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?

Rewind to 1993

A friend of mine, who uses English as a second language, posted this on Facebook today:

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“In my old posts in the past, my English was so miserable, I feel embarrassed.”

I relate to this feeling. Sometimes it’s hard to put yourself out there because, even though you might be proud of yourself in the moment, you might be embarrassed in the future. Honestly, it’s a fear I have every time I post here on this blog.

Interestingly, in doing some new year cleaning today, I came across an artifact from my past: my third grade “Learning Log.” This was a bracketed folder which we added our own writing to throughout the year. We were, I think, supposed to include samples of writing from several different genres: poetry, fables, fairy tales, biographies, etc. Apparently, though, I got really, really hooked on writing poetry.

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I especially liked writing poems that involved the word “underwear,” which eight-year-old me thought was the height of comedy.

By December I had over two dozen poems in there. Because some of them were typed and printed out, I assume I did some of them at home — because we had a computer and printer at home, but I don’t remember having much access to them in third grade.

Throughout the log, my teacher wrote little notes of encouragement or requests for clarification (I did veer into Suessian nonsense territory every now and then). Gosh, she had beautiful cursive handwriting. She wrote an overall evaluation and grade every few weeks. At the end of the log there is a certificate indicating that I no longer needed to turn in the log for a grade.

But not before I got to publish my own original fairy tale! And by original, I mean derivative and embarrassing, but I was super proud of it at the time. I wrote it and illustrated it all by myself. We even wrote them on special paper and bound them together between laminated cardboard covers, like real books!
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The book itself is lost to history (thank goodness!) but the first draft, from October 1993, survives.

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Stop trying to make “sprarkling” happen, eight-year-old me.

So why dig this up? This stuff is over twenty years old.

Because this was my beginning point. Before third grade, I learned how to make letters; then make letters into words; make those words into sentences; then make those sentences tell more and more. I had used reading to absorb the thoughts and ideas and stories of others. But with writing, I had the chance to communicate my own thoughts and ideas and stories to others!

We all start somewhere as learners. Some of us move faster on that journey than others. Some of us start further back, and some of us have head starts. Is it embarrassing to look back and see where we used to be? Maybe. But I like to think of it as looking back and realizing just how far I’ve come.

And I’m still going. Hello, 2016!

 

On Fiction and Fandom

Yesterday, after other holiday festivities had wrapped up, we went and saw the new Star Wars movie. When we came home, there was a lot of discussion of what we liked, what we didn’t like, comparing it to previous Star Wars movies, etc.i-m-a-nerd-md

I could go into the specifics about our discussion, but I won’t. And it’s not because I’m afraid to spoil you. I just wanted to talk about fiction and fandom in general.

When I was a student in school, I was taught how to structure an argument about something from a work of fiction using various skills. I learned to clarify what I was reading, summarize, make predictions, ask questions about it. I learned to compare and contrast; cite my sources; describe and evaluate; interpret the meaning of a passage; and organize my thoughts, mostly in writing. And while I’m sure I do these things in my everyday life — like comparing and contrasting prices in a grocery store, for instance — the times when it is most obvious to me that I’m using what I learned in school is when I am being my absolute nerdiest. Specifically, when I am being both nerdy and socializing with other people.

We had dinner with friends the other week and spent a huge amount of time discussing the character development on the new Muppets show (I am particularly interested in what they’re doing with Miss Piggy). In the car on the way here, I turned on the Hamilton soundtrack to demonstrate how the freshness of the hip hop music distinguishes the newness of certain ideas in Hamilton’s time, even though now we take those same ideas for granted as old and part of history. Even as I write, my niece is on the couch next to me, acting out a story with her Lego people, which is a way for her to make sense of things.

Fiction matters, because it can help us make sense of the world. Fandom matters — fandom is being part of a community of fans, and a community can help us grow and shape and challenge ourselves and our ideas. (Online fandom is where I first felt comfortable disagreeing with others, and also where I learned to disagree in constructive ways.)
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It’s very likely that I will start using this blog to explore some ideas that come from fiction and fandom. Why? Because I’m the “teacher off topic.” Just because the school day is over and I’m home enjoying my favorite hobbies, doesn’t mean I’ve turned off my brain and stopped learning.

Expect more nerdiness in the future!

Dear Santa, I Didn’t Do It!

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My current student group for the after school program have written a Christmas-themed online picture book centered around letters to Santa. Well, more like excuses to Santa. What can I say, we were under the spell of a bad influence.

Here is the book trailer. (I used screenshots from the video to actually create the ebook.)

Download the ebook version for free! There is more heartfelt content in addition to the mischief. And keep an eye out for more ebooks in January – we hope to each write our own (now that the teacher has taught herself how to publish an ebook to begin with!).dearsantacoverart

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.