Electric Ladies, Will You Sleep?

I went to the Women’s March on Washington yesterday. I have every intention of reflecting more on the experience, but at the moment, I’m a bit tired, and I have to prioritize work-related tasks, and sleep.

But if you were wondering why I marched? The shortest possible answer: because Janelle Monáe challenged me to.

I asked a question like this
Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal.
She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel.
So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal?
They keep us underground working hard for the greedy,
But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy.
My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti
Gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City.

Mixing masterminds like your name Bernie Grundman.
Well I’m gonna keep leading like a young Harriet Tubman
You can take my wings but I’m still goin’ fly
And even when you edit me the booty don’t lie
Yeah, keep singing and I’mma keep writing songs
I’m tired of Marvin asking me, “What’s Going On?”
March to the streets ’cause I’m willing and I’m able
Categorize me, I defy every label
And while you’re selling dope, we’re gonna keep selling hope
We rising up now, you gotta deal you gotta cope
Will you be electric sheep?
Electric ladies, will you sleep?
Or will you preach?

Hidden Figures Is Incredible, You Should Go See It

Spoilers ahead.

Hidden Figures is a film about three women “computers” — people who worked doing math calculations for NASA in the time leading up to manned orbital flights. Katherine Goble (later Johnson) is an actual math genius, who, due to her hard work and unmatched talent, pushed her way up to the Space Task Group, where her knowledge of analytical geometry earned her respect. Mary Jackson, with the encouragement of her supervisors, goes to court to secure her right to continue her education at an all-white high school, so that she can pursue her dream of becoming an engineer. And Dorothy Vaughan, frustrated by doing the work of a supervisor with neither the title nor pay that comes with it, sees an opportunity in the IBM computer; she teaches herself and those she leads to program the monstrous machine and make themselves indispensable.

It is an excellent movie. It is a movie about scientific progress, and the risks and rewards that come with it. It is also a movie about civil rights. It is a movie that demonstrates the important lesson that progress depends on progress.

There are no bad guys in this movie. I haven’t seen every movie ever, but I’ve become inured to the trope: when a movie is about racism, there is usually a big ol’ racist jerk, like an inverse white savior; for example, Hilly Holbrook in The Help. It’s a character who conveniently embodies prejudice and discrimination, and in defeating them, protagonists symbolically defeat racism. In Hidden Figures, racism is not so much a part of characterization as it is a part of the setting. White people are dismissive or ignorant, but never overtly, intentionally cruel. Racism is something that the white people in the story are simply not sensitive to until confronted with it. Kevin Costner’s character is confronted with it when he realizes that Katherine, who he relies on, has to take forty minute bathroom breaks because the nearest “colored” women’s restroom is a half a mile away. Like a good manager, realizing that the rule helps no one and hurts his team, he abolishes the rule. I think perhaps the most powerful interaction of this vein occurs in a women’s restroom between Octavia Spencer’s and Kirsten Dunst’s characters; the scene is so thoughtful and polite and well-acted that I audibly gasped.

I liked how the cinematography used color to draw attention to our leads, especially Taraji P. Henson’s character. In a room filled with white men in white shirts and black ties, where the only other woman is wearing neutral tones, Katherine Goble is wearing turquoise as brilliant as her mind. Her mug is the one brown one among alabaster ceramic. She is special, and it’s not hard to see if you’re willing to look; her rise feels hard-won yet also inevitable.

These were important stories to tell, and I’m glad to be an audience for them. I highly recommend this film.

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.

 

People Are Allowed to Talk About It, Yell About It

In fact, I hope they do. I’m glad many are doing so.

I have seen this attitude on social media, and I have overheard conversations in real life to this effect: the election is over, the people have spoken, end of story. Another key phrase includes, “What’s the point of protesting anyway?” It’s almost like folks are conflating activism with acting out.

So, I am not someone who has been to many protests or rallies. When I had the time I didn’t have the interest, and now that I have interest I also have a full-time job. I also try not to discuss the traditionally controversial topics of religion and politics in public online, though I am very comfortable discussing those topics with close friends.

But. My feelings started changing with this election.

I mentioned before that I did not get my wanted-for outcome, but I was feeling this way regardless.

I have a big concern with the ideas of civic duty and obligation. It takes a huge effort to get people to go to vote, so for many of us, that feels like the extent of it. Really, voting to make your opinion be heard? It’s not enough.

