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Rhetoric, Reflection, and Scholarly Titles: How Taking a History (and Poetry) Course Can Remap Your Courses

I firmly believe that in every teacher, there is a student eager to return to the classroom.  I see in my colleagues the same eagerness in choosing their PD (professional development) as I feel when taking a new class.  We are innate learners and we learn well.  It is in this spirit that I elected to take two courses as my PD.  It is in this spirit that I chose a course to refresh my history and a course to invigorate my love of poetry.  It is in this spirit that I realize I have fundamentally stubbled into some powerful realizations, beyond the affirmation that taking a class, even an online one, is a great PD option for any teacher.  (I took mine with the Harvard Extension School; I’ll be happy to share the application process with anyone interested.)  While I could write long, lengthy paragraphs about each of these realizations, I also understand that the average student (teacher-in-training) may only survive four paragraphs to a blog post about someone else’s PD experience.  So, in this spirit, I’m sharing a more “interdisciplinary epiphany”: if you want to teach empathy, begin with history.  If you want to train civil rights champions, give them art. If you want them to understand empathy and logically argue about its necessity in our everyday world, temper this infusion of history and art with the sciences.

Allow me to explain.

The history course selected is titled, “From Nat Turner to the Roots: Slavery and Civil Rights in America.”  My selection of this was pragmatic: it’s been a while since I visited the historical contexts of African American literature.  Last year, in the middle of restructuring the junior modules, Dr. Keith Ward and I thought it fitting to pair rhetorical analysis in the Slavery to Civil Rights component.  So much of the rhetoric of that time-period is impossible to divorce of historical context.  Taking this course was a great way to refresh my own memory and improve the content delivery for many of the 11th grade English modules.   In that way, the course was very successful; in a completely different way, it fundamentally re-shaped how I want to teach cornerstone abolitionists and civil rights texts.  The course forces students to re-analyze the Civil War in terms of collective belief and community rhetoric; in this examination, much of the narrative of the Civil War is controlled by an archaic, protected Southern ideal (much of which is couched in the “the war was also about state’s rights” arguments found in many past and contemporary pieces).  This controlling narrative, this push to re-frame the Civil War in terms of a disagreement about economy or about the over-reaching federal government has become a way to continue avoiding difficult conversations concerning racism in our country today.

I think in another life I would have been a history teacher.

How does this all relate to an English classroom?  Some of my focus this year has been justifying the rhetorical additions based on an AP Language exam and giving students experiences to master this skill set.  After taking this course, I’m realizing this is the wrong focus.  Instead, I want to help my students understand how and why rhetoric is necessary to battle injustice, to create narratives that are true, genuine, and empowering.  Frederick Douglass wasn’t just speaking about his experience as a slave; he was risking his life to tell the truth, to force a nation into confrontation, and reveal the hypocrisy of a promised ideal.  So much of Douglass’ vernacular is found again in Lincoln’s rhetoric; the transference of knowledge is evident in the changed rhetoric of both men post meeting.  That’s how effective rhetoric is it can bring a nation to war and unite it again under different terms, simply by sharing words.  In many ways, the documents surrounding the Civil War- political cartoons, speeches, newspaper articles, photographs- are incredible real-world examples of how rhetoric is an important part of cultural currency, citizenship, and literacy.  I hope that re-working some of my own lessons and assessments becomes a way for my students to understand the very real implications we face as a society when we stop questioning a narrative, when we take an argument at face value, when we stop asking questions and responding to our world in words. This course not only affirmed my own faith in the power of rhetoric but forced me to evaluate the effectiveness of delivering that same affirmation for my students.

Even more so, I’m more motivated than ever to create spaces in my schedule to write.  Company is welcome. (Email me.)  And if prose isn’t your forte, ask me about my poetry class.  Just bring your good pen.

 

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My Rorschach Happy Moment (Not even kidding.)

Many teachers cite student growth as their favorite moments in teaching, moments when an abstract idea clicks or a student begins to connect the dots between disciplines.  These are all noble moments.  Mine is not so noble.

Two years ago, I created a sci-fi course as a senior English elective.  While I admit that a lot of my motivation stemmed from my own love of sci-fi and speculative fiction, I do also recognized the immediate importance of teaching this specific class at an all girls school.  Not only is literature (arguably of almost any culture) dominated by male protagonists, but male dominated worlds.  Men, both in an authorial context and a literal one, are allowed to create, design, and experiment.  Women protagonists must inspire.  Women authors must role-model or journal.  Women are often expected to be caretakers.   And, while sci-fi is not a exception to any of this by far, it encourages the reader (female or not) to engage someone’s creation (Frankenstein), someone’s design (The Matrix), or even someone’s experiment (The Giver).  Science fiction will even allow its writers and worlds to have female badasses, female problem solvers, and female leaders.  For the sci-fi teacher, the classroom conversations shift in ways that just aren’t possible with classic literature.  And in a STEM/STEAM world, science fiction engages any reader in ways that intersect literature with math, science, and engineering.

I’ve somehow started to launch into a diatribe about why science fiction is a necessary study in the modern day high school.  I’ll save this for another post.

IMG_20170406_163827My favorite moment. Two years ago I created a sci-fi course intended to push girls into interdisciplinary thinking and into conversations about ethics, justice, physics, and civilization building.  And while I’ve had many amazing moments, my favorite one (so far) happened today.  When I teach scifi, I begin by teaching both Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and the lesser known archetypes via Jung. Both are easily rooted in psychology, but many times its hard for the students to grasp at the idea that opposites exist as a means of balance; balance is a basic principle of physics.  (We get very meta quickly here, so I’m sparing the non-literary reader as much as I can.)  This is often times when my dry-erase boards look the most aesthetically pleasing. I do this lesson as a two part introduction to Alan Moore’s Watchmen and for good reason: in creating an alternative history, Moore has to offset the reader’s discomfort of both recognizing and not recognizing that world with the familiar, sometimes relate-able journey of very defunct characters.  Both Rorschach and The Comedian have to feel at once familiar and not; we recognize their plight by unconscious familiarity with the hero’s journey.  Who your hero is becomes the novel’s great crisis; Moore’s deconstruction of the superhero is ultimately commentary on our own need for a superhero.

Hence, when paper time comes around for Watchmen, I’m often met with two kinds of responses: “how am I going to write all my feelings about this in an analysis” or “oh my god I have to write all my feelings about this in an analysis.”  This is so often true that I rarely expect anything different.

So, when a student met with me today, I was completely blown away.  “Can I write about how the archetype of the Joker becomes the truth-sayer and how problematic that is for the reader?  Or even for other characters? Am I remotely close?  And have you read Moore’s The Killing Joke?  My dad gave it to me when he heard we were reading Moore.  Ms. Heishman, are you ok? ”

Yes. Very.  I spent 45 minutes today waxing poetic about Jokers, the hero’s journey, Watchmen’s Comedian, physics, and how justice is a social construct.  With a student.  With another girl (I’m really just a grownup fan girl.)

Let’s all teach science fiction.  I mean that.

 

 

 

 

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