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Thought for Thursday – Doing Your Research

(cross-posted at The Blue Door)

So.

My seniors are (or, rather, should be) engaged in a research project that will allow them to write an analysis paper on The Handmaid’s Tale.  Their purpose is to link Atwood’s dystopian novel to current (or recent) events, whether here or in other countries, in meaningful and logical ways.  Given what’s happening in politics lately, I thought it was a paper that could pretty much write itself.  I don’t want it to write itself, though, so I’ve been spending some time with the kids going over how to do ethical research.

The problem when I was a kid was finding information – we needed to be taught where to look for the things we needed to know.  The problem for my students (and my children) is finding good information – there is so much that is so readily available (and is so often ridiculously unreliable), that teaching kids how to sift through the sketchy stuff to find valid sources is a priority in my teaching about research.

I was thinking about this tonight when I got into it with a facebook friend about the factual validity of something that was posted on her wall.  On the surface it was no big deal – it was a clearly partisan bit of sarcasm and anger and was clearly intended as such – but it sparked a conversation about the veracity of the information that we bounce around the internet.

One of the things that I need – not just want, but need – for my students to understand is how desperately vital it is that they learn to think critically about the things that get presented to them as fact.  It seems to me that we’ve gotten to a point (or, perhaps it has always been thus and I’m just noticing it more) where it’s become accepted practice to pick and choose the details one wants from a given set of information so that one can prove whatever point one is trying to forward.  It doesn’t matter that the whole of the set indicates something entirely contrary to what is being reported – as long as items A and B support a particular viewpoint, items C through Z can be conveniently downplayed (or outright ignored).

Facts can be very inconvenient things.  They can challenge a previously held belief, they can force a reevaluation of a prejudice, and they can seriously hinder an argument.  Facts can compel us to rethink the way we see ourselves and can rattle what we think of as foundational beliefs.  That can be scary; so scary that a lot of people are just as happy to not do it at all.

It’s important to me that my students not be intimidated by the idea that the facts might force them to rethink the way they see the world – or the way they see themselves.  It can be profoundly uncomfortable – threatening and existentially terrifying, even – to have one’s thesis (or world view) refuted by the facts, but my hope is that I can raise my students to understand that the mark of a strong and mature intellect is being able to adjust one’s thinking when the evidence indicates that an adjustment is necessary.

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Filed under about writing, analysis, compassion and cooperation, concerns, critical thinking, ethics, Literature, out in the real world, politics, rhetoric, self-analysis, Teaching

Film and Lit

I’m about three weeks into the new semester, and even though the new Film and Literature class isn’t really off the ground yet, I’m starting to feel really good about the class.

The central focus of the class is systems and the ways in which they work – or not – on both a micro and macro level.  The kids will be reading What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson, A Time to Kill by Grisham, Orwell’s Animal Farm, and The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal and, as each story gets read, we’ll watch films that deal with many of the same big-picture ideas.  The kids will be working on reflective essays that get them to think beyond the plots of the stories and into some of the “so what?” questions the films and stories ask us to consider.

Last week, the kids watched Forrest Gump (a couple of them, surprisingly, for the first time).  Here’s the prompt I gave them:

Consider the interplay between the system and the individual. How do personalities affect the way we perceive the effects of a system on our lives, and in what ways do personalities affect the systems that act upon us? Consider the several characters in the film; how do they deal differently with the same stimuli, and how do their different responses affect the trajectory of their lives, and the lives of others?

How would YOU answer this question?

Tune in later; I’ll give you the Shawshank Redemption prompt….

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Filed under analysis, composition, critical thinking, film as literature, lesson planning, Teaching

Justification

Every so often, I get an email from a parent asking about a particular assignment.  Often, they’re just asking for the details of the work so that they can ensure that their children are completing it properly, but sometimes they want to know the rationale behind the assignment.

I’m never bothered by these “tell me why” requests.  I want both the kids and their parents to understand that I don’t give busy-work; everything I ask the kids to do has a meaning and a purpose and a place in the larger arc of the class.  Being able to articulate the reasoning behind an assignment – what skills the work is designed to practice or what concepts it is intended to reinforce – helps to keep me thinking about the purpose of the work I ask the kids to do.  I remember wondering “what’s the point” about a lot of the work I did as a student, and I really wish that someone had taken the time to explain to me what I was actually doing – even if I didn’t understand it at the time, feeling like someone had a handle on things would have helped, I think, to ease my teenaged angst.

Anyway, here’s the email I sent back to the dad.  I feel like I did a good job at explaining, in clear terms, why I want his kid to do this work.