It’s like we vote, and then we expect our elected officials to know exactly how we would like them to govern by… reading our minds? Or keeping up with our individual vague, passive aggressive social media posts? Do we really think the conversation ends at the ballot box?

I had resolved, long before the outcome was known, that I wanted to stay engaged. I live a life shaped by politics and policy, so I may as well feel listened to about it. How do I make my voice heard?

I figure out where I stand on issues, through research and reflection, not all of it easy, not all of it comfortable.
I figure out what matters most to me.
I call and write my congresspeople and senators.
I take part in demonstrations, and communicate to others why.
I can volunteer and donate to causes I believe in.
I can support members of my community more directly affected by policy shifts.
I remain receptive to other ideas.

I think it’s worth noting that many of the protests I see reported are at high schools; perhaps that’s what I see because I spend so much time on the education side of Twitter. But, anyway, many high school students are not yet old enough to vote, yet many will be directly affected by changes in policy that originate in this election. They couldn’t use their vote as their voice, so they’re using their feet as they march.

And I really, really want to quash that pernicious “the people have spoken story over” narrative, especially when I hear it said in front of children by adults with authority. It’s true that not everything is up for debate. One candidate lost the election, and the other one. But there are bigger issues at stake. We need to hold our representatives accountable for their decisions, and large-scale demonstrations help them know that, while we elected them once, we may not do it again: they are beholden to us. We do what we can to keep them accountable.

I will be the check, and I will find my balance. And I hope that others will join me.

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Method to Morning Announcements

einstein-1173990_1280This is how we make our morning announcements at our school.

First, I downloaded free, no-attribution-necessary videos from Pixabay to make into our Intro and Outtro stings, as well as our regular announcements like birthdays and weather. I added free, no-attribution-necessary music from Youtube to them, to make it more fun.

Next, students record clips of themselves doing the daily changing announcements using Quicktime. Usually they use my laptop, since it’s faster than the lab computers. Sometimes they eat lunch in the computer lab and work on them days in advance, since things like the lunch menu can be figured out in advance. They name the clips something like 1027lunch, 1027news, 1027history, so that I can import them into iMovie all at the same time. I also only change the Outtro every couple of weeks, since that script is more permanent. I will have students re-record as we start rotating new kids in this month.

We do have one student records audio and not video, so I download pictures to go with that report, either from Pixabay or Wikimedia Commons. I try to get ones that I don’t need to attribute, but if I do have to attribute, I make sure I copy and paste the necessary attribution into the video description when I upload it. (Thanks Creative Commons!)

Then, I put the clips in the order that I want them. And I make sure visual images sync up with audio where necessary. This is something I’ve turned into a template. I hope that by the end of the year, the students will be doing much of this behind-the-scenes work. But, we’ll see.

Next, I make sure the “titles” are updated. I use titles to identify the students reporters, to credit news sources for current events, and to overlay changing information over videos that stay the same. For example, I just click on the weather title and re-enter the forecast info for each day.

Finally, I share the project to Youtube, altering the date and making sure it’s set to public. I linked my Youtube account to iMovie to do this. I also set up a Youtube playlist that automatically grabs any video I upload with “WPKY News” in the title. I also usually shoot out a reminder email to teachers with a link to the announcements.

I really liked how we did announcements last year on Google Hangouts, because teachers could tune in live if they wanted, and our efforts were automatically uploaded after. But I like this way too. We can do more in advance (like recording Monday’s announcements on a Friday during lunch if I have a meeting in another building). We can re-do individual bits if we have to and change them out (I expect this will happen to the lunch menu sometimes when we have snow days). We can try and try again when kids stumble over pronunciation.

But it is a work in progress. There are days when I thought I updated a clip but I didn’t, and send out a video with yesterday’s birthdays or lunch. Sometimes when I add a new clip, I forget to delete an older one. I tried to get it going on a lab computer so that kids could do more of the editing independently, but the machine was so slow that both the kids and I got really frustrated with it. I want to incorporate regular segments like “Tech Tip Tuesday” but scheduling is a pain.  But some mistakes stay in on purpose. For example, when kids struggle with words but self-correct, I like to leave it in because I think that’s good modeling for younger students still learning to read.

I’m uploaded the pre-produced clips to Google Drive, so you can use them if you want, or get a sense of how to make your own. I really do encourage making your own, or having students make them, to go along with your school culture!

