Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Humor in Euripides _Medea_?

Can discussing Medea be funny?! This student makes it so:

"For lack of a better example, Jason treats Medea like an iPhone: everyone loves their iPhone when they have it, but when the new one comes along, you dump the old one as soon as possible."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Gaming the Classroom: Upending the Meanings of Work and Play

Today I had the pleasure of having Lauren Burstein visit my classroom. The visit was a pleasure for many reasons, one of the most significant being that Lauren is a former student of mine from Frisch. Lauren, who teaches English at Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), and I have been in contact since last year and this past summer's RealSchool Summer Sandbox, and it was on the way back from Jedcamp in Brooklyn last Sunday that we decided she should visit my classroom to see if she was interested in gaming her English class.

I had decided to game mine very recently. About two years ago, I saw John Hunter discuss his World Peace Game in a TEDTalk, and the idea to create something similar has been percolating ever since:

John Hunter is truly remarkable

I've also been intrigued over the past year by social media posts about educational gaming and inspired as well by educators such as Sarah Blattner who are proponents of it. This year seemed like the time to make my first move, so to speak, into the world of games in the classroom. 

The class I chose to game is a senior English elective at Frisch called Hot Topics. The class focuses on two main controversial issues, medical ethics and racism, and has traditionally employed different media to connect students with the issues: film, art, and various types of fictional and non-fictional works. The course's loose structure made it perfect to game.

I don't have a lot of experience playing computer games and so borrowed the set-up of the game structure more from John Hunter than from Minecraft or Angry Birds. I also decided to start small to see if the gaming methodology worked for me, and so the first thing I did was game the summer reading assignment.

The students had read about the amazing inventions and ethos of the MIT Media Lab in The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices by Frank Moss, former director of the Lab, as well as Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which poignantly portrays the horrors of cloning. The two books lent themselves to being gamed, focused as they were on either the possibilities or the limits of technology. 

In this version of Monopoly, students replaced Broadway with the MIT Media Lab and
advanced players with innovations from the Media Lab, portrayed in Community Chest cards.
In the Community Chest card shown above, one of the Media Lab's ethos -- failing fast to learn fast --
has players move back three spaces but receive $50!
Students came up with games based on Chutes and Ladders, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, and Uno and also invented their own games. I particularly liked one student's response to what he learned from having created his game: "I saw that there were moral consequences to people's actions." That conclusion is obviously the aim of reading a book such as Never Let Me Go, but it was much more important to me that the student realized that himself instead of being fed the line by me. Students also told me they learned a lot about the books from each other, when they planned the games and discussed quotations from the books that they'd use. They also said they had to learn how to combine the perspectives of different people in their group. Social-structed learning appeals to me greatly and is a natural outcome of kids' playing games -- or in this case, making them -- together.

To reflect on the assignment, I had students create videos about the learning experience. Here's one that includes a narrative frame, which is something important in an English class!

Once the students finished the videos, they posted on linoit.com any failure they learned from over the course of the assignment. You can see their posts here: Fail Fast to Learn Fast linoit board (Thanks to my sister Smadar Goldstein of JETS, for introducing me to linoit walls).

All in all, I felt satisfied that rich learning had taken place during the game-making unit, and I saw how much fun the kids had and how deeply engaged they were by the activity. They also told me how much they enjoyed a class where they weren't sitting down the whole time and where they had autonomy and control. As a result of all these positive outcomes, I felt ready to tackle a more complicated gaming activity, the making of a Simulated City.

The summer reading game was structured as a project-based learning (PBL) unit. I designed the assignment, set up rubrics for the game, made sure students presented to an audience, and assigned reflective pieces. For the Simulated City, I'm opting to create an inquiry-based learning (IBL) classroom. Much of the learning and project outcomes will be driven by the students, with my role being to deepen learning, guide it to more sophisticated places than the students might take it on their own, and base project outcomes on what I think the students will be most interested in. 

On the first day of the city's creation, the students and I discussed what sectors of a city they'd be interested in forming and came up with the following seven areas:

Eco-friendly Fashion
Governance and Politics
Urban Design
Waste Management

Our Urban Design team

Waste Management goes green in our city!

