens who are certain their parents know nothing to young adults who take the best of what they were taught and blend it with what they learn to become independent adult thinkers. However, the more I consider the concept of identity, I recognize the transitory nature of knowing the self.

This particular learning event coordinates with my focus word for 2015, chosen because my own life is in  a transition not unlike the one from child to adult. This is the year I turn 50, an age once upon a time I considered old (and I am certain most high schools students think of 50 as one step from the grave). This is the year I complete my M.Ed., officially become an empty-nester, and embark on a career path still uncertain. So, I reflect: Who am I? Am I the sum of my beliefs? My experiences? My surroundings? All of these? None of these?

This week #walkmyworld encouraged my to consider my own identity, apart from the roles I play as woman of faith, wife, mother, daughter, educator, artist, writer, runner, coach, musician, photographer, student, blogger, and friend. I have always considered myself a modern Renaissance woman because my interests and skills are diverse. On the worst of days, I call myself a “Jill of all trades, mistress of none.” On the best days, I manage to do some pondering, some crafting, some writing, and some exercise, feeling very accomplished in the process. Either way, these are things I DO, not necessarily who I AM.

Pardon me for a moment while I consider the importance of understanding the changing nature of identity as taught by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth in the mid 50s CE: 11 “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”  Paul here sets up his argument that identity as a believer requires change over time. He uses familiar language to make his point, comparing physical change to spiritual change. The fluidity of identity must be addressed periodically throughout life in order to truly know the self beyond the activities of life.

This is the reason I chose “identity” as my word for the year. And this is what makes this particular learning event important for both students and educators. We are ever evolving as we learn and think. Projects like #walkmyworld expand our horizons and expose the participants to cultures and ideas that may not be otherwise known. For teachers, it can form an unexpected Professional Learning Network (PLN) wherein ideas from one side of the world can find a place in the other. Students who participate may develop friendships in unexpected ways. In sharing bits of our worlds, we begin to see our individual identities as they stand at the moment. When we open our worlds to others, we also enter the worlds of others, and this new information may well alter our identity, affording us the opportunity to change and grow and morph into the next “version” of self.

It’s a mind-expanding idea: identity is fluid, changed by time, experience, relationship, and ideas. Understanding that, however, eliminates the identity-confused “mid-life crisis,” because instead of fearing great life change, one may anticipate with excitement whatever is next. Who I was at 18 is certainly not who I am at (nearly) 50. The things that I do influence the way that I think. The relationships I form in person or via digital means add to the depth of how I understand the world. Every day that I learn, I grow up a little bit more. Growing up, but never getting old.

Renaissance Woman

Renaissance Woman

References

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

#walkmyworld

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Last year I participated in a really cool event called “Walk My World.” Educators and students shared bits of their lives via Twitter using the hashtag #walkmyworld. The project covered ten weeks, with specific learning events each week. We analyzed the poetry of Robert Hass, wrote poetry, and shared pictures. Of shoes. Lots of shoes. Not exactly sure why.

It was tremendous fun, and I connected with people all over the US. It was during this project that I decided to see just how well Twitter can function as a pedagogical tool. So much class time is taken up with administrative duties and test preparation that there often isn’t time to really delve into the meat of the literature and what makes it relevant to today’s teens/young adults. Using Twitter as a modified discussion board allows students to continue to contemplate the literature: how it affects them and how others are affected by it. Assigning a class hashtag and an “assignment” tag allows Twitter’s filters to organize those discussions so that a teacher can quickly see how students are thinking about the work.

Twitter has its advantages. The 140 character limit forces economy of words. The relative anonymity allows for shy students to speak up and be heard. Reading the tweets of their peers connects students who may not otherwise have something in common. Having to connect literature to life requires introspection and self-evaluation, two key elements in forming a personal identity. To get students considering who they are and who they want to be is a critical thinking skill that cannot be measured in a standardized test. This kind of thinking is real life.

