Category Archives: Movies in English Class

Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 2

Yesterday, I shared a little bit of background into the connections between Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album and Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon. Today, I am going to explore those connections more deeply.

Song of Solomon is the centerpiece of a unit on Identity and Culture in our AP English Literature curriculum. We focus on essential questions such as

  • What makes us who we are?
  • How does culture influence us?
  • Is defining identity based on difference a divisive or a constructive force in society?

I think the text could work well in a variety of units, however, and one of the reasons I teach it in AP Lit is that it is a good text for Question 3.

The first year I paired Lemonade with Song of Solomon (2018-2019), I did not teach the entire text of Lemonade. I pulled out specific songs from the visual album. However, the power of the paired texts prompted me to teach the entire visual album the following year. Cole Cuchna and Titi Shodiya argue that Lemonade is a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” a concept borrowed from nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner, who “believed varying art forms, such as poetry, music, dance, theater, costume, and set design should be seamlessly synthesized to create an artistic expression that was much more than the sum of its parts” (“Beyoncé: Lemonade”).

Cienna Davis argues that the visual storytelling in Lemonade situates “Beyoncé within Afrodiasporic genealogies and alongside histories of Black trauma” (24). One might argue the same for Song of Solomon. Milkman undertakes a journey to discover himself and his family, but this journey also helps him uncover “the story of his ancestors and the trauma hidden in it that has affected his family generation after generation” (San José Rico 153). This knowledge helps Milkman feel connected to a larger community and begin the process of stopping the cycle of trauma passed down through his family (San José Rico 153). Both Beyoncé and Toni Morrison employ African-American folklore to explore this history of trauma.

The first year I paired Lemonade with Song of Solomon, my class’s first encounter with Beyoncé’s album occurred after we had read up to chapter X in Song of Solomon. Hagar has just been unceremoniously dumped by Milkman after they have been lovers for twelve years. She has taken to stalking him in the evenings and threatening to kill him. Following a discussion of the chapter’s events, we viewed Beyoncé’s video for “Hold Up.”

In the video, Beyoncé evokes the Yoruban orisha Oshun, dressed in yellow and striding out into the streets with a rush of water (Roberts and Downs). Oshun is a goddess of water and sensuality, and folklore describes her legendary temper, especially when she has been wronged (Roberts and Downs). Beyoncé wields a bat and carves a swath of destruction throughout the video. I asked students if perhaps Hagar could be considered alongside Beyoncé. These lyrics for “Hold Up” became the basis for our discussion:

What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy?
Jealous or crazy?
Or like being walked all over lately, walked all over lately
I’d rather be crazy (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade)

Had Hagar decided she’d rather be “crazy” than be “walked all over lately”? Suddenly Hagar’s anger and desire for destruction made more sense to my students and was grounded in both folklore and a modern story of infidelity. One student described the connection between the texts as a “eureka moment.” Seeing the way that Beyoncé wielded folklore led students to a deeper understanding of Morrison’s use of folklore.

Hagar internalizes Milkman’s rejection in a startlingly similar way to Beyoncé. Hagar is driven to murderous rage after seeing Milkman with “a girl whose silky copper-colored hair cascaded over the sleeve of his coat” (Morrison 127).  At the end of her song “Sorry,” Beyoncé sings, “He only want me when I’m not there / He better call Becky with the good hair” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade).

She repeats that last line. Students understood the woman with “silky copper-colored hair” means nothing to Milkman as she occupies only Hagar’s thoughts (the text never mentions Milkman’s thoughts about the woman, which led us to conclude he doesn’t have any). My students quickly nicknamed the mysterious woman with silky copper-colored hair “Becky,” drawing a straight line to Beyoncé’s lyrics.

Near the end of Song of Solomon, Hagar catches sight of herself in the mirror and says “No wonder… I look like a ground hog. Where’s the comb?” (Morrison 308-309). Hagar concludes that Milkman does not love her because of her appearance, so she decides to “fix [herself] up” by buying new clothes and makeup and having her hair done (Morrison 308). While waiting for the hairstylist to be ready for her, Hagar walks in the rain, and all of her plans are undone as her bags fall apart in the street (Morrison 313). Hagar herself falls apart, contracting a fever (Morrison 314). As she lies dying, she asks Pilate, “Mama… why don’t he like my hair?” (Morrison 315). Remembering the woman she saw with Milkman, Hagar assumes that Milkman loves “silky hair” and “lemon-colored skin” (Morrison 315-316). In the Lemonade film, Beyoncé incorporates the poetry of Warsan Shire, including “For Women Who Are ‘Difficult’ to Love.”

One student drew a parallel in his essay between Hagar’s dying words and Beyoncé’s rendering of Shire’s poem, citing the lines “I tried to change. Closed my mouth more. Tried to be softer, prettier, less awake” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade). Both Beyoncé and Hagar express a belief that changing themselves will make them more deserving of love.

