California English Journal
No matter how much I’d like to keep up, it seems that students always know more than I do about the latest things on television. Okay, partially it is my fault. I’m given to watching classic movies like Casablanca, Notorious, and It Happened One Night over things like Project Runway, The OC, and Gilmore Girls. I do have a weakness for South Park, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report; but otherwise, if it’s popular television viewing for students, I probably don’t know much about it. But does that fact bother me? Not at all.
As Meg Callahan and Bronwen E. Low explain, “Rather than attempting to keep up with youth culture, teachers can draw on their expertise in lesson design, language, and questioning and rely on students to bring their expertise on the texts of popular culture” (52). The gaps in my own knowledge of popular culture become important places for students to take the lead in the classroom by sharing the expertise Callahan and Low identify—the knowledge and literacy skills that they bring to the classroom.
Generally speaking, the process is a simple one. I ask students to discuss their observations and analysis of specific television shows or kinds of shows, such as reality TV or fake news. Once students have shared details on these shows, I ask students to think about how these programs have been constructed, why particular images have been included, and how the texts use specific techniques to communicate with an audience. Once students understand these analytical concepts in familiar texts, I shift discussion to specific pieces of literature, using some of the same strategies presented in the television shows or applying the same kind of critique and analysis to pieces of literature.
The key to success for this strategy is extending the ways that we talk about television. Obviously, I cannot simply dump television in the classroom and expect students to suddenly be engaged in demonstrating and extending their literacy practices. Instead, I build bridges between the discussion of a technique or element in the television show and similar techniques in or approaches to a piece of literature. To demonstrate the strategies that work for me, I’d like to share the following ten ways to explore television and literature with media-savvy students:
1. Literary Elimination. Take advantage of the popularity of television shows such as Project Runway and American Idol by introducing similar contests in the classroom. Ask students to discuss the ways that participants demonstrate their talents and how the judges respond on these shows. Once students understand the ways that the programs work, shift to a literary elimination. As a class, draw up a list of criteria for a great author. With the criteria in place, students in small groups choose a particular author and choose how to demonstrate that author’s talents to the class. Choose three to five students to work in a separate small group as judges. While the majority of the students work on author presentations, the judges discuss criteria and choose questions to ask presenting groups. Follow the procedures on an elimination television show to narrow the number of authors down every few class sessions until a single author is crowned the victor. If class time doesn’t allow for a series of eliminations, do a simpler face-off, pitting two authors against each other.
2. The Deleted Scenes. No reality TV show shares all the footage of the participants. Many scenes never make it to broadcast. Some of this footage, however, ends up on the show’s DVD release. If resources are available, look at the kinds of deleted scenes included with some programs. Ask students to brainstorm a list of various reality TV shows and then to propose kinds of deleted scenes that they would enjoy seeing on the program’s DVD. Together the class can create guidelines that a producer might follow when choosing deleted footage. With these guidelines in place, ask students to turn their attention to a fiction or nonfiction text that they have read recently and to imagine the text as a reality TV show. Their job is to compose one or more deleted scenes, following the guidelines the class has established, that they would like to see after reading the text. Alternately, students might make a list of several deleted scenes with shorter descriptions (rather than composing an entire deleted scene).
3. Mash-ups. The Websites for some programs provide the opportunity for visitors to create mash-ups, video collages of various scenes from the television shows. The Project Runway site, for example, http://www.bravotv.com/Project_Runway/mashups/index.php) features tools for visitors to create and view mash-ups featuring the models, designers, and judges from the show. Students are also likely to be familiar with musical mash-ups, musical collages made entirely of other songs. After viewing or listening to some mash-ups, discuss how transitions and connections among pieces work and then invite students to create their own mash-ups. Students might focus on a particular book that they have read recently. This activity makes a great culminating project for a unit or semester. Ask students to identify important themes explored over the course of the unit then choose a single theme and create a mash-up that explores that particular theme. Add a reflective piece or artist’s notebook to this activity, and ask students to discuss the choices that they make as they compile their mash-ups.
4. Cliffhangers. Those sudden endings that leave characters on the cusp of an impossible decision or situation, cliffhangers are the stock and trade of serial dramas like The OC and Dangerous Housewives. Discuss the way that the technique fits within the larger plot structure of the entire show, and consider the difference between cliffhangers at the end of the season, at the end of an episode, and just before commercial breaks. Students can brainstorm situations typically used as cliffhangers and consider how effective the different plot devices are. Connect this exploration to a literary text that was originally published serially. Dickens’ novels are a great example. Having explored the ways that cliffhangers work on television and in serial publications, ask students to choose another work that they are familiar with and chunk the text for serial publication by choosing cliffhanger scenes throughout the work. Ask students to submit a list of four to six cliffhangers, and for each cliffhanger to include the page number, a summary of the cliffhanger situation, and an analysis of why this situation is an effective one to end on.
