Discovering the Secrets of the Universe

While looking for some holiday reading, I stumbled across this article last week: 37 YA Books You Need To Add To Your Reading List. After perusing the list, I settled on a book I’d never heard of before: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. I began reading while settling in to bed that night: a few hours later it was 4am and I was finished. It was a startling and surprising experience. This post will act as a book review of sorts.

Image from Goodreads

Image from Goodreads

Aristotle (or Ari) is a bit of a loner prone to angry outbursts. While he has a close relationship with his mother, he finds his father to be distant as a result of his time at war, and he longs to know more about his older brother who is in prison. He doesn’t really have any friends: that is, until he meets Dante Quintana. As their friendship blossoms, both Ari and Dante will have to face truths about who they are as they seek to understand the secrets of the universe.

‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’ explores themes of difference, sexuality, cultural identity, belonging, and family. The titular characters are both born to Mexican-American parents, and Dante especially finds it difficult to relate to his cultural history. Both boys are sensitive, bonding through conversations about art and reading poetry to each other. The adult characters are both boys parents, and they are significant to the plot and well-developed in their own right. Throughout the novel all characters learn to confront their demons and be honest with themselves and each other.

As a male reader, I appreciated the sensitive and diverse depictions of masculinity that the novel offered. Dante’s father is an English professor, Ari’s dad a Vietnam war veteran, yet both characters bond and learn from each other. At times Ari loses his temper, and he is interested in ‘typically’ masculine things like cars and heavy metal music. This is contrasted with Dante, who draws, reads poetry and can’t help but cry when a bird is injured.

“And why was it that some guys had tears in them and some had no tears at all? Different boys lived by different rules…” – (Page 114, iBooks edition)

Closely linked to the representations of gender are the prominent themes of identity and sexuality. It’s lovely to see YA novels that deal with characters coming to grips with their sexual orientation as we enter a new era of acceptance and understanding of LGBT people. Novels like this will continue to promote inclusive mindsets and also provide insights into the confusion young people may feel as they grapple with their identities. Seeing the way Ari and Dante both explore their own sexuality and come to ‘know’ who they are shows that there are many different paths to self-acceptance.

Marriage Equality White House by BeyondDC from Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Marriage Equality White House by BeyondDC from Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The novel is told from the perspective of Ari, and he is often a frustrating narrator: stubborn and emotionally closed, Ari says and does things that cause readers to dislike him despite all of the other characters observing how ‘special’ he is. The other characters show a (sometimes unbelievable) understanding of their own flaws, so it can be infuriating to see him sabotaging himself at crucial moments by withdrawing. However, Ari’s actions make him seem very relatable and human, and ultimately readers will accept his faults.

“Another secret of the universe: Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer morning could end in a downpour. Could end in lightning and thunder.” – (Page 510, iBooks Edition)

While there are certainly some tragic events and a lot of the expected angst from the teenage protagonists, the atmosphere of the novel is one of optimism and hope (this is reinforced by the ending). There’s a lovely balance between character development and plot advancement, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz resolves all of the story threads in a conclusive and satisfying manner. The language is easily accessible to middle-schoolers, with a simplistic vocabulary that is applied for powerful and poetic effect.

Youth Adult fiction has the power to help young people better understand who they are and find their place in the world. To that end, ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’ is a wonderful book that I would highly recommend to school-age students – particularly young boys.

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Gender Representation in Film and Media

This post is partially inspired by HampsonC’s fantastic post about positive male role models in films for young people. Given I work in a single-sex all girls schooling environment and identify as a feminist, I have a keen interest in gender representation in film (and, indeed, all media). In particular, I want to recognise the significant impact that positive portrayals of women in film and television can have in terms of giving young girls the belief and the confidence to pursue their passions.

Girls and Role Models by Dave Taylor from Flickr under CC BY 2.0

Girls and Role Models by Dave Taylor from Flickr under CC BY 2.0

The Guardian recently wrote an excellent article/interview with Geena Davis on this very topic, and the contents are equal parts shocking and depressing. If you aren’t aware, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media conducts research on media portrayals of girls and women, provides educational resources, and advocates for equal gender representation in media.

