Category Archives: Teaching
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.
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.
(cross-posted at The Blue Door)
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.
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….
I’m doing a low-pressure creative writing unit with my juniors and seniors while I wait for them to get the next book we’re going to read. Here are ten prompts I’ve given them to work with:
1. Write 6 (nice!) fortune cookie fortunes, then develop a short story around someone who receives one of your fortunes after their dinner date.
2. Write a 6 word autobiography.
3. Go to postsecret.com and peruse the offerings, then compose one (or two or more) of your own. Keep in mind these don’t have to be YOUR secrets; you are free to write fiction here.
4. Write a narrative from the perspective of an inanimate object – your car keys, the coffee maker, the door to the post office….
5. Go to onesentence.org and peruse the offerings, then compose one (or two or more) of your own.
6. Finish this sentence, “The worst part of my favorite thing is…” with a short story.
7. Personify a color, an emotion, or a sound.
8. Write from the perspective of your favorite fictional villan.
9. Imagine someone in an unusual circumstance – say, a man wakes up one morning and remembers, fully and vividly, a past life experience, or a 9-year-old girl walks up to a stranger in a store and tells them something will happen that later turns out to happen.
10. Write a five sentence short story.
Today is the first snow day of the 2011-2012 school year. My charter school does online snow days. This is both terribly cool and incredibly frustrating.
It’s cool in that we get credit for the school day; we made our case to the DOE when we first implemented the online school day program, and they determined that we met the requirements for a countable day. That means that we don’t have to make up snow days in the spring the way traditional schools do (last year, we got out a week and a half before the rest of the state). It also means that we suffer no interruption in the curriculum because of a missing day. This is particularly helpful to us because we run a college-like, M/W/F – T/Th schedule, and a snow day on, say, a Thursday would mean that the T/Th kids would miss fully half their week.
It’s frustrating in that I don’t really LIKE teaching online. I don’t feel confident in the platform, and since most of my classes are discussion-based, the online teaching model doesn’t really work for the way I run my courses. I’m in a constant state of low-level anxiety in putting the classes together; since I don’t want to teach separate, stand-alone lessons for snow days (I want the snow day classes to be relevant to what we’re doing in the classroom), I can’t upload ready-made lessons ahead of time. I also get stressed out when things don’t work the way they’re supposed to; if a kid complains that he can’t hear me, I have NO idea how to fix it.
Despite all that, though, it’s a good system and I’m glad we do it. I just wish that I had more confidence in the platform, and that I could make it work more closely to the way I run my classes.
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.
…Or is it the other way around?
I met this afternoon with Carrie, a student I taught three years ago in one of my Local U. freshman English classes. I had bumped into her again after all this time when I ducked into my colleague Charlotte’s room at the end of her class – Carrie’s class, as it happens – to tell her about this article. I turned around after talking to Charlotte to find Carrie, grinning from ear to ear. After a lovely hug, she asked me if we could get together. I told her to find me on facebook and we’d make plans.
She’s working on a paper for Charlotte, and it seems she’s been stymied a bit by the prospect (Charlotte is a remarkably sharp and demanding thinker, and she expects the same of her students. I am in love with this woman, but that’s a post for another time). Carrie, it seems, has been fretting about this paper for a while now – to the point of starting three different drafts of the thing – and decided that now was the time to send up a flare and ask for help.
I met her in one of our local coffee shops where we chatted a bit about her adventures these last three years, her travels, and her plans for her life after she graduates in June. Then we talked about her paper (Charlotte’s asking the students to choose one of the works they’ve read in class, then write an analysis of an element in that piece), and about what kinds of strategies Carrie can employ to get to the kind of specificity Charlotte’s looking for. Carrie had an idea of WHAT she wanted to talk about – she had a topic that was acting as the “splinter in her brain” that she wanted to know more about – but she wasn’t sure how to go about getting down to the kind of focus Charlotte requires. Carries’s smart, though, and quick, and within about 5 minutes, we talked our way to her furiously scribbling notes and seeming genuinely less stressed about the task ahead of her.
I can’t wait to read her next draft.
Just as I shifted the conversation to business, Carrie ducked under the table for a second and came back up with a single Gerbera daisy for me, along with a lovely note about how much I’ve influenced her for the better. As I drove home after what I think was a very productive meeting, I thought about that lovely gesture. Sometimes (oh, who am I kidding? Always!) I am surprised by the ways in which students respond to the work that I do with them. I spend so much time worrying about the ones I’m not reaching that I often miss the ways I touch the ones I DO hit.
I’ve been feeling, since the start of this school year, that I still haven’t quite found my groove. I’ve been worried about that, and concerned that maybe I’m “off” in a real and significant way. As I talked with my former student about scholarly things, easily and with authority, I started feeling a little bit of that groove coming back. I’m good at this; I care about the work that I do enough to do it well. I respect my discipline and the students who rely on me to give them skills and tools they need, and I care enough about that to be diligent and conscientious. With that feeling of competence comes an increasing feeling of confidence. I’m on my way back.
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.
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.