Tomorrow I will share some connections between the song “Daddy Lessons” and the lessons Milkman learns from his father.

Works Cited

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “Beyoncé: Lemonade.” Dissect. 23 Apr. 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/40hut8DPmX25CTG6s46bMS?sid=LocUPWnQTVKprV9zul4mwA, Accessed 27 Jun 2020.

Davis, Cienna. “From Colorism to Conjurings: Tracing the Dust in Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, vol. 16, no. 2, 2017, pp. 7-28.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé, director and performer. Lemonade, HBO, 2016.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.

Roberts, Kamaria and Kenya Downs. “What Beyoncé Teaches us About the African Diaspora in Lemonade.” PBS News Hour, 29 Apr. 2016, www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/what-beyonce-teaches-us-about-the-african-diaspora-in-lemonade, Accessed 6 Jul. 2019.

San José Rico, Patricia. Creating Memory and Cultural Identity in African American Trauma Fiction, Brill, 2019.

Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 1

As I mentioned yesterday, my manuscript for English Journal was not accepted, but I also don’t have time right now to revise it, so you get to read it in its rougher unpublishable state. In this series of posts, I will be discussing what happened when I decided to teach Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade with Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and also offer some scholarly background into why the two texts work so well together. The short version? It was magic.

Publishing it this way might enable me to make the story more of a multimedia experience, so I’m calling it a win. Credit to my former student Geethika for the title of this series. A note on citations: I transitioned from using MLA to APA on this blog because I found I liked APA better and it’s also more commonly used in education, but I used MLA in this article because it is English Journal’s citation style, and I didn’t want to revise all the citations.

Image credit Kristopher Harris, used under Creative Commons License

Pop culture phenomenon and megawatt music star Beyoncé opened her film Homecoming, a recording of her 2018 Coachella concert, with words borrowed from Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon: “If you surrender to the air, you can ride it” (qtd. in Knowles-Carter, Homecoming). Song of Solomon differs from Morrison’s other novels in that its protagonist, Macon Dead III, known as “Milkman,” is a man. In the foreword to the 2004 edition of her novel, Morrison explains that she began writing Song of Solomon after the death of her father (xii). She asked her father, by way of hoping for inspiration, “What are the men you have known really like?” (xii). Morrison describes that “radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one” as a “challenge” (xii). However, as my students and I discovered when we paired our reading of Song of Solomon with a study of Beyoncé’s visual concept album Lemonade, Milkman’s relationships with women in the novel drove his development as a character, ultimately teaching him that “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (337).

As Beyoncé explains in an interview with Vogue, “I come from a lineage of broken male-female relationships, abuse of power, and mistrust. Only when I saw that clearly was I able to resolve those conflicts in my own relationship. Connecting to the past and knowing our history makes us both bruised and beautiful” (Knowles-Carter, “Beyoncé in Her Own Words”). Lemonade has been described as a journey (Edgar and Toone 12). Indeed, Tidal, the music and podcast streaming service owned by Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z, described Lemonade as “every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing” in its announcement of Lemonade‘s release (Pinkard). Morrison contrasts the “stereotypically male narrative” with its “accomplishment of flight, the triumphant end of a trip through earth, to its surface, on into water, and finally into air” with this feminine journey (Morrison xii). However, Beyoncé incorporates many of these motifs, including a trip through earth and into water, in Lemonade. University of Pennsylvania professor Jeanine Staples argues that Lemonade’s cultural references create a “tapestry of journey method through iterations of consciousness and experiences that are tied to a feminine and Black feminist tradition/s” (29). Cole Cuchna and Titi Shodiya describe Lemonade as a “deeply personal exploration of identity, history, and spirituality, a visionary expression of a woman’s journey from betrayal to redemption, from tragedy to triumph, from subjugation to freedom”(“Beyoncé: Lemonade”).

Like Beyoncé, Milkman must make his own journey to reckon with his family’s history, including a similar lineage of romantic and familial relationships, and it is only once he learns this history that he is able to fly.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade album and accompanying film explore the threat of infidelity in a relationship between a Black woman and a Black man, but Cuchna and Shodiya explain that more deeply, the visual album is “a gateway into an education on how America’s history of slavery and systemic injustice affect the structures of the Black family” (“Beyoncé: Lemonade”). Reviewing the film for Humanity & Society, Corey Miles argues that the film’s chapter titles, beginning with “Intuition,” “Denial,” and “Anger,” then advancing to “Forgiveness,” “Resurrection,” and “Redemption,” develop the “emotional progression for how black women negotiate their relationship with black men, specifically their husbands and fathers” (136). Miles contends that the first half of the album wrestles with Beyoncé’s anger about the infidelity of both her father, Mathew Knowles, and her husband, Jay-Z (136). The middle of the album underscores feelings of apathy that gradually give way to redemption, forgiveness, and empowerment. After the Lemonade album was released, writer Candice Benbow collaborated with African-American women to produce the Lemonade Syllabus, a compilation of recommended reading celebrating Black womanhood. While several novels by Toni Morrison make Benbow’s list of recommended fiction, Song of Solomon is not among them, likely due to its male protagonist; however, my AP English Literature and Composition students found many connections between Song of Solomon and Lemonade.

