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Heroic measures: teach critical thinking

My big question this morning: how do we teach, and learn, to think critically?

Not the surface-level fluff–but the hard questions, the wrestling with the trifecta of intellectual stagnation: cognitive dissonance, justification, and rationalization?

Do we need heroes/heroines?

What would happen…if…we…didn’t?

What if…we were good to each other, did no harm, and made our classrooms, lecture halls, and online spaces engaged and safe places to discuss questions and seek ideas and answers?

Consider and read this thread: keep track and curate the narratives you teach: by every figure, do a character study. We need to face and review the decisions of the past and reconcile and come to terms with our future.

Example: what if Ruth Hopkins didn’t follow this path? Discuss the narrative of Lincoln’s heroism and his great, grave flaws?

But we don’t really teach critical thinking because that would cause a potential revolt to order.

What Does ‘Critical Thinking’ Mean?

This feels very big to me right now, and scary, but this is the gift I want to give my students most of all: the courage to question, and draw their own conclusions, and then have the mindfulness and mental flexibility to adjust those conclusions if necessity demands.

Now: that is a big idea. How to go about it?

Okay. Any ideas welcome.

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the devastating abyss

 

I am not a fan of Ayn Rand.

At all.

Clearly, this is not an image of Ayn Rand.

It’s Colin Kaepernick.

There is a name on this T-shirt of someone I have seen. I didn’t know him, but my colleagues did. His name is on our gymnasium wall as an athlete of the year from a previous time.

A few months ago at a gathering, a dear acquaintance stated how much she hated Colin Kaepernick. Since I was a guest in someone else’s home I didn’t pursue the topic nor challenge her opinion. We’ve already been divided and our friendship diminished by these current political times. She would be the first to say life is about choices, and she’s chosen identity politics.

And I cannot tag her in a social media post to let her know that one of my school’s former students, who was shot and killed by police, is another name in a long, heartbreaking legacy of names that many respectfully and somberly ‘take a knee’ for. Young men and woman of color whose lives were cut short in a nation of violent responses for prejudicial fear.

We all have this story. We all know friends, relatives, and colleagues with whom we now look upon with disdain and suspicion because of 1. their political views 2. their apathy which leads to 3. privilege –their personal endowment of their own rights to ignore what is happening because they don’t perceive it’s happening to them. It’s happening or affecting “others.”

That is not to say that those who chose to remain silent are not affected, nor does it mean they don’t help the affected. There are many teachers out there who may have voted for the current president, and believe themselves to be good people: they’re not, though.  They may coach teams, help struggling students, continue to give to charities, work long hours to create the best lessons and instruction they can. They’re working hard to help students read, write, tap into a love of science and wonder. (Well, maybe not science. That would be a hard cognitive dissonance working there.) But they can’t possibly be helping anyone if they support racism and bigotry, even if indirectly. Because there is nothing indirect about it.

My horrifying epiphany came when a few things came on my radar from varying social media teacher pages, this T-shirt, and just thinking about things in general: my own identity politics led me to believe that banning books is bad, censorship is always wrong, and we all need access to great writers.

Coming back full circle, I still believe that.

But I hate Ayn Rand’s works.

And I realized that teachers who use her novels in singularity, without commentary, juxtaposition or nuance may be selling students the same load of garbage I was sold when I was in high school. But now, more than ever, her novels may need to be taught so students have historical context.

In other words: some teachers are still teaching crappy novels, and posturing them as great works.

But that is just like, my opinion, man.

The same thread occurred over To Kill A Mockingbird. However, so many amazing educators provided critical analysis from authors about this seminal work. I love Scout, but I can also criticize her father.

It’s a mourning process when we revisit beloved texts and find out that they may not be the pillars of justice and societal right we once believed. And I guess my wish, my hope –is that educators, have the responsibility above all to make sure students know not what to think, but how to draw their own conclusions.

We are faced with students who come to us with very different political views than we have. There are conservative teachers who are making the more liberal child feel embarrassed. There are liberal teachers who may lecture only one side of an issue.

Please: help students curate and discover connection and nuances in thinking. Support them when they grieve the loss of a favorite media or text.

This is a daunting task. Just please: we must consider and reflect deeply on what we’re offering to students. There is too much anti-intellectualism out there in the ether for us educators not to be incredibly mindful of this. Be brave.

 

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series: the good stuff

Things I think about in the middle of the night:

  1. What was that noise outside?
  2. What are the best ten to twenty best, time-tested lessons for middle and high school students?

The noise was nothing. Probably just a small monster or trashcan panda. The best lessons, now that’s something else.

The first post in this series is something new: Bob Probst of Beers/Probst renown gave us teachers this gift:

It’s a dialogue booklet that helps students move through a text with purpose. I haven’t vetted it yet, but it holds much promise.

 

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Something wicked +1

Architecture of a Story
Architecture of a Story

Is it just me or does one become a veteran teacher far too soon in one’s journey? Meaning, how did I get so old?! Well, as scary as that is, it’s better than the alternative, right Poe?

Allow me to present the context: through December I have a student teacher, and boy oh boy am I happy to know her. She’s going to be a fantastic teacher, wants to do well and jump right in. This has been an especially chaotic start to the new school year for me: our administration takes great care and time to balance the master schedule, so it’s had to change multiple times to get it right. When one considers how many of our students need what is called “Essentials” in our district (it’s probably called that other places, too), it changes the dynamic quite a bit. To the point, for me personally I gave up my planning period and will be teaching six periods a day, so having an eager student teacher/intern will be enormously helpful.

