Category Archives: Literature

New Class Idea: The Ambiguous Hero

I’ve been captivated, almost forever, with the ambiguous hero; the good guy who does bad things (and, conversely, the bad guy who does good things) and what role he plays in our psyche and, in a larger sense, in our culture.

A friend of mine wants to teach a summer class with film, and we were talking about this idea over dinner the other day.  I haven’t been able to let it go, and here’s what I’ve come up with.  I’m going to need some help zeroing in on the specifics – the assignments, the competencies and objectives, that kind of thing –  but here’s what I’ve got for materials so far:

The Dark Knight: the second of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – this is the one with Heath Ledger as the Joker.  Christian Bale’s Batman is the perfect example, I think, of the ambiguous hero.

A Dry White Season:  This is based on a novel written by a white South African who gets involved in the anti-apartheid movement after someone he knows personally dies in police custody.

Gandhi:  You know this story, and I keep coming back to it as a conversation about civil disobedience and the question of how resistance is characterized on the different “sides” of the debate in question

Gone Baby Gone:  PLEASE tell me you’ve seen this movie!  It’s about a kidnapping, and centers around HUGE issues of “right” and “wrong” and where the law clashes with morality

Harry Potter:  I want to investigate Snape.  The idea of the double agent is always an interesting one.  I’m not sure which film I’d use, though; likely the last one.

Iron Jawed Angels: Another civil disobedience film – this one focuses on women’s suffrage and the outrages that some women suffered at the hands of law enforcement.

Milk:  About Harvey Milk and the early struggle for GLBTQ rights and recognition

Mississippi Burning:  This remains one of my MOST favorite films, mostly because of Gene Hackman’s REALLY complex character.  This scene alone is worth the film:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlzaBi_QxPw

The Negotiator:  This is the story of a cop who takes hostages in order to reveal corruption in his department – a good guy doing a bad thing for a good reason.

Leon, the Professional:  A hit man who adopts his 12 year old neighbor after her family is killed by a corrupt cop (played terrifyingly by Gary Oldman).  He’s a good guy who does bad things, and we have to reconcile his work with his personality.

Schindler’s List:  You know this one, too, I’m sure.  I think that Schindler started out as a bad guy doing a good thing (though for selfish reasons) and evolved into a good guy.

Shawshank Redemption:  Andy as a wrongly convicted man who becomes a criminal in prison, but who never gives up his humanity.

Tsotsi:  I haven’t seen this one in a LONG time, so I’m not sure if I’m remembering it correctly, but I think it’s about a boy who steals a car and discovers that he’s also stolen a baby.  The film tells the story of what he does after he realizes he’s got a tough choice to make.

Unforgiven:  This is a Clint Eastwood western.  Eastwood is a retired gunslinger who gets called back into the life of crime for reasons that he thinks are honorable.  His character is a tough one to suss out, and the film really makes the viewer work for the payoff (plus, it stars Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, which makes it that much better).

I was also thinking that I would have the kids read Bel Canto (which asks the “terrorist or freedom fighter” question) and, if they’re given permission from their parents, to look at a couple of episodes of Dexter (a serial killer in a Showtime series who only murders murderers who get away from the legal system).

I think there’s a lot of richness to be mined in this “good guy doing bad things / bad guy doing good things” question, I just need to think about it a bit more before it takes on any kind of substance that resembles a for-credit class.

What do you think?

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Filed under colleagues, critical thinking, doing my own homework, Dream Course, film as literature, fun, GLBTQ issues, Holocaust, lesson planning, Literature, Mrs. Chili as Student, politics, Teaching, winging it, writing

Angry Love Letter

I subscribe to Letters of Note.  You should, too.

This was today’s offering.  It’s a letter from Pat Conroy, the author of, among other things, The Prince of Tides, in response to hearing that a school board in West Virginia had challenged the inclusion of that novel and another of his works, Beach Music.  The letter was published in the local newspaper, and the challenges later failed.

Letters like this make my proud to do what I do.
To the Editor of the Charleston Gazette:

I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.

I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.

In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The Catcher in the Rye, under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of The Catcher in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.

About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in The Catcher in the Rye forty-eight years ago.

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book-banners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works—but writers and English teachers do.

I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against—you’ve riled a Hatfield.

Sincerely,

Pat Conroy

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Ten Things Tuesday

I don’t know if I’ll make it to ten things, but here are some of the things on my work-related summer to-do list:

1.  Planning.  I’ll be teaching at least three core courses (most likely, English I, III, and IV) and at least two electives.  I need to decide what those electives will be, then plan an overview of the year for each of them.

2.  Writing competencies.  The State has decided to use competencies to determine student achievement, and it’s pretty much fallen to me to write these for the English department for the school.  I’ve already begun the process – I’ve done a fair bit of research into what other schools are doing to measure mastery – but I still have to codify them into a useable rubric.