Students didn't have to be told to dream big;
after reading The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices
this past summer and because of their own interests,
they were already thinking of blue sky technologies!

As our curriculum takes shape, it's become clear that we need:

1) Project Goals for each week; students post their daily progress in Google Docs they've created for the class
2) A class blog where we can make the process of our work visible to the larger world
3) Presentation dates when each group can report on its research and then make proposals for the city that classmates will vote on

In order to connect the Sim City with the syllabus I'd prepared, I also asked the students to choose an ethical dilemma for their group. For example, Urban Design is debating whether the city should have housing projects, while Sports is researching performance-enhancing drugs so the class can decide if they want to allow them. Eco-Friendly Fashion is investigating sweatshop use and how to create eco-friendly and affordable clothing, while Governance is going to present legislation on abortion and gun control that the class will vote on. 

The pros and cons of performance-enhancing drugs
are presented in two books Rami is holding (and now reading!),
Enhancing Evolution and The Case against Perfection
What I loved about Lauren's visit today was that it made the students' work more authentic -- as having outside visitors tends to do. It forced the students to articulate more clearly what they've been working on and where they are headed in their research. I heard Lauren ask probing questions and push the kids to think more deeply about their topics. I could have done the same, but when it's your teacher bugging you, you might roll your eyes. The students took Lauren's thoughts and questions seriously.

Knowing Lauren was going to come also forced me to think more carefully about the expectations I have for the groups and how I see the quarter developing. While an inquiry-based learning classroom unfolds in a more free-form manner than a PBL one, I'm finding it can still have a careful design and a clear timetable and basic frame. Creating those elements has been fun.

Lauren discusses with Waste Management their ideas and research

Governance and Politics share with Lauren what they've been up to
One of the most gratifying parts of Lauren's visit was her noticing that the students seem truly engaged in their work and passionate about it. I hope so. The aim of the gaming assignment isn't only to have fun -- though joyful learning is something I always think about cultivating. It's also to have fun while being deeply immersed in work that is satisfying and challenging and that speaks to a student's passions and interests. 

One student in the Sports team actually wants to be a sports agent,
so his research on how to become one is obviously relevant to him 
 Lauren is welcome back anytime, and in the meantime, my students and I will continue our classwork play.

Additonal Resources

Traditional descriptions of "gaming the classroom" discuss ways of introducing video games into learning. Check out these articles on educational gamification:

Harnessing Gaming for the Classroom

Sarah Blattner recommended this book on gaming to me:

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Arts in the English Classroom: Symbolism in _The Things They Carried_

I'm incorporating a lot of art into my new PBL curricula, and I'm doing so for many reasons. First, art creates deep learning experiences because students not only become fully immersed in what they're doing, but they also have to think about creative choices in ways that are more critical than if they simply had to memorize material. As I listen to my students -- who are currently making graphical representations of a symbol in The Things They Carried, I not only hear things such as "Who has the glitter?" and "Does anyone have a black colored pencil?", I'm also hearing, "Well, the lack of a head symbolizes the chaotic political state during the Vietnam War" and "We'll make a mask to represent the fact that the whole war is a charade."

Creating art in English also engenders the type of joyful learning I want my students to experience, turning class into a kindergarten environment where sophisticated thinking also takes place. Art also allows learning to be a close, personal experience, not something unrelated to the real world. Of course, in PBL the goal is always to connect the learning to life in an authentic way.

Following is the final assignment due next Monday on symbolism in The Things They Carried. I can't wait to see what the final projects will look like:

Finish your poster. Make sure it has a graphic representation of the symbolism you're exploring in the vignette you chose to close read. Your poster also has to include a quotation from or reference to the text. It also has to include a short analysis of how the symbol works in the book. FINALLY: each one of you -- not as a group; this is an individual assignment -- must write a reflection piece on the following: think about the chapters from Thomas Foster* you read; the vignette and how you analyzed it; and the discussions we had in class about _The Things They Carried_ and literary techniques. Then write a reflection piece about what you learned from the assignment and how it could apply to your own development and skills as a writer. The assignment must be at least 2-3 paragraphs long. 

