Fostering Complexity in the Age of Oversimplification: Teaching American Culture in 90 Minutes or Less, Part One

We are pleased to have a guest post this week from Theresa Dietrich. Dietrich is currently a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Norway and writes about her experience planning lessons for classes she will only meet once. How do you teach students about a topic in one class period? Dietrich shares two examples below and look out for further ideas from Dietrich in a second post to come on April 25th. 

In thinking about the quality of the classroom conversations I have been having as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Norway, I am reminded of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s discussion of the idea of conversations. “Conversations,” he says “begin with the sort of imaginative engagement you get when you […] attend to a work of art that speaks from some place other than your own. [Conversation is] a metaphor for engagement with the experiences and ideas of others. These encounters, properly conducted, are valuable in themselves.”

One of my roles as an ETA in Norway is traveling around a secondary school offering lessons designed to engage students in discussions of American culture and politics. These are one-off, 90 minute lessons meant to address staggeringly big topics, many of which have been generated in response to student questions like: Why do Americans love guns? How did Donald Trump win the 2016 election? How unequal is America?

I have thought a lot about how to facilitate productive conversations about these topics within a 90 minute timeframe. The challenge has many dimensions: after all, in an age where it seems that wars can be waged via Twitter, how do we foster classroom conversations which resist oversimplification and foregone conclusions? How can we avoid reducing gun violence, economic inequality, or systemic racism to statistics, sound bites, or recapitulations of what students already think or know?

In the way of some insights, I offer strategies with accompanying examples from lessons that I’ve taught in Norway to audiences of 15 – 18 year olds and adult immigrants.

The One that Stands for the Many: From Particular to Universal

In response to my early worry that class discussions were only scraping the surface—we couldn’t seem to get beyond headlines and notions of America’s present as a kind of cartoonish disaster—a wise colleague offered this piece of advice: You have to find the one that stands for the many. What he meant, I think, is that I needed to find the rooted particular in order to facilitate any kind of meaningful discussion of big questions about America’s troubled present. Students needed a limited initial lens through which they could view larger issues, something they could really dig into—to inhabit, to analyze, to critique—before group discussion.

Below are strategies for finding meaningful openings for discussion: a photograph, a political cartoon, a protest sign, a first-hand account, a poem. I’ll give examples of these openings, as well as the ways in which they can be used as a springboard for larger discussions.

A Picture is worth 1,000 words: Visual Analysis of Primary Source Documents

Because we rarely have time to read and analyze literature or nonfiction articles in class, provocative photos and political cartoons are a great opening for discussion. Visuals are also accessible to English language learners at many different levels. Some students may doubt their ability to analyze a poem they are encountering for the first time, but many can make an observation about an image.

In a lesson which attempts to capture the Civil Rights movement, we focus on the Little Rock Nine to illustrate the intense resistance that accompanied de-segregation. This exercise is taken and adapted from the excellent resources at Facing History and Ourselves.

Students are given various photos of segregationist protesters and the Arkansas National Guard physically blocking the entry of the Little Rock Nine on their first day of school with the accompanying questions:

  • Where are people standing? How are they relating to one another?
  • If you were there, what sounds might you hear?
  • Why do you think the guards are there? How are they relating to the students?

Students usually guess that the guards are protecting the students from the protesters. One student predicted that the guard was pointing a lost Elizabeth Eckford in the direction of her class. They are shocked to learn that something quite different is happening in these photos: the guards are keeping the students out instead of ushering them in.

When students have their imagined narrative contested, when they learn that the enrollment of nine African American teens to a high school in 1957 (almost 100 years after slavery was abolished) was accompanied by a National Guard blockade, vitriolic protest, and an armed escort by federal troops—they begin to understand that the business of abolishing racism in the U.S. has been tragically slow-going.

Cultural Memory: Linking the Past to the Present

I have found the Little Rock Nine exercise a good “opening” for talking about the continuous oppression born of slavery in the Civil Rights era and the present. Contextualizing the problems of the American present with the injustices of the past is essential for promoting thoughtful discussion. To borrow the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates commenting on police brutality, it is vital that students understand that “this conversation is old […] It’s the cameras that are new. It’s not the violence that’s new.”

By 10th grade in Norway, students have learned quite a bit about American history: they know about Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. They also follow American news and know of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. But what they have a hard time grasping is the concept of systemic racism and the ways in which race continues to matter in America. Everyone agrees that racism is wrong, but some student don’t view it as a pressing challenge in Norway, and they wonder: Why is it still such a big deal in the U.S.?

The topic is also accompanied by diffidence and uncertainty: students are sometimes unsure about the language they should use: much of the vocabulary we have to talk about race in America (thanks to scholars of color) hasn’t made its way to Norway and doesn’t have a cultural equivalent. Some students seem to have thoughts that they aren’t sure how to give voice to, and others genuinely don’t think race is very relevant in the happiest country on earth. Shouldn’t we focus on the ways in which we are the same—our common humanity—rather than how we are different? seems to be a common refrain.

