Monday, July 23, 2012

Reading Old, Dead, White Guys

Hang on tight I leap from my first 2 books related to IT, with a brief swerve through an economic treatise, to Homer as explicated in From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, by Louis Markos. Earlier last school year a colleague who was teaching the Odyssey said she was reading this book and finding it helpful. I read the introduction at the time--it was so congruent to my thinking I wondered if I’d read it sometime in my forgotten past. Then I thought I should at least read the part about the Odyssey, but at sea in the tyranny of the urgent, I put that off until summer. 

Now it’s summer, and the section on the Odyssey was so interesting, I decided to read the whole Markos book (and maybe even the Odyssey)! I enjoyed the perfectly sized summaries of the Greek works, the confirmation of my ideas about truth and literature, and good examples of truths seen by the Greek writers; however, I felt Markos overstates the case, elevating Greek literature and culture above all others, just under the Bible.
First, I thought the book would be beyond me since I struggle to even keep the Greek and Roman names sorted out properly. I read a Scholastic kids’ picture book version of the Iliad to one of my daughters, and we were both shocked by the violence--no wonder Troy was rated R! But these chapters gave brief summaries of the relevant parts of the plots in a way that was really engaging. (After years of teaching Hamlet, who knew that Laertes was also the name of Odysseus’s father?! Or that the various authors often treated the same source material, but with an entirely different twist--again like Shakespeare.)
Why do these stories--whether Homer or Shakespeare--continue to live in people’s imagination? What can it be, other than they resonate inside us in a way that feels like truth. It’s the truth permeating creation, which bears its Maker’s fingerprints, including the humans, who bear the Maker’s image. However fallen the creation and fragmented the image, truth exists, and people search for it because they bear the image of the one who is Truth and the one who is creative and gave them the task of continuing to develop the potential of the the creation. Literature is one of the records of this search and development. 

While as a Christian I believe that the Bible is the clearest revelation and plumb line of truth by which to measure all else that feels like truth, I also believe that it can be enjoyable and profitable to follow that human search for truth. Paul also believed this, quoting Greek poets 5 times and most famously, in his speech to the Aeropagus in Acts 17, connecting with the fragments of truth his pagan Greek audience had grasped, that there is a divine being whose offspring they are, who they are feeling after and trying to find, who they have expressed as “the unknown God,” and who Paul can tell them more about.
Markos points out truths in the stories that show the Greeks feeling after the God Paul said “is not far from each one of us” (NIV, Acts 17.27). The Odyssey’s code of hospitality for strangers demonstrates that the law written on the ancient Greeks’ hearts was very similar to the one Jesus talked about in the parable of the sheep and the goats. The Greek gods, for all their pettiness and moral failings, are passionate and are passionately involved in the world, unlike the Babylonian and Egyptian gods, or the later philosophers’ “Prime Mover.” And I love how Markos traces the development of Achilles’ search for meaning in existence through the Iliad, from “we are all going to die, so let us gain glory,” to “we are all going to die, so let us live,” to “we are all going to die, so let’s get on with it,” and finally to “we are all going to die, so let us grieve together” (77). We are all going to die, and our eternal souls struggle to come to make sense of that doom--which we know Christ defeated by joining us in our suffering and death. Of course, without divine revelation, there are many things the Greek authors miss. But these were a few of the “hits” I found intriguing. 
Not that I agree with Markos in everything. I knew I had a slight difference with him from the first page of the introduction where he says in a footnote, “True to the legacy of the great literature that I will be discussing in this book, I will be using traditional English grammar throughout. That is to say, I will use he and his as gender-inclusive pronouns and man, men and mankind to refer collectively to the human race.” Well, at least he’s up-front about it. 
Another odd note came out again at the end of the introduction where he compares Christian homeschoolers and classical schools to Irish monks preserving the Greek and Roman classics “through a potential new dark age” (24). Later he claims of America’s democratic system “that the only reason that system works is that it is built on a body of citizens who are mostly Christian and therefore morally self-regulating. That is to say, if America were ever to lose her grounding in Christian morality, her governmental systems would eventually collapse from within” (88). Which begs several questions: How did the Greek system work? What about that law written on the human heart? What about the fallenness even of Christians (the Atlantic slave trade, western colonization, the medieval Catholic church)? What of the morality of other cultures? And if European-Americans will be a minority in the US by 2020, tracing “American” from the Greeks through the Jews to Christianity will disenfranchise the majority of the citizens. 
I can see Aeneas, like Ulysses, as an expression of the human sense of exile from the expulsion from the Garden until our homecoming to the New Jerusalem, also typified by all the wanderings of God’s people. But I stop short of seeing Aeneas as prefiguring the patriarch Abraham, shepherding his people toward the promised land. And I think that TuFu, Franz Kafka, and Mario Vargas Llosa also express that loss and longing. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect a story doesn’t even have to be “great literature” to express truth. Any story that captures an audience’s attention for any length of time must have struck some chord.  
Here’s what I mean. Along with The Hunger Games, the Cherub series was making its rounds this past year in my class, a big hit with some of the avowed non-readers. One wrote in an online discussion that she loves the Cherub series because it’s about some kids who are orphans, and someone recognizes their special talents, and sends them on a mission only they can do. While she meant it on a purely concrete level, it suddenly hit me that, at some deep level, that is exactly what we all are--orphans, waiting for someone to discover our special talents and give us a mission only we can do.
By all means, read the introduction to this book. Pick one or two of the works you’re interested in to get an idea of how Markos naturally identifies the fragment of truth the author is feeling after in it. For those of us so long habituated to the Christian way of articulating that truth, seeing it in another culture can renew our appreciation for it and for the God who has left the imprint of his truth all over the creation as well as in his creatures. But then go off to other authors, times, cultures--and look for God and the way people have seen his truth in creation there. And maybe you can even use that truth to connect someone from that culture to the Truth. 
Markos, Louis. From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007. Print.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Thinking about Justice