Reflecting on Our School Mock Election Results

This past Tuesday, our school took part in a mock election run by Studies Weekly. We threw it together a little last minute, so instead of shoehorning it into classrooms where other instruction was already planned, we turned the computer lab into a polling place for students to vote after breakfast, during lunch, and during recess. I had classes vote while they were in the room for other reasons, like class (since it took only a minute or so, if I had computers at the ready). And, there were times when I visited classrooms juggling a couple Chromebooks and pulled kids to poll in pairs. (Alliteration proves it was fun.)

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On the enthusiasm gap

I’ve been paying enough attention to this election to have heard about the enthusiasm gap. According to this September article from The Hill:

People who intend to vote for [Trump] are more enthusiastic about doing so than those planning to back Clinton, according to three major recent polls…

…a CNN/ORC poll indicated that more than 1 in 5 five would-be Clinton voters were “not at all enthusiastic” about backing her, almost twice as many as said the same about Trump. The poll found 58 percent of Trump supporters saying they felt either “extremely” or “very” enthusiastic about their choice, and only 46 percent in the Clinton camp feeling the same.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 46 percent of Trump backers were “very enthusiastic,” compared with only 33 percent of Clinton supporters. And a New York Times/CBS News poll saw Trump outperforming Clinton by the same metric, 45 percent to 36 percent.

I bring up the enthusiasm gap because, anecdotally, it seems to have reached the elementary set. At one point mid-day, I turned to Mr. Bob and said, “My prediction is that Trump will win.” I was not checking the mock election progress throughout the day (although I could have been). I was trying not to watch students as they cast their votes (except when they actually needed help). My prediction was made based on how many students proudly declared before, during, or after voting that they had chosen Donald Trump. However, more students actually voted for Hillary Clinton. Clinton won 48% of the vote; Trump got 34%. So, while students supporting Trump were perhaps more vocal about it, that did not mean there were more of them.

On look-alikes

I did have several students tell me that they had voted for “the girl,” but since Jill Stein was also offered as a choice, I wasn’t sure which “girl” they meant. In fact, I was concerned that some of them may have voted for the wrong “girl” – for Stein when they meant to vote for Clinton, or for Clinton when they meant to vote for Stein. Then I realized, if they didn’t know what the male candidates looked like, then they might have confused Johnson and Trump too. (The vote included photographs and names of candidates and their running mates, but a struggling reader may still have made a mistake.) The last time two times schools held mock presidential elections, it was probably much easier for students to tell the difference between the major party candidates, so long as photos were provided! I reflected back on voting in mock presidential elections as a student in the nineties. It doesn’t matter what year I refer to: our choices were always white men. I wonder whether any of my classmates at the time had trouble telling them apart.

On abstaining

One student abstained because: “My mom says no matter who you vote for, they’re gonna mess us up.”

Another hesitated to vote because he didn’t feel well-informed enough. “I wish I could listen to their speeches,” he told me. We did look up all the candidates on vote411.org and read through their statements and platforms together. Still, he did not feel like he could cast a vote, so I told him he didn’t have to.

Our other abstention came from a student who was upset that Obama couldn’t run for a third term. He was genuinely distraught. And then I realized — the oldest of my students were born in late 2007. Most of them are even younger. Obama has been president for their entire memory, if not their entire lives. Whoa.

On civility

I have not heard many students discuss political candidates at school directly. Part of this is because I am a specials teacher. Were I with the same kids all day, every day, I’m sure I would hear it more. I didn’t hear nothing, I just didn’t hear a lot.

Until Tuesday.

And even then, I probably wouldn’t have heard it, except another teacher invited the students specifically to share their insights. And by “insights,” I mean they parroted things they saw in political ads played on TV. The same student told me that Trump says mean things about women, and Hillary wants to take away everyone’s guns. No wonder over fifty students voted for third party candidates.

I did have to speak to some students about school-appropriate language. But very few.

The results

If you would like to see the results of the nationwide mock election, those results are here.  As I mentioned before, our school turned blue for Clinton, but our state turned red for Trump. Still, Clinton won the mock election over all.

What does it mean?

I don’t know. I imagine that, to some extent, the votes of children reflect the votes their parents plan to cast. I do remember bugging my parents about who they planned to vote for when I was a kid, especially when they were around other adults, that was totally my favorite. I think that was a huge factor in who I chose to vote for in mock elections. But, as this USA Today article on the Scholastic mock election states, students may misidentify their parents’ political leanings. Based on anecdotal evidence, too, I think many students have parents who are split themselves: one parent may support the Republican nominee, the other the Democratic candidate.