As for the short story assignment:  the students were given class time in which they were to go to the website I gave them and read TWO of the short stories offered (there was a list of about 50 from which they could choose).  I handed out a two-sided worksheet that required the students to discern details and nuance about the “elements of fiction” ideas – character, plot, setting, that sort of thing – and to make assertions and articulate comprehension of the theme(s) of the stories.  They didn’t have enough time to finish both stories, so I set the remainder of the assignment as homework; I put both the web link and a PDF of the handout on the assignment.

This assignment was given as part of a lesson arc designed to get the kids thinking in terms of story construction.  We’re working on getting past the “what happened” ideas – they had plenty of that in middle school – and moving on to the “how did it happen” ideas; the ways in which writing is crafted.  I know that kids tend not to think about writing as a process, and that’s what I’m trying to get them not only to see, but to be able to use in their own writing practice.  This assignment, and several others like it, was designed to get them to start seeing the “strings” as it were, to discern that there is purpose behind the choices a writer makes, and to start thinking about – and using deliberately – the choices they make in their own writing.

I hope this helps.  

Warmly,

Mrs. Chili

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Filed under analysis, doing my own homework, lesson planning, parental units, self-analysis, Teaching

Avatar

I decided to start my Aliens and Vampires in Literature class with the Aliens contingent (though, now that I think about it again, I probably should have started with vampires, since Hallowe’en is coming up… Oh, well…) and, while I’m waiting for them to score copies of Carl Sagan’s Contact, I am showing and discussing films.

We started with Avatar.

Image credit

I love this movie.  Is it formulaic and predictable?  Yes.  Does it tell a new story?  Not really; in fact, it’s nearly one-to-one with Dances with Wolves (which I also love, so there!).  Despite the panning that it received in some circles for its lack of originality, I think it is an important movie, and I was excited to show it to my students.

One of my goals in this course is to get kids to think about the functions that entertainment serves beyond simple entertainment.  We spent three classes watching the film (I got a M/W/F short-day class instead of the long-day T/TH class I wanted, so we’re making do; it’s going to mean covering less material, but I’ll make sure we do more with what we do see), and I patently refused to let the kids talk about the films in class before we’d gotten to the last scene.  (That made them CRAZY, especially since it turned out that I had to stop the film for the end of classes in some really compelling spots; the kids nearly lost their minds when I had to stop the movie when Jake drops onto the creature to become Toruk Makto on Wednesday.)

We had our culminating discussion yesterday, and it was amazing.  All but two of the kids had seen the film before – several of them more than once – but every single one of them said that, despite being very familiar with the movie, there were a number of things they saw when they were “watching it for a class” that they never noticed before.

My absolute favorite moment in the whole discussion came at the very beginning of the class and from my “school son” (whom I’m probably going to talk a lot about this year, so let’s call him Bart, okay?)  We were all talking about the idea that, in typical alien movies, the aliens are always the bad guys* when Bart pointed out that, in this movie, the aliens are still the bad guys.  I pointed at him with my eyebrows-up, “you-just-nailed-it” look on my face and waited for what he said to sink in with the rest of the kids.  One by one, the light dawned; we’re so used to thinking of the “aliens” as ‘whoever isn’t us’ that shifting our thinking to recognize that, in this film, we’re the aliens is a surprise.

The conversation took off from there.  We talked about the ways in which we create an “other,” and how that process of making a pariah allows us to behave in ways we likely wouldn’t otherwise.  We talked about where each character made his or her realizations (and about the characters who never got to the point of change) and about how some of the “good” guys in the film – up to and including the hero – were still complicated and flawed.  We talked about the film as modern social commentary in the context of the Iraq invasion after the 9/11 attacks, and about how some people – particularly Americans and those in positions of political power – don’t seem to understand that “our way” isn’t the pinnacle of human experience; that not everyone wants democracy or McDonald’s or jeans and sneakers.  We talked about the different perspective of this film – the human as alien – and about how the film asks us to think about things we do in ways that we might not have been able to if the Na’vi had come to Earth; that the position of the different ‘races’ impacted the way we think about them (and us).  We talked about power and economics; we talked about religion and belief, about what we value (and how we value what others value), and about the environment.  We talked about what it means to be connected – to our environment and to each other – and we talked about colonialism and its effects on both occupier and occupied (though they didn’t use the term, they still nailed some of the high points of the concept).

It was a wonderful, dynamic, interesting, and exciting conversation.  We’re off to a good start.

*I recognize that not ALL alien movies are about violent invasions and forced occupation – I’m also planning on showing the kids Cocoon and maybe E.T. – but I think it’s fair to agree that most of our alien genre is stacked with stories about invasion and occupation.  Those films bring up ideas I want to get the kids thinking about; I’m trying to train them to see beyond the explosions and action to get at what some of these stories have to say about us and how we treat each other.

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What is “Reasonable”?

I’m thinking I may cross-post this on the Blue Door; it echos a lot of the thinking I’ve been doing over there, so if you read both places, don’t be surprised if you get a feeling of déjà vu.

