Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Still Letting TV Work for You

This week’s Inbox Ideas section focuses on journalism in the classroom, in celebration of CNN’s debut as the first television news network on June, 1980. As I searched for related articles for the column, I stumbled upon a January 1967 English Journal that discussed using television analysis. Robert Meadow’s “Get Smart: Let TV Work for You” (56.1, pp. 121–124) begins with observations as relevant today as they were 40 years ago:

I’ve quit lying to my students about my television viewing habits. I watch television like a hawk. This medium brings me some of the finest art of the twentieth century—and some of the worst. I think I can tell the difference. The trouble is that my students often can’t. They think viewing’s [sic] a passive process; and they sit there sopping it up to the point of saturation. Then it just sloshes through them, having little impact, raising little response. I search for ways to put them back in touch, to give them critical tools, to make them realize that art is somehow an interactive process, that creation and appreciation cannot exist apart. Art is always a dialogue, and it is as effective as are the participants' communication skills. (121)
Today’s students are savvy viewers, able to flip from channel to channel while checking mentioned URLs on screen and IMing friends to discuss what they see. These students are highly literate consumers of video texts, yet they have much more to learn. Following Following M. A. K. Halliday’s paradigm, they have learned the language of these texts fairly well—they have learned to listen and view the text and use it in ways in their daily lives. These students still need to attend to learning about the language (as they try to figure out how these video texts work and critique their impact), and learning through language (as they use these video texts to learn about or do something).*

Meadow’s article goes on to outline a simple activity that leads to the kind of deeper literacy engagement that moves students beyond simply learning the language of the television shows that they watch. The strategy requires little updating to be used with television shows students watch today. Some of the examples need refreshing, but the technique could work in any classroom, at any level. To summarize the activity, students work in small groups, each group watching a specific television show and noting details about characterization, plot, and other features. With observations complete, groups collaborate on a script that casts the television characters in the roles of a familiar story (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks). Students then rehearse the script and perform their work for the class.

In the article, students cast the characters of television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Bonanza, and Bullwinkle in these roles. To use the activity today, you’d simply choose more recent television shows that are appropriate for students’ academic level. Reality TV shows might be awkward to work with, but most contemporary cartoons, sitcoms, and dramas would work. Younger students might focus on the characters and plots of Spongebob Squarepants, Drake and Josh, and Hannah Montana. Older students could explore the roles in The Office, ER, and Survivor. You might also widen the story models to go beyond Grimm Fairy tales. Other than that, the same activity works today, 40 years later. It’s a great example of how you can still let TV work for you in the classroom to foster deeper critical thinking and support 21st century literacy skills.

* Halliday, M. 1980. “Three Aspects of Children’s Language Development: Learning language, Learning through Language, Learning about Language.” In Oral and Written Language Development Research, Y. Goodman, M.H. Haussler, and D. Strickland (Eds.), 7–19. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Monday, May 19, 2008

More Important Things to Talk About

When I was nearly 13, my parents gave me a pad of light blue paper with delicate yellow and peach flowers in the upper left corner, their stems stretching down the left margin. I delighted in the pad of stationery and the matching box of envelopes they gave me as a reward for watching for my younger sisters and brother while they did their grocery shopping.

I stared at the paper a few times everyday. Occasionally I ran my hand across the smooth surface. It felt like a perfect silk, almost too precious to even write upon. After about a week, I broke down and decided it was time to write a letter. I found the best pen in the house and carefully wrote a message to my grandparents, describing our recent trips to the public library, the Dolley Madison biographies I had been reading, and our trips to Wrightsville and Fort Fisher beaches.

When I finished writing, I sealed the letter in the envelope and carefully added my grandparents’ address. After adding a stamp, I carried the letter outside, placed it in the mailbox, and raised the red flag that would tell the letter carrier to start my letter on its journey from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. Anyone watching this series of events would have thought I was participating in a formal religious rite. I paid no attention to my youngest sister and brother as they wove their tricycles around me. I had serious business to do. I was sending my words forth on that beautiful paper.

A week or so later, I found a small white envelope in the mailbox with my name on it, the looping letters telling me immediately that my grandmother had addressed this letter. I carried it inside the house and sliced the envelope open with my mother’s letter opener. Inside, I found a letter written by my grandfather. He told me how tall the corn was and about the latest Louis L’Amour novel he’d been reading.