Other big influences on children include the media (TV and Internet, primarily) and, well, each other.

Overall, in the mock election we participated in, Ohio the bellwether state votes for the candidate who loses. Perhaps that’s something we can expect next Tuesday? I hesitate to make a solid prediction, having already been wrong about this! (Also, if you look at the Scholastic results linked above, Ohio turned blue for them.)

Ultimately

On November 9th, we will all still be Americans, diverse and divided we may be. And whoever gets elected president will have to lead us, diverse and divided, starting in January. It will be a tough job, harder than herding cats. But I hope it’s a job done well, regardless of who’s in that position.

Overthinking a Single Word

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The word is “some.”

So I put together the morning announcements for our school. I have the students read out different bits of information that I cobble together with some graphics and upload to Youtube. Some of the things, like the lunch menu, are pretty easy — just reading off a calendar. Other things are based on some limited student input; for example, one student reads a whole list of “on this day in history” type events, and selects the one she thinks is most relevant or interesting to include in the announcements. Yet other things will be, I hope, more controlled by students, but at this stage in the school year it is still largely my doing. The kids are only in third grade, and it is still only September.

One thing we have started including is current events. I don’t get to do a lot of social studies activities in the technology lab, so including current events in the morning announcements scratches an itch for me. I think it’s just also good literacy practice for a third grader to read an article and summarize it for first and second graders to hear. We go to sites like Dogo News, Time for Kids, and Scholastic News, find a recent article, and pick out what we think are the most important details.

So on Tuesday morning we acknowledged the presidential debate, because even if people are uncomfortable talking about the candidates themselves at school, I figured we should acknowledge that it happened. I mean, it was the most-watched presidential debate in history, or so my recent Google search has informed me. So I was congratulating myself for getting it out there, so that teachers and students who watched the morning announcements would have an opening to start a conversation about it.

Then came Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday morning I saw this Newela article about the NBA response to protests relating to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It did not say “Black Lives Matter” anywhere in the article, but it’s not hard to figure out they’re referring to it.

MIAMI, Fla. — For more than a year, there have been protests across the United States. People are angry because police officers have shot and killed African-American men. The protestors think the men should not have been shot. They think they were shot because of their skin color. They are protesting for fair treatment by the police.

I thought this was important to include in the news, but I hesitated. Firstly, it’s a heavy topic for kids. Many second graders are still reacting to their September 11th lessons in unexpected ways, like searching for photos of “the Twin Towers burning” when making an “About Me” slide in computer lab. Secondly, it’s a sensitive topic. I’m friends with colleagues and school parents on social media, and I can tell you that their opinions run the gamut from totally on-board to totally opposed, and many things in between. Many make no remark, and I cannot assume their reasons for that, either. On the other hand, the article takes a positive angle in pulling in the perspective of an NBA coach, using sports as a more comfortable lens through which to view the topic.

But I wanted to include it. But, to play it somewhat safe, I wanted to stick with facts.

So where the text originally stated, “People are angry because police officers have shot and killed African-American men,” I altered it slightly. Just an adjective. A simple four-letter word to the beginning of the sentence.

Some.

I have been thinking about it all day.

I regret adding it.

My thought, when adding it, was this. “People are angry” sounds like everybody is angry. But not everybody is angry. Therefore, only some people are angry. I didn’t want students to become confused over hearing something like “everybody is angry” when adults they know might not be angry. They might be indifferent. Or, adults they know might not be angry about police brutality, but rather angry or uncomfortable that the topic is part of a national conversation.

But “some” is a word that makes things smaller. “Some people” sounds a lot smaller than just “people.” And I realize now that “people” might sound like everybody, but it is not a synonym.

I realize now that I should not have changed it. That if students experienced and expressed confusion, those would be teachable moments. I didn’t want to defend myself against dissent. I feel now I was not brave enough.

I was only some brave.

And I need to do better.

I Have Complicated Feelings on the Pledge of Allegiance

Last Thursday, my spouse and I went to dinner with friends, and when our conversation touched on Colin Kaepernick, I asked this question:

“What do you guys think of the Pledge of Allegiance?”

I feel a little silly saying this: I had to muster some courage to ask my real question as a follow-up. What do you do with the Pledge of Allegiance, when you’re… just not that into it?