Each of my classes is currently engaged in a unit about public speaking. My freshmen are giving purely informational presentations – I’ve tasked them with learning about something interesting and then teaching the rest of the class about it.  Since I like to do my own homework every once in a while, I’m doing this presentation with them.  Mine will be about the first round of the Nuremberg Trials.

My juniors are taking on an opinion presentation – they’ve been told to format their presentation around “here’s this thing that exists, here’s what I think about it, and here’s why I think the way I do,” and my seniors are attempting an argumentative/persuasive piece – they’re crafting an presentation that asks the audience to consider – or to reconsider – a particular topic.

Each of these presentations has three requirements – they need to have visuals, they need a written component, and the kids have to speak for 3-5 minutes or (5-8 for the bigger kids).  Additionally, they need to have at least three reputable sources, and they need to be organized such that the audiences can follow along, even if they’ve never had any experience with the topic in question.

I ended up in a conversation with my seniors this afternoon that intrigued me.  It was a bit of an offshoot of the conversation we started on Tuesday when I brought up the concepts of ethical speech and what our responsibilities are to the words that we send out into the world.  While I had planned this part of the unit to fall on this week anyway, I’m often amazed by how timely the Universe is in dropping relevant, real-world stuff into my lap at the exact time I’m teaching them in a classroom.  The Arizona shooting and the conversation about rhetoric that has inspired were just such a thing, and we had a long and interesting discussion about whether or not we can (or should) link the speech of one to the action of another.

Anyway, several of the kids came to me with topics that really weren’t appropriate for argument, and I spent a while trying to get the kids to understand that I’m looking for them to tackle the kinds of issues about which reasonable people can disagree.  It’s highly unlikely, I explained to one kid, that reasonable people are going to agree with what the Westboro Baptist Church does, so arguing against their right to do those things is kind of a pointless exercise.  So, too, is arguing against animal rights abuses; most reasonable people would agree that it’s wrong to be cruel and abusive to animals.

Just about when I thought I was getting through to them, one of my (favorite) kids piped up.  “Mrs. Chili,” he asked, “what does it mean to be reasonable?”

Yeah!  Wow!  What DOES that mean?

We spent a good long time talking about the implications of making that kind of judgment about something.  How DO we determine what reasonable means?  What are the criteria by which we judge that kind of person?

The answers the kids came up with both surprised and delighted me.  Reasonable people, they decided, are people who, by their nature, are open-minded.  They’re willing to listen to others’ ideas, but aren’t necessarily swayed by them.  Reasonable people are critical thinkers and don’t just jump on the latest and greatest ideas.  They don’t give a whole lot of credence to the people who are making the most noise, but are more impressed by the people who make the clearest and most compelling argument.  Reasonable people take the big picture into account; a reasonable person may be willing to concede to something not-so-good in the short term to ensure a positive outcome long-term.  Reasonable people are compassionate and consider the needs of others when making decisions or taking actions.  Reasonable people may well be considered unreasonable by outside observers, they decided, but it’s not one’s reputation that determines one’s reasonableness; one’s behaviors, thought processes, and actions determine this (some of my kids are very sensitive to the fact that our school doesn’t yet have a very good reputation, and they take that personally).  Reasonable people do not generally abide extremes, they decided, nor do reasonable people generally rely upon “faith” to make their decisions; they are more influenced by their own experiences and observations and the facts that they encounter than they are by scripture or the words of their particular flavor of clergy.  Reasonable people are willing to change their minds about something when they’re presented with compelling evidence to do so.

We ended the conversation by talking about the idea put forth on a church’s message board:

Learning to think for themselves, and learning to do that reasonably, is perhaps the most important thing I can encourage my students to do.  To that end, I give them every opportunity I can find, and I ask them to think in whatever ways they can, whether those ways agree with my way of thinking or not (because learning to disagree with civility is absolutely vital, and learning to disagree with those in authority is a life skill).

So I ask you, Dear Readers, what would you add to my kids’ definition of what makes one reasonable?  Do you think you embody those qualities?  If not, where can you strive to bring more reasonableness into your life?

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Working it Out

I’ve got this kid, let’s call her Hannah.  Hannah has been one of my ‘projects’ for the past year; she came to me convinced that she doesn’t have anything important to say, and convinced that she’s a rotten writer.  I’ve been working hard to disabuse her of these notions.  It’s not that she can’t do these things, it’s that she’s never been given the tools to do those things, nor has there been an expectation placed on her to actually do them.  In fact, she kind of hated me last year because I DID expect her to do these things, and I pushed her way beyond the edges of her comfort zone.

For all that I made her crazy last year, it very clearly did some good.  I have seen over these last 7 weeks an incredible jump in the quality of her writing.  Is she still struggling?  Yes, but the point is that she’s actually struggling – she’s trying, and I’ve been really excited to see the kinds of thinking she’s been doing.