Tomorrow, I will delve more deeply these connections.

Works Cited

Benbow, Candice. Lemonade Syllabus. Issuu, 2016, issuu.com/candicebenbow/docs/lemonade_syllabus_2016, Accessed 6 Jul 2019.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “Beyoncé: Lemonade.” Dissect. 23 Apr. 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/40hut8DPmX25CTG6s46bMS?sid=LocUPWnQTVKprV9zul4mwA, Accessed 27 Jun 2020.

Edgar, Amanda Nell and Ashton Toone. “‘She Invited Other People to that Space’: Audience Habitus, Place, and Social Justice in Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” Feminist Media Studies, 2017, pp. 1-15.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé. “Beyoncé in Her Own Words: Her Life, Her Body, Her Heritage.” Vogue, 6 Aug. 2018, www.vogue.com/article/beyonce-september-issue-2018, Accessed 15 Jun. 2020.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé, director and performer. Homecoming, Netflix, 2019.

Miles, Corey. “Beyoncé’s Lemonade: When Life Gave Us Lemons, We Saved the World.” Humanity & Society, vol. 41, no. 1, 2016, pp. 136-38.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.

Pinkard, Ryan. “The Formation to Lemonade.” Tidal Magazine, 29 Apr. 2016, www.tidal.com/magazine/article/the-formation-to-lemonade/1-25900, Accessed 27 Jun. 2020.

Staples, Jeanine M. “How #BlackGirlMagic Cultivates Supreme Love to Heal and Save Souls that Can Heal and Save the World: An Introduction to Endarkened Feminist Epistemological and Ontological Evolutions of Self Through a Critique of Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, vol. 16, no. 2, 2017, pp. 29-49.

Digital Stories: Feedback from Students

feedback photo
Photo by Skley

After we viewed the digital stories my students had created this year, I asked students to evaluate themselves using the rubric I had given them. Next year, I will definitely make time to create the rubric with the students in advance. The rubric I have is good, but the students could make it better. On the back of the rubric, I asked students to give me feedback about the project. I wanted to collect some of their feedback here for those who might be thinking about this project and are feeling on the fence. This feedback represents what the students actually said (warts and all).

Don’t change this from being the final exam because it’s an absolutely great way to end the year and it’s really fun. I don’t think anything needs to be tweaked, the timing is perfect, the spacing for due dates is good and the help given is great.

I loved the project and how we could all pick whatever we wanted and got to watch everyones. Don’t have to change anything, it was great.

In all honesty, I think this project is a lot of fun to put together and all the criteria make sense, even when you don’t think you have a story to tell. It fits for everyone, especially with all you can choose from.

I think the idea of this project is awesome. I had a lot of fun with it and finally learned how to use iMovie. I didn’t find anything wrong with the project.

I liked this project. It was very fun and I enjoyed watching the videos at the end. I liked being able to pick your own idea instead of being told what to do. I wouldn’t take anything out. I liked where you checked our script too. It really helped me at least with knowing it was ok.

The project is great! I enjoyed every part and was excited to do it every step of the way. The one part I had difficulties with was the sound aspect. The sites are great [sites I provided for finding public domain and Creative Commons media] with so many options, but I’m not good at picking things like that. Thank you for helping me find the “perfect” one (better than I could have done).

I don’t know how you could improve it. I thought it was well explained and fun. I would keep everything the same.

I don’t think there should be many changes to the project at all. It’s a really good and fun project. I enjoyed making my video and going back to find everything.

You should keep this project next year. I really enjoy doing the digital story.

The project was very clear and I really like how our final was a project. The project helped me become more creative and engaging. Personally, I really like it and nothing should be changed. Also, I learned a lot in this class, and thank you for a great year, Mrs. Huff!

This project was very fun. I enjoyed our own choice of theme. It was even fun looking back at old pictures and reliving my little league life. One thing that did frustrate me was learning to use different applications on my computer. If I was taught throughout the year to use these different sources this project would have been much more enjoyable. Overall a great project.

I have to point out that last feedback came from a student who struggled with the technology to the point of wanting to give up and take a zero. He persevered, and he did a fabulous job in the end. He was very proud of his work. His feedback about using the software earlier and more often is legitimate. Many students tell me this project is the first time they have opened the iMovie and GarageBand applications on their school-issued computers.

I had a lot of fun doing the project, I enjoyed showing where I’m from and I hope my video would inspire someone to visit one day.

I like the project and we have enough time to do it.