The evidence of systemic and institutionalised sexism is overwhelming: one of the most staggering facts is the so-called ‘17% barrier’ – the article refers to research spanning a 20 year period which has shown that in crowd scenes, only 17% of characters are female. This seems like an odd ratio given women make up 50% of the population! Unfortunately this isn’t just borne out on screen – in the U.S the ratio is similar for women in Congress, the military, and Fortune 500 boards.

Anita Sarkeesian’s ‘Feminist Frequency’ series of videos addresses the issue of gender representation in a range of media, including film. The below video provides further evidence of the problem of limited female representation.

Now, I know that correlation does not necessarily mean that there is a causal link between phenomena. However, there I can’t help but feel that the close mirroring of these figures is more than simply a coincidence: As Brooks and Hebert say,

In our consumption-oriented, mediated society, much of what comes to pass as important is based often on the stories produced and disseminated by media institutions… Media, in short, are central to what ultimately come to represent our social realities.” – (Brooks and Hebert, 2006. p. 297)

If media producers do not insist on ensuring equal representation of gender in film and television, we will simply become accustomed to and accept the reality of limited female participation more broadly. It’s not as simple as changing the casting of television shows to immediately affect broader social change – but it is an important (and achievable) first step.

Thankfully, there are many recent examples of interesting and inspiring female characters in films, particularly those targeted towards young audiences. Think Ana and Elsa from ‘Frozen‘, or Katniss Everdeen from ‘The Hunger Games’. Of course there are people who are critical of aspects of these films and their leading characters – that is the role of critics, after all – but I think that their presence has a positive net contribution to society. This is especially significant within our current cultural context that is permissive of cyber and domestic violence against women.

Frozen by Hina Ichigo from Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Frozen by Hina Ichigo from Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’d like to end with a quote from Geena Davis about how better representations of girls and women in media can be a game-changer for young people:

“I really think if we change what kids see from the beginning, it will change how they grow up… you know, we’re creating problems that we have to solve later… If we show them that women take up half the space and boys and girls share the sandbox equally from the beginning, it will change everything.” – Geena Davis

Popular Culture and the Curriculum: Curro and Currere

A few years ago, I had the privilege of attending the ETAQ State Conference. The keynote speaker was Dr. Jen Scott Curwood, and her talk was inspiring and eye-opening (exactly what you’d hope for in a keynote address). Her research had focused on young people’s engagements with online affinity spaces, and I was floored with what she presented. Kids as young as 13 years old were not only accessing, but contributing to online fan spaces by “writing Hunger Games-inspired stories, creating art, producing videos, composing music, and designing role-playing games” (Scott-Curwood and Fink, 2013, p. 417). More importantly, the level of engagement and evidence of learning that was demonstrated in these spaces was staggering, and made me beg the question: how are we not doing this better in schools?

Papa bloggt! 255/365 by Dennis Skley from Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0

Papa bloggt! 255/365 by Dennis Skley from Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0

An argument could be made that it’s precisely because these online affinity spaces are removed from the formal curriculum that young people are able to engage with them with such vigour and excitement. That was certainly the view of colleagues in my English faculty – their position was that we were better off dedicating curriculum time and space to texts that students were not likely to have already engaged with. To me this argument feels like it’s based in a traditional/conservative view of schooling and the curriculum – that ‘classic’ texts ought to be privileged based on their inherent worth at the expense of popular culture texts. This is a view I fundamentally disagree with, and hope to persuasively argue against.

Webster et. al’s book ‘Understanding Curriculum: The Australian Context‘ presented me with a somewhat new perspective on curriculum. The key point I took away was the distinction between ‘curro’ (noun) and ‘currere’ (verb). Often our conception of the word curriculum involves a focus on the ‘what’ – content that needs to be covered. This is the ‘curro’. What is missing in this paradigm is the importance of the ‘how’ – or the ‘currere’ – which is the learning that is enacted in the classroom. This is typically seen as ‘pedagogy’, and I find it curious that the terms pedagogy and curriculum seem to have grown quite distant when they should be inextricably linked.

