Monthly Archives: October 2011

Gothic Poetry, Mary Shelley, and S’more

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Frankenstein is just one of the most fun books to teach, particularly for me. As we finished the book this year, I decided that we would do two fun projects that would make the Gothic study a lasting memory for the students. It also gave the students time to complete their essays before launching into the next book.

The first project was to create an image of any scene, event, character, or quote from the book. Since they had to use the book for essay quotes, they were already looking at specific areas, so it was a natural extension. Most chose to draw a scene, and to their credit, they opted for obscure selections or unusual perspective rather than try to imitate an actual word picture. Then I showed them my picture, with the quote, ” I shall be with you on your wedding night” from chapter 20.

I shall be with you on your wedding night

Macabre? Yes. Out of the box? Naturally? Effective? Absolutely. Students saw that an image can be as simple as paint on wallpaper to create an emotion, especially in context with the reading. It’s a fresh way to look at artistic representation of classic literature.  It fit the gothic genre by appealing to emotion rather than reason, and referencing the “otherworldliness” of Shelley’s book.

The second project was a poetry unit in disguise. Teaching poetry as a unit make no more sense to me than vocabulary lists. Context gives both meaning that lasts long after the class is over.  I prefer to slip poetry (and vocab) into literature as I teach. For this particular class, I gave each student a poem that met the standard for Romantic/Gothic poetry. Each student had 15 minutes to analyze the poem before reading it to the class and explain what elements made it Romantic/Gothic. In one class period students heard a number of poems and reinforced the definitions of the genre.

Students then had until the next class period (our school has classes two days a week) to learn the poem in order to present it as a campfire “ghost story.” Shelley wrote Frankenstein as part of a challenge to tell the best ghost story in a small group during a stormy night in Vienna. If it was good enough for Shelley, it is certainly good enough for me.

On class day, I brought in tealight candles, skewers, miniature marshmallows, jumbo chocolate chips, and animal crackers. I had a tin with water prepared for our “campfire.” After all, what is a campfire without s’mores?  As we toasted marshmallows over tealights (with the overhead lights off, of course), students told their poems, with as much drama as they could muster.

Ghost stories and Gothic poetry

My class is small, so we finished the day with a serial ghost story. I began the story and we took turns adding bits until time was up. The only stipulations were that the story had to make some kind of sense and each person had to use the word “foul.” (I used the word “fowl” at one point, just for fun.)  The class was memorable, and one student posted on his Facebook status that it was the best literature class ever.

Literature never has to be boring. I have some advantages in having a small (okay, tiny) class, but the ideas are easily adapted for larger groups. It just takes the willingness to be a little unorthodox.

Frankenstein

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I love finding new ways to approach classic literature. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those books I knew about but was never required to read. I finally read it over the summer thanks to my Nook and free classics. Was I ever dumbfounded! Every conception I had about the book was completely off base, as it was tainted by pop culture and cinema. Here was a book written by a 19 year old girl in 1818 with a multitude of 21st century conflicts. I won’t teach a book that is no longer culturally relevant because I want ALL my students to love reading. Classics that are restricted by time period are often wonderful, but I prefer to recommend those to my students who want to read everything–twice.

Frankenstein, however,may be more culturally relevant now than in 1818.  One of the key elements for current readers is the question, “Just because we are able to do something, does it mean we should do it?”  In 1818 electricity was a new concept, and the practical and cheap applications were years away. That Frankenstein was able to infuse life into something he assembled from multiple parts (particularly grotesque when envisioned) was purely fantasy. Today, however, that idea has plausible elements to it. Cloning, transplants, and stem cell research open that Pandora’s Box of possibilities heretofore unimaginable.

The geneticist Barbara McClintock once said of her research, “I was just so interested in what I was doing I could hardly wait to get up in the morning and get at it. One of my friends, a geneticist, said I was a child, because only children can’t wait to get up in the morning to get at what they want to do.” (http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=4917&page=1)  McClintock explains the passion of research and experimentation in the same way Frankenstein might have as he created his new “species.” He was so caught up in his idea and the potential glory he could receive that, like a child, he didn’t think through the consequences.

