The rationale behind using old dead white men!

This little short film 2081 is based on Kurt Vonnegut’s work Harris Bergeron. Using this Sci-Fi dystopian gemstone makes students think about how they view the terms equality, freedom, rights, needs, desire, motivation, goal setting. Sometimes we talk about it in terms of “Should everyone earn the same grade?” or “Is the doom of failure a reason not to risk?” maybe even “What role does media play in our perceptions?”

We of course look at the literary aspects of suspense, horror, and how does Vonnegut’s craft create the tone and what provokes the mood in the reader. How does the director of the film help perpetuate Vonnegut’s message or theme of the work. How does he implore motifs and symbols. Additionally, I’ve asked students to draw conclusions about current events and, “Does 2081 have any themes which apply to modern-day issues?” This is always a fun little can of worms to open. This year it has proven to be quite the topic of choice.

While I know many grown and moan about how outdated education is, and why do we choose to read all the novels associated dead white men since they are ultimately boring? Here is what I do know from both teaching and writing:

  1. Any work can be boring.  Sometimes it is important to struggle through something and critique it for the items it lacks, since constructive criticism is an important piece to gaining future successes.
  2. It is all about the delivery of the piece you are presenting and how you package the material.
  3. Making connections with things that are familiar helps perpetuate a better understanding of why a particular work is used.
  4. Explaining how the author crafted the work in order to convey and provoke certain attitudes or promote specific themes helps drive students to seek the depth rather than the surface of a work.
  5. Examining the historical backgrounds of both the author and the time periods opens up a whole new perspective about most works.

I also believe, down to my core, we need to read novels of different genres, time periods, authors, and styles in order to provide a base for making our own writing better. We don’t improve without reading and absorbing stylistic moves from other people. We learned to speak because people repeated sounds, words, and oral structures to us until we began to mimic back, and then we created our one verbal responses over time. We did not learn to read without people showing us how each letter grouping formed a word, which related to the oral structures we’d been groomed to understand since birth. We learned to read fluently because our practice and vocabulary grew with our experiences and exposure. Then writing happened. This is the last in line for the literacies. It takes practice in mimicking works we’ve been exposed to over time. If we only expose ourselves to works such as Dr. Seuss works or Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series then our ability is limited and our growth stifled. There is nothing wrong with these examples, but if we want to expand our minds, and open up our world, we must challenge ourselves with a variety of works. By nature we will gravitative to familiar and comfortable, but it is my job to expose students to the things which are out of their wheelhouse.

Now when you ask, “Why do you read about all the dead white men?”, you might just understand that I’m here to exercise the brain, expose it to things uncomfortable and foreign, develop questions which make connections, and challenge the mind to think past the surface, in order for you to become a better reader and writer in the future. What I am not doing is trying to make you miserable and reduce you to complaining about how education really is disconnected with today’s world. Maybe some educators are unplugged, but please don’t group me in those same molds! I understand the need to introduce the modern with the classic as well as the technology with the pen and paper. However, let us recognize the value in variety and celebrate the crafts of those who have written over the course of time including both the old and the new.

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