An example of curriculum as 'curro' Educational Postcard: Teachers need to be familiar with the curriculum by Ken Whytock from Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0

An example of curriculum as ‘curro’
Educational Postcard: Teachers need to be familiar with the curriculum by Ken Whytock from Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0

In my experience, most teachers are broadly in favour of using popular culture to allow students to access the curriculum. They may show a YouTube video from a popular source that (sometimes only loosely) relates to the topic being explored. In this way, teachers engage with popular culture in the classroom through ‘currere’ – however, I don’t think this is enough. If anything, it perpetuates the idea that something that is popular is not worthy of critical thought – just a simplistic entry to the ‘real’, deep learning that will encountered shortly.

youtube logo by redsoul300 from Flickr under CC By-NC 2.0

youtube logo by redsoul300 from Flickr under CC By-NC 2.0

Johnson makes the point that engagement with popular culture is intellectually stimulating and promotes cognitive engagement. He is not alone in highlighting the potential of popular culture texts in presenting complex ideas. Despite this, I can’t help but feel that we still haven’t reached a point of widespread acceptance for the inclusion of popular culture as both ‘curro’ and ‘currere’.

Of course, there are challenges with incorporating popular culture texts as ‘curro’ and ‘currere’ – not least of which is the pace of change within popular culture. In spite of this, I hope to succeed in convincing my faculty colleagues that Katniss Everdeen deserves a spot in my classrooms – hopefully before the ‘next big thing’ has completely taken over!

The Hunger Games by Kendra Miller from Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0

The Hunger Games by Kendra Miller from Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0

References:

Curwood, J. S., & Fink, L. (2013). The Hunger Games: Literature, literacy, and online affinity spaces. Language Arts90(6), 417-427.

Johnson, S. (2006). Everything bad is good for you. Penguin.

Webster, S., Quay, J., Ryan, A., & Toscano, M. (2014). Understanding Curriculum. Cambridge University Press.

Youth No More?

When the clock ticks past midnight this coming Friday, it will be my 25th birthday. While many of the people I work with remind me of my relative youth, I’ve been grappling for a while with the feeling of being in a sort of limbo: stuck between these two worlds of ‘youth’ and ‘adulthood’ that I don’t fully understand or feel I belong to.

Birthday Cake by Omer Wazir from Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

Birthday Cake by Omer Wazir from Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

Let’s start with youth. The age range varies depending on who you ask; The United Nations allows people up to 25 years old to qualify for their Youth Program – so I guess that means I still count! According to this Wikipedia page, youth is a time in a person’s life when they make decisions about their future. Given our (now ex-)Treasurer suggested we could be living to 150 in the not-so-distant future, we may need to stretch that timeframe!

I would argue the term ‘youth’ isn’t fixed; certainly there isn’t any sort of agreed-upon definition of when youth begins or ends, and theories I’ve encountered prefer to frame the term based on social processes of transition from ‘childhood’ to ‘adulthood’, rather than a limited age range. Of course, childhood and youth are widely viewed by sociologists to be socially constructed, so within this paradigm a closed definition seems redundant.

Yet I feel disconnected from so many aspects of ‘youth culture’ – probably because as an authority figure who works with children, I am naturally going to feel like an ‘outsider’. I can totes use the lingo of the kids these days, but the words sound cray-cray coming from me. I’ve got a Facebook and Twitter account, but haven’t really ventured into the worlds of Instagram, Snapchat or Tumblr.

Drowning in Social Media by mkhmarketing from Flickr under CC BY 2.0

Drowning in Social Media by mkhmarketing from Flickr under CC BY 2.0

So, I’ve established that the ‘youth hoodie’ doesn’t quite fit right. How about the ‘adult suit’?

There are many boxes I tick in the ‘Checklist for Being an Official Adult’ (publication pending). Inexplicably, I am a first-home owner (much to the shock and dismay of many of my counterparts). I say inexplicably because I’m still a little confused about how I happened to find myself with a mortgage in this climate, and also why it’s seemingly so desirable to add a 30 year financial commitment to my (ever-growing) HECS debt, car repayments…. well, you get the picture.