5. Companion Website. Today, every popular television show has an accompanying Website that provides details on the show, the actors, and other related information. After identifying several show sites to explore, ask students to analyze the sites and the kind of information that they present. Students can work in small groups, with each group compiling details on a different site. The groups can then share with the full class. Together, the class can look for elements that are included on all sites, those that are particular to certain kinds of shows, and any other significant features that they notice. With this analysis complete, students can turn to a text that they have read recently. Each group can work on a different novel, so this activity would work well as a follow-up to novels read in literature circles. In their groups, have students design companion Website for the novel, following the model of the sites for the television shows. Depending upon your access to technology, students might create a public Website, a Website available only at the school, or even a series of posters that illustrate the main pages of their Website design. Ask students to keep artist’s journals that record the options they try, the decisions that they make, and the underlying reasons for their different choices.
6. Reading on TV. Oprah’s Book Club has become well-known to readers; but Oprah isn’t the only one on TV with a book club. Visit the Website for The Gilmore Girls, for instance, and you’ll see an invitation to join Rory’s Book Club. The books that people read tell us a lot—whether they’re real people or fictional characters. Exploring either the list of books that on Oprah’s site or in Rory’s Book Club, ask students to think about the books that are included and why they have been chosen. Alternately, students might identify a book carried or read by a character on a television show and discuss the significance of the book and why the writers would have included it. As they identify the ways that the books connect to the characters and program, keep a running list of their observations. When discussion slows, review the list and ask students to use the information to create categories that describe the different kinds of connections. When their analysis of the television-related books is complete, reverse the activity. Ask students to choose a book that they are familiar with and create a list of television shows that one or more of the characters from the book would watch. Have students refer to the class list of categories as they work to build strong connections between the characters from their reading and the TV shows. Ask students to write a brief character sketch of the character from the book who will watch the television programs to accompany their list of shows and their explanations of how the shows fit the character.
7. And Now, a Word from our Sponsor. As they watch their favorite television shows, ask students to pay careful attention to the commercials that come on. As they watch, ask students to make a complete list of the commercials and the order in which they appear. Next, ask students to look for connections among the commercials. Are they related to the show? How does the audience for the commercials fit the program? Based on the commercials, who is the television program aimed at? Create a list of characteristics that an ad executive would keep in mind when choosing a product or service to advertise during a television show as well as the kind of advertisement that would be most effective. With an understanding of how commercials relate to the shows they sponsor, turn students’ attention to texts that they have recently read. Ask them to imagine that the text will be the subject of a made-for-TV movie, and their job as a production assistant is to find advertisers for the show. In a recommendation memo, ask students to suggest products and services that would be appropriate and to explain why these items fit the text.
8. Dressing for the Part. How do clothes and costumes play a role in television programs? For each major character in a television program that they watch, ask students to record the clothes and accessories that the character wears in each show. Once they have assembled their lists, have students look for patterns for each character as well as among and between characters. Discuss how the show uses clothing, jewelry, and the like to communicate information about the characters, their lives, and their interests. With the connections between appearance and characterization established, ask students to explore the same questions for the characters in a book or short story that they have read. Students can follow the clothing of a particular character through the text or the clothing of a group of characters in a specific episode or scene. After gathering information from the text, students write a paper that considers the function that clothes and personal appearance plays for the character or in the specific scene.
9. Gender. Ask students to look closely at the characters in the fictional shows that they watch, specifically focusing on the gender of the characters. How is their gender important to the roles that they play? To what extent, are the characters in roles that could not have been played by an actor of the opposite gender? Are the shows playing with gender? After general discussion, ask students working in small groups to focus on a specific character, and discuss how the program would be different if that character were the opposite gender. After this exploration of gender and television, ask students to consider the same question for an important character from a book or short story that they have read recently. Students can write their analysis in lieu of a book report on a text read independently.
10. Realism or Stereotypes? Have students consider the characters in the fictional programs that they watch. In what ways are the characters real and in what ways do they seem to be stereotypes or caricatures? Do the characters have a full range of real emotions? Or do they just have the emotions that seem politically correct for the time and place that the programs consider? Are their emotions predictable? Do they look like real people, or like models and pin-ups? Is their hair every mussed? Do they get dirty? Does anyone ever go to the bathroom? Do they every get sick? Do they grow at a normal rate? After exploring issues of realism and stereotype on television, ask students to consider the same analysis for a text that they have read in a two-part paper. For part one, ask students to rewrite a scene or passage from the text from a more realistic perspective. For part two, ask them to explain the decisions that they made to make the passage more realistic, giving details both on the changes that they made and why they made them.