I have complicated feelings on the Pledge of Allegiance, as an American and separately, as an educator. This is a truth that goes back several years for me, well before Kaepernik took a knee; evem before I had a Jehovah’s Witness in my class. (Though, talking to a third grader who was very informed on her faith’s religious teachings was undoubtedly an experience that left a big impression on me.) My feelings are hard to put into words, and even then, I don’t know whether my experiences are relatable. I am not accustomed to talking about this.

I think my biggest fear is that this is a topic that people just… take for granted. That there’s only one obvious and correct thing, so why question it? I perceive that to doubt the Pledge out loud is risky business, so I usually keep my thoughts to myself. And I’m a person with relative privilege. If I’m afraid to bring it up, how must someone with much less power — a student, a child, a religious or racial minority — feel when they’re uncomfortable with ritualized nationalism?

So my heart swelled when I saw this on Twitter:

As an educator, I have complicated feelings on the Pledge of Allegiance. I’ve felt that way for several years now, and it’s always been something I’m very, very hesitant to talk about. So I am really looking forward to this Twitter chat tomorrow.

What do I hope to get out of the chat? Honestly, just a conversation would be great. I don’t feel like I want to be convinced to be pro-Pledge or anti-Pledge. I’m excited to hear perspectives different from my own, sharing points I have never thought of or considered. Hopefully maybe even some students will participate. I don’t want to come to a conclusion in my feelings, I wanted to be supported as I explore the topic.

I’m open to being persuaded — I don’t mind being wrong. I do fear being made to feel stupid or wrong or bad because I had asked the question to begin with.

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Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem

Here comes another hot take nobody asked for.

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Colin Kaepernick is an American football quarterback who plays for the San Francisco 49ers. At a recent preseason game, he declined to stand during the playing of the national anthem. Some time after, he explained:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Kaepernick pays attention to issues of race (and other social issues) in the United States; even a casual glance at his Twitter reveals this about him. This is not new. But sitting during the national anthem is something that created shockwaves across social media platforms. I would wager that most reactions are angry, scandalized people who vehemently disagree with him. Some folks are a bit softer, reminding others that freedom of speech means that the government allows speech you don’t agree with, like whatever the opposite of patriotism is. A lot of the latter takes on the tone of, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

But there’s the rub, for me: I don’t disapprove what Kaepernick says, and I defend his right to say it. And I feel so strongly about not disapproving that I felt the need to break it down and discuss it with myself.

Firstly, the concept of respect and how we convey it and demonstrate it is not as universal as many seem to think. Yes, we are taught to stand during the national anthem (and men take off their hats). But I don’t think choosing to sit is inherently disrespectful. If he wanted to show outright disrespect, there are a number of rude gestures he could have employed. But choosing to sit seems more like… more like not showing “the proper amount” of respect, rather than actual disrespect. And “the proper amount” of anything is really up for debate, and varies largely across our population.

Secondly, I strongly feel there are so many ways to be a good American. Let me explain: sometimes my spouse is a good spouse because he does things for me. Sometimes he’s a good spouse because he supports me. And sometimes he’s a good spouse because he calls me on my nonsense when I’m being awful. Some people are good Americans because they sacrifice for this country; some people are good Americans because they support this country in less direct ways. And some people are good Americans because they remind us that our country falls short of its own ideals for many Americans, and they try to move us closer to those ideals. Reflexively we don’t like to be reminded of our imperfections, or imperfections in the things we love. But I would rather attend to a painful, true reminder from someone in that last group; then hear another hollow recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance from anybody else. After all, if we all conform to the same uniform demonstrations of banal patriotism, who will challenge us to make positive changes?

I don’t know who Mike Reed is, but a friend of mine shared this image of a post he made on Facebook:

qbYou have as much a right to free speech as Colin Kaepernick does, and you are well within your rights to answer his free speech with your own. But I urge you to think about what, exactly, you are trying to say, and how exactly you’re saying it.

Because Colin Kaepernick certainly did.

Edited to Add (8/31/16 7:23am): It occurs to me, too, now that many people who feel offended by Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem feel strongly about the symbols of our country. It’s possible that these symbols – the song, the flag – only represent the things that are good about the United States. And that’s not inherently wrong. But it is narrow-minded. Clearly the song and the flag do not mean the same things to Colin Kaepernick as they do to many vocal people on social media. And symbols can mean different things to different people. But I think there’s a big problem in assuming conformity – that the symbols do and should mean the same things to all people. Because that leaves no room for differing viewpoints to be voiced and heard, and without that, we live in an echo chamber. Without dissent, the right to free speech seems meaningless.

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.

toddyuzo

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?