In a broader sense, a project like Walk My World allows people to connect who may never have met in any other way. The commonality of learning events forms a foundation upon which relationships can build. One never knows where those relationships will lead.

Why Does Reading Matter?

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There is an old story of a boy, a man, and a beach littered with dying starfish. The boy is walking up and down the beach picking up starfish one at a time and heaving them back into the sea. The man watches for some time before finally addressing the boy, “You do realize, son, that your task is futile. There are far too many dying starfish for you to make a difference.”  The boy walked a moment in thought before picking up another starfish. He looked at it carefully before throwing it to its home in the sea. Turning to the man he said, “It made a difference to that one.”

Teaching language arts is like throwing dying starfish into the sea. Teachers cannot make all children love to read and to learn, but each teacher can make a difference in the life of one child at a time. And that is enough reward.  Following the journey a student makes from reading by demand and reading by choice offers satisfaction in a way nothing else really can. Good teachers do not teach because they are ill-equipped to do anything else; good teachers teach because they see the potential in others and they have a passion for helping students recognize and achieve that potential.

            The key to successfully motivating students to read is to remember that the subject we teach is secondary. “You’ve got to accept the fact that you are not basically teaching a subject,” writes Madeleine L’Engle, “you are teaching children. Subjects can probably be taught better by machines than by you. But if we teach our children only by machines, what will we get? Little machines. They need you, you as persons.”[i]

            Literature is not objective. It never has been. Literature is the story of humanity, and every human on the planet has a point of view. Authors write from a particular bias and history and experience; readers read with their own biases, histories, and experiences. Nothing, especially nothing literary, happens in a vacuum. To separate literature from its historical and emotional context denies the essence of the medium. Literature, true literature, contains some message about the human condition that an author is compelled to provide. If books were written without any purpose, world view, social paradigm, or history it may as well be written my non-senescent animals or machines.

As I pondered this idea of reading motivations, I came up with a list of 19 items. I know there are more, but these hit the highlights:

  • To escape reality
  • To discover new things
  • To learn about known things
  • To justify beliefs
  • To challenge beliefs
  • To improve vocabulary
  • To follow a character
  • To enjoy a story from beginning to end
  • To indulge in fantasy
  • To gain power
  • To understand others
  • To persuade
  • To argue
  • To discern ethics and/or morality
  • To identify
  • To define identity
  • To discover truth
  • To break monotony/routine
  • To respond to the “wild unpredictability of the universe” (96)[ii] (L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 1972)

Each of these have a place in motivating students, but I think the most important ones have to do with identity. The early models of education, from the Enlightenment through Post-Modernism, have a variety of differences in the purpose of reading, but one element is constant: man’s connection to the world as it is revealed in literature. Historically, literature has never been produced or shared without the context of what has gone before or hoped for yet to come. Common Core seems to revert to reading and writing as a purely practical science that can be measured by objective tests.. The notion that 70% of literature must be non-fiction seems to corroborate that. Fiction is relegated to the 30% of “wasted” time in Language Arts that isn’t already consumed with grammar, vocabulary in a vacuum, test preparation, and the five point essay with MLA citations. Of course non-fiction matters, but it is in fiction that we discovery our humanity, our identity, and even the motives behind our history. Madeleine L’Engle wrote,

“People have always told stories as they searched for truth. As our ancient ancestors sat around the campfire in front of their caves, they told stories of their day in order to try to understand what their day had meant, what the truth of the mammoth hunt was, or the roar of the cave lion, or the falling in love of two people. Bards and troubadours throughout the centuries have sung stories in order to give meaning to the events of human life. We read novels, go to the movies, watch television, in order to find out more about the human endeavor.” (L’Engle, 1993)[iii]

      It is humanity that makes literature meaningful. Close reading of any literary text must include linking to the human condition. And this is where context matters. It is one thing to understand  and accept the biases of both author and reader; it is quite another to understand that every work of art has its historical and emotional context.  Understanding why characters respond the way they do is often linked to the historical setting of the author. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 during the Cold War, when television was just becoming popular, and when life began to speed up after the war years. The concept of burning books came right out of Hitler’s Germany,