It’s a brilliant day in the middle of summer vacation, and third book of The Hunger Games trilogy is sitting on my coffee table, so what am I doing reading The Moral Ecology of Markets? I could not even have told you what the juxtaposition of those five words meant before getting to chapter 6. 
  1. There is a really good reason for this picture.
  2. The book was a lot easier to understand on July mornings after my first cup of coffee than when I first tried it on February evenings after a day of reading 10th grade English papers.
The really good reason goes back two summers to when I read Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom by Linda Christensen, published by Rethinking Schools. I loved the book--it was even better than the title! I recommended it to colleagues, re-read it, used ideas in my classroom, spent time on the organization’s web page, and drooled over other titles they offered. Finally I decided on Rethinking Globalization by the author’s husband, Bill Bigelow, (1) because even though it is a social studies book, it uses a humanities approach, and I hoped to glean some literary sources for my World Lit class and (2) because having just added social studies chair responsibilities to my English chair responsibilities, I thought it wouldn’t be all bad to learn a little about the discipline. 
Halfway through the book, I realized that it has a definite agenda, and that I didn’t know enough about economics to do my own thinking on the issues. I can tell a zeugma from a metonym, but International Monetary Fund? World Bank? I know they exist, and they’re important, and they’re in the news a lot these days with the economic crisis, but what they really DO and whether it’s good or bad, I have no clue.
In my own little crisis, I contacted my brother-in-law, who is a economics professor. He gave me a Nicholas Wolterstorff article and recommended this book. 
And I’m so glad. It took a lot of concentration and time. But when I’d read a paragraph for the 3rd time and it would all suddenly come clear, I’d wonder why it had taken me so long. It’s not the kind of reading I usually do, but the writing is very clear, well organized, with examples and charts and just enough repetition. 
Dr. Finn never promises to tell the reader what to think about what particular laws make markets just, but he insists that (1) all people who talk about markets have a moral component to their argument, even if it is only implicit and (2) if we had a common language for the problems of economics and the forces interacting with markets, we could possibly have productive discussions rather than hurling divisive epithets at each other. 
The problems of economics are production (he calls it “allocation” which I found confusing, but maybe an economist out there will set me straight--this is traditionally the biggest focus of economics), distribution (also included in traditional economics), scale (becoming increasingly important--things like avoiding deforestation or depletion of the ozone), and human relations (which isn’t traditionally emphasized in the discipline, but you only have to survey the titles of the latest business best sellers to know that the quality of relationships affects production).
While we usually talk about a market as being “free” or “planned,” Finn proposes that it is more helpful to abandon such dichotomies. The market itself always has fences constructed around it by the government to limit abusive behavior. In the freest of free markets, you are restricted from knocking off your competitors, and in the most planned of planned economies, you are free to stand in the bread line or the gas line with your state allotted wages. The problems we generally debate are which behaviors are abusive enough to fence out.
The forces interacting with markets (their “ecology” or their context) are the provision of essential goods and services (whether you limit “essential” to police or expand it to medical care, etc.), the morality of individuals and groups (organized crime, corruption, lack of trust, etc.), and the presence of civil society (ways people come together to influence all the other things).
I still don’t know about the IMF and the World Bank. But even before I’d finished the book, I was seeing the structure in issues I was reading about in other places--from an article about the current election to one about women’s rights in China. Now I’m looking forward to going back to Rethinking Globalization. At least now I’ll be able to identify the problems being addressed, the moral assumptions being made, and ask about what other forces are at play in the situation.
And I’m looking at other books by Finn on the back cover--Just Trading: On the Economics and Ethics of International Trade and Toward a Christian Economic Ethic: Stewardship and Social Power--I’m almost tempted to order them. But I think I’m tapped out for this summer--those can go in the pipeline for 2013 and 2014. 

