Thursday, April 19, 2018

How might we... engage in Gatsby?

I am preparing to embark on a new collaborations with a colleague in the English department. It will be a unit-long project-based exercise so we will work together for about four weeks. I have tested the methodology on a small scale with a social studies teacher while helping to introduce a project-based assessment. While extended collaboration between a library media specialist and a discipline teacher is not uncommon, in my experience it generally happens around research units, so it is exciting to be co-facilitating in a new capacity!

In English
For the English unit, the class will be reading The Great Gatsby. The teacher's literary priorities are for the students to explore:
  • private vs. public theme
  • unreliability of the narrator
  • the malleable nature of memory
  • conscious and unconscious creation of self
Because this is not an inter- or trans-disciplinary curriculum or course, the English teacher as invited a history teacher to direct a couple of lessons at the beginning of the unit to contextualize Fitzgerald and the novel.

With these teachers serving as the discipline or content experts, my role is to guide the students through the creation of a project in which they explore the intersection of the literary themes and history. In order to maximize student ownership of the project design, I am returning to the lessons of the Innovator Academy and introducing the students to  the "How might me...?" questions. This stem is the gateway to diverse and powerful ways of understanding and beginning to solve a problem. By viewing the communication of their insights as a problem to be solved, "how might we..." will push students to harness their strengths and talents as creators in order to tap into nuances of the text and its resonance across decades.

For example, there are so many possibilities for what a student could do in response to this question: "How might we expose the layers of self that Jay Gatz created?" This question could be asked in other ways such as, "How might we explain Jay Gatz’s compulsion to be someone else?" A student who chooses to turn his/her focus to the narration of the novel could ask: "How might we compensate for Nick’s unreliability as a narrator?" Students will have agency over the question that guides their inquiry and determines what they create.

Also important is that the question can be completed in so many ways for students to access any of the literary elements and rhetorical devices they will be studying. Consider these uses of "how might we..."
  • Amp up the good (Doesn’t Nick grow?)
  • Remove the bad (We are onto Nick, so it is OK)
  • Question assumptions (Who says he is unreliable?)
  • Use unexpected resources (Are there other characters offering their versions of events?)
  • Challenge the status quo (It’s not the narrator’s job to relate to us)
  • Address PoV (Would Jordan tell the story better? Which character barely speaks and how can we give him/her voice?)
  • Go after adjectives (like “unreliable;” maybe he is uninformed or naive?)
  • Play against the challenge (If Fitzgerald wanted us to compensate for Nick, he would have written a different narrator)
  • Explore opposites (How might we remove the need for a narrator?)
  • Employ analogies (Nick, as a narrator, is like, chocolate as a…)

Once each student chooses the How Might We problem s/he wants to pursue, we will provide brainstorming tools to help them explore the possible solutions. (Crazy 8’s is one example of a tool or protocol).

Students will partner with critical friends in the class and discuss the merits of each idea and choose the one they will prototype and ultimately create.

In Social Studies
With the students in 9th grade World History, I introduced "How might we..." in a very different context. This is a class of 55 students divided into two sections. Each section must work as a unit for this project. Here are the questions the teacher has outlined for the students:
  • What is progress?  (craft a definition of what progress means for a society)
  • Examine the 14th-17th century in Western Europe and determine if (and if so how) the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation were a time of progress.
  • Conclusion:  Why does this matter?  What drives progress?  What keeps society from progressing, perfection of institutions or individual challenge of institutions?

The only other criteria is that they may not deliver an oral presentation. Each section must devise a way to convince the other section of their thesis without a formal debate or stand-and-deliver talk. That's where "How might we..." comes in.

I guided the students through an exercise to determine the best means of conveying their argument and evidence beginning with: how might we best convey our findings and conclusion without talking directly to the other group? Exploring this prompt required them to consider the scope of their findings and the various media they contain. It also necessitated understanding their audience and the mode or modes of delivery most likely to sustain their interest and be accessible to all of them.

Let's say that one group decided what is most important is for the other group hear the music, public debates, and other sounds happening during these centuries. They could produce a podcast or radio show. They could create a music video by quoting and re-contextualizing music and words of the era. Lots of possibilities if they start to think aurally.

Maybe the other group decided what is important is touch. You have to hold the artifacts in your hand to understand how they worked and why they matter. They will be very busy in The Garage (our makerspace) then!

Sight can be the students' default mode. In this instance maybe they will decide to curate a museum exhibit using Google Arts and Culture. Or create a virtual reality simulation using a our 360 degree camera to take a photo or video of a scene or scenes they create. Or a living scavenger hunt where they find class members dressed in period costumes. Given how image rich these centuries were, yet another possibility is that they might build a mosaic using many images to combine and form a dominant image which they can then annotate.

What's really exciting to me, is that these students are owning the means by which they explore the content and by which they convey their learning. When their creative thinking and varied skill sets and experiences combine for this exercise I am confident the results will be amazing.

More, soon...

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