This afternoon, she hopped onto instant message to talk to me about an assignment I gave her class in which I asked them to read and reflect on a fairly complex scholarly article about Alice in Wonderland.  My goal is to get them used to wading neck-deep into stuff that they may not understand until their third or fourth go-round with it; I don’t want them to have as rough a time adjusting to the kind of thinking this work requires as I did when I first got to college.  I remember slogging through my first article – it was about existentialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – and thinking that I was just too dumb for college.  I have very clear recollection of sitting in the L.U. library, not being able to make any sense of this work I’d been given, and trying to figure out how to break it to Mr. Chili that I needed to drop out.  Clearly, I got over it, but it was a lot harder than I think it should have been; I want to give my kids some experience with this kind of stuff now, with me right there to help them, so they have at least SOME practice with this kind of theoretical and analytical thinking,.  My hope is that, when they get to college, they won’t feel completely lost.

I think, little by little, I’m getting through to Hannah.  Witness our conversation this afternoon and tell me whether you think I’m right in my optimism; I really do think that I’m this close to getting through to her:

trying to write about the Studies in Alice is hard. this is the third time I’ve tried writing it

What are you focusing on, Sweet?

I don’t even know.its not easy to write about something that you don’t understand

I get that.  Which chapter are you looking at?

Chapter one like you assigned

OH!  You’re working on TODAY’S homework!
Sorry; I thought you were working on the things we started in class.

nope

Okay.  Basically, what this guy is saying is that there’s a LOT of cosmic imagery in the first chapter of Alice, and that almost all of it has to do with this idea of humans’ constant search for the divine; do you get that?

yeah

Okay, so what I’m asking you to do is to go through the chapter and talk about all the places where that fits. Think about her falling through the hole…what does that make you think of (and it’s okay to think about religion…)?

but that’s basically the only thing that happens in this chapter so i don’t know how i can make that into much writing

That’s so NOT the only thing that happens.  Think about it – she started out being bored and wanting something to do, so she followed this weird rabbit into its hole.  Can you connect that at all to Adam and Eve? It’s not a perfect comparison, but they ended up doing something they probably shouldn’t have and ended up… wait for it…. FALLING from God’s grace, right?

yeah

If you wanted to, you could totally go to Milton’s Paradise Lost.  There’s a whole scene of the rebellious angels (Satan among them) LITERALLY falling, just like Alice.   Hang on…let me see if I can find that passage… Yeah, I can find it, but I think it might frustrate you more (it’s written as a poem, and it’s hard to pull stuff out and have it make sense without all that comes before it).

okay

Let’s just agree, though, that “Falling” is a pretty hefty theme in Christian theology

it is very actually

So, Alice is falling, for a really, really long time.  She did it to satisfy her curiosity.  She lands completely unharmed, where she starts eating and drinking (and getting bigger and smaller) in her efforts to get to… wait for it…. A GARDEN!!  HELLOO!!!  Where have we see THAT before?

i know. I’ve been talking to pretty much everyone that I’ve talked to about Alice and why the garden is so important to the story.she is always trying to get to the garden which is like trying to regain “purity” to reenter the garden

GORGEOUS!  You should be able to write about this for a while, I think; there’s a lot in it.  The garden imagery, and ALL the trouble she has in trying to get to it… is that a metaphor for humans and our struggle to make peace with our existence?  Do you think you can make a case that Alice’s story is representative of our trying to figure our spiritual and cosmic shit out?

i know that there is a lot to write about with this but i don’t know how to go about writing it this time.

Where do you want to start?

i don’t know. i was thinking of going backwards in a way

Yeah?

but i don’t know how that would work really. i think that i want to start with the food and drink and relate it back to the fall and the “garden”

DO that!  There’s nothing that says that you need to take the chapter chronologically.  Let’s try to keep in mind here that she’s DREAMING.  All she really has to do (like Dorothy) is click her heels and will herself to get what she wants.  She goes for all kinds of ritual and outward stuff, though, without doing the “cosmic” work.  There’s every reason to start with that and explain why she ends up so frustrated and confused as a result…

i don’t think im going to have enough time to do it now though.

That’s fine; you can have an extension; you’ve proven to me beyond a doubt that you’ve been thinking about this stuff, and you get major points for that.  Can you get it done by tomorrow?

yeah

Okay, then.  If you’re still having trouble with it tomorrow, come and talk it out with me; I only have first and portfolio, though I have a meeting during second, I’m free the rest of the day

alright. well i’m going to start working on this now.thank you Mrs.Chili

You’re welcome, Sweet.  I’m excited by the thinking you’ve done with this!!

alright.i’ll talk to you tomorrow.have a good rest of the day

You, too!

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