When I was fifteen, he burnt the books in the streets of Berlin . Then along the way I learned about the libraries in Alexandria burning five thousand years ago. That grieved my soul. Since I’m self-educated, that means my educators—the libraries—are in danger. And if it could happen in Alexandria, if it could happen in Berlin, maybe it could happen somewhere up ahead, and my heroes would be killed. (Reed, 2006)[iv]

While what has been is important, what will be is equally so. We must continue to read the classics and study history in order to preserve our heritage. Bradbury’s fear was that television would replace books in the hearts of Americans, and in many ways, he was correct. So many people have stopped reading voluntarily, demands by school for reading are met with resistance.  The connection to our past and future selves as a culture is found in the literature we read and the context from which it comes. Since Common Core practices remove that historicity, students, no matter what constructivist models they employ, are unlikely to understand it wholly. Without that understanding, the message is quickly forgotten. When the message is lost and history becomes nothing more than dates on a timeline, no one remembers. And those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it (George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense, 1905).  However, part of learning the past is in discovering identity—and it is that identity that carries a society forward.

A society is made up of individuals, and teachers are in a particularly influential position as we work to help young individuals find their unique identities.  Context is king because it provides a reference point for the reader. Readers bring different experiences and biases to the literature. Authors write with different experiences and biases. Context allows the author and reader to begin the literary journey on the same page, so to speak. The “New Criticism” and its connection to Common Core removes that mutual understanding. By eliminating context and guidance, readers can easily get lost, frustrated, and turned off. It is utterly impossible to engage students with this kind of “cold reading”,  unless the “cold reading” is an enticement or the only context the book needs to the reader’s own point of view.

My 20 year old daughter hates reading. She is all about science and certainty and facts. So when she told me she was reading a book and I HAD to read it, I was intrigued. What kind of book would motivate her to read it–and then inspire her to buy the second book of the trilogy?  Her eyes glaze over when I turn on my English teacher mode (like mine do when someone starts speaking math), so I decided to read the book cold and see whether I could figure out its appeal based on what I know about Corinne. The very first observation I made (and I really tried to turn off the teacher brain, but this assignment was on my mind and I just couldn’t) was that my own personal experiences and points of view colored how I interpreted the characters. This is going to be true of every reader. Rather that pretend that readers come to literature as blank slates, we need to validate the minds of our students as they read a text–even cold.

The second thing I observed was that the book’s primary theme was one of finding self-identity. Ontology, the theory of BEING, is the primary focus of teens and many young adults, whether they realize it or not.  We know we have existence, but what kind of existence and what does it mean? In the search for “self”, books can provide a sort laboratory where we can experiment with different personalities without committing to one in particular. We can live vicariously through the characters because we admire their strength, will, courage, perseverance, or even the excitement of their lives in comparison to our own. Eventually, if we read enough, we find a comfortable rhythm in connecting with particular kinds of characters, and at some level, we connect to our own sense of being.

Having determined that much, I started to consider how to transfer the concepts of personal world view and search for identity to canonical works. How am I like Beowulf? Last I checked, no one called me to kill off any monsters…oh wait a minute…there was this time that a bunch of people were criticizing my child and I went all Mama Bear on them….  It takes a few minutes, but eventually, most students can come up with a time when they either did something really cool for someone else or someone else bailed them out of a bad situation. Grendel comes in many forms. Move to Shakespeare. Shakespeare dealt with all kinds of real people in his plays. Othello, for example, discusses motives of jealously and manipulation that any teen who has ever had a bad break up will identify with. Thoreau and Whitman got so sick of society that they checked out. The creative part for teachers is to find that little nugget of human connection and polish it until the gold shines brightly.

