Why Bad Things Happen in Good Fiction

Years ago, I had a conversation with a police officer visiting our school about the Percy Jackson movies. “I won’t see them,” he told me. “I can’t enjoy a movie where kids get hurt.”

I don’t begrudge him that at all. Usually when I watch a movie or television show, I am also looking for some level of escapism, and sometimes real or painful things take me out of relaxation mode. But that’s not to say there isn’t value to real or painful things in fiction, especially for children.

Because, real and painful things actually happen to children. And to people children know.

I remembered this conversation while watching A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix, which I find to be quite a good adaptation (and I am loving Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket). The theme song, which features slightly different lyrics every episode, continually exhorts the viewer to “look away, look away” from the distressingly unstable lives of the Baudelaire orphans. Naturally, curious children are tempted to watch further (or, read the books).

As an adult, I do feel the urge to protect children, not just from “bad” things, but sometimes the knowledge of “bad” things. But I am not a perfect shield, and we don’t live in a perfect world. Let kids read (and sometimes watch) the stories with the “bad” stuff. If they see it on the page or screen first, perhaps they’ll be more ready for it when the hits start comin’ in real life.

Shakespeare and Straight Outta Oz: A Case for Pop Culture in the Classroom

My spouse and I recently saw a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged at the local university. To be honest, I wanted to see it because my twin sister and I did it as a speech cut for duo interpretation our senior year of high school. I realize now how many of the jokes went over my head at the time!

More importantly, I realized how many things about Shakespeare are still deeply embedded in our culture. Turns of phrases like “my kingdom for a horse” and “to thine own self be true.” Characters like Iago from Othello remind me of political figures currently looming large. Narratives like from Romeo and Juliet have surfaced across cultures throughout all of history, and the lessons we mine from them depend on our context.

I first read Shakespeare when I was in fifth grade, perhaps. I first studied and learned some in class in ninth grade, then again in twelfth grade. We touched on some Shakespeare in some of my college courses, and I was in a couple productions of Shakespeare comedies at that time as well.
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I’ve seen adaptations like Ten Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Things inspired or influenced by Shakespeare like The Lion King and House of Cards. I’ve seen hundreds (yes, literally hundreds) of Bollywood movies and I think about the structural similarities between those and Shakespeare’s contemporary stage productions.

When we teach Shakespeare, we’re teaching students to notice some of the water we swim in – things like references and vocabulary words that we might otherwise take for granted. And when we take them down for deeper dives through such material, we’re hopefully helping them to pay attention and interpret meanings for themselves.

And that brings me to “Straight Outta Oz” by Todrick Hall.

(Some language and visuals in the links may not be appropriate for work or classroom, depending on your work/school culture.)

So, yes, I’m running for president of awkward transitions.

“Straight Outta Oz” is an album by Youtube star Todrick Hall. While I think all the songs on this particular album are original, he has built a large following for himself by playing around with pop culture. Disney princesses singing a medley of Nicki Minaj songs and retelling Alice in Wonderland to a soundtrack of Taylor Swift. So it seems a natural choice for him to use an iconic piece of media – The Wizard of Oz – as the vehicle to tell his own life story.

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Todrick Hall and actress Uzo Aduba, who portrayed Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz Live! (2015). Photo from Todrick Hall’s mobile uploads album on Facebook.

This is not his first time referencing The Wizard of Oz, but this is clearly his most personal turn. He depicts all the major players himself: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and even the Witch of the West. He uses events from the narrative of Wizard of Oz to illustrate his own journey through the fame machine. Along the way he explores, through song, reflections on sexuality, masculinity, race, and identity.

Were I a high school teacher with flexibility of curriculum, I might use this album as a way to introduce concepts of literary criticism. There’s a tendency to focus on “high brow” texts and media, things that are well-established in the literary canon. Or, if we include newer things, they are almost always books. I do love books, but they do not have a monopoly on storytelling. Here are reasons I might try to incorporate Straight Outta Oz:

  • Access. The visual album is available to all viewers on Youtube, for free. Many of the songs are available individually, though the voiceover narrative only comes up in the album video. Youtube can be accessed on many devices or at public libraries.
  • Intention. In weaving together autobiography and fictional narrative, Hall is very clearly commenting on culture or illustrating his ideas. The material is there to be mined. There is a clear arc, buoyed by symbolism, laced with themes.
  • Relatability. Adolescents are going through a stage in life where they question the world and how they fit into it. This piece of media would probably speak to many teens on an emotional level. Also, this is the water they swim in. Shakespeare speaks to us today because the stories are rooted deeply in our culture since before William put them into plays. But the language and the settings sometimes get in the way. When we change the setting and language to be more familiar, it is not just an update — it’s an attempt to reduce obstacles to comprehension.
  • Cross curricular potential. There’s no question that music, dance, and costuming are all integral to Hall’s style of storytelling; that brings in the arts. Commentary on current events could fit in with social studies.