A few trends emerge for me from this feedback:

  1. Students seem to love this project, and even those who struggled said it was a great project and should be kept in the curriculum.
  2. Students seemed to feel they had enough time to complete it. I was worried about that because I gave them more time last year.
  3. Students appreciated the agency they had as they created the project: picking the topic and telling the story they wanted to tell was an important reason why they enjoyed the project.
  4. Student felt proud of their work. They didn’t exactly say so in so many words of feedback to me, but it shone through in the feedback they gave themselves. Here are some snippets:

I am very happy with my music choice and the amount of pictures I chose.

I had a lot of good pictures.

I liked how I had the music start after I said the title.

I liked the pictures.

I thought I had the perfect music and well placed pictures.

I did not have many pictures, but I was able to think of ways to get around lacking pictures.

I paid lots of effort on it and I really enjoy this project.

I did well with the pictures as well as the story.

This project was very challenging for me from the start. After figuring it out things began to come together. Once my voiceover came in I started to enjoy the project.

I think my video has pretty good background music and photos that go along with the voice.

All these comments tell me that the students feel good about what they were able to do. They offered fair criticisms as well. Most of them didn’t feel 100% confident their voiceovers were as good as they could be, but that could also be they are not used to hearing their voices and worry about how they sound (most of us feel that way when we hear ourselves on a recording).

This project makes for a great culminating narrative. They worked on narrative writing, and putting their personal narratives together with image and music to tell a story using video was a great way to see what they had learned about telling a story. And as it turns out, they learned a lot. I’m really proud of them.

Digital Stories 2016

Last year, I shared my students’ digital stories. While I did have some good work, I knew the end results could be improved. I did some reflecting and retooling, and I made a few changes to the project for this year. First, I introduced more checkpoints that counted for a grade. For example, bringing an idea (or several) to writing workshop, which was part of the project last year, became a small quiz grade. Just like last year, I asked students to write a draft of their script, and I conferred with each student about the draft.

I added in checkpoints as well. Students needed to show me a collection of images so that I could help them if it looked like they might not have enough material to work with. Collecting images was a problem last year, but I didn’t realize until too late that many of my students were struggling with this issue, and they didn’t realize it was a problem until they tried to assemble their movies and didn’t feel they had enough images. I also wanted to see the draft of the movie, which was graded, so I could give them feedback on potential issues such as a runaway Ken Burns effect (common if you are using iMovie and don’t know how to correct it) or music overpowering the voiceover audio.

Another change I made that actually worried me: I gave students less time to do the project than I did last year. It was an accident. I looked at the calendar, and I realized we hadn’t started the project yet. I freaked out a little, and then I sat down with a calendar to figure it out. It would be tight, I thought, but we could still do it. I gave a copy of the calendar to the students so they would know exactly what was due and when.

I think that reducing the amount of time I gave my students actually resulted in better work from them. I am not sure why this is unless the pressure of completing it in a shorter period of time meant students actually attended to it in a more timely fashion than they would have if they had more time and were tempted to put it off until the last minute. I think procrastination may have been a much larger issue last year because students felt like they had more time. I suppose it is true that we use all of the time we have to complete a project, and if the deadline is tighter, perhaps we put our shoulders to the wheel.

I am really happy with the results this year. Students were thoughtful and reflective. Their stories sound like them and reflect who they are. What a great group of writers!

As always, there were some hiccups. Students do not know how to use this software. The biggest mistake educators make is assuming kids are digital natives and can figure this stuff out. No, you need to teach them how to use it, and you need to be prepared to be a guide on the side for the entire movie project if you are asking students to make films. If there is one thing I could ask educators to stop doing, it is assigning technology-based projects without helping guide the students through the use of the tools. I hear it over and over again from educators that students just know how to use the software.

Another issue: students at my school have MacBooks, but they don’t keep them updated. Several had to get the latest version of iMovie because older versions didn’t work well on their computers. I asked them to check on updates before the project, but of course, not all of them did. We had a few setbacks as students struggled with lack of RAM (they really need to stop opening every program on their computer at once). One student’s computer apparently imploded right after he uploaded his video to his Google Drive account. I am so relieved it waited until after the project (so was he!). Students really ran into problems as a result of the way in which they use the computers: not updating, keeping too many programs open, not restarting regularly.

Because I gave the students a calendar, absences were not a problem (for the most part). Students definitely need support for this project. I think the results are worthwhile, however, and with this excellent crop of digital stories this year, I can’t wait to see what next year’s students create.

Digital Storytelling: Models for Students

I have written before about the profound experience of attending a digital storytelling workshop run by the Center for Digital Storytelling, but I thought I would gather here some resources for teachers to use as models for students. Selfishly, it helps me by gathering all the models I want to use for my own students in one place. Some of these videos were made by my workshop facilitators. Others were shown to participants at the workshop. Still others are stories I found compelling and plan to share with my own students. The final two are my own stories, and feel free to share them with your students. If you ever get a chance to go to a Center for Digital Storytelling Workshop, do it.