Jenkins talked about how teaching with the New Literacies has to change:

 “…they should focus greater attention on what it means to be an author, what it means to be a reader, how the two processes are bound up together, and how authors exist in dialogue with both those who come before and those who follow them. In this context, young people learn how to read in order to know how to create; the works they consume are resources for their own expressive lives. They seek to internalize meanings in order to transform, repurpose, and recirculate them, often in surprising new contexts….literacy is no longer read as a set of personal skills; rather, the new media Literacies are a set of social skills and cultural competencies….” (location 1163)[v]

This has always been my philosophy. Both authors and readers bring a personal world view or bias to the literature, depending on world events, personal circumstances, and perception of self. The purpose in teaching literature in the classroom is to show students that literature is a living entity that changes with every re-read because we, as readers, change. The exciting thing about teaching in a digital age is the accessibility students have to new media and the expertise they quickly develop even as that new media evolves. The living entity of literature takes on new forms as students begin to blend their experiences with new forms of transmission and combine classic universal themes with current cultural conflicts. This requires a deeper kind of close reading, and one that is more specialized, but no less effectual.  Wyn Kelly wrote,

I expect that each of us representing four perspectives on reading— the creative producer, performer, media scholar, and literary scholar —might consider his or her approach the default position for all readers. After all, each of us was a “general” reader before becoming “specialized,” and each would also reject an exclusive position that isolated others. (location 1555)[vi]

            If we as teachers allow students to take their natural “roles”, there will be a multitude of experts to contribute to a class discussion. Creators and producers will interpret the text differently from the scholars, but both points of view are equally valid and each brings a perspective to the discussion that the other needs to hear. Common Core negates one way of reading in such a way that it labels it “bad” and then wonders why kids don’t read. To dwell on “unpacking” the literature rather than dwelling in it does our students, and ultimately our society, a grave disservice.  Kelly adds,

Similarly, closer reading of a text allows us to experience and learn more in a dynamic relationship between what the author has put on the page and what we actually take in. The text begins to have meaning for us in more varied and subtle ways, and we begin to feel that we know it better. So we judge and have opinions. Just as we begin to argue with the person we know better than before, we begin to argue with a text or with the assumptions people have had about a text. One can measure that kind of knowledge best, perhaps, through writing assignments that allow students to develop critical opinions, explore the complexity of their responses, and communicate their differences with other readers. (location 1600)[vii]

            Jenkins reassures the teacher that adherence to the original text is the first critical step in remixing. It must be understood and valued for what the author intended first, but then open to interpretation, extrapolation, re-mixing, “modding”, and other creating uses that give the literature contemporary relevance. These are the words that should accompany reading: experience, learn, dynamic, meaning, and identification. Factual knowledge is such a small part of knowing a book! Use the personal experiences and world views of the students to guide discussions rather than focus on expected (and testable) outcomes. This is where I think it’s okay to just tell the students outright what the “experts” say and what the “right” answer is—and then allow students to define the literature for themselves with evidence and logic and critical thinking. Then they know what to say on the standardized test, but they also make the literature their own.

            The current system of teaching one interpretation because that’s the one the test writers say is right leads to ” a series of lifeless exercises in which the students extrapolated the meaning of symbols, metaphors, and themes irrespective of the situated cultural understanding they may have brought to bear on the reading of the text. “[viii] Not only that. but it turns readers into non-readers because reading is boring, too much work, no fun, and pointless. No longer it is an escape from reality; it becomes drudgery. It is not about personal discovery because what is discovered is probably “wrong.” Reading is not a pleasure when it becomes a chore devoid of any satisfaction. How can we respond to L’Engle’s “wild unpredictability of the universe” when both wildness and predictability are removed from the equation?

Teachers must be creative—to both engage the students AND meet whatever standards and tests that are in place. I like the idea from a previous chapter about using “specializing” to make reading more approachable.  Encourage closer reading by allowing students to use a particular angle to anchor their interpretation. Give them a reason to scour the text for examples, proofs, or illustrations of something that interests them. Then they can bring that to the class and be the “expert”.