Whether it is practical science, economics, politics, or any other science, modern practitioners often lunge forward into experiments without fully thinking through the consequences.  Students entering the college and work world need to understand the long term ramifications of their decisions and discoveries. Running with new concept may seem like a great plan, but the ultimate outcomes may be contrary to the vision.

Of course, Frankenstein contains more timeless lessons than the conflict of science and ethics. The importance of companionship, the danger of isolation, and the tragedy of hubris are all themes appropriate for the contemporary teenager.  The focus will vary depending on the interests of the particular students in the class. The primary idea is to make the literature relevant.

Science, ethics, and literature: they are connected.

“Your Class is Working”

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Those are words to delight any teacher, especially one who loves to test new ideas. This comment was from a student in my Through the Lens American Literature class. A glutton for punishment, he is taking a traditional American Lit class as well as my experimental class, but he said he finds himself constantly creating images in his head for the books he reads in the other class. I love that; it validates my approach using the visual to analyze the written word.

I’ve had similar comments in the past. I have ruined movies, pop music, formula fiction, and bad art for multiple students because I teach them to think, analyze, and decide whether what they choose to see, hear, and purchase is worthwhile.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German philosopher/scientist/literary genius (1749-1832), is my hero for providing all thinkers with three simple questions for determining the value of any art:

  • What is artist trying to do?
  • How well does he do it?
  • Is it worth doing?

I have used those questions in theater appreciation classes, literary discussions, composition workshops, and now in my experimental class. Without fail, students who internalize those three questions find themselves unwilling to spend time and/or money on things they decide don’t meet the standard of value. The beauty of the questions is in the fact that the first two are generally objective, but the third is completely subject to a personal paradigm. This requires students to identify and define their owns world views, and decide their own priorities. This requires high level critical thinking and introspection that many adults believe is out of the intellectual grasp of most teenagers. I disagree. There are those who cannot think for themselves, but there are plenty of adults who want to be told what to believe, too. I prefer to err on the side of higher expectations for my students, and I am generally justified.

What is the artist trying to do?

This the the theme/message/purpose of the artwork.  It’s often a challenge to find this concept without a sense of context, so history becomes important. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a great book, but it becomes powerful when put in the context of the Cold War, and prophetic when brought into the 21st century. Even without a historical context, great literature (and music and art and dance) always presents some universal message that can be identified and understood.

How well does he do it?

This second question is about technique. Does the artist follow the rules of his form? Are the rules he bends beneficial to the form? Is the language clear? Does shape and color and pitch and tone promote the message? Does each element work together to support the whole?

Is it worth doing?

This third question is the one that separates the artist who has a message to communicate from the one who just wants to sell something. Even the Absurdists wanted to shock and stun audiences into some new understanding. This question requires considerable time and thought. At first glance my students are disgusted by Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but once they dig into the message, the context, the powerful symbols, and the brilliant technique, they come to appreciate it. Some even come to like it. It may not be a favorite genre, but it becomes valuable because its message and the method of presenting it create enlightenment.  Other art pieces (literary, visual, or performance) may not be deemed worthy because either the technique or the message is lacking.

Worthiness is also highly subjective.  Students in high school are beginning to discover who they are, what they believe, and how they want to approach life. It is the time of life when they begin to separate themselves from parents, looking for their own answers to life’s great questions. As they begin to form their own world views, worthiness becomes a variable, not a constant.  It may be disturbing to hovering parents, but it is exciting for this teacher to watch teens find value in something for themselves.  I love to hear, “I love this book” from the students whose parents say, “They’re reading what?”  It’s even more fun when parents tell me about lively dinner table conversations about whatever book is currently under scrutiny.

Being unorthodox as a teacher means taking risks, and teaching high schoolers to think for themselves is certainly that. I am convinced, however, that students benefit immediately from coming to their own conclusions, and society benefits ultimately as these same students become adults who work, vote, and lead the next generation.