By bridging television and literature, these ten activities enable students to enhance and build sophisticated literacy skills that help them explore the texts in the world around them—whether texts from popular culture or literature from centuries ago. Today's media-savvy students compose and read texts that include alphabetic- and character-based print, still images, video, and sound. Television programs provide a great starting place for exploring these many ways of literacy because of their wide accessibility and because of the sophisticated literacy practices that students have already developed as they view these texts independently.
connecting the analysis and critical
thinking that students do as they interact
with such texts to the more traditional
studies in the
classroom, we can not only engage students more fully but also demonstrate
that we value and respect the knowledge that students bring to the
classroom. As Callahan and Low explain, “[W]e cannot force students
to think critically; we can only invite them to do so” (57).
When the invitation builds on the critical thinking that students already
do as they interact with the world, we do our best work as teachers:
We demonstrate that literacy practices matter to students every day,
in and out of the classroom.
The bell rings, -BLLLLLLLLLLEEEEEEEEEEPP! - and my conversation wraps up with the two young men sitting in the front two desks. Over the weekend, they saw the latest in the Scary Movie series, and have been filling me in on a particularly hilarious moment involving Dr. Phil, his foot, and a saw. Still laughing from their detailed relaying of the scene, I move to the front of the room and bullet the day’s agenda. I mention to the class that they will be starting an evaluative essay and am met with the usual pleas to put it off for another day, another week, another month.
Delaying as long as possible, I wind up for the essay pitch. I front-load them with the appropriate vocabulary and pass out sample essays to give them an idea of the essay structure. I outline and pre-write my own essay to show them how I would approach this writing task. I then help them choose a topic by listing some student generated ideas on the board. I make a conscious notation to myself that only the girls are participating in this conversation. “How about some ideas from the guys?” I coax, hoping that they simply need an invitation. Nothing. “Guys?” I turn slowly. Maybe eye contact will inspire some thoughts. I glare a little bit at one guy in particular. Hmmmm. That just instigates uneasy shifting in that area of the classroom. The silent stand-off begins.
Despite my valiant effort, I lose the stand-off and leave the front of the room to allow for some more thinking time. Short of writing their essays, I have prepared them in every way that I can. Capping my Expo marker and sighing heavily, I turn away from my brainstorming examples to confront the blank faces that are my students.
Toward the middle of the period, almost all the girls are starting on their second or third paragraph, but most of the boys are still staring at blank pages or folding the wings of custom paper airplanes. I circulate to assess the situation. “I’m still thinking,” is the blanket response to my inquiries, almost like they all agreed on this alibi. Toward the end of the period, more than half the boys has given up on the façade of “just thinking” and have their foreheads cradled on outstretched forearms. I can even hear some of them moaning softly in pre-writing agony.
Finally, the last girl swooshes her sparkly pink pen at the end of her concluding paragraph and signs her name, frosted with hearts and smiley faces, when the BLLLEEEEPINGG bell signals the end of the period. The boys miraculously revive, stuff scattered belongings into backpacks, and zombie-walk off into the halls. All that remains of them is a forehead smudge and the small condensation triangles left by nostrils pressed against the desk.
Having infiltrated the daunting world of the teenage boy through my own interests in typical boy mediums such as horror movies and video games, I have found that boys have incredibly interesting things to talk about, which means that they have a wealth of intriguing things to write about. However, there exists a difference between what they consider good conversation and interesting classroom writing topics. There is a gap between the highly engaging, logical, dynamic, and organized conversation that happens before the BLEEPPPINNG bell and the words, “We will be writing an essay today….”?
So how does one bridge that gap? It seems to me that the easiest way to continue the dynamic conversation before class is to ignore the BLEEPPPINNNG bell, carry it into the class, and, in fact, incorporate it into the curriculum. Students need to feel validated as holders of opinions, especially in authoring their formal writing tasks. That can occur when teachers send the message to kids that it’s okay to take risks in their writing, just as they take risks when they talk about things before and after class.
Boys, in particular, need to feel personally invested in the class and in the writing associated with the class. As discussed in Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm’s book (2002) Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys, forging personal teacher/student relationships with boys is paramount to obtaining male participation in the classroom. As part of that relationship, educators need to find a place for the non-traditional literacies that boys participate in outside of school inside the language arts classroom.
Current research indicates that the definition of literacy needs to be broadened to encompass all the texts that students choose in which to practice literacy. In order to fully embrace this new idea of literacy in scholastic terms, more contemporary texts need to be incorporated into the context of the classroom. In doing so, teachers are able to create learning environments that foster opportunities for “flow” experiences.