3.  Interviewing.  I’ve made it pretty clear that I want a different part time teacher next year.  The man who taught this year was well enough – he read books and graded the kids’ work – but he never even bothered to become a part of the community.  Not once in 180 days did this guy ever stay for lunch; he’d disappear as soon as his morning class was over, reappear for his afternoon class, then bolt out of here with only an occasional “see ya later.”  That doesn’t make him a bad teacher, but it does make him a bad fit for the community.  I’m not convinced, though, despite my making requests that he be observed and evaluated, that that actually happened, so it may well be that admin decides to offer him another part time gig.  I’ll argue against it, but I don’t know how well my arguments will be heard.

4.  Rearranging.  I’m not good at moving rooms around; once I get things to a point where they’re both functional and appealing to look at, I tend to leave everything well enough alone.  I’m not sure that I’m making the best use of the classroom space I have, though, so I’m going to bring a couple of outside eyes in to the room to see if I can move things around to make it work even better than it does.

5.  Laminating.  I have a ton of inspirational bits and pieces that I rotate on and off the walls of the room – cards, images I’ve scanned, that sort of thing – that are printed on plain paper.  When it gets humid, all that paper curls, so I need to spend some quality time with a laminator to protect them.

6.  Reading.  I’m reading for my own personal enjoyment again (I’ve taken the Outlander series back up, and am heartily enjoying spending time with old friends), but part of my planning process is choosing which books to read during the upcoming school year.

7.  Cleaning.  We inhabit a nearly 200-year-old mill building that seems to generate its own gunk.  I’m planning to spend at least a whole day after the kids leave taking all the furniture out of my room and vacuuming the shit out of the place.

8.  Re-cataloging.  I have a lot – A LOT – of personal property at this school.  I need to document everything that’s mine, and make sure that I have record of its being mine in the event of loss, damage, or separation.

9.  Organizing.  I have to go through all my files and make sure that a) everything is where I can find it and b) everything that can be scanned and cataloged has been.  I have a lot of great materials that I just don’t use because they’re not convenient to me when I need them.  I need to figure out how to remedy that.

10.  Networking.  I am concerned, because of things that have been happening around here, that there may be a need for me to keep certain options open.  I’m going to review my professional development, look into some more college courses (I’ve been flirting with the idea of a degree in social work), and talk to some of my contacts about the possibility of perhaps stretching a safety net underneath me.  I wish it weren’t so, but wishes aren’t horses, so beggars don’t ride.

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Doing the Hard Work

A student of mine approached me soon after we began reading Native Son.  She was concerned by the graphic nature of the novel, and she tried to explain to me that she’d already read a number of “books like this,” so she felt that it would be okay for her to sit this one out.

Native Son is a terribly difficult novel to get through.  There are a couple of really graphic and ugly scenes in the story, but neither scene (nor anything that leads up to it) is gratuitous; those scenes are vital to our understanding of the reality of the main character.  I insisted that she continue in the reading.  I told her that I understood that it was hard to read, but that I thought it was important that she keep at it.

She came to me again this morning, upset about yet another graphic murder in the story.  She had worked herself into tears, and I spent the better part of ten minutes trying to explain to her that a good part of the POINT of this novel is the graphic nature of those scenes and of the lives of the people in the story – those people who find themselves with choiceless choices.  I’m not sure she heard me, though, so I wrote her this note (which I cc’d to her mother, just to give her a heads-up).  My hope is that I hit the right note of appreciating her objections while explaining why I think it’s important for her to keep at it.

Dear Josephine:

    I understand that you’re upset right now, Honey, and I am genuinely sorry for that.  I want you to understand, though, that I think that the work that you’re doing is very important, and that I wouldn’t be asking you to do it if I didn’t think it was something you could handle.

    Native Son is a VERY difficult novel to get through.  I know that the graphic description of two of the key events is particularly troubling to you, and I fully appreciate why you feel that way; please don’t think for a moment that I don’t understand that.  What I want you to understand, though, is that those scenes are desperately important to the overall function of the novel.  

    One of the central ideas of this work is the brutality of the life that Bigger (and by extension, other oppressed people) live EVERY SINGLE DAY.  We don’t want to look at the ugliness; we don’t want to look at the desperation and the despair and the fear and the rage that are an everyday reality for people who find themselves in impossible situations with impossible choices.  We, as members of a privileged class – you and I are white, educated, reasonably wealthy people living in stable families in a reasonably safe and clean and well-appointed environment – can say we understand how other people live, but we really don’t see it; we can only imagine it.  It’s uncomfortable when we’re presented – full-on and in our faces – with the hard and cruel and brutal that other people have to live around all the time.  It’s supposed to be uncomfortable; it’s supposed to make you uneasy.  I want for you to use the skills of critical and professional distance that we’ve been practicing all year to take a step back from those scenes.  The point isn’t the graphic descriptions (though I know they’re hard to get around): the point is that Bigger doesn’t believe he has any other choices.

    What are the implications of that fact, and what kind of work can you do with that knowledge?  What kind of spin does that put on your thinking about current events, or about the reality that you and I get to participate in a system that deliberately and brutally excludes entire populations of people?  What does the investigation of Bigger’s reality – of his self-image and his self-esteem, of his prospects and his goals, of his aspirations and his dreams, of his relationships and the ways he believes he’s supposed to behave – do to the ways you think about yourself?  To the ways you think about our collective past?  To the ways you think about our present, and the policies, stereotypes, and assumptions that we continue to create (or to perpetuate)?  

