Tag Archives: books

#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.

Literature or Art Class?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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The Logical Conclusion by T.S. Eliot

Altered Books (blasphemy!)

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Before anyone panics, altered book are not purposefully destroyed! The Altered Book art form rescues books from the dumpster and upcycles them into masterpieces. It’s a beautiful combination of expression and repurposing what some might consider trash.

There are dozens of web sites and books about Altered Art and how to create it, so my intent here is to simply share how I use it in the classroom.

One of the books I use in my World Lit class is Adeline Yen Mah’s Watching the Tree. I know of schools that use her Chinese Cinderella , but I wanted a book that would illumine the Chinese culture and mind. What better than a book of philosophy as a woman searches for her spirituality? There are too many chapters in the book to teach them all, so I teach–and we discuss–the fundamentals of Tao, I Ching, Buddha, Confucius, Zen, and Silence. Other chapters in the book incorporate elements of these: food as medicine, yin/yang, fung shui, etc. Those are the inspirations for the altered books.

Each student is responsible to read one of the chapters we do not discuss together and create a two page spread in a book destined for the incinerator. The size of the book is unimportant. Students may use any other materials. The goal is to create a symbolic representation of the most important element in the chapter. This, of course, varies, so grading is based solely on thoughtfulness and effort.  When the projects are due, students give a short (as in 2-3 minutes) informal presentation about the chapter, their interpretation, and the methods they chose to symbolize it.

Some of the pages are simple, but some students allow their creativity to take over, and the work is spectacular. Some are funny, some profound, and most are ideas I never could have imagined. Unorthodox teaching allows for surprise and growth for both teacher AND student.

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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.