“Modding” adds another element to close reading. If a student is going to diverge from the “state approved” path. he must be able to support his creative decisions with evidence from the original text. The human connection is the key element to successful remixing. In order to understand the universal themes of literature, teachers must be guides who promote questions, point to history, and provide context.  CCSS proponents want to remove authority from literature by putting the uninformed student in charge of his own learning–and he had better come up with the right answer on his own. But Madeleine L’Engle would disagree.

 “To refuse to respond is in itself a response. Those of us who write are responsible for the effect of our books. Those who teach, who suggest books to either children or adults, are responsible for their choices. Like it or not, we either add to the darkness of indifference and out-and-out evil which surround us or we light a candle to see by.” [ix]

Modding is one way to offer students a way to discover that human connection. Creating new texts requires understanding original intentions and connections. Close reading then becomes connected to meaning and meaning to relevance. It’s precisely what happened when Ricardo Pitts Wiley chose to remake Moby Dick as a play with a contemporary spin.[x] The very first thing Wiley did was ask his actors to write a story about one of the characters, that human connection that cannot be determined by a standardized test.

When the goal is to mod (make meaning with) the text in full consideration of what students know, motivations that guide their meaning making, and the ways they engage with the text when meaning making, a new range of possible meanings and conceptualizations of readers is made possible. As an expert modder, the teacher’s role becomes one of guiding students to closely attend to the text to make meaning in relationship to a range of interpretive communities and reader identities.[xi]

 I’ve apparently been “modding” my entire teaching career because I have always looked beyond the “do you know the expected answer” model to the “so what” question. So Hamlet may or may not have been insane. So What? So Gulliver decided horses were cooler than people, so what? So, Sartre thinks hell is being locked up with people you hate forever. So what?  The “So What” question is the key to human connectivity, and it is in developing at connection that modding can be most effective. Altered art, rap videos, re-writing Shakespeare in 21st century “teenspeak”, and even photography assignments are all types of pre-modding experiments I have worked out in the classroom for 20+ years. No wonder my principal once wrote on an evaluation, “her teaching methods are unorthodox, but effective.”  Whatever works. For me, the students come first. I want them to see themselves in literature. I want them to recognize that, although times may change, people really do not. I want them to read closely, think deeply, find identity, and live passionately long after they have left my classroom.

The thing teachers have to remember, I think, is not that we must motivate our students to read, but that we must share our passion in such a way that students motivate themselves. When that happens, we have made a permanent difference in that child, and saved one starfish on the beach.


[i] (L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 1972, p. 156)

[ii] (L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 1972, p. 96)

[iii] L’Engle, Madeleine., The Rock that is Higher, Story as Truth. Crosswicks Books. 1993.  p 88

 [vi] (Jenkins, Jerry; Kelley, Wyn, 2013)

[vii] (Jenkins, Jerry; Kelley, Wyn, 2013)

[viii] (Connors, Sean P.; Rish, Ryan M, 2014)

[ix] (L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 1972, p. 99)

[x] (Jenkins, Jerry; Kelley, Wyn, 2013, p. 1196Kindle)

[xi] (Connors, Sean P.; Rish, Ryan M, 2014, p. 15)

Unorthodox Living and Teaching in a Standardized World: part three

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Context matters. Without context, facts are points on a graph without any lines. But the context needs to be relevant. When studying for the GRE math section, I came across a question that so illustrated my issues with standardized tests that I actually remembered most of it. It was a math question, one of the dreaded word problems. I hated them in elementary school, and I still hate them. I hate them because most of the time they’re too stupid to matter. This particular one was about people sitting in an HR group, and some other mundane information. The outcome of the question was to determine the proportion of women to men and older to younger. All I could do was say, “Who CARES about the ratio of women to men? Do they do their work well? Are they beneficial to the company? Can they work together? I had real world issues wrapped up in this standardized test scenario and I frankly did not CARE about the answer!  Give me a reason to care about the answer and I’m more inclined to work toward it—and I doubt I am alone.