However, students are comfortable discussing race in the context of American history, as something that has existed in the past, but the transition to the present (or to its relevance in Norway) is more challenging. I have found contextualizing the present through first person accounts of the past to be productive. In the Little Rock Nine lesson, students hear from the woman in the photo with this audio resource (also from Facing History and Ourselves): “In Her Own Words: Elizabeth Eckford.” As a white person, (who is often having this discussion with white audiences), it is vital to ground our conversations in the words, artistic expressions, and terminology developed and articulated by people of color.

In the latter half of this lesson, we examine the continued relevance of the topic by looking at school resegregation and its dire consequences. There are excellent resources from Nikole Hannah-Jones on this topic. With their historical knowledge of the Little Rock Nine in mind, students are able to draw conclusions about what has changed in America, what hasn’t, and why that matters.

 

 

BIO

Theresa Dietrich is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Norway where she facilitates an academic writer’s workshop at the University of Bergen and offers weekly lessons designed to engage Norwegian teens in discussions of American history and culture.

Dietrich completed an M.A. in English and teacher licensure program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She looks forward to teaching English Language Arts in a Boston-area public school next year. You can read more about her teaching and learning in Norway here.

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“The Times They Are A Changin”: Teaching Bob Dylan, the Nobel Laureate Winner

PALS Note: We are pleased to welcome back Darcy Mullen for her second guest post. Please check out her first post here. This time Mullen is writing about teaching Bob Dylan after his win of the Nobel Prize in Literature. How do you teach Dylan as literature? And how do you and your students react? 

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Nobel Prize in Literature

I don’t know why, but one of the most effective first-year writing classes I’ve ever taught is one that is structured around readings from recent Nobel Laureates in Literature. I have a hunch as to why it works, but I’ll table that for another time. Anyway, in the class we read some research on the politics of the prize, acceptance speeches from the authors, and some of the authors’ works.

I’ve had students do a variety of writing around these materials. We’ve done regular close-reading essays, and research papers, but we’ve also done some pretty awesome stuff. Think alternate endings, building sets of cards for apples to apples, remixes (or “covers”), found poems, short films, maps, graphic novels, a mural, scavenger hunts, video games, and even a computer application (!)… the list goes on. But that’s the basics of the class.

Teaching the class in the fall semester is particularly exciting because I choose to deliberately build in a “To Be Announced” section for the unknown winner of that year. We wait together, and were rewarded this year with the exciting Kazuo Ishiguro! The tagline from the Nobel committee awarded it to him for “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. This was a thrill for me because most of my students had heard of him, or even read a book or two of his.

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image via Rolling Stone

But 2016 was a very different year. That was the year Bob Dylan won. To quote the Nobel Prize website, “The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 was awarded to Bob Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’.

My feelings were and still are complicated. I know many of us have strong opinions on Bob Dylan’s win, from the strongly positive to the, well, opposite. First and foremost, my worries went to money. Funding for the humanities is already bleeding. I had visions of boardrooms where major donors say things like:

Well, even the Nobel Prize in Literature went to a hippy rock star. The Humanities are clearly crumbling. Tell University X that we’ll give them enough for a department that includes music, literature, art and all the other stuff. The world is clearly moving in that direction.

End scene with chomp chomp chomping on imaginary cigar. In 2016, when my students and I starting learning, together, about Bob Dylan I tried to bite my tongue about my fears of conserving the humanities. But I didn’t do a very good job of it. It didn’t matter.

Dylan in the Classroom

Many hadn’t ever really listened to Bob Dylan. The ones that did, generally, had happy childhood memories of driving around with a parent with a Bob Dylan tape playing. This tale of nostalgia seems quite widespread. They were surprised by how much his music permeated American film and tv culture.

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In one reflective essay, a student wrote that learning about Bob Dylan taught them a lot about love. I couldn’t really hate that something in my course taught them about love.

When I taught this course this past fall, I spent a lot of prep time really thinking about the phrase “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” I needed to figure out how Bob Dylan fit into American poetry, and what I would say to the imaginary boardroom about why Bob Dylan would justify funding for literature in the humanities (my own personal problem to imagine).

In addition to teaching the poetic expressions in his music, I had us focus at least half our Bob Dylan-time on his poetry, specifically from Tarantula. Most of the students seemed into the music part (as the assignment was to make me a digital “mix-tape” with a curator’s statement). Poetry—not so much.

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Internet Archive Book Images

Most of the students chose not to do the required reading on the first day of the poetry part of the unit. So, I picked one of the poems (“Unresponsible Black Nite Crash” p. 75) and voluntold a student to read it out loud to us. Then I asked for a volunteer to purposefully read it, out loud, as badly as they could imagine. Then another with the same instructions. Again, and again.