Now I’m ready for Mockingjay.
Finn, Daniel K. The Moral Ecology of Markets: Assessing Claims about Markets and Justice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

How Was Shrek Original?

“Do I have to cite all the pictures I used in this collage, Mrs. Essenburg?” And what about the video a student made analyzing how people who are different are treated in popular movies--insightful commentary, but largely made of copyrighted visuals? Then there’s my husband trying to remove from his article all references to specific books taught in English classes because the publisher informed him he had to have a full citation for any title mentioned. 
Copyright issues have always caused me a vague uneasiness--which I’ve always dealt with by crossing my fingers, making my most educated guess, and hoping for the best, aware that there’s some clause about educational use somewhere. So this summer I decided to invest in Renee Hobbs’s Copyright Clarity: How Fair Use Supports Digital Learning, aiming to absolve my low-level background guilt and become authoritative when answering students’ and colleagues’ questions. The book would probably be dull, but the purported “clarity” gained might be worth it. At least it would be a handy desk reference. 
Pleasant surprise: The writing is engaging, and the book is less of an exhaustive reference with all the answers and more of a practical lesson for educators in critical thinking, US law, and citizenship. Hobbs argues that US copyright law is intended to promote the flourishing of  society by balancing the rights of producers (copyright) and users (fair use doctrine), and that educators must not be cowed by guidelines devised by publishing, entertainment, and music industries into giving up rights of use “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research” (18).
She refrains from giving cut-and-dried answers, though, insisting educators must understand the intent and provisions of the law (which is intentionally vague to allow for application to a wide variety of changing contexts), and must be able to make reasoned judgments about fair use. 
The two big criteria for fair use are “transformativeness” and market impact: does the use creatively or critically add meaning or change the purpose of the information, or is it just large-scale reproduction to avoid paying for the work? Hobbs gives many examples from classrooms and case law to explain and expand on these criteria, and if you want to know more, you can check out The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education, which Hobbs helped to develop, and which contains many of the same ideas. All helpful things to know so I can confidently continue and increase students’ use of technology in my classroom to foster critical thinking, creativity, learning, and collaboration.
So, okay, this blog wasn’t exactly about Shrek, and I don’t know how many permissions or licenses the producers applied for, but the movie did transform and add meaning to every allusion, and far from replacing the originals and reducing the market, it motivated me to get on iTunes and buy “All Star.”  

Hobbs, Renee. Copyright Clarity: How Fair Use Supports Digital Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin; a joint publication with the National Council of Teachers of English, 2010. Print.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Me & IT, Part 2