Actually, now that I think about it, I am not alone. I have a daughter who is all math and science.  Philosophy, symbolism, rhetoric—all the things that make me giddy—are, in her mind, a waste of time. And without context, for her they are a waste of time. She is the product of a school system that works into her natural strengths: math and science are more important than literature, history, and art. But philosophies do matter in life. A well read doctor can connect to his or her patients in a relational way, and research does seem to indicate that the human element is a critical factor in healing. A scientist without a carefully thought out world view may well end up in a Frankenstein scenario—and that what makes that particular piece of literature so current and relevant. When Shelley wrote the book, the technology of creating human life was unthinkable. Now it is almost possible. It is philosophy that feeds ethical decisions: just because we can, should we? If mathematical possibility and scientific probability are the sole measures for technological advancement, what ultimately happens to our humanity?

Unorthodox Authors

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Sometimes being an unorthodox teacher means choosing unorthodox authors to study. Madeleine L’Engle wrote a number of children’s books, and it it for those that she is best known. However, I love her essays and poetry for its beautiful imagery and profound emotions. Her spirituality is evident, and her unique point of view is worth close examination, especially by high school students.

I choose to explore her work, Bright Evening Star, a book of essays about the Incarnation of Christ. It’s the perfect choice for the weeks leading to Advent and Christmas, because it puts the season in perspective. Asking students to restate her written images into a digital art form makes them think, not only about L’Engle’s perspective, but about their own faith as well.

Other unorthodox authors I love to use: Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis, Adeleine Yen Mah, Laura Hillenbrand, and lesser known works of Thornton Wilder and Flannery O’Connor.

The classics are important, but it’s good to step outside the bounds of Spark Notes materials and let students do some deep critical thinking on their own. Add in some art projects or community service, and suddenly the unorthodox becomes relevant and effective.

Frankenstein

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I love finding new ways to approach classic literature. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those books I knew about but was never required to read. I finally read it over the summer thanks to my Nook and free classics. Was I ever dumbfounded! Every conception I had about the book was completely off base, as it was tainted by pop culture and cinema. Here was a book written by a 19 year old girl in 1818 with a multitude of 21st century conflicts. I won’t teach a book that is no longer culturally relevant because I want ALL my students to love reading. Classics that are restricted by time period are often wonderful, but I prefer to recommend those to my students who want to read everything–twice.

Frankenstein, however,may be more culturally relevant now than in 1818.  One of the key elements for current readers is the question, “Just because we are able to do something, does it mean we should do it?”  In 1818 electricity was a new concept, and the practical and cheap applications were years away. That Frankenstein was able to infuse life into something he assembled from multiple parts (particularly grotesque when envisioned) was purely fantasy. Today, however, that idea has plausible elements to it. Cloning, transplants, and stem cell research open that Pandora’s Box of possibilities heretofore unimaginable.

The geneticist Barbara McClintock once said of her research, “I was just so interested in what I was doing I could hardly wait to get up in the morning and get at it. One of my friends, a geneticist, said I was a child, because only children can’t wait to get up in the morning to get at what they want to do.” (http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=4917&page=1)  McClintock explains the passion of research and experimentation in the same way Frankenstein might have as he created his new “species.” He was so caught up in his idea and the potential glory he could receive that, like a child, he didn’t think through the consequences.

Whether it is practical science, economics, politics, or any other science, modern practitioners often lunge forward into experiments without fully thinking through the consequences.  Students entering the college and work world need to understand the long term ramifications of their decisions and discoveries. Running with new concept may seem like a great plan, but the ultimate outcomes may be contrary to the vision.

Of course, Frankenstein contains more timeless lessons than the conflict of science and ethics. The importance of companionship, the danger of isolation, and the tragedy of hubris are all themes appropriate for the contemporary teenager.  The focus will vary depending on the interests of the particular students in the class. The primary idea is to make the literature relevant.

Science, ethics, and literature: they are connected.