    There’s a lot of really great thinking to be mined from this novel.  I’m eager to get Mr. Carson in to the class to help you all work through the history of the time period – and to see how some of those policies and attitudes are STILL in place today (have you been paying attention to all the racism that’s evident in our current political and national news?  Have you heard of Treyvon Martin and seen all the ugliness that has stirred up?).  This novel is an important one for you to have in your arsenal; I know that you’re angry and upset, but I also know that you’re smart enough to get past that and to do some really significant thinking.

    Trust me, Josephine; I have faith that you’re more than capable of getting through this, and of coming out on the other end with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of race, economics, and politics that will give you a really strong and impressive foundation for a lot of the work you’re going to be asked to do in college.  Remember, too, that I’m around to talk you through all of it; I don’t expect you to do any of this work on your own.

    Warmly,

        Mrs. Chili

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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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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.

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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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Interview With the Vampire

Actually, it’s “Interview with the Writer of Interview with the Vampire!”

You want to know how much I love technology?  Let me tell you how much I love technology, People!  A girlfriend clued me in a little while ago that Anne Rice had announced that she is willing to come to classrooms via Skype to talk about her books and the craft of writing.

She didn’t have to tell me twice!

I got right on the computer and emailed Ms. Rice to tell her that, yes, please, my seniors and I would like very much to have her “visit” our class and talk about writing.  Her assistant and I have been emailing for a while now, and we’re circling in on a date in March.

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I assigned Interview With the Vampire today – the kids have to have their books by this time next week and we’ll start reading then.  I’m up against a couple of students who have pre-conceived notions of Rice and the novel, so I’m having to get them to start thinking like scholars about this novel instead of looking at it as consumers of entertainment.  I’m probably not going to hook a few of them, but I know for sure that I’ve piqued a LOT of interest in this class; my boss is tickled that this could actually happen (she wants to call the local paper), and a number of my former students are begging to come back to school so they can partake in this class, too.

Technology rocks.

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They of Little Minds….

Please, Everyone, go over to Mamacita’s and see what she has to say about the current love affair our culture seems to have with censorship, the dumbing down of our educational systems, and the idiocy those things inevitably bring.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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LOVE Her

Long story short: we read Something Wicked This Way Comes in my freshman class. One student (let’s call her Elise) had to borrow a book from the school.

Elise is a great student and took copious and careful notes on Post Its all through her book. When we finished the novel, she needed to give it back to me so I could return it to the school’s (pathetic) stock. Another student in Elise’s class wanted to donate the copy of the novel her parents bought for her, which isn’t the same edition as the copies the school owns. As I was collecting the books in class yesterday, Elise complained that she wanted to keep her book; she really enjoyed it and would read it again. As her classmate handed me the different edition, I immediately handed it to Elise and told her she could keep it (it’s often difficult to teach different editions of the same book in a single class, especially if the pages are numbered differently).

This morning, I came in to find Elise hard at work transferring the sticky notes from the school’s copy of the book into the new copy I gave her yesterday.

I adore that kid.

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Something Wicked

My freshmen are wrapping up our investigation of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (if you haven’t read this novel, go git it!). Here’s what I’m giving my babies for a final project.

***

As a wrap-up to Something Wicked This Way Comes, you have the opportunity to choose between two options for demonstrating your understanding of this book and the work that we did with it. You may either:

1. Create a piece of writing that plays off of the themes in the novel. You may write an extended poem, you may write a play script, or you may write a scene that doesn’t appear in the book (tell the story of what happens to Miss Foley or the lightning rod salesman, for example, or who the “people” in the mirror maze really are, or write another chapter for the end of the book, maybe one in which you investigate what happens to Cooger and Dark or a scene where Will is telling his own son about his adventures that summer and what he learned).

2. Create a piece of artwork that visually demonstrates a main theme or idea from the novel. What do you think the Dust Witch (or any other of the circus “freaks”) really looks like, and what does her appearance tell us about who she is and what she suffers? Illustrate (and explain) the most profound, sad, or frightening tattoo on Mr. Dark, and try to capture the power that those images have over their likenesses in real life. What do you think the train engine looks like? Can machinery take on a personality?

Regardless of which option you choose, you MUST also offer up a 3-5 minute presentation on it; tell us what you did, why you did it, and how you think the work you did demonstrates your understanding of some important aspect of Bradbury’s novel.

You will be graded as follows:

Creativity – 50 points – the student’s project is interesting and relevant. The project is thought-provoking and asks the viewer/reader to consider an important aspect of the novel in new and interesting ways.

Workmanship – 30 points – it is clear that the student took time and care in creating this project. The piece shows evidence of careful work and attention to detail.

Presentation – 20 points – student is able to talk about his/her project clearly and coherently. Student can explain how his or her work connects to the novel, and is able to answer questions about that connection – and his/her artistic process – clearly and competently.

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