Choosing ‘non-traditional’ texts would allow teachers to sequence their instruction by moving from the easier to the more difficult and more familiar to the more foreign. The effect would be more confident and more competent readers by appropriately challenging students (Smith and Wilhelm, p. 10).
According to Nancy Taylor (2005), using contemporary texts would also provide a starting point in which to build more complex lessons and incorporate critical thinking skills (p. 297).
In Donald Gallo’s (2001) article, “How Classics Create an Aliterate Society,” he supports the idea of including less traditional literature in the language arts classroom for the simple fact that students enjoy it. He contends that students want to read about relevant, exciting things that happen to people to whom they can relate. “One of the most valuable qualities of contemporary teenage fiction is that it helps students feel normal, comfortable, understood” (p.36).
Even in the higher echelons of language art courses, Gallo (2001) believes students would benefit from the inclusion of more contemporary literature. All secondary students have teenage issues and needs that can be addressed in more non-traditional texts. While classic literature provides them with the potential experience of literary analysis, they don’t attend to teenage social and emotional needs. It is, then, beneficial to supplement or even replace the more rigorous classical curriculum with more contemporary texts that can still provide students with literary analysis experience. “The only two elements common in the classics that some young adult novels lack are plot complexity and dull, lengthy descriptions” (p.36).
Classic literature in most language arts classes is sensibly organized chronologically. However, when we consider what the average American literature student is up against, the cards are stacked against him. The first texts that an 11th grader will encounter are Puritanical sermons and gothic literature (Hawthorne, Poe). “It is likened to sending a novice skier on his first ski vacation to the black diamond run at the beginning of the week in the promise that by then end of the week he will be able to enjoy the bunny hill” (Smith and Wilhelm, p. 10). In terms of “flow,” literature students are not “flowing” at all. Starting with the most intricate literary styles, students don’t have an opportunity to develop competence before launching into a challenging area of literary critique.
In addition, students have a difficult time pulling any personal relevance from the dilemmas of classical characters in distant times, nor or they able to form any social bond with classical characters. If we aim to gain investment from our boys, we need to create situations in which they feel they are receiving some sort of practical application to their own personal lives or are able to form social connections to the character, author, or even their classmates. “[Classics] are about ADULT issues. Moreover, they were written for EDUCATED adults who had the LEISURE time to read them. They were also, not incidentally, written to be ENJOYED – not DISSECTED, not ANALYZED, and certainly not TESTED” (Gallo 2001, p.34). Readers want to experience books that grab and hold their attention, which excludes most classic literature currently being taught in language art classes. Reading books that don’t offer entertainment value are a chore to be completed in order to receive a desirable grade.
As we consider non-traditional forms of literature, it would be remiss not to include books that have met with opposition for one reason or another. Contemporary authors such as Caroline Cooney and Robert Cormier author books that deeply touch their young adult readers and tackle very real problems in the lives of very real teenagers. In Smith and Wilhelm’s (2002) study, boys stated that they preferred books that tended to “push the envelope” and were edgier (p. 146). Banned books fulfill such needs in that they are often censored for the very fact that they express powerful ideas in a shocking manner. They often call to question moral and political views held by adults.
Not only should these books be devoured by our students, but they should be consumed by educators as well. Reading books that students regard as fascinating text sends a multilayered message. First, in reconsidering what constitutes the term “literacy,” educators need to embrace the very forms of literacy that we claim are a part of the new literate world. Secondly, reading literature for teenagers and about teenagers shows them that we care about what they are reading, what they are interested in, and what issues they face.
Though many would argue against the use of pulp fiction in the classroom, it certainly has its place. Most critics would say, perhaps accurately, that pulp fiction is not good literature due to its superficial themes and formulaic style of writing. However, these texts are often engaging to boys due to their brevity. Additionally, serialized books like Goosebumps by R.L. Stein are popular because they allow for boys to create bonds with characters, usually an underdog, with whom they can visit time and again. Most importantly, pulp fiction is a hook into better literature for many students (Huck 1997, p. 491).
In broadening the definition of literacy, teachers and parents have to give credit where credit is due. Reading is reading, and much research has shown that any exposure to reading is a boon to increasing reading skills. “Wide reading of a variety of written materials develops reading fluency” (Perry and Butler, 1997, p. 456). Pulp fiction provides a scaffold upon which students can gain confidence in their skill, and begin to experiment with more complex texts as they build in confidence and competence.
form of contemporary text to consider
is poetry. It is an often overlooked
means through which to provide
the power of words.