Featured on the CDS website right now, a short and incredibly moving video about adoption and expectations.

Holly was one of the facilitators at my workshop, and we saw this video during the workshop. I love the way Holly was able to use the song her father recorded in the video.

Daniel Weinshenker is the Rocky Mountain/Midwest Region Director at CDS and was present when we shared our own digital stories at the end of the last day of the workshop. We watched this video during the workshop.

We watched this video in the workshop. It is an excellent example of what you can do if you don’t have a lot of your own pictures to tell your story. Brad Johnson created this story using mainly clips from Archive.org. As Johnson explains, “95% of the images and footage is from archive.org. I have about 5 shots of my grandfather in there that are mine.” He adds, “I was experimenting with telling a personal story using footage that was ‘public’ and that was about the ‘larger, American immigrant’ story that seems part of our collective identity (or at least for many of us).”

This story is a remarkable example of what students might be able to do with just one photograph, no music, and a powerful narrative.

Students think a lot about who they are, and pieces about identity are important to share with students, especially those who think they don’t have a story (we all do).

This excellent letter to a beloved grandmother not only tells a powerful story, but also shows what finding the perfect music will add to the video. We saw this one in the workshop.

What I liked about this one was the way in which the video’s creator tied the story of her own car to the greater history of women.

This wonderful video shows what students might do with a single Foley sound effect.

This one is a little on the longer side for a digital story (we were advised to try to keep the videos at shorter than five minutes, but it tells a powerful story about place and family.

This story is told with a series of self-portraits strung together in a powerful narrative about difference.

This video is a good one to show students about the power of well-timed music and what they can do with video that might not even illustrate the narrative they’re telling.

Again, a little on the long side, but worth it and and a great example of pacing.

I also liked this one as a poignant story about being the other and well-timed music.

This one is mine, and it includes an interview with my grandfather about World War II. Students might find an interview with someone else will add something to their story.

This last one is really my grandmother’s story. It also includes an interview. As soon as I heard the music, I said, “That’s the piece,” and once I added it, I could hear how the music pulled the whole story together.

Digital Storytelling Workshop

storytelling photo

Thanks to my school, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a digital storytelling workshop with the Center for Digital Storytelling in Denver at the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop.

I will admit that I went into the workshop with a fair amount of hubris. I thought to myself, I’ve been teaching English for sixteen years. I know a lot about these kinds of projects. I’m a technology integrator. I know iMovie pretty well. I’d go so far as to consider myself an expert in comparison with many teachers—though I’d not go so far as to say I know everything there is to know about it, I can do pretty much everything I might want to do for school purposes. I didn’t really expect to learn very much from this workshop, but I was glad I would have the opportunity to visit my grandparents, who live in the Denver area.

On the first day of the workshop, we engaged in probably the most powerful part of the entire experience (for me), which was a story circle. We were advised to come with a draft of a script, but I tried to sit down and write one, and I found I couldn’t figure out what to say. As it turned out, very few of the participants were prepared with a script. In story circle, we each had twelve minutes to talk about our story, answer questions, ask questions, and obtain feedback from the facilitators and other participants. I think the reason it was such a powerful experience is because it was such a bonding moment. Several of us cried as we reached the heart of what it was we wanted to say, and the facilitators were excellent at provoking us to really think about what story we wanted to tell.

I started my spiel with the idea that I wasn’t going to cry at all. I told everyone I was visiting my grandparents. My grandfather is a WWII vet, and I decided I would make a digital story about his experiences in WWII. He has some really interesting stories about being inducted into the Navy, joining the Seabees, breaking his glasses and running afoul of postal censors when he wrote home asking for his parents to send him two pairs to replace the broken ones, coming up with a secret code so he could communicate with his mother, and contracting meningitis and causing the Army’s 7th Division to fall under quarantine and have their Christmas leave canceled. A couple of years ago, he was able to travel to Washington, DC on an Honor Flight to see the nation’s capital, specifically the World War II Memorial. He enjoyed the trip a great deal. So, I said to the story circle, that’s what I want to tell a story about.

The facilitator looked at me, a pointed expression on her face, and she asked me, “Dana, how is this story about you?” I was startled by the question, but I thought for a minute, and then, naturally, I burst into tears. It was about me because of everything my grandparents had done for me. It was about me because they are elderly, and I don’t know how much time I have left. It was about me because I will be devastated when they are gone.

With this much-needed clarity, I began to write my script. I was having trouble paring it down to the 300-word suggested limit. I thought I might be able to do 500 words, but 300 was too little to say everything I thought I needed to say. I decided I would just rebel and make a longer video, and I set to work with that script. The facilitator helped me record my voiceover. I interviewed my grandfather, who spoke for an hour about his experiences, and I selected the parts I would use in the story. I scanned lots of pictures my grandparents had around the house.

