subversive activity

The title echoes one of my early teaching bibles, Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  The main inspiration for today’s writing comes from a paragraph in Evangelia G. Chrisikou’s recent article, “Your Creative Brain at Work” (Scientific American Mind, July/August 2012).

After quoting the paragraph, I will comment on the teacher-as-disturber, the openings of Shakespeare’s plays and of Ed Park’s recent short story–as well as the role of poetry.  Shakespeare wrote in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and I did not know him personally, except through his writing.  Ed Park, on the other hand, lives in NYC today, and I do know him, not only through his writing.  For example, my wife and I had lunch with him in NYC several summers ago.

Here’s the quote about brains at work:

Although creativity has long been considered a gift of a select minority, psychologists are now revealing its seeds in mental processes, such as decision making, language and memory, that all of us possess.  Thus, we can all boost our creative potential.  Recent studies show promise for techniques that break down people’s established ways of viewing the world as well as strategies that encourage unconscious thought processes. 

Here are the comments:

Recently, I have billed myself (sorry) as someone who likes to ask questions.  In fact, I am currently reading a book called Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.  If we are to help students by educating them, which from Latin means leading them out (presumably of themselves), we have to regularly ask thoughtful, thought-provoking questions, while giving students real practice at doing the same.  The questions drive the work; otherwise, what’s the point of all this reading and writing?

I think of these moments in literature: the opening of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with its raucous crowd of Caesar opponents and proponents (consider present-day Cairo); the start of Romeo and Juliet, with its feuding families; the haunted tower of Hamlet, with its disorienting apparition.  In each case, the story starts with disturbance.  So the story of student learning begins with disturbance, questions and subversion.  What one has thought is tested; new theories, interpretations and understandings must be forged, shaped and tested.

Ed Park’s short story, “Bring on the Dancing Horses,” published in the journal Open City (Winter 2010-2011), begins with entertaining uncertainty.  Halfway through a sentence, I realize the need to adjust the “horizon of expectations.”*  The narrator, being ever so generous, helps me adjust my view.  Here is the story’s first paragraph:

When I call my parents, my mom tells me my dad is busy teaching a class on the internet.  That is, the class is in a classroom but the topic is the Internet.  More specifically, he’s teaching seniors–that is, old people–how to blog, write anonymous comments on news articles without panicking, poke their children on Facebook, and get away with not writing h, t, t, p, colon, backslash, backslash, w, w, w, dot before every web address.

The best poetry breaks down “people’s established views” and “encourages unconscious thought processes.”  I like to think of writing poems as a technique for doing this, with all due respect to what recent scientific studies show.  Think of Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” which asks readers/listeners to take a poem and hold it to the light like a color slide, or run their hands along its wall to feel for the light switch.  Metaphors like these, when students read or make them, turn their lens, tip an object or idea this way or that.

So, in practical terms, what do these ideas mean for work with students?  First, let’s acknowledge the role played by “essential questions” in many curricula.  I understand the rise of this organizational method.  At the same time, as indicated by my current reading,  I believe the strongest school results come from students who know how, and are given the chance or responsibility, to ask their own questions, meaning questions that mean something to them.

This year, I have experimented with broad essential questions that serve the curricula I inherited when I changed schools.  These questions have proved productive enough that I will likely use them again this coming year.  I am finding that they generate students’ sub-questions.  Here are the essential ones I have used.  The number shows grade level.

12 Where do we find struggle, internal and external?  Where do we see monsters or demons, and what makes them so?  What influences our responses to these struggles and monsters?

10 Who am I?  What are my primary responsibilities to myself and the communities in which I live?


For context, I should add that the senior classes began with Beowulf, while the sophomores opened with Oedipus Rex.   Imagine how you would apply the questions to these texts.  Also, I should add that Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his translation–the one we use–includes an account of his personal linguistic struggle, having grown up in Northern Ireland.  In patiently facing this fundamental challenge, he produces a statement that hangs above the entrance to the classroom in which I teach:  “my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered” (xxvi).  It turns out that the linguistic history of the Old English word meaning “to suffer” resolved Heaney’s personal struggle.

So, let’s keep an eye on established views, while asking questions that may disturb.  We can ask such questions of the material students are experiencing, but we can also ask them of ourselves as educators.  For example, what are the “established ways of viewing the world” among today’s teachers?  Who establishes them?  How do we determine that they are, in fact, established?

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Filed under challenge, creative solutions, imagination, order

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