11 January 2012

Changing Gears 2012: reconsidering what "literature" means

(1) ending required sameness     (2) rejecting the flipped classroom     (3) re-thinking rigor     (4) its not about 1:1      (5) start to dream again     (6) learning to be a society (again)     (8) maths are creative, maths are not arithmetic     (9) changing rooms     (10) undoing academic time     (11) social networks beyond Zuckerbergism     (12) knowing less about students, seeing more     (13) why we fight

What's in your Canon? What works of "literature" represent our society, its history, its values, its breadth, its ways of communicating? And, how do you define "literature" anyway?

Not many more classic bits of dialogue in the English language,On the Waterfront, 1954, Budd Shulberg (Elia Kazan, director), Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando

For me, and I think most of us who have grown up since the Second World War ended (which is almost 70 years ago now), our "literature" includes many things, and our "canon" is composed of many types of things. There is music which might, "define a generation," or "speak to great ideas," or express "ultimate frustrations," or "great hopes." There are films which have re-set a society's vision of itself, or which might make clear an essential moment in time, or perhaps would encompass all of our doubts, or, again, all of our hopes.

There are television shows which have helped us define ourselves, or understand ourselves, or doubt ourselves, or re-think our history, or speculate on gains and losses as times have gone on.

Challenging our sense of reality, our sense of time, and our reverential sense of literature,
Life on Mars, the BBC television show written by Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan,
Ashley Pharoah
, Chris Chibnall and starring John Simm.

Not, of course, to discount novels and poetry and theatre, which have re-defined our world, our language, even our way of getting news. Taken us on incredible journeys, and brought us into incredible bodies. Or has turned our darkest moments into reflection.

Seamus Heaney
This is the power of "literature," it is the power of the story, the power of human-to-human transmission. As Seamus Heaney said in his Nobel Prize "Lecture"  "I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world beyond. This in turn became a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival - whether in one's poetry or one's life turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination, and it is that journey which has brought me now to this honoured spot." ... "Even to-day, three thousand years later, as we channel-surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of growing immune, familiar to the point of overfamiliarity with old newsreels of the concentration camp and the gulag, Homer's image can still bring us to our senses. The callousness of those spear shafts on the woman's back and shoulders survives time and translation. The image has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable."

Or, as I said to a group of seventh graders last week, troubled - and maybe even troubling seventh graders, "People need to hear the things you think about, dream about, and worry about. They have to hear it in your voice which isn't the same as anyone else's voice." Because this is how we learn to become more human, by learning to share our voices, no matter how those voices are expressed."

We, as a community, grow smarter the more voices we hear, the more voices we embrace. It could be the students of a Middle School...

...or it could be a "badly" danced interaction with the globe...

...but whatever it is, it expands us, it improves us, it opens us.

The Window, 1952, an amazing short story by,  Frank De Felitta (teleplay), Enid Maud Dinnis (story),
now even more interesting because of its view of early television. Series,
Tales of Tomorrow

So my seventh step in Changing Gears 2012 is to look as widely as you can for the literature which will touch your students, for the canon which will help them know themselves and our world. This matters. When we prescribe a Common Core we proscribe all that lies beyond that, and what lies beyond is truly the 99 percent.

Literature, that transmission of culture, of who we are, is a huge thing, and it involves every one of us. I was lucky enough, as a young kid, to watch one of my friend's mothers - Jean Fagan Yellin - unearth the story of Harriet Jacobs, and bring truth to light. This taught me something important about who an "author" might be. At the same age I was also lucky to be near enough to Manhattan to sneak away and watch Alvin Ailey tell stories, and near enough to Brooklyn to see the Assyrians describe their lives almost 3,000 years ago. I got to see Pablo Picasso describe war, which was different than John Wayne describing war. I even had the chance to see Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux describe calm, and Philippe Petit describe tension. It was an education in the art of communication for which I will always be grateful.

But it it is also an education in the art of communication which I think we owe all of our students. "People need to hear the things you think about, dream about, and worry about. They have to hear it in your voice which isn't the same as anyone else's voice." Because this is how we learn to become more human, by learning to share our voices, no matter how those voices are expressed."

- Ira Socol
next: maths are creative, maths are not arithmetic


Miss Shuganah said...

I am going to go back to read all the links.... After bedtime.

My immediate thought is... can we sum this up like Hillel does with Judaism? "Do unto others as you'd have others do unto you. The rest is commentary."

What rest would be absolutely necessary and the rest commentary? Category by category?

Fancy Pancakes said...

The Common Core doesn't prescribe a list of books, and in fact, leaves it pretty open. The samples the Core gives are just samples, and are not even suggested readings!

irasocol said...

As much as I'd love to embrace the research of an educational expert named "Fancy Pancakes," because, of course, who wouldn't? I have to note that if he followed the Common Core link, without even going to a further page, he would have found the following paragraph:

"The standards mandate certain critical types of content for all students, including classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare."

- Ira Socol