*  To prepare for this assignment, I had the students read chapters called "Is that a Symbol?" and "More Than It's Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence" from Thomas Foster's highly readable book How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Here are some students' responses to the chapters:

Three student responses:

1. Writing as well as reading are both events of the imagination.
2. Symbols can symbolize numerous things. It depends on how the reader interprets them.

I found two things very interesting in How To Read Literature Like A Professor. Firstly I found it interesting that he said that all deaths have meaning but also said that in detective stories the deaths rarely cause feeling. Secondly I thought it was interesting that symbols can't mean just one thing, and that symbols can be actions and not only words.

The most interesting thing about How to Read Like a Professor is the style of writing that Thomas Foster used. He writes in a very engaging manner, as if speaking directly to the reader. Thomas Foster also gives a lot of credit to the imagination of the reader. He says that some times the imagery and symbolism is there because the reader wants it to be. Most people just assume that the writer meant everything they are picking up on.

Fingerpainting in English class! 

Look at how this work developed in only 3 days of class time!

We're going to exhibit the assignment in the school,
so students are creating exhibition cards explaining their work.

Additional resources:

For more information on PBL, check out this great article from edutopia

Arts Integration Resources

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dorian Gray, Qoheleth, and Narcissism

Over the Sukkot vacation, I asked my sophomore class, which had read The Picture of Dorian Gray over the summer, to consider Qoheleth as well as a piece I'd written on a Jewish view on narcissism, which you can find here. Following is a student response that really blew me away:

As Jews, we believe in a life in which we are restricted from engaging in decadence and vanity: we deny ourselves pork, meat and milk together, working or doing electronics on Shabbat, being unfaithful and even wearing linen mixed with wool in our socks. Although we are not the most aesthetic people ever, even those of us who don't have a religious career still abhor things others cannot live without. We are taught that a good, meaningful life is one that is spent, at least partially, in worship of G-D. Every year on Chanukah, we describe a great victory over Hellenism, the Greek culture of beauty and decadence. The pious Maccabees, led by Mattisyahu, drove out the Hellenistic Syrians and slaughtered those who adopted the Hellenistic lifestyle. The Hellenistic way of life, one of dedication to leisure and beauty, was a total antithesis to Judaism. The Hellenists believed in beauty, spring, the arts, youth. On page 24 of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry exclaims, "For there is such a little time that your youth will last--such a little time. The common hill-flowers wither, but they blossom again. The laburnum will be as yellow next June as it is now. In a month there will be purple stars on the clematis, and year after year the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars. But we never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!". Meanwhile, the book of Kohelet claims, "Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thy heart, and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.Therefore remove vexation from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh; for childhood and youth are vanity" (Kohelet 11:9 -11:10). To Kohelet, focusing one's life on youth and hedonism is futile, for only G-D and good deeds are worthy causes.

In modern times, the philosophy of Hellenism is revived in movements like Aesthetics or Avant Garde. Judaism seems to be a sharp contrast to these too. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is Chaim Potok's Asher Lev, a novel in which the protagonist, a young Chasid with a gift for painting, must choose between his community and his art. In the end, he is forced to choose his art, painting a picture of his mother nailed to a cross in between her often-absent husband and her struggling child. But for displaying a crucifix, and moreover, for pointing a spotlight on his family's internal issues, he was exiled from his community. The harsh social criticism, the dive into self reflection that is a pillar of Hellenism, is totally alien to Judaism. The Jew doesn't examine himself like Narcissus, instead he looks toward what he could be, what he should be. One could say we are a people that has low self-esteem. When we study the Torah, we remind ourselves of sins we have done, like the golden calf, the rebellion in the desert and the destruction of the second Temple. The practitioners of Hellinism, Atheistics, or some other modern equivalent, prefer to put themselves on high, with stunning artwork, scandalous fashion, constantly analyzing themselves. To some, Jews may look like sad sacks, fasting on Yom Kippur and pounding our chest every Shemonah Esrei. But to us, it is a drive towards a higher, holier, more perfect version of ourselves. We are not the beautiful marble statue that, a marvel in its youth, now sits dusty in a museum, out of fashion. We are the seedling, far below the ground, but prepared to shoot up to be a majestic redwood tree. We do not reminisce about fleeting youth, but strive towards a better version of ourselves. We are not the past, we are the future.