Modern poetry comes in a vast array of
an equally vast array of voices and
languages. This might include rap and
hip-hop lyrics to the beat-boxing of
to the Spanglish
Latina “gangsta” poet. By
incorporating readings of poetry that is closer to the hearts and minds of students,
personal connections are forged and interests develop without the constraints
of rhyme and meter, subject-verb agreement and correct punctuation. Poet Paul
Janeczko (2001) explains:
The best poems ask questions we all ask. The best poems are like life itself – they celebrate the grace of little things. The best poems are alive with intense, inventive language (2001, p.24).
Thus, if we expect our students to write with a unique sense of style and passion, we need to offer them examples of great poetry that they can relate to and that “has the power to break our hearts with language” (Janeczko, p. 23).
In the fiction centered world of the secondary language arts classroom, much time is spent delving into works of make-believe despite the fact that many adolescents prefer non-fiction texts. Ed Sullivan’s (2001) article “Some Teens Prefer the Real Thing: A Case for Young Adult Nonfiction” examines the absence of non-fiction in the language arts classroom. Sullivan encourages the use of non-fiction in the English classroom because it is the preferred reading choice of students, and they find it to be “entertaining, fun, enjoyable, or just plain interesting” (p. 43). Many teens find the same excitement in reading non-fiction as other readers find in reading fictional texts. Smith and Wilhelm (2002) also found that their study participants mentioned non-fiction as a genre that was highly valued in their out of school lives.
Non-fiction pieces cater especially to boys’ needs in literacy practices. For struggling or reluctant readers, non-fiction appears approachable because it tends to be in a shorter format. Much non-fiction is also divided into sections that make searching for specific information easier. The inclusion of photos and captions in much non-fiction also captures interest, creates connections, and provides context clues for the struggling reader. If not written for a practical purpose, non-fiction is often used as a means to stimulate deep thinking about serious issues that are current or relate to a specific locale, an important feature of finding purpose in reading mentioned by the participants of Smith and Wilhelm’s (2002) study. Sullivan (2001) also contends that the genre of non-fiction has just as much potential, if not more, to stimulate analytic and critical thought as fiction texts, another feature boys found essential in reading enjoyment.
Along with written non-traditional text, much research has been devoted to the use of music in the classroom. The majority of music research has been conducted to show positive links between learning and the use of classical and cultural music or music that can be tied directly to the curriculum. Throughout the interviews Smith and Wilhelm (2002) conducted with their study participants, music was mentioned repeatedly as an influential component in the literate lives of boys. If this is the case outside of school, it reasons that music as a text would be invaluable in an educational setting. If for no other reason, music should be included in the classroom as a means to create relationships with our students.
Very few people contest that there is indeed a widening gap between boys’ and girls’ scholastic reading performance. While there is still some debate as to the reasons behind the gender gap, there is little controversy over the basic steps to take in order to recapture the interests and overall performance of our male students. Though for many, it may be too dramatic a move to put aside the classical literature that has been taught for decades, it is obvious that we need to supplement those classics with less traditional text choices. If we are to improve literacy within our classrooms, we must be willing to invite various forms of literacies into our curriculum and begin taking advantage of the age-relevant texts that offer our students scaffolds to conquer the more intricate works of classical authors.
My 7th grade sociologists know that they are not inherently born with access to certain rights in society. In order to improve their social access, they know that they cannot only be consumers of culture in society. They must also be active producers of culture. To do that in the 2005-2006 school year, they needed to take back the messages that mainstream Hip Hop radio had to offer and present their own perspectives. They needed to reclaim their Oakland, a city on track to double the homicides from the previous year, in a way that countered the more common negative expectations of what youth do.
So that is what Jesus and the 51 other students in my Humanities class did with our multi-media show, “Shots Fired In Oakland: Images and Words Fired to Inspire Social Change.” I took the context of our lives in Oakland and armed my students with the weapons of 21st century public intellectuals. I armed them with urban sociology. I armed them with critical multi-media literacies in urban photo-ethnography, graffiti writing, spoken word poetry, and emceein (rapping). I armed them with the Hip Hop that did what local M.C. Rashidi Omari of Company of Prophets meant when he spit, “I aspire to go higher; spit flames that will inspire.”
The excerpt above from Jesus Limon’s “Mathematics”, an original piece, was modeled after socially conscious rapper Mos Def’s song under the same title. Held in front of an audience of his peers, family members, community organizations, artists, and educators at the Youth Uprising community center in “Deep” East Oakland, Jesus performed “Mathematics” over an instrumental version of “Tell Me When To Go”, a Bay Area favorite representing the new Hyphy Hip Hop Movement that is sweeping the nation. The words, however, do not represent “hyphy” at all. For those of you who do not know, “hyphy” in general can be associated with a certain wild and exuberant street culture, style of music, and style of dance that originated in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area.
