Excellent information from Vicki Davis about teaching digital citizenship. Originally posted on Edutopia.org.
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?
Innovation requires out-of-the-box vision. We respect and revere men like Steve Jobs for their vision and for their ability to see the potential in ideas. Yet we don’t teach our teenagers to think for themselves. Teachers in the humanities need to encourage students to find their OWN insights into literature along with learning what other scholars think. History should be a captivating story of society and cultures, how it rises and falls, evolves, changes, succeeds, and fails. We learned early on that “in fourteen hundred and ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue” but why? What motivated him? How is he like Neil Armstrong or Walt Disney or Bill Gates? The connections are what make history come to life. But the connections don’t matter on a standardized test so we don’t ask. But, why NOT? Teachers are supposed to train learners, aren’t they? Doesn’t it follow that a kid who finds relevant connections to history and literature and economics is going to do just fine on the standardized tests?
I’m a big fan of asking questions. First of all, I don’t have all of the answers. And if you’re honest, you don’t either. Secondly, as compelling as I think I am, no one wants to listen to me tell facts about this or that. Facts matter, yes, but only as a foundation for discourse. The interesting stuff starts to happen when students make connections between facts and themselves. Students recognize this, too, even though they may not know it yet. When I teach F451, most students intuitively like Clarisse and dislike Mildred. Why is that? Mildred represents everything we seem to value: she has material goods, friends who make her feel good about herself, and a place in a society that is a perfect fit for her. She may not be in the A-list group, but she isn’t the bottom of the heap, either. Clarisse, on the other hand, is a loner, ostracized by her peer group, ridiculed in school, unconventional in her interests, habits, and appearance. Clarisse is, in her society, weird. Mildred is normal. It never fails, though. Every reader sees Clarisse as the more appealing character. Clarisse thinks deeply. Clarisse questions authority. Clarisse wonders and reads and talks. Students want to do the same, but too often we tell them the answer we want to hear and expect them to parrot it back to us. This is counter-productive. Is Clarisse a symbol? Perhaps, but more importantly to this generation, Clarisse gives teenagers permission to be unorthodox enough to find wisdom. Our job as teachers should be to show students the joy of imagination and wonder and discovery.
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 is just one of the most fun books to teach, particularly for me. As we finished the book this year, I decided that we would do two fun projects that would make the Gothic study a lasting memory for the students. It also gave the students time to complete their essays before launching into the next book.
The first project was to create an image of any scene, event, character, or quote from the book. Since they had to use the book for essay quotes, they were already looking at specific areas, so it was a natural extension. Most chose to draw a scene, and to their credit, they opted for obscure selections or unusual perspective rather than try to imitate an actual word picture. Then I showed them my picture, with the quote, ” I shall be with you on your wedding night” from chapter 20.
Macabre? Yes. Out of the box? Naturally? Effective? Absolutely. Students saw that an image can be as simple as paint on wallpaper to create an emotion, especially in context with the reading. It’s a fresh way to look at artistic representation of classic literature. It fit the gothic genre by appealing to emotion rather than reason, and referencing the “otherworldliness” of Shelley’s book.
The second project was a poetry unit in disguise. Teaching poetry as a unit make no more sense to me than vocabulary lists. Context gives both meaning that lasts long after the class is over. I prefer to slip poetry (and vocab) into literature as I teach. For this particular class, I gave each student a poem that met the standard for Romantic/Gothic poetry. Each student had 15 minutes to analyze the poem before reading it to the class and explain what elements made it Romantic/Gothic. In one class period students heard a number of poems and reinforced the definitions of the genre.
Students then had until the next class period (our school has classes two days a week) to learn the poem in order to present it as a campfire “ghost story.” Shelley wrote Frankenstein as part of a challenge to tell the best ghost story in a small group during a stormy night in Vienna. If it was good enough for Shelley, it is certainly good enough for me.
On class day, I brought in tealight candles, skewers, miniature marshmallows, jumbo chocolate chips, and animal crackers. I had a tin with water prepared for our “campfire.” After all, what is a campfire without s’mores? As we toasted marshmallows over tealights (with the overhead lights off, of course), students told their poems, with as much drama as they could muster.
My class is small, so we finished the day with a serial ghost story. I began the story and we took turns adding bits until time was up. The only stipulations were that the story had to make some kind of sense and each person had to use the word “foul.” (I used the word “fowl” at one point, just for fun.) The class was memorable, and one student posted on his Facebook status that it was the best literature class ever.
Literature never has to be boring. I have some advantages in having a small (okay, tiny) class, but the ideas are easily adapted for larger groups. It just takes the willingness to be a little unorthodox.
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.
Those are words to delight any teacher, especially one who loves to test new ideas. This comment was from a student in my Through the Lens American Literature class. A glutton for punishment, he is taking a traditional American Lit class as well as my experimental class, but he said he finds himself constantly creating images in his head for the books he reads in the other class. I love that; it validates my approach using the visual to analyze the written word.
