89 Opportunities

by danielagins

I’m ready.

I am prepared to scrap my “lessons” from now until the end of the year, the “lessons” that I have meticulously crafted over the past five years. I am ready to toss them aside because I have been remade. Better. Stronger. Faster. Well, maybe not so much. I am feeling the after effects of the revitalization that was TEDxNYED. Drawing heavily from Mike Wesch, Jeff Jarvis, and Chris Lehmann’s talks – I have arrived at the intersection of “school is real life” and “how do I make that work, exactly?” This is a busy intersection with a lot traffic (ideas) and I’m playing the role of traffic cop. I’ve never been a traffic cop before. I know what I am supposed to be doing, and I know how certain aspects of the job should look, but I also know that at any moment I could cause a major collision. Thankfully metaphorical collisions are not fatal, so I will continue without reservation.

Mike Wesch, in his TEDxNYED talk, said something that has become my mantra of the moment. In talking about his students, particularly large “lecture” classes, he said that he looks at the people in the seats not as burdens, but opportunities. I want to create a project that involves the collective efforts of my entire 8th grade class. I have, in my charge, eighty nine opportunities. We are just finishing up a rather lengthy unit that, according to the curriculum (Which, by the way, was last updated in 1999. Really.) is on The Holocaust. In actuality, it is about the concepts of dehumanization and compliance and how those are essential factors in all genocides throughout history. In years past, the trajectory has gone something like:

  • Holocaust unit –> U.S. lack of response –>Rwanda –> World’s lack of response –> Darfur –> World’s lack of response
  • Ultimately this raised numerous philosophical and moral questions about human nature and why we never intervene.
  • The students were obviously outraged and wanted to do something
  • A few years back we made documentaries in groups and posted them to our district-hosted edublog site (admittedly not the best design or most user friendly – and it was before I had a creative commons conscious, apologies). This was great in that the kids were engaged and created work for the World to view, which it did. We had something like 700 visits from all over the World. Small numbers for certain, but we didn’t really promote the site. Nonetheless, the kids were engaged in meaningful authentic education.

This brings me to the present. I scrapped that assignment last year because of some personal reasons and additionally, the more I hammered home the Darfur thing in light of other news coming out of the region, the more I became one of those opportunistic blowhards that was content swimming in the echo chamber of “never again.”

I want to take a new path. It occurred to me that it was easy for my students to want to do projects about people in far away lands suffering in a way that they (my students) could never imagine. The reality of the people in Darfur was so removed from my students that it gave them an easy way out. What I mean is that my students were clearly not the perpetrators in the situation and neither could they claim to be compliant. We were making videos to educate the World, after all. That is too easy. The major theme in my Holocaust/genocide unit is that the essential factor is dehumanization. If there is no single group of people on the Earth that are born killers, and if you need many killers for genocide to happen, then killers need to be made. Scholars have studied a long time about what makes otherwise good people commit acts of evil. I don’t expect my 8th graders to solve that. What I do want to do is focus on the one thing that connects their world with that of the perpetrators: dehumanization, compliance and a sense of removal from responsibility. This lends itself to what I want to do with the rest of the year. I want the kids to create a site that deals with the concepts listed above. Most of us have dehumanized someone at some point in our lives, we have stood by compliant as others did the dehumanizing, and at age 14 we were right in the thick of it. Add “cyber bullying” to the mix and we have ourselves one heck of a relevant topic that hits close to home. None of my students have ever razed a village, but they all have participated in dehumanizing someone or stood by silent as they witnessed it happening. This will cause discomfort in place of the self-righteousness that frequently surfaced when making videos about dangerous situations in developing countries from the comfort of our suburban school.

Here is my problem, I am struggling with how to hold my students accountable in a non-traditional manner. The videos we made two years ago were still kind of cookie cutter-ish. I made them fit my arbitrary criteria for grading purposes. I don’t want to do that this time around. I want to be as organic as possible, yet I know that not everyone will step up to the plate. What do I do about them? How do I please parents and administrators that expect grades? How can I have it both ways? I would really appreciate feedback/ideas.