Here in the Bay, a synonym for “going hyphy” is “going dumb”. However, as a result of our learning expedition this past year, Jesus wrote “Mathematics” from a counter-hegemonic perspective to combat the idea of “going dumb”, which is so prevalent in mainstream commercial rap in general. And along with “going dumb”, mainstream Hip Hop emphasizes messages that glamorize sexual promiscuity, exploits women, and emphasizes excessive consumerism. So to combat that mainstream, capitalistic hegemony, Jesus went from “going dumb” to “going smart”, as we said in my class community. For us, “going smart” meant to resist the pop culture messages that large record companies and radio stations use to divert youth culture from being conscious and active about issues in our world. “Going smart” to us, meant to reclaim words, ideas, music, and culture. For Jesus, that meant to reclaim the beats in the commercial song “Tell Me When To Go”, and use the inspiration gained from the Mos Def’s original Mathematics, to produce culture on his own; to use his own story to influence others; because if he did not accurately tell his own story, then who would? Behind Jesus’ version of Mathematics and all the academic, sociological, and media literacy skills that intersected with his own experiences, he was contributing to the discourse of one of the other teachers in our classroom: “We never can win freedom and justice and equality until we are doing something for ourselves.” - Malcolm X (Haley, 1964).
BEHIND THE RHYME
Let me first give some background context around my students and the big ideas behind our learning expedition. Without providing context, readers might be likely to say, “My kids can’t do that.” By providing context, readers have more of a chance to have a vivid picture of the reality, a glimpse into the process, and a greater social imagination of how my successes and challenges relate to their own communities.
Jesus and Isabel were among the 52 total students in my 7th grade Humanities class at Lighthouse Community Charter School, a small school located in the heart of downtown Oakland, California. They were among the 85% Latino students in the 7th grade who were English Language Learners. Jesus, in particular, was 1 of the unknown amount of students who was grappling with his identity as either a creative and critical intellectual or as a blue-clad Sureño gang member.
Jesus, Isabel and the rest of my 7th grade Sociologists embarked on a learning expedition I designed that was called “Civilization Conquest and Resistance”. We used the sociological ideas of Karl Marx (Social Class and Exploitation) , Michel Foucault (Power, Knowledge, and Language), and Talcot Parsons (Social Reproduction and Systems of Socialization) to serve as the lens to explore the following guiding questions around the Classic Aztecs, the collision of the Aztecs and the Spaniards, and modern-day Oakland:
Throughout our explorations, we discovered how power, knowledge, language, and socialization became the basic tools for conquest, oppression, and exploitation. We saw it in societal structures in contemporary issues such as Immigration Rights and with the Prison Industry Complex. We saw it in socialization forces like those in music videos, television, movies, radio, music, and print media. After being aware of those forces, we needed to deconstruct them, so that we would know how to actively resist and combat those forces. That is where they needed a framework. To empower my young sociologists, I created a “10-point Doctrine of Active Social Resistance” that was modeled after the Black Panther Party for Self Defense’s 10-Point Plan and their Liberation Schools. Like the Panthers, I took my youth along the journey of involving them in the creation and the reasons WHY they needed the Doctrine. Like the Panthers, it was important for me to convince my youth of the urgency to raise their consciousness and state of mind; that having this knowledge was larger than the often emphasized ideas of getting a grade, getting into college, or getting a job. This was about the liberation of self and others using the mediums that could free our minds and mobilize our community. What is the use of studying the history of conquest and resistance if we, ourselves, could not apply our learning in our own context?
So that is what we did. As critical readers, graphic designers, graffiti writers, photo-ethnographers, spoken word poets, and M.C.s, we brought in local experts to help us with authentically becoming producers of culture in our society. Prior to our explorations, my youth were not unlike fellow Oakland educator Jeff Duncan-Andrade’s, “They often passively received these media messages through their youth culture, and so they remained unclear about ways that they could critique and disrupt these lowered expectations of them.”(Duncan-Andrade, 2002). Resulting from our explorations, we learned that if we are only passive consumers, then our choices get limited, and we are only left to follow others.
IN THE CLASSROOM
The Hip Hop element of Emceein (MC-ing or rapping), in particular, revolutionized the thinking and empowerment of my youth. Here Stephanie talks about her dreams for Oakland…
It is really quite simple. Using Hip Hop is not unlike introducing a lesson on biodiversity or persuasive writing or studying the Harlem Renaissance. Particularly in the inner cities, Hip Hop is credible, relevant, street wisdom. In Hip Hop and Philosophy: Rhyme 2 Reason, Derrick Darby and Tommie Shelby asserted that Hip Hop “represents the funky ways that philosophy is carried out in everyday life.” (Darby, Shelby, 2005). Hip Hop, whether No Child Left Behind acknowledges it or not, is part of the real-life context of many children. Cornel West challenged us by asking, “Does not the love of wisdom require that we interrogate in a Socratic way the voices and views that have emerged from the killing fields and gangsterized hoods of the American empire?” (Darby, Shelby, 2005).
