Why not both?
One of the unorthodox ideas I tested in the last school year was a “Through the Lens” concept. The idea was to read literature, write a short essay, create a digital art piece (based on student photography), and give a presentation that incorporated both the essay and the art. For 2011-2012, the theme was American Literature. It was an easy place to begin for me, as I had already put together a curriculum for a thematic approach to American Literature with a fellow teacher several years ago. American literature also lends itself to images that are approachable by most teenagers who have some interest in visual arts.
I began with the Transcendentalists. Who better to photograph than Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson? The nature element alone makes for good images. All I asked the students to do was to connect the photo to some quote or poem from the readings.
Opening with such obvious connections allowed me to also discuss photography as storytelling and somehow reaching all five senses with imagery. I used PowerPoint to let me illustrate each point, and I encourage the students to learn PowerPoint for their own presentations. The first semester I allowed them just just share their images and discuss them, but by the end of the each all students were adept at full presentations with multiple slides.
I will teach a similar course for the 2012-2013 school year, this time centered around the work of C.S. Lewis. If that isn’t unorthodox, I don’t know what is!
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.
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.
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” ~Ray Bradbury