When I began stitching together the different pieces, I accidentally deleted a whole segment in which my grandfather goes into some detail about having meningitis during the war. After I listened to the video, though, I realized I didn’t exactly need the clip, so I let it go, and I actually managed to get the video at the upper time limit. I never thought I’d do that. It has taken me a couple of weeks’ worth of soul-searching and wrestling to decide whether or not to share the story I created.

The experience of making the video convinced me to pull digital storytelling into my own curriculum. One natural place I could see it falling is in my American Studies in Literature course. I had already decided to incorporate This American Life into my American literature curriculum, as I see media like podcasts and videos as the new “wave” of writing/storytelling. Well, maybe not so new anymore, but you know how it is in education. Near the end of the year, I plan to explore the theme of the journey. I did not select a large number of works because I knew I wanted to do a culminating project of some kind. The journey, can, of course, be a physical journey. It can also be an inward journey, a self-discovery. Like my video was, after a fashion. Here is another example from the Denver director of the Center for Digital Storytelling:

It really impacted me when I watched it. Obviously, I would not ask students to tell stories that they are not ready to tell, but I think this could be one of the most powerful experiences for my students:

  • We all have stories, and think about how important it is for us to tell them. Think about how interesting your average episode of This American Life and The Moth is. Think about how entertaining it is to read, say, David Sedaris.
  • We often ask students to read the stories of others, but we don’t ask them to tell their own. We ask them to analyze the stories of others.
  • Digital storytelling is a new way of sharing narrative. In the past, we listened to storytellers. Then we read. I think this might be the next thing. Not that we stopped listing to people tell stories or that will will stop reading. But this adds a new dimension to storytelling.
  • The “writing” aspect of this project is some of the hardest writing I have ever done. I can see people challenging the idea that this is writing, but drafting the whole story was an extremely challenging and rewarding process.

Here is more of Daniel Weinshenker on storytelling:

One aspect of the process that I will definitely borrow is the story circle. It fits hand-in-glove with the kind of writing workshop I have been doing in my classes.

In the end, I even learned some useful technical tricks that made my video better (and here I thought I was an expert!).

Years ago, I was in Coleman Barks’s last poetry class at the University of Georgia. The final project we did in his class was to bring our own poetry to class and share it. Dr. Barks anthologized it. He told us explicitly that after we studied the great 20th century American poets, we were now among them, the next generation if you will. And I believed it. I want to give that gift to my own students.

If you have a chance to take one of the Center for Digital Storytelling workshops, don’t hesitate. They do excellent work. Next to Folger Teaching Shakespeare PD, it’s the best PD I’ve ever had in my life.

Photo by Jill Clardy

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Re-Examined

Ferris Bueller's Day OffI went to see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the theater the summer before I started ninth grade. We had just moved to Maryland Heights, MO, and I would be attending school at Parkway North High School in Crève Coeur in a few weeks. I didn’t know anyone. I remember feeling scared and stressed. How would I be expected to dress? How would I make friends? Why hadn’t my mother signed me up for band?

Obviously the larger message of the film was one calculated to appeal to people in my age group: the sort of carpe diem theme I would later visit in the poetry of Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell (and they were writing in the seventeenth century—there truly is nothing new under the sun). But there was also this notion of defying authority, represented in the movie by the dean of students, Mr. Rooney. Authority wants Ferris in school instead of out and about in Chicago, where he will actually learn important stuff about life. Perhaps no scene embodies the uselessness of school as well as Ben Stein’s famous economics lecture:

Despite the fact that this film turned 25 years old (yes! I checked Wikipedia!) this past summer, it still resonates. My students were talking about it, in fact, just this week. There is no doubt that it has become a pop culture icon, and it’s interesting to look at its critical reception. Richard Roeper is a big fan. His license plate even says “SVFRRIS.” He says the film is

[O]ne of my favorite movies of all time. It has one of the highest ‘repeatability’ factors of any film I’ve ever seen… I can watch it again and again. There’s also this, and I say it in all sincerity: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is something of a suicide prevention film, or at the very least a story about a young man trying to help his friend gain some measure of self-worth… Ferris has made it his mission to show Cameron that the whole world in front of him is passing him by, and that life can be pretty sweet if you wake up and embrace it. That’s the lasting message of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (Wikipedia)

Steve Almond says, it is “the most sophisticated teen movie [he has] ever seen” and added that it is “one film [he] would consider true art, [the] only one that reaches toward the ecstatic power of teendom and, at the same time, exposes the true, piercing woe of that age” (Wikipedia). National Review writer Mike Hemmingway says, “If there’s a better celluloid expression of ordinary American freedom than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I have yet to see it. If you could take one day and do absolutely anything, piling into a convertible with your best girl and your best friend and taking in a baseball game, an art museum, and a fine meal seems about as good as it gets” (Wikipedia). One of the film’s stars, Ben Stein, describes it as “the most life-affirming movie possibly of the entire post-war period” (Wikipedia). I found it interesting that such a diverse group as Wolf Blitzer, Dan Quayle, Michael Bublé, Simon Cowell, and Justin Timberlake call it their favorite film.

