Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Men Their Creation Mar: Teaching Reading and Digital Literacy

In Measure for Measure, as Angelo makes his indecent proposal to Isabella, Isabella councils him that he should not try and use her brother's sentence of death as a means to gain her virginity. "Men their creatin mar" she says, in reference to Eve arising from Adam's rib. In much the same way, though not nearly in such an affecting way, man of either sex has abused that which it has created throughout our history as makers. What started as fire became a violent, nihilistic device that erased two Japanese cities from the Earth, never to return as they were. We sometimes disrespect or misunderstand that which we create, particularly as teachers in a 21st century classroom.

As much as I'd like to believe it, no one is a digital native in the sense that we immediately apprehend the use or effect of a specific piece of classroom technology. How many times have we, or our colleagues, "taught" a "technology" lesson by signing out the laptop cart? How often do we simply use a Wordle to discuss vocabulary, substituting design for meaning? The fact is, some of us are willing to experiment, some of us know how to use it, and some of us refuse to acknowledge its existence. Luckily, teachers across the country are working hard to help us organize and understand these rapidly developing technology tools.

The SAMR Model (pictured below) is one way to organize technology tools that allows us to be in control of when and how we use them.

The model also helps us to sort and identify tools once we have experimented with them.

The reason this matters is that we started a presentation with the great Dana Huff about technology tools in the classroom today. (Her blog, which is beyond helpful, can be found here.) You should also follow her on Twitter @danamhuff. In any case, we opened the technology discussion with an unusual activity: Director Of Education at the Folger Peggy O'Brien asked us to write words that describe the kids we teach on one post-it easel page and words hat describe the schools in which we teach on another post-it easel page. Once this was done, we went through the pages. We came to the conclusion that classroom technology should be used to enhance what is already here, not replace or diminish it. This discussion prompted Dana to bring up the SAMR model seen above. Finally, we went through a list of technology tools that Dana has used in her classrooms and school to teach, with a focus on Shakespeare teaching.

What is really valuable here is the thought process. Unfortunately, many people let opinion conquer them when it comes to the use of technology. Hopefully the SAMR model above is a step in the direction of creating professional conversations that help teachers separate the wheat from the 21st century chaff.

Heading back to the beginning of the day, a visiting scholar asked us to consider how the word "practice," as used in the play to mean trick or prank, could be applied to the play itself. Specifically, we attempted a thought experiment where Sebastian and Viola are played by a single actor. In this theatrical world, another actor would be required to play one of these parts in the final scene. Which actor? Which character? We went into how that would change the reading of the play we already developed when considering it in the context of the needs of this imaginary theatrical world.

We then had a colloquium with the same speaker during lunch. During the conversation, she brought up the following question: "What are we teaching when we teach Shakespeare?" That was and is the million dollar question. For her part, she suggested that we are teaching higher level reading, the sort that Speed is incapable of doing in the following scene:
SPEED How now, Signior Lance? What news with your
Mastership?LANCE With my master’s ship? Why, it is at sea.
SPEED Well, your old vice still: mistake the word. What
news, then, in your paper?

LANCE The black’st news that ever thou heard’st.
SPEED Why, man? How black?
LANCE Why, as black as ink.
SPEED Let me read them.
LANCE Fie on thee, jolt-head, thou canst not read.
SPEED Thou liest. I can.
LANCE I will try thee. Tell me this, who begot thee?
SPEED Marry, the son of my grandfather.
LANCE O, illiterate loiterer, it was the son of thy grandmother.
This proves that thou canst not read.

The problem here is that fathers beget their children while women are the ones who bear them. So, Speed's father begot him, but his father is of his father's mother, not of his father's father. The joke only works if you understand the context.

My answer is a bit different. The other day, we were talking at dinner and I posited that fate never really plays a role in Shakespeare's work because that is the easy, complication-free way of doing things and Shakespeare seems nothing if not complicated. His characters choose their "fates" by the sum total of their actions. One specific choice does not lead Juliet to the knife, but a series of choices place her on that path. These choices are also influenced by the actions of the other characters around her. Without the Nurse's suggestion that Juliet marry Paris, she might have sat tight, sought another way through, or not. The point is that these characters are wonderfully complicated, just like we are. Like Bloom says, Shakespeare seems to have understood how to invent the human as an idea.

That leads me to why we teach Shakespeare. We teach what it means to be human in all literature, but only in Shakespeare do we get to become that human. The performance, the embodying of someone so extremely representative of a type, helps our students to inhabit that space, to be someone else, for a moment. As another well-known literary figure has said, sometimes you have to get into another person's skin and walk around for a while to gain perspective.

These people, the characters in this play, have become part of our cultural unconsciousness. Consider the following. I bet you know who they are.

And yet the cultural understanding does not stay in one place. Even cultures that can seem about as opposite to our own as they can get appreciate and identify with the people in Shakespeare's work. Consider this picture:
Kurosawa saw Shakespeare's characters and knew that his countrymen would connect with the people in a play set in faraway highlands.

When I think about what I want when I teach, I think about helping my students understand how to live a good life. When I need models for that, I turn to Shakespeare. I teach him to show my students models of what a good life could be if they wanted it; that is they learn how to respect, rather than mar, that which they have created. Unsurprisingly, these characters walk with them long after they have closed the text and passed the test, companions for the long, difficult road ahead.


Dana Huff said...

This is excellent. I am so glad you are blogging your experiences as you go, and you will be, too, years later when you have them to re-read and reflect on your experiences. Thanks for the excellent shout-out, too!

Infobeansworld said...

Amazing post.