The basics of using Hip Hop can use the standard models of doing an in-depth unit of study. Invite what they know. Build upon what they know by equipping them with new knowledge. Arm them with the relevant tools and language. Provide opportunities and structures to discourse. Support them with credible resources & learning opportunities (texts, multi-media, experts, fieldwork). Cultivate their identities. Give them an authentic purpose with real products they create for real audiences. Push them further with critique. Heighten their awareness through reflection.
It is critical that these basics are employed. As educators, we cannot continue to say that pop culture does not need to be introduced into our classroom communities in ways that bypass the essentials of good solid teaching. Should Hip Hop be more creative and multi-modal than teaching other disciplines? Certainly not. As a matter of fact, perhaps we should use the creativity and multiple modalities that Hip Hop invites to energize and inspire the way we teach other topics.
The potentially challenging part of using Hip Hop is transforming oneself as an educator into a credible resource or facilitator. An educator teaching the Unification of Ancient China or the wisdoms in Letters to a Young Poet for the first time would diligently work towards being literate in as many aspects of those subjects as possible. Likewise, if an educator is not literate in the diverse elements of Hip Hop, then that educator should work towards being literate. And when one does perform research, it is just as important to analyze and listen to the morally reprehensible content of Li’l Jon as it is to analyze and listen to the revolutionary ideas of Dead Prez or Immortal Technique.
I like to use questioning particularly with youth because often times, they are often taught to focus on “the right answer”. With the right line of questioning, I can often create the spirit of continuous learning and conscious endeavor. Specifically with becoming an M.C., which has traditionally been referred to as the one-time role of “Master of Ceremonies”, I wanted my M.C.s to fit more of the model of the progressive Hip Hop M.C., which basically refers to “Moving the Crowd”. To guide our journey to evolving as M.C.s, we used the following guiding question: “What is it like to be me in Oakland?”
I wanted to make sure I obviated my youth getting caught up in the common problem of “saying a whole lot of nothing.” So, for my youth, their writing became intense with complex ideas and rich experiences because of the interweaving of intellectual knowledge, ideas, language, and their own lives. This is where public intellectuality got particularly stressed. Developing public intellectuals meant to equip them with the knowledge and skills to communicate as experts around subject matter that they knew in depth to both informed and uninformed audiences. To participate in “the discourse”, my youth needed to be literate in what other M.C.s were saying. With the basics of urban sociology as part of our arsenal, we found concrete examples of Exploitation in Li’l Jon’s “Get Down”. We found concrete examples of Social Reproduction from analyzing a series of old and new songs from KRS 1, NWA, Too $hort, Tupac Shakur, Wutang Clan, and 50 Cent, that reflected urban violence. We examined Systems of Socialization by performing a “Radio Watch” by listening to and documenting the songs from the 2 dominant “Hip Hop/ R and B” radio stations. Then we used models that would aid our writing towards the question of “What is it like to be me in Oakland?”
The 3 socially conscious songs that we used as models for our own writing were:
I approached these 3 models in a progressive series so that we could write pieces from the “inside out”. OAKLAND allowed us to write about who we were and what was around us. Mathematics allowed us to use factual statistics to be critical about the community around us. Finally Thugz Mansion allowed us to write about what we wanted to be free from and what our dreams were for Oakland.
And let me be clear about the writing process I used. I used the same one most skilled teachers of writing used. Start with a question. Have a dialog. Do a brainstorming prewrite (sometimes using idea webs, sometimes using categorical charts). Analyze an exemplar model (the songs). Write a draft using graphic organizers, sentence starters, or sentence frames as a support for writers who need it. Peer Critique. Teacher Feedback. Revision. Peer Share. Revision. Open Mic. Revision. Rehearse. Revision.
To add to the experience of blooming as socially conscious M.C.s, I brought in Rashidi Omari from Company of Prophets to work with the youth. What this also did was put a face to a Hip Hop crew that was not on MTV or on the radio. It put a voice to a rich underground movement that makes Oakland so much more than the ghetto thug life image that is so prevalent. Finally it connected my youth with an active member of the progressive and artistic Oakland community.