I remember the film resonating quite strongly with me and other members of my generation. It remains a cultural touchstone. We have all felt like taking a day off without permission, playing hookey, and getting away with it. But I was thinking quite a lot about the film’s message about school, particularly in light of Steve Jobs’s recent death. In his commencement address to Stanford in 2005, Jobs admits to dropping out of college after a semester and auditing classes he found interesting: famously, he credits one class he took in calligraphy for awakening an awareness of and interest in typefaces that would inform development of fonts on Apple computers. Neither Jobs or his sometime friend and rival Bill Gates graduated from college. I have heard them cited in arguments that college is unnecessary, and the message that school isn’t really necessary and actually can impede your real learning is a big part of Ferris Bueller. I’ve not necessarily heard either Jobs or Gates make that argument, but the fact is that both of them learned by taking a risk and jumping in, failing, then trying again. I’m not sure school could have taught them what they needed to know to do that, beyond the basic skills. Frankly, I have never heard anyone advance the argument that Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane would have spent their day better in school.

I don’t think it hurts us to examine whether what we’re teaching students—and the way we’re teaching them—is relevant to their lives, both in the present and the future. Sometimes I think we do a poor job of communicating the relevance of what we teach to our students. I overheard a disagreement about this issue the other day between a colleague and student, and the colleague walked away, while the student remained unconvinced. Listen, I am not sure I would have won that argument either, but I cringed a little when the “I’m the adult with the experience” card was played. Students will use math, science, art, literature, social studies, and all of the other subjects we teach. They might not know it, but they will. We can take this lesson from Ferris Bueller: we have a long way to go help students see school as compelling, and it starts with relevance. A student can’t give me a higher compliment than to tell me something I taught them was “relevant.”

Perhaps if Ferris’s teachers had thought about that issue, he and his friends wouldn’t have had to take the day off to learn.

Another lesson we can draw from Jobs is to remember our “time is limited” and we shouldn’t “waste it living someone else’s life.” One can hear echoes of Ferris Bueller’s statement that “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

I think it’s important that our students don’t feel time spent learning from us is time wasted. I hope instead that they feel it is preparing them for what they want to do and awakening their curiosity.

And we should feel it’s important and relevant work to spend our days teaching them.

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Evaluating Materials

49/365 - summer reading.I have been lying in bed all weekend, trying to get over a bout of the flu. I decided to preview a video I asked our media specialist to buy for our library: Great Books: Wuthering Heights. If you are unfamiliar with the Great Books series, they are actually fairly good documentaries about books produced by Discovery Schools. Back in the day when TLC used to be an acronym for “The Learning Channel,” and as such, actually produced educational content, the Great Books series could sometimes be caught on broadcast on that channel.

I disagree with a few conclusions drawn in the Great Books episode on Wuthering Heights. Emily Brontë is known to have been an intensely private person. She was furious when her sister Charlotte read poetry Emily had written. When Anne and Charlotte went to London to reveal their identities to their publishers, Emily refused to go and insisted upon remaining anonymous. She was again angry with Charlotte when Charlotte revealed that “Ellis Bell” was her sister. However, the DVD conflates this desire for privacy or perhaps even shyness (although I admit I don’t know enough about Emily to determine if she was shy) with “madness.” At one point, the video points out, rather boldly and without explanation or foundation, that because Emily enjoyed writing about her fantasy world of Gondal, she was “in danger of losing her mind.” Later, the video concludes that she based her character Heathcliff on herself, again without presenting evidence or explanation.

My first thought was that if I were a student watching this video, which seemed authoritative and informative, I might take these statements at face value rather than question them. After all, they are produced by Discovery School, so one can infer they are accurate, reliable, and educationally sound. I suppose if I’m going anywhere with this thinking-aloud exercise, it is here: it’s critical for teachers to evaluate materials they are thinking of presenting to their students, but more importantly, it’s critical to do your own research as well. If I had seen this video ten years ago as a relatively new teacher, I might not have questioned some of the conclusions drawn by the video’s producers because I myself didn’t have the slightest knowledge about Emily Brontë’s life, and while I’m far from an expert now, I have at least learned enough both in content and as a critical thinker to discern the accuracy of materials I’m previewing. Instead, I came away from the video feeling that the producers had not given Emily Brontë much credit for possessing an imagination that allowed her to write fantasy stories without necessarily living in a fantasy world or to create a character purely out of a talented gift as a writer. Of course, not wanting to give Emily Brontë much credit for her imagination is not new, but one would hope educational materials produced in 2005 would be more enlightened in their view. If I were to use this video with my students, I would challenge them to locate evidence regarding the conclusions drawn in the video. It might be a good critical thinking exercise for them. However, my instinct says not to show it. With no abundance of time and no shortage of materials, it is not the best course of action, in my mind, to use class time for materials I find misleading at best, erroneous at worst.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Elemeno_Pea