As a consequence of buying a house I live away from home, which is often viewed as another touchstone on the road to adulthood (not to be confused with ‘The Road to El Dorado’, which is a much more promising destination). I read newspapers (well… online) and religiously tune in to ABC News24. On paper all of these things seem to point to a mature and ‘adult’ disposition.

My problem is, none of these attributes are particularly new. I’ve lived away from home since I was 17. I’ve been a news junkie since the latter stages of high school.

Have I actually been an adult this whole time, without even realising? If so, why is it that I still feel so out of place in the ‘adult’ world? This is particularly evident when it comes to beverages. I don’t drink coffee, so walking into a cafe feels like entering a foreign country to me. It’s hard to feel mature when you’re sitting with friends who are drinking lattes and cappuccinos while you’re sipping on a strawberry milkshake. And don’t get me started on red wine! Try as I might to infiltrate this world of sophistication and class, every time I try to drink a Shiraz or Merlot that I’m reliably informed is “easy to drink” my face scrunches up like Kermit the Frog.

Kermit by Eva Rinaldi from Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

Kermit by Eva Rinaldi from Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

I’m beginning to wonder if ‘adulthood’ is not just socially constructed, but a myth. I’ve always imagined it like some sort of gateway I’d cross through with great pomp and circumstance (and most importantly, certainty) while looking wistfully behind me to what once was. Instead I feel like a bug caught in a clear jar: I can see where I’ve been, and look ahead to where I’m going, but somehow feel so very far away from both destinations.

So, like Vladimir and Estragon in ‘Waiting for Godot’, I find myself waiting for something which probably isn’t going to show up, and it’s causing plenty of existential angst. I guess this is one thing I do share with my students!

Existential Crisis Kitty by Post Memes from Flickr under CC BY 2.0

Existential Crisis Kitty by Post Memes from Flickr under CC BY 2.0

The “Important Work” of Schools in Challenging Hegemonies

In our exploration of dystopian fiction earlier in the unit, I was particularly drawn to this quote:

“…utopian and dystopian tropes carry out important social, cultural, and political work by challenging and reformulating ideas about power, identity, community, the body, spatio-temporal change, and ecology.” – (Pearce, Muller & Hawkes, 2013).

1984 by Jason Ilagan from  Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0

1984 by Jason Ilagan from Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am passionate about creating a classroom environment (or rather, a schooling environment) based around principles of equity and social justice. This quote really resonated with my ideological and philosophical viewpoint around the purpose of education, and it made me think broadly about what part schools as institutions play in this ‘important work’; and more specifically, how I could use the study of dystopian fiction for this overtly political purpose.

I would classify my teaching as subversive. I invest my energies into attempts to reject and refute the inherent ‘power’ that is afforded to me by our schooling system and hand it over to my students. It doesn’t always work, and I often find myself falling into a ‘default’ mode of teaching out of fear/anxiety of loss of control – but it’s an ongoing project. I also make a point of encouraging my students to question the sources, motivations and productions of power. Who has the power? How have they accrued it? Where does that power derive from? For what purpose are they using that power?

Teaching in an all-girls schooling context, the feminist perspective is one that I draw upon commonly. We’ve deliberately chosen texts that allow us to examine the construction and depiction of patriarchal hegemonic society – ‘The Taming of the Shrew‘ is a favourite of mine and my students in this regard. When our Year 10s engage with this text, they are usually amused by Katherina’s ‘shrewish’ behaviour. Some relate to her, others sympathise with Bianca as the poor innocent sister. By the end of the play, they are furious at a world that would restrict women, and begin to reflect on their own experiences in profound and transformative ways.