Rashidi Omari certainly helped with the blossoming identities of my youth as performers. However, I am a Spoken Word Poet myself, and have been creating the culture and developing the skills of performance and stage presence with my youth for some time. The performance is important in Hip Hop. To guide my young culture producers, I wanted to make sure that they would be guided in the footsteps of inspirational and skilled models. Yes, part of performance is talent. However, ethics, discipline, hard work, and solid skills will turn talent into greatness. Hip Hop is public, so to be counter-hegemonic to how Hip Hop is perceived in the mainstream, not only the writing, but also the performance needs to be critically guided. I did not teach writing and then shove my youth onto a stage. I had to teach performance and stage presence. For instance, to make performance concrete, I taught these basic elements of “How to make your Spoken Word Poem come alive: 1. Volume, 2. Tempo, 3. Facial and Body Movement, 4. Eye Contact Connections, 5. Pauses.”
THE END OF THE BEGINNING
In the end, Hip Hop was just a representation of our reality. In the bigger sense, Hip Hop has grown in almost 3 decades from being a youth movement in the Bronx, New York to being a transnational culture that continues to evolve in unimaginable ways. Hip Hop has a rightful place in academia and curricula. As educators, we can no longer remain what writer, Ishmael Reed called, “confined to an intellectual cave…the limited vision of American missionary education that’s driving blacks and Hispanics from the classroom” (Reed, 2003). We need to recognize that “Black and Hispanic students pack the slam poetry events and write hip-hop verse themselves, but doze off in the missionary classroom and receive low scores in reading and writing on the missionary’s SAT.” (Reed, 2003). In recognizing that, we can innovate more ways for Hip Hop to be used as a medium of instruction.
This is just the beginning. Explorations using Hip Hop should not occur once and then end. We must continue to create new beginnings. We must accept our responsibility in contributing in critical and contextual ways to the discourse, evolving language, evolving knowledge, evolving education. Otherwise, we risk perpetuating a cycle that limits certain youth. That must stop. But for Hip Hop, that is not an option. As said by countless many, “Hip Hop ya don’t stop”.
It’s a total no-brainer. That’s what the kids would say, and they’re right. Isn’t it logical, connecting our students’ lives, their present, their culture, with the literary canon? How else to coach them through Huxley’s Brave New World, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, August Wilson’s Fences, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and help them make the leap to relevance?
Can we talk about Lenina’s vapid complacency, created by the carefully and maliciously orchestrated conditioning of the masses by those in power, without addressing the promiscuity in today’s advertising, the provocation, and even blatant misogyny, of so many music videos?
Isn’t the betrayal of Caesar by Brutus and his other so-called friends something many of our students have experienced, and is referred to in the laments of so many music lyrics, as well as in teen magazines and young adult lit?
And the Joads; surely we can connect the 1930’s Dust Bowl migration of a hard-working, humble people to the quests of today’s immigrants, and use mural art, as well as other artistic endeavors, to enrich classroom conversation that bridges the past with the present.
This season’s issue of California English brings our readers a variety of perspectives on forging those connections of relevance for our students. In these times of electronic and often passive stimulation (iPods, text messaging, music videos, MySpace, et al), it is even more important and incumbent upon us as language arts teachers to persevere, to continue the tradition of spreading the news of great literature. When done well, with careful forethought and design, there’s nothing like the results of a student realizing how connected we all are, and how connected we are to characters and historical figures from other times and places.
I remember my own English teachers explaining that great literary pieces are so by virtue of their ability to transcend time and place. And I’ll admit, there were times when our class would start a book and I’d wonder -- what in the heck does this have to do with me, today? (Sound familiar?) Ah, but Mrs. Jackson was beautifully gifted in the ability to guide us, nudge us to discovery. Dating myself here, she’d bring in Beatles lyrics from the recently-released Revolver album, or Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters, or Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” to remind us, for example, of the pain of isolation and ostracism, or lost ideals, or old age. From there she’d leave it to us to make the leap – “Hey, that’s probably just how ___ feels!” These were sparks, the hooks into characters, making them more like me, like us, and less someone from another place and time… From there, we were seduced willingly back into the text, back into the canon, enriched by the connection. And we became readers unafraid to venture.
So enter this California English knowing what we already knew, and find, perhaps, some new ideas, new resources, and new questions to ask.
As we head toward the mid-point in the school year, it’s my pleasure to remind you of the upcoming CATE convention in Fresno, February 9-11. California Writing Project is once again providing the Pre-Convention program on February 8.
Whether you can get away for three days or four, know that the CATE convention is one of the best investments you can make in professional development. Experience workshops presented by outstanding classroom teachers, banquet speeches by inspiring guest speakers, opportunities galore for networking with teachers from across the state, announcements of political import to our profession, an exhibit hall with opportunities to peruse the best in new publications and services for teachers…
DO make plans to spend that weekend with us. More information is available on www.cateweb.org, within this issue of CE, and in your mailbox. Keep your eyes open for the beautiful convention flyer, arriving soon.
Winter approaches. Remember to take care of yourself, be grateful for small victories and joys, and revel in those connections we make with our students, and for our students.