I sat up taller at the kitchen table and crossed my ankles under my chair, like the ladies I’d seen on my mother’s soap operas. My brother and sister were across the room, playing with a Fisher-Price bus and a circus train. Such babies compared to me. I had sent out a letter and received a message in reply. Me. My perfect light blue stationery was powerful. It transformed me from clumsy pre-teen to young adult. I mused on how I would continue this exchange, sending letters back and forth just like Dolley Madison, writing letters to family and friends, and saving my letters for future historians to revisit so they could learn about my life. In short, I was euphoric, absolutely smitten with the power of writing.

I turned over the page to read the paragraph on the back:

You spelled their and a lot wrong. You need to spell right to do well in school.

I couldn’t look at anyone in the room. They’d all see what a faker I had been. I slid off the chair as silently as possible and went down the hall to my room. I folded the letter and put it back in the envelope, which I tossed on my desk amid piles of books and old notebooks. I never read it again. I probably threw it away, but I have no memory of where it went. I put the beautiful blue paper at the bottom of a dresser drawer, where it stayed for months.

My spelling had betrayed me. I wasn’t really a letter writer. No historian would care about my letters in the centuries to come. It would be months before I wrote my grandparents another letter. A thank you note for a Christmas present, it included only the basic information. I neither expected nor received a reply. My mother said to write, and I did. I assume she mailed it with similar letters written by my sisters and brother. I didn’t save the details.

Whenever I begin to circle a spelling error on a student paper, I try to remember this story. Spelling matters, of course. But there are times when what matters most isn’t that spelling conforms to standard written English. The story. Sentence structure. Supporting details. The writer’s engagement and enthusiasm. Sorry, Grandpa, but sometimes thier and alot just don’t matter. There are more important things to talk about.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

By White House proclamation, May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! The resources below will help you explore the contributions of Asian Pacific Americans with students and ask them to think critically about how the roles and culture of Asians and Pacific Islanders have been presented in literature and popular culture.

Ask students to consider the portrayal of Asians in popular culture with the resources in Race & Hollywood: Asian Images in Film, from Turner Classic Movies. Analyze the still images and movie trailers to identify how and when Asians are included. Have students consider what happens when non-Asians are cast in Asian roles, after viewing the Asians in Hollywood, Stereotyping of Asians, or Anglos Playing Asians videos on the site.

Explore the writings of Asian American authors with these ReadWriteThink lesson plans:

Share texts written by Asian and Pacific Americans with students, whether you look to picture books for young adult novels. For starters, you can listen to the ReadWriteThink Text Messages podcast episode Teen Identity and Tough Situations, which discusses the graphic novel American Born Chinese and other books that explore characters who struggle to know when to stay true to themselves. To find other books by Asian authors and illustrators, consult these lists:
For even more resources, you can check out these sites, which offer educational, historical, and cultural materials that can be used in the classroom:

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

More Resources for Exploring Movies and Literature

The English Journal article “Literature into Film (and Back Again): Another Look at an Old Dog,” written by NCTE Consulting Network member and NCTE author John Golden, describes ways to explore movies based on short stories and novels in the literature classroom. While the examples in the article are targeted at secondary students, the techniques can be applied at any level. All you have to do is change the texts. The general questions remain the same.

The key is to focus on analysis of the director’s choices, rather than on general review or comparison of the choices. Try asking students questions such as “Why did the director delete this scene? What difference does this choice make?” rather than “Which version is better and why?” ReadWriteThink has lists of films and texts that can be used in the elementary classroom and at the middle level that you can use to supplement the lists in the English Journal article.

Further, ReadWriteThink includes these lesson plans that explore literary elements in films and other videos:

Finally, in the EJ Extension “Who Wants to Be a Director?” Golden shares additional creative writing activities that students can complete to consider the ways that print texts are turned into movies. Golden suggests, for instance, that students choose songs for a movie soundtrack version of a print text that they have read. The ReadWriteThink lesson plan On a Musical Note: Exploring Reading Strategies by Creating a Soundtrack includes additional resources teachers can use as they try this creative writing technique.

The ReadWriteThink lesson Literature Circle Roles Reframed: Reading as a Film Crew offers a creative reading approach, by substituting film production roles for the traditional literature circle roles. After reviewing film production roles—such as director, casting director, and set designer—students work together in cooperative groups to read and discuss a piece of literature, each assuming a film production role.