Sunday, February 28, 2010

Brain Smoke

Alexander Pushkin, one of the greatest poets of all time, experiencing a bit of brain smoke

Brain Smoke
I must seem like a crazy person to my students! I have had to change direction so often I am the teacher embodiment of a lost male driving. My professors keep telling me it’s ok, if something is not working – try something else. But the look on my students faces every time I do that is clear enough for me to never want to do that again. They know I am a first year teacher, they know (because I tell them) that I don’t know everything and don’t have everything figured out, but that still does not register as related to the fact I’m on a trial and error basis with them right now. I apologize when I can for my shortcomings and remind them of my intentions to be the best possible teacher for them, but I still end up leaving with a pit in my stomach like they just told me they “rather be friends”.

Thankfully we are at the start of a new semester so whatever changes I make now will seem as part of due course! Not only has the transition been normal, but I was actually able to challenge AND engage them the other day! This is no small feat; normally I hear nothing but groans and whining when I give hard work, but this day, a day that will live in… no, I gave them something really challenging and though one student simply blinked and winced in pain as I saw smoke rising from her head, the rest engaged their brains, failed at first, but on the second try got a hang of it and went with it! I then assigned a pretty difficult homework assignment and I got at least 50% less complaining! The day is mine!

For the teachers reading this and actually wondering what I did, this section is for you; if however you don’t give a damn how I am educating our future you may skip this paragraph… but I will know if you did, and I will glare at you from your sub-conscious:

Because I teach writing ( I know, reading this blog you would doubt I even know how to write, right?) I needed something about which we could write a number of essays over the course of a few months, however I also needed the subject to be rooted in U.S history in order to help them on their upcoming REGENTS exam. So I put together a list of 30 or so names from American history from which they could choose a subject. They will do research on this subject and write a number of essays with the underlying purpose to convince the reader that their subject should be “American of the Millennium”. I am doing a simultaneous study of academic essay writing for college so as to wean them off the “Five Paragraph” essay, this includes articles from Harvard, Dartmouth and University of Chicago on how to transform your writing from high school to college level. The list of possible subjects included the likes of: Ellington, FDR, Booker T. Washington, Hillary Clinton, Crazy Horse; John D. Rockefeller, Jackie Robinson, Hamilton… the great Black, Female, Business, Political, Military and Native Americans from the last 300 years… and Michael Jackson. This of course is no new concept for a writing or history course, the point is what engaged them: one of the opening activities. I wanted to show them that a documentary, something they have all seen at some point, is like a visual essay, with an introduction, thesis, voice, body, argument, counter argument, conclusion and method. If you have never thought of it that way, take a look at a good documentary and an essay will appear before your very eyes (or if you are normal, i.e. not an English teacher, you will enjoy an informational film without reading unnecessarily deep into it). I started with a recent documentary about Barack Obama; what I assigned was quite shocking to them and they were not able to do it at first: I did not want to know the details about his career, family or education, I wanted to know how the director broke up the information – how, when and why it was presented. After the first few minutes I stopped the video and asked what they came up with, the initial responses where of course pieces of actual information from the video, information like: his father went to college, his father left the family, his mother taught him to respect himself and believe he could do anything, Obama was a senator… nothing about the structure. But when I pointed out that attention grabbing first line from the narrator, the brief exposition on his career and family which included the premise of the film (thesis), the tone and focus of the narrator and interviewees, and finally a cut of him giving a speech at the democratic convention after being elected senator, the room became brighter from all the bulbs lighting up slowly over the weaves, caps, hoods and faux-hawks. The medium they understand best is the visual. (period). This has been their main source of information and upbringing for most of their lives. Cartoons, youth oriented sitcoms, movies, advertisements and commercials have the honor of being most responsible for the behavior and learning style of our students. They can’t make a decent oral presentation, but they can text at 500 words a minute; they don’t know the acronyms of any of the important political, civil rights or environmental organizations but they can condense entire sentences into 6 letters; they have trouble picking up a date in person, but on facebook, AOL or myspace they make James Dean look like Erkel. It is no surprise that when I gave them a piece of classical literature I incited a near riot. But since I can’t change 16 years of ADD inducing media brainwashing, I decided to engage the most literate of all forms of media: the documentary. Here sources are checked and double checked, research is not reliant on i-reports and camera phones, nor is the goal to keep the audience’s attention by changing the image on the screen every 1/64th of a second. The documentary is of course not the Rosetta Stone, but if it opens the door, if it sparks a bit of interest, then it is worth it’s weight in gold (x4, because DVD’s aren’t very heavy).

This is one of the first steps I am taking in making damn sure that what I present is engaging, relevant and important. I know I did not give a crap when I was in school and that could have been easily fixed, so I am fixing it, for my students.

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