One of the requirements of her program is a three-day scoped lesson, and since she and I are both enthusiastic fans of all things macabre and October, we sat down to discuss a possible text. One of the first short stories I planned on handing over to her was The Monkey’s Paw. I’ve used this story for many years and add the Vimeo film, too. It’s accessible in terms of understanding themes/tropes (be careful what you wish for! Magic has a cost! Be grateful for what you have!) and is grand, classic fun.

And that was the problem.

As I am describing the story, written in 1902, with its archaic language and cultural tropes (exotic foreign lands! Grand Fakir! Seargent Major in the grand India wars….!) her eyes seemed to glaze over, not in boredom, but in overwhelmed fear: these old stories are not this generation’s stories. She’s two years older than my oldest son, and if I may make one sweeping generalization about millennials it’s not that they haven’t read the classics, but perhaps have rejected them because they are not multicultural or diverse. Coming from my old white lady perspective, many of my beloved stories are from a narrow Victorian smelling salts place of overly tight corsets and ladies locked in boxes/towers/coffins.

The Monkey’s Paw is not a place to start when you’re a 23-year-old student teacher.

 

I put the word out on the Notice and Note page:

I’m going to the well once again — 🙂 I have a great student teacher, and many of the classic horror stories are not in her wheelhouse. We’re thinking of her three-day filmed lessons of doing RL8.3 and a scary story. Things like The Monkey’s Paw or The Raven are not comfortable for her necessarily, so was wondering if anyone knows of poetry or short story horror that’s more contemporary? The guiding question is ‘what do we know as readers that the character(s) don’t know?’ among others. Please and thank you–

To all of you: you honor me with your amazing resources and suggestions. What I think we all struggled with though was at the heart of my question: something more contemporary. I should have just flat-out said: diverse. Multicultural. Not Dead White Guy. Not that there’s a darn thing wrong with dead white guys. Those are some of my favorite guys.

From Notice and Note Educator Experts:

But these are wonderful pieces of literature, and though I’ve used most of them extensively, have some new ones to check out:

The Landlady by Roald Dahl (short story)

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (used this for years) (novel)

Don’t Ask Jack by Neil Gaiman

The Wife’s Tale by Seamus Heaney (poetry)

The Lady or the Tiger by Frank Stockton

Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl

The Right Kind of House by Henry Slezar

Reverse Insomnia – not sure (?)

The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Cornell

The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Waxwork by AM Burrage

The Highwayman (romantic/gothic/poetry) Alfred Noyes

Darkness Creeping Neil Shusterman (collection)

Fever Dream by Ray Bradbury

The Veldt by Ray Bradbury

All in a Summer Day by Ray Bradbury

Twilight Zone/Monsters are Due on Maple Street

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe

The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe

Three Skeleton Key by George G. Toudouze

Heading Home by Ramsey Campbell

Miriam by Truman Capote

The Open Window by Saki

The Severed Hand by Wilhelm Hauff

Under the Weather by Stephen King

E-books for Stephen King

Cabinet of Curiosities 

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (I still have students trying to hand me pieces of paper with black dots)

What I found:

http://theweek.com/articles/458062/9-contemporary-horror-stories-read-right-now — ooh there are some good ones here

http://www.yalsa.ala.org/thehub/2015/10/19/diverse-horror-folklore-ya/ — just bought some Rin Chupaco

http://www.livescience.com/48515-10-haunted-house-ghost-stories.html – these are ancient stories from around the world

 

And of course, there are always quick films. I have film versions of almost all the classic stories above.

Lights Out – Who’s There Film Challenge (2013) from David F. Sandberg on Vimeo.

Bloody Cuts/Who’s There Film Challenge -some are NOT appropriate, but some are pretty great.

I want to thank you all for your suggestions and insights: it reminds me again that we cannot do this alone. It’s up to my student teacher to poke around and find one that feels comfortable for her now, just like all of us have and had to do. She’s going to craft and curate her own stories to tell — and I can’t wait to hear them!

 

PS http://onebooklane.com/mistletoe-bride-short-story-kate-mosse/

 

and

The Life of Death from Marsha Onderstijn on Vimeo.

 

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Thematic Thursday

Last year one of my students had one of those lightbulb moments, that eureka shake up, awesome anagnorisis,  where she completely understood what I meant by the concept of the difference between topic and theme.

This is a biggie. It’s important because it means I can do it. Because teaching theme…teaching it well that is..isn’t easy.

So on Thematic Thursdays, there is intentional time to do just that, however the strategy, whatever the current unit of study.

I am a lifelong devoted scholar of the study of themes, and yet, it is as painful to teach for me as doing my own dentistry sometimes. I need to just get over myself. Some teachers know how to simplify teaching theme, distill it to its most essential elements. This anchor chart isn’t a bad place to start, but it’s that last sentence starter that doesn’t hold up for me. Is theme a formula–if x then y? I don’t think it is. And I am also not sure if the author is always in control of one lesson in a work, be it a novel, poem, dance, art, or music. The danger is telling students there is only one answer. Theme is not a main or central idea. The central ideas help create the possible themes.

 

Grabbed off of Pinterest
Grabbed off of Pinterest
This site does a solid job of discussing literary devices. I only take exception with calling topics themes.
This site does a solid job of discussing literary devices. I only take exception with calling topics themes.

However, I approach teaching and discussing themes more like an alchemist. So what happens on Theme Thursdays? Again, any number of things. An exploration of a current unit, question, time to bird walk and discuss, muse, or laser focus on symbolism and motif? Creation of personal themes, missions, pledges, for one’s own narrative. We can look at art, read a poem, or perhaps prepare for Film Fridays.

This is a PowerPoint I created years ago. It still holds up pretty well. 

Tim Shanahan has a pretty good post about this: http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com. I invite anyone who has something to add to this discussion to please do so: how do you ‘teach theme’ — is it by definition and then exploration, or the other way around?

 

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