This was not an exercise to shame students into doing the reading for next time. This was because many had noted in their curators’ statements that they couldn’t stand his vocals—some of the worst sounds they ever heard! This was an exercise in the connection between meaning and aesthetics in what we hear.

After half a dozen or so deliberately “bad” readings, they got into it, and started with oral performances that were over the top, screechy, Shatner-esq, mocking the beat stereotype, robotic imitations, poor timing, mispronunciation, and other, well, terrible readings!

Here we hit ten or fifteen readings, and the emotional temperature of the room changed. This same poem, about how the majority of Americans will never have the American Dream, about censorship of the press, about fear fear fear, about operating as a young person under a government that doesn’t fit… Hearing it over and over, in so many voices that were trying to be deliberately funny, or off in some way, became terrifying.

A reader put down the photocopy and said, I think we get it. Someone else said, no, we can go further. Students continued reading, changing the rule. It was like watching a murder of crows take shape. One after another they fell in. They went on to read it louder, sounding choked, sad, alienated or outside of language.

They were coming together and reading angry. THE UNITED STATES IS NOT SOUNDPROOF. They were chewing on the parts that spoke to their lives. BRING IN THE TRUTH. The poem wasn’t a piece of paper, it was an artifact. THE BULLY COMES IN-KICKS THE NEWSBOY. The author wasn’t a poet or musician, he was a fly on the wall.

In discussion afterwards, they made the connection to how this was how they felt about the American Dream. BEND OVER BACKWARDS OR SHUT YOUR MOUTHS FOREVER. That this is why #BlackLivesMatter has to exist. EVERYONE HAS BALLOONS IN THEIR EYES. Why marches and protests were happening all around the country and even on their campus.

THE UNITED STATES IS NOT SOUNDPROOF. They explained that this is why Bob Dylan is relevant today. TRIPPING OVER THE SKULLS. I watched what it fired up in them. I had to agree with what they were feeling.

He is a part of the American Protest tradition. He’s not my favorite or, in my opinion, the most significant. But his music is big. And his poetry activated A Thing that day. I have to imagine that the imaginary board room plaguing my nightmares would have felt The Thing, too.

Protest Literature or Poetic Expressions or …

Many, like Kirby Ferguson in his Ted Talk, “Embrace The Remix,” have pointed out quite clearly that Bob Dylan didn’t do anything new. I don’t think I can embrace the awarding of the prize to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” (emphasis added).

Half of the internets’ literature department were positively tickled that he won, that the prize was pushing our idea of genre boundaries, that this meant doors were opening in how we read, teach, and approach writing. Dylan is rhetorical! This is another way into the oral tradition and Beowulf! The other half saw everything listed before, but as a negative. That the boundaries didn’t deserve to be transgressed. Song lyrics are not literature! And that the prize was going to a white male musician—as if we had run out of white male authors to acknowledge, so now we were onto music!

I fall into the reasoning into at least half of each camp. But neither of them really matter to me, because I am still fixated on what this award will mean to funding for the humanities. I don’t think the prize is going to result in higher donations or endowments for the humanities (Time, prove me wrong!). I don’t think it’s going to change the prize, or change the landscape of contemporary literature. There are amazing people that have been teaching lit/rock for longer than I’ve been driving. It’s not undiscovered country.

Bob Dylan has, like it or not, been canonized by arguably the most prestigious global, literary prize. I can see how now might be a time to include his poetry amongst some of the other American protest-poets. That should happen, only, after we cover Langston Hughes, Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, Jericho Brown, Nathaniel Mackey, and about a hundred other poets.

I’ll inevitably teach this class again, but not this Fall (and for reasons I hope to blog about at a later date!). I am still not convinced of the importance, and ultimate efficacy of teaching Dylan as part of the American canon. I’m still not really sure about the role of these “poetic expressions” within the aesthetics and ethics of American traditions, either.

This poem did give students a learning opportunity that hadn’t come from the three previous Nobel Laureates we read. It gave them a different rhetoric for their frustrations. That counts for a lot.

I don’t think I’ll ever really enjoy Dylan’s work, and I’ll probably never think it was a smart (financial) choice for the prize. But it teaches well. I can appreciate that about it, and also rather be teaching Amiri Bakara. In other words, Dylan can totally get the job done for a lot of learning outcomes. But he isn’t the only (or best) way to get there.

Contributor Bio

nullDarcy Mullen is a Postdoctoral Marion L. Brittain Fellow, teaching about food and media literacy at Georgia Institute of Technology. Publications include articles exploring the use of “local” as a tool for mapping food movements, the politics of place in tourism, the Anthropocene, and pedagogy studies. She is currently teaching community engaged courses linking poetics and food systems in urban agriculture. She is currently working on a book project, The Food and Drink of Atlanta. For more about her, visit her website, www.storiesofsoil.com, where she blogs about dirt and its role in everyday life.