PATRIARCHAL EDUCATION 2014 by Christopher Dombres from Flickr under CC BY 2.0

PATRIARCHAL EDUCATION 2014 by Christopher Dombres from Flickr under CC BY 2.0

One of the highlights of my teaching career thus far is a Process Drama (similar to a roleplay) that I’ve facilitated where I enrol my class as participants on the show ‘Big Brother’. I step into character as a ‘Producer’ on the show who leads them through the casting process. I explain that ‘viewers want to be entertained, titillated’ and that their job is to ‘give the viewers what they want’. I then give my students cleaning wipes and tell them to clean the Big Brother house so the viewers will be pleased (the janitors really appreciated this!). We then play a game of ‘Simon Says’, where I slowly introduce more gendered instructions (eg. “Simon says do your hair, put on makeup”).

Usually a teacher’s worst nightmare is a class that actively rebels and refuses to follow their demands. That’s exactly what happened – at a certain point in this lesson, my students simply stopped following my (well, ‘The Producer’s’) instructions. I was so proud of them. They could see what was happening – that I was making them perform deliberately gendered (typically feminine) activities for the pleasure of the (likely male) ‘viewers’ – and they just refused. What followed was an incredible discussion about how  they may have experienced those expectations in their own lives, and how they felt better prepared to call out sexism directed at them or others.

My school currently doesn’t have any dystopian fiction novels as part of the formal curriculum. I think this is a real lost opportunity. While I have had conversations with other faculty members about my desire to introduce ‘The Hunger Games’ as a key text, I haven’t yet succeeded in convincing my colleagues that current and ‘popular’ texts have a place in the classroom (I’ll be following up more fully on this in another blog post!). My brain is buzzing trying to think about similarly subversive strategies that I could use to get students to think critically about political power through dystopian fiction.

The Hunger Games by Noirescent from Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Hunger Games by Noirescent from Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0

A final, pithy thought. Perhaps the best way to change the world is to look at the end of it.

References:

Pearce, S., Muller, V., & Hawkes, L. (2013). Popular Appeal: Books and Films in Contemporary Youth Culture. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Participatory Culture and Teaching for Social Justice

I recently discovered Henry Jenkins and his research on participatory cultures through the recommended reading/viewing for this unit. I found his TED Talk to be extremely interesting and it provoked a great deal of further thought and reflection on the implications of research around participatory culture on conceptions of teaching for social justice. In his presentation, Jenkins made a link between participatory culture and new media literacies and, more interestingly to me, civic engagement. He spoke about a range of ways that young people have engaged in online communities to enact positive social change. It made me wonder how we can harness this potential more effectively in schools.

A fundamental challenge to this potential are common policies and practices within schools that restrict or limit student access to online communities through web filtering. Not only that, but attempts to create ‘educational’ (read: bland, vanilla) versions of popular online tools, including blogs and social networks, have largely fallen flat. This could be for a couple of reasons: I would posit that creating an ‘other’ space exclusive to a schooling context seeks to delegitimise other spaces where young people already engage and interact online. Is it any surprise that students may enter these artificially constructed spaces with skepticism and a lack of enthusiasm?

While there are legitimate and reasonable concerns about safety in online communities, I think we need to reevaluate the efficacy of our current practices. At a conference I attended recently I heard a provocative analogy from Dr. Sue Davis, a Drama researcher and educator who explores digital technologies in performance. She reminds us that when kids bully each other in a physical space (let’s say a courtyard), we don’t ban access to the courtyard. Why then, do we ban online spaces out of fear?

It’s a complex calculation between the risks of allowing students unfiltered access to websites and the opportunities for rich learning they would be afforded. By my estimation though, those benefits could be quite extraordinary. As Jenkins says:

“Young people are active social agents and… young people need space to pursue those interests and those interests need to be taken seriously”.

If we accept that participatory culture is about removing the barriers between adults and young people, then the internet is an ideal space to achieve that. The internet, at it’s best, is an egalitarian space where young people can participate without prejudice or judgment.

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Nullifying the Web by Scott McLeod from Flickr under CC BY 2.0

I share Henry Giroux’s (2010, p.3) belief in democratic principles driving education through the search for “pedagogical practices capable of creating the conditions for producing citizens who are critical, self-reflective, knowledgeable, and willing to make moral judgments and act in a socially responsible way”. If, as Jenkins suggests, civic engagement can be enhanced through engagement in participatory cultures, including those that are located online, then this is something we as educators need to be exploring.