I’ve had similar comments in the past. I have ruined movies, pop music, formula fiction, and bad art for multiple students because I teach them to think, analyze, and decide whether what they choose to see, hear, and purchase is worthwhile.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German philosopher/scientist/literary genius (1749-1832), is my hero for providing all thinkers with three simple questions for determining the value of any art:
- What is artist trying to do?
- How well does he do it?
- Is it worth doing?
I have used those questions in theater appreciation classes, literary discussions, composition workshops, and now in my experimental class. Without fail, students who internalize those three questions find themselves unwilling to spend time and/or money on things they decide don’t meet the standard of value. The beauty of the questions is in the fact that the first two are generally objective, but the third is completely subject to a personal paradigm. This requires students to identify and define their owns world views, and decide their own priorities. This requires high level critical thinking and introspection that many adults believe is out of the intellectual grasp of most teenagers. I disagree. There are those who cannot think for themselves, but there are plenty of adults who want to be told what to believe, too. I prefer to err on the side of higher expectations for my students, and I am generally justified.
What is the artist trying to do?
This the the theme/message/purpose of the artwork. It’s often a challenge to find this concept without a sense of context, so history becomes important. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a great book, but it becomes powerful when put in the context of the Cold War, and prophetic when brought into the 21st century. Even without a historical context, great literature (and music and art and dance) always presents some universal message that can be identified and understood.
How well does he do it?
This second question is about technique. Does the artist follow the rules of his form? Are the rules he bends beneficial to the form? Is the language clear? Does shape and color and pitch and tone promote the message? Does each element work together to support the whole?
Is it worth doing?
This third question is the one that separates the artist who has a message to communicate from the one who just wants to sell something. Even the Absurdists wanted to shock and stun audiences into some new understanding. This question requires considerable time and thought. At first glance my students are disgusted by Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but once they dig into the message, the context, the powerful symbols, and the brilliant technique, they come to appreciate it. Some even come to like it. It may not be a favorite genre, but it becomes valuable because its message and the method of presenting it create enlightenment. Other art pieces (literary, visual, or performance) may not be deemed worthy because either the technique or the message is lacking.
Worthiness is also highly subjective. Students in high school are beginning to discover who they are, what they believe, and how they want to approach life. It is the time of life when they begin to separate themselves from parents, looking for their own answers to life’s great questions. As they begin to form their own world views, worthiness becomes a variable, not a constant. It may be disturbing to hovering parents, but it is exciting for this teacher to watch teens find value in something for themselves. I love to hear, “I love this book” from the students whose parents say, “They’re reading what?” It’s even more fun when parents tell me about lively dinner table conversations about whatever book is currently under scrutiny.
Being unorthodox as a teacher means taking risks, and teaching high schoolers to think for themselves is certainly that. I am convinced, however, that students benefit immediately from coming to their own conclusions, and society benefits ultimately as these same students become adults who work, vote, and lead the next generation.
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” ~Ray Bradbury
And teachers around the world cringe in horror.
But think about it. What better way do educators have to teach one-on-one AND the whole class all at once?
Let me explain. Facebook is the current all-encompassing, all-unifying,and all-pervasive force that connects people. Most of my students come to class hooked into Facebook, FB Mobile, Chat, and anything else that the media offers. I can insist that my students find the school website to and e-mail me or form study groups, but why not use what they already access?
To that end, I set up a closed Facebook group for each subject. Even though I may have multiple sections of a particular class, I combine them all into one larger group. I act as administrator, adding members, facilitating discussion, and walking individuals through various quandaries. The benefit is multi-leveled: a student who asks a question may represent others with the same question, students can help each other, and I can see what needs to be reviewed in class.
For example, some students are better prepared to write cohesive thesis statements than others. I could spend more class time reviewing general concepts, or I can walk a student through the process one step at a time the the wall of our class group. By working with one student in a forum like this, everyone benefits, but I can use class time for critical thinking and discussion.
Over the course of the year, my help becomes less critical, as students begin helping each other. This sets up the habit of forming study groups outside of class, a habit that help me tremendously in college. Plus, those students who help others learn the material, techniques, and strategies better for themselves.
A benefit I didn’t anticipate is an alternative for inclement weather. In January 2011, my part of the country was shut down for a week because of snow. (It doesn’t usually snow too much in Georgia.) School was cancelled for a week, but since everyone had power, my classes met–on Facebook. I sent a message to all members with the time, and everyone showed up. In one hour we had 187 RELEVANT posts about the literature. We were able to pick up when school resumed without missing a beat. It is also beneficial when students are absent, as they can interact with others on the class page between class meetings.
Social media has a place in the classroom. If the technology exists, use it!
Oh, and one final benefit? My “cool” factor is magnified when I am in tune with students both in and out of the classroom.