Another confession: Before last week, I knew our library subscribed to EBSCO Host, and that it was supposedly a good research resource, but I’d never really explored the site, assuming it was a lot of dry, scholarly articles that were beyond my students. 
But first, a word about information, and I’ll come back to my confession:
“[W]e are the memory of mankind....we teach to the vulgar just as much as we want to teach them” (Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali 1).  
When I read the Sundiata Epic from 13th century West Africa earlier this spring, I was startled to realize how storytellers in an oral culture control the information--such a foreign concept to a child of a print-based culture. Come to think of it, there has been a corresponding expansion in availability of information from my high school days to my children’s fully-wired high school days. 
The second half of Adolescents and Digital Literacies: Learning Alongside Our Students by Sara Kadjer is about what that “wiredness” means for classrooms. Students still need to take in information, think about it critically, and communicate their response. They even still need to read and write. The additional challenge and opportunity is that there is more information available in more modes with more communities to process with and for. 
In the fire-hose stream of today’s information, the challenge is to find, evaluate, and manage what you want without being overwhelmed, paralyzed, or misled. Internet-savvy students may already have some strategies for this--all students need them. I need to teach my students to use the Google search engine expertly (here’s a great infographic to help), to choose search engines beyond Google (Kadjer has a great lesson plan for this in chapter 4, having groups run the same searches on 5 different engines and, comparing the results, discuss how the engines work and what they’re good for), and to take advantage of the school library’s online resources. 
Yes, now I’m back to my confession. I’ve spent some time this week exploring EBSCO Host, which to my delight (and chagrin at missing it for so long) includes an exciting number of possibilities beyond just scholarly papers. In the Student Research Center you can pick topic (arts & media, English & language arts, current issues, history, social studies, etc), what to include when searching (from magazines and newspapers to photos, maps, & flags or primary source documents--think of the possibilities for designing DBQ practice!), and reading level (elementary, middle, and/or high school).  That’s not including the button for AP Sources and Teacher Resources. 
And that’s only in the Student Research Center! I have barely begun exploring the English Language Learner Resource Center (which includes a function for highlighting text and clicking “listen” to hear it read), the History Reference Center (which has a whole section on how to do research), and the Literary Reference Center (with citation help and a very thorough literary encyclopedia--think “senior lit terms test”). I haven’t even touched Kids Search, Searchasaurus, or Science Reference Center.
Information from EBSCO Host will be pretty reliable, but the vast amount available online will need to be vetted, and Kadjer provides a helpful rubric for doing so on page 58. It has 11 criteria, from checking out the author’s background to triangulating information.
Then there’s the task of managing all the information, which I am beginning to run into myself with all the information (blogs, websites, articles...) I’m gathering for my PLC, my focus group, my class, my own professional development, and my own personal reading. A colleague has suggested Evernote, and Kadjer suggests Diigo. I haven’t gotten to that exploration yet, but there’s still more than a month of the summer to go!
So I’ve found, evaluated, and managed my information. What now? The chapter on multimodal communication was just sort of “beyond the book report”--using VoiceThread and podcasts. Maybe I’ll get around to experimenting with VoiceThread this summer; podcasts are a distant future for me, if ever. 
I do see that the number of ways to receive, construct, and communicate meaning has ballooned with the internet. And as an educator I do know that I need to differentiate learning tasks and design ways to assess the understanding of students separate from their writing and speaking skills. So: projects. But who makes construction paper posters in life outside of school? On the other hand, kids and adults do post photos, write blogs, contribute to wikis, create with iMovie or GarageBand, and share on YouTube. Voila! The new, improved project is web-based. (The photo journal from the perspective of a character in The Great Gatsby using Flickr, a photo sharing site, was actually a pretty cool-looking assignment.)
Sharing...that is the third “more” that technology affords--more community: more people to learn from and with; to argue with, take advantage of, and deceive the unwary. And that is ultimately the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity: everything online is real. Real risk, real feedback, real audience. 
Don’t we want education to be real?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Me & IT

True confession: I have a techno-inferiority complex. 
My husband, my children, my students 10th grade English students are all much savvier than I am. I only got on Facebook 4 years ago to keep up with my oldest when she went away to college. I can’t be bothered to figure out how to personalize the desktop background on my laptop because I’d rather be having conversation with a friend while walking along the river by my house or reading a novel while curled up on my couch. 
But I keep hearing about 21st century learners and technology integration, and it’s only making my complex worse. In fact, I was starting to feel downright defensive. So it was time to take the bull by the horns and put Adolescents and Digital Literacies: Learning Alongside Our Students by Sara Kadjer at the top of my summer professional development reading list. I’m about halfway through it now and feeling the need to reflect and capture my learning so far. 
First--plenty of reassurance. The heart of the English curriculum is the same as always: “the opportunity and privilege to help kids work as intentional, self-directed, reflective learners who are able to make meaning from and with a range of texts and then share their knowledge and understandings in smart and meaningful ways” (4). We want to do the same kinds of things as always--access texts, think about them, and produce them--we just have more tools: more types of texts to negotiate and create, and more communities in which to do it. 
The tools are there, like it or not--part of the world my students are living in now and the world for which I’m educating them. So there are all kinds of reasons to expand the number of tools used in class. Validate literacies some already have; introduce others to literacies they’ll need. Teach students to negotiate that world with effectiveness, integrity, and discernment. Model the ways I leverage those tools for my ongoing learning.
And I do leverage them. I don’t tweet and haven’t done a blog (until now). I’d rather write on the white board than use slideware because it’s more flexible and dynamic, and it keeps me at the pace students can actually take notes. I do receive SmartBriefs, read blogs and participate in online conversations for professional growth. I do ask students (and colleagues) to use Google docs, do web searches, and watch YouTube videos when that is the best way to accomplish the learning at hand. And that’s what tools are about: ways to get the job done better. Different people (students and teachers) will use different tools to different extents for different tasks--sometimes paper and pencil is still the best tool. And we’re all learning together, so it’s okay to ask questions. 
Why NOT access even MORE venues for ourselves and our students to think, learn, and grow together? 

Back to the book. It starts with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) policy research brief on adolescent literacy. Chapter 1expands the brief's principles to apply to new online literacies. Chapters 2 and 3 give case studies of students and teachers who practice those literacies in various ways. I'm looking forward to the second half of the book which promises to look at those new literacy practices in more detail: "fostering information literacy, working in online communities, and composing through new modes and media" (48). 
In the meantime, challenged by the example of those case studies, I venture forth into blogland--at play in the fields of cyberspace.