I know a high school teacher who last year taught a unit on the first season on popular podcast Serial, to great success. I know another high school teacher who, powered by the momentum of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash hit, has been coaching students through Chernow’s biography of Hamilton for summer reading (and using Twitter to send reminders!). From Khan Academy to Crash Course, a resource like Youtube has found a place in the classroom in STEM subjects. So why not humanities as well?

Now, I make a case for Straight Outta Oz on the basis that I really enjoy it. Obviously my enjoyment of a piece of media is not the sole rubric to measure its appropriateness for the classroom. (Otherwise The Little Prince book would have gone over much better years ago when I taught sixth grade.) What relatively new medium do you dream of teaching in your classroom?

Reflecting on Riftworld Chronicles and Culture Shock

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So, I’m a giant nerd, so it’s not surprising that my taste in Youtube channels reflects that. Lately I’ve been enjoying Riftworld Chronicles by Geek & Sundry. It’s the story of a wizard from a fantastic world who accidentally winds up in ours. In the most recent episode, the wizard has to navigate the more paperwork-y points of our healthcare system.

Starting at about 1:33, the nurse and wizard have an interaction during which the nurse asks to see a health card, driver’s license, or other form of ID. The wizard complies by displaying a tattoo that surely has deep, significant meaning to him, but not to the nurse.

At this point, my spouse remarked, “He still thinks he’s in his own world!”

I disagreed. “He knows he’s in a different world,” I said, “It’s just that he takes the things that have universal meaning in his world for granted. He’s not thinking deeply about them because he’s never really had to before. Why would you question something that has always worked the way it’s supposed to in the past?”

This is an example of culture shock. When you are part of one culture and interact with or become immersed in another, you’re going to run up against elements completely unfamiliar to you (like “health card” and “driver’s license”). But you’ll also be faced with the fact that the things you take for granted seeming completely alien to others.

Culture shock can occur when traveling or moving to another country, but it can happen without you ever leaving home. You can experience culture shock in a lot of ways, through language barriers and age gaps, and other obstacles. I think sometimes professionals experience it as technology in our industries move forward. I think it’s common to feel towards social media, and how people use it. (I love Twitter lately, but I just can’t with you, Snapchat.) And I think it happens between students in our classrooms, especially when we get kids from different socioeconomic classes, different family structures, different religions, different races, different cultures, and so on.

So how do we handle culture shock in the classroom? I’m not about to recommend a one-size-fits-all sort of solution, because I doubt one exists. What works in my elementary computer lab would probably not be the best thing for a high school foreign language class. I think different approaches will work for different people, and that different classroom settings call for different ideas and actions anyway. It’s an important aspect of differentiation. You don’t make the effort to address culture just because we should celebrate diversity; you make the effort to address culture because it’s a very fundamental thing to basic communication. People may be completely unaware that they’re looking from a different perspective. But being aware that there may be a difference is probably a decent enough place to start.

Are the Rumors True About Santa?

I’ve been doing the after school program this year, and one of the interesting aspects has been the combination of first, second, and third graders in these groups. In many classrooms, the spectrum of maturity is a pretty wide range; so when you get some of the “little kids” together with the “big kids,” the contrast is clearer than ever.

One of the big differences is belief. The little kids are more likely to believe in the whimsical parts of childhood. For example, I overheard this conversation in my after school group last quarter:

1st Grader: Sometimes when I lose my tooth, I have to wait to get the money from the tooth fairy until my mom’s next payday.
3rd Grader: Yeah, because the tooth fairy isn’t real.
1st Grader: No, because the tooth fairy has the same payday as my mom.

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Darn tootin’ cute, if you ask me.

Today a third grade teacher confided in me that she’s having some rough times in her classroom with “mean” kids telling others that Santa does not exist, which is complicated by the fact that third grade is a really normal time to not believe in Santa anymore. So the classroom is a little like a minefield; there are kids who still believe, kids who no longer or never believed, and kids who are in different stages of questioning. And you can’t tell which kids are which until you’re already having a (possibly awkward) conversation.

But I think the whole believing in Santa/not believing in Santa is pretty decent practice for adult life. Every day I work together with people who believe differently than I do, and we make it work. It’s an exercise in empathy; you don’t need to believe the same thing someone else does to try to see where they’re coming from.

I was really proud of my after-school third graders today. One of our first grade friends is very much in a questioning stage of Santa belief. Last week he was very, very into writing a letter to Santa — to the point of insisting I personally deliver it to the North Pole on his behalf. This week, he was saying, “Santa’s not real,” then asking several minutes later, “Is Santa real?” I think he was seeking reassurance one way or another. My third grade friends metered it out in very measured doses, without definitively taking one side or the other. It was very interesting; I didn’t even participate in the conversation, I just eavesdropped.

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Santa with the list of school supplies I want to see under the tree this year.

So what do you tell other people’s kids about Santa? Typically I defer to the experts at NASA, but that’s just me.

What’s up with the characters’ names in Harry Potter? Show Notes

Resources used to research and write this podcast include:

Music included in this episode:

Post image by Bo Hansen at FreeImages.com.