An Experience with Wuthering Heights

OK, I didn’t plan very well, and I ran out of time at the end of the school year. I really wanted my students to experience Wuthering Heights, but I knew there was no way we had a enough time to read this layered, complex, richly woven tapestry of a novel. So I kind of cheated. We watched what many fans and critics believe to be the film version that most resembles the book, a 1998 Masterpiece Theater production (purchase here) that stars Robert Cavanah and Orla Brady as Heathcliff and Catherine. I have to say after watching it that I agree. The story of Linton, Cathy, and Hareton is intact—the most famous film version ends shortly after Catherine’s death.

My students certainly didn’t complain about viewing the film. I am not sure they necessarily expected to like it, but as we continued to watch, I noticed that many of the students were slowly becoming transfixed by the story. They were making interesting connections (Heathcliff to Frankenstein’s monster—one student said she wanted to feel empathy for both characters, but then they would do something horrible to an innocent person, and she couldn’t feel bad for them anymore). Every once in a while, I saw them pull their genealogy charts out of their notebooks to consult. Three students said they really want to read the book now. When Heathcliff began digging up Catherine, some of my students said, “Mrs. Huff! What is he doing?” I replied, “Exactly what it looks like.” They were horrified. They were rapt. When it ended, two girls in the back applauded.

I am not so foolish as to believe every student in the class liked it, but we did have an excellent discussion about it. I discussed the ingenious structure of the novel and the doubled characters. The students genuinely seemed to enjoy the film, and the only complaint any of them lodged was that the actors seemed a bit too old for their parts (true, but they also agreed that perhaps younger actors might not have had the range to deliver the performances, either).

Showing the film before (or instead of) reading the novel was something of an accident on my part this year, but I am wondering if it might not be a bad idea to show the film before reading the book next year. Students can learn the story through film, and enjoy the technique and craft of the novel perhaps more for knowing and understanding what’s happening. I certainly teach Shakespeare in that way sometimes. I’m just glad my students have had a good experience with Wuthering Heights. At the end of class today, I mentioned to some straggling students that I was glad they’d enjoyed it because I found at least two Facebook groups organized around hatred for Wuthering Heights. One student responded, a completely puzzled look on his face. “Really?  Why?” His tone seemed to say he just couldn’t imagine why anyone would hate that story. YES!

Week in Reflection, April 28-May 2

Our Spring Break was last week, so I didn’t post a reflection.  As this was the week of our return to school, and we have also entered that final stretch of the year, I’m not sure either I or the students were as plugged in as usual.

My seniors basically have two weeks left because our school allows them to finish early.  Next week and the week after, they will be working on a final paper for me.  This week, we finished watching A Streetcar Named Desire, and I was struck again by Brando’s performance.  You probably know this bit of trivia, but Brando was the sole member of the core cast not to receive an Academy Award, though he was nominated.  Vivian Leigh won Best Actress for her portrayal of Blanche; Kim Hunter won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Stella; and Karl Malden won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Mitch.  The Best Actor award that year, however, went to Humphrey Bogart for his performance in The African Queen.

My ninth grade students are working through grammar.  One class finished up phrases and started on clauses.  The other class learned about active and passive voice and began discussion of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye.

The tenth grade writing class I teach presented Power Point presentations.  So often our kids add animations, busy backgrounds, and too much text, then read the text rather than use it as a guide for the audience.  Despite my instructing students on the perils of Death by Power Point, a few of their presentations included some of the problems I’ve mentioned, and I am frustrated that I somehow was not able to communicate how to avoid these issues to my students.  Also, I am frustrated by the fact that in order to be successful, they had to unlearn bad Power Point habits, which may explain why all of them weren’t successful.  We need to teach kids how to use Power Point correctly from the start.  I think too many teachers are a little too impressed by all the bells and whistles and actually reward students for making cluttered, busy, and ultimately unreadable presentations because they themselves don’t know how to do some of the things the students do, thus the teachers assume it’s hard and took a lot of time and effort.  Let’s face it, our students have become accustomed to being rewarded for style over substance.

The last two days of the week, my writing class began a unit on SAT preparation and practice.  I have evaluated SAT essays in the past, and as I haven’t done so for quite some time, I suppose it’s safe to disclose this fact.  Students generally find this unit to be very helpful.  I have been using Sadlier-Oxford’s helpful Grammar and Writing for Standardized Tests as a guide; I highly recommend this book, as it focuses on the SAT’s writing section (error correction, sentence and paragraph correction, and essay).