The Heroes We Need… to Be

 

The Haines House is a local historical landmark that was, years and years and years ago, a stop on the Underground Railroad. When you take a tour there, they show you the restored parlor, the kitchen, the herb garden, the bedroom, and the attic where escaped slaves would hide before continuing their journey. The last time I was there, I was particularly impacted by a small artifact — a handmade topsy-turvy doll. Though the  topsy-turvy doll’s  original meaning and purpose is uncertain, according to our docent, the  folks who lived at the Haines House used theirs as a signal. When a child played outside with the white side of the doll showing, it wasn’t safe to move. But when it was, the child would play with the black side showing, so that local allies would know their help and care was needed.

My city is not perfect; our current situations are shaped by institutionalized inequality despite our historical high ideals. But still I take inspiration from the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by fugitive slaves in the 19th century to escape to free states and Canada. This network was made up of former slaves, abolitionists, and allies, who all knew on some level that owning other people was wrong and were willing to do something about it. When we look back, and realize someone we otherwise admire espoused hateful beliefs, we often excuse it with a wave of the hand, remarking, “They were a product of their times.” To me, the Underground Railroad disproves that notion. You can live at a time when horrible things are acceptable at a societal and legal level, and still reject them morally, and act on your convictions.

We have our heroes of American history: the presidents, the pioneers, the inventors, the warriors. Many of their names will trip off our tongues readily. But the Underground Railroad reminds us that heroism is not a competitive enterprise: you don’t have to shine the brightest, you don’t have to be the first. You don’t have to change the whole world to change one person’s world for the better. Heroes are often made in the crucible of crises, but just as often heroism is an incremental, daily commitment to do what is right. This is who I aspire to be in my classroom and community day after day after day. Even children can be this type of hero to one another. Anyone could be, so long as your ambition is truly to make life easier or better for others, not to go down in history.

So, even though it’s only December 17th, I’m committing to my 2017 New Year’s Resolution now. I want to commit to doing heroic things in my daily life. Things that are small, and would be easier not to do, but have a measurable and net-positive impact on somebody else. Things like showing compassion to a challenging student. Things like picking up the phone and calling my representative — and, even when the topic is unpleasant, beginning and ending my message with sincere, positive greetings. (“Have a nice week” as opposed to “I hope you step on a Lego while barefoot.”) Things like tweeting a personal, supportive message at someone who deserves to see one.

Doing small, challenging things does not necessarily make me the hero I want to be, because I am the sum of all my actions and more. But maybe by doing heroic things, I may become the hero I need to see in my own reflection.

 

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?

A Technology Teacher’s Halloween Ideas

Okay, yeah, Halloween was weeks ago, but I’m already planning my costume for next year.

In 2013, I was Ada Lovelace for Halloween.
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I even won a costume contest! Thanks Take Back Halloween! Bonus: my Ada costume also gets worn again on “Royalty Day” during “Fairy Tale Week.” Add a crown and boom, instant queen.

This year I was Admiral Grace Hopper. Yes… I got the idea from Take Back Halloween again. They’re a great resource that I recommend for any young girls who need to dress up as their personal hero for a wax museum project.

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I even issued a Halloween challenge to students during the morning announcements on the day of our Halloween parties. (My brother-in-law’s favorite part was the awkward six seconds I wasted in the beginning.) Not every class participated, but the ones that did were really excited. If you ever wanted roving bands of seven- to nine-year-olds screaming someone else’s name at you during a Halloween parade, this is how to achieve that. (Also you need to rethink your life goals. Just saying. I sure am.) Students and teachers reported back with information about compilers and the famous moth story. (Which I guess turned up on Jeopardy this week as a piece of trivia!) What a blast!

Next year I’m planning on being Margaret Hamilton. Perhaps just for an excuse to trawl thrift stores for totally fab late sixties fashions I can totally deck myself out in. Groovy!

Questionable Morals (Aesop’s Fables) Show Notes

Show Notes for Questionable Morals (Aesop’s Fables).

Research sources:

Sound Effects:

Music from the Youtube Audio Library.

  • Sand Castles by the Green Orbs
  • Blank Holes by the Jingle Punks
  • Blank Holes (Sting) by the Jingle Punks
  • Rustled Feathers by Silent Partner

Image: Bats by Bartek Ambrozik at FreeImages.com

What does the U.S. Constitution actually say? Show Notes

Show Notes for What does the U.S. Constitution actually say?

Research sources:

Music:

Image: U.S. Supreme Court, under construction by David Lat at FreeImages.com

How Come Hello Kitty and the Mona Lisa Are So Well-Known? Show Notes

Resources used to research and write this podcast include:

Music included in this episode:

Post image by Berkeley Robinson at FreeImages.com.