Tag Archives: Moby Dick

More On Moby Dick

Joyce Valenza posted a link to Jen Hunter’s insightful review of Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the English Classroom. Hunter is a student in Joyce’s social media course at Rutgers and the review is part of a larger website related to the reading of the book. Go read it now and be prepared to buy the book when you’re done. I did.

I am looking forward to reading the book even though I can’t imagine reading Moby Dick with any students, much less the challenging population described in the book. It almost makes me want to head back to the high school classroom, a place I haven’t been since the beginning of my career in the ice age before digital media:

Edited by new media literacy scholar, Henry Jenkins, and Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, the book describes how the two came to collaborate with Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, who had been teaching young men in a juvenile detention center not only to read Moby-Dick, but also to care about it and make sense of it in the context of their own lives through a stage production called Moby-Dick: Then and Now. This collaboration sparked a study in which NML strategies were applied in English classrooms to teach Moby-Dick, and more importantly, to empower students to claim ownership of their authority and participate in the wider conversations happening around them.

The section of the review that struck me was the notion that incorporating popular culture to help students grapple with traditional literature is somehow a lowering of expectations for those students:

Without ever saying it explicitly, the text seems to imply that while students can learn to read, find relevancy in, and enjoy Moby-Dick, educators need to reframe their expectations of their students, which might be interpreted as lower expectations as opposed to simply different expectations.

Hunter goes on to discuss how Jenkins’ addresses this concern:

Jenkins defends the use of popular culture in the classroom when he says, “It should not be seen as a means of entertaining students or holding their attention, but rather as a means of respecting their existing expertise and helping them to acquire core skills they will need to meaningfully participate in this new and emerging media landscape” (location 1071). While all of the authors advocate for the development of the kinds of skills that educators may associate with traditional literacy and scholarly inquiry, they suggest that there needs to be a gradual building to that level, particularly for at-risk youth.

Respect for our students’ experiences when they are different from our own is a powerful concept. I am, in no way, lowering expectations for contemporary students when I suggest that not every child needs to grapple with Shakespeare in the original. Or, as Jenkins and his colleagues demonstrate, plunge into Moby Dick without some kind of preparation. I may question if getting through Melville is a good use of time but if it really does provide the students with a confidence and sense of authority, then the time will be well spent.

The book is one my Kindle and may rise to the top of the TBR list. I’ll let you know how it goes.



More On Making Learning Relevant

Sometime after I posted the last entry on the relevance of Algebra, I was paging through a book catalog and it seemed like each page had at least one book that focused on how and why literature mattered. Here are just a few of the titles:

I haven’t ordered any of them. I’ve already read Moby Dick and W.H. Auden and spent a lot of time teaching children Shakespeare. At some point I realized I was trying to turn them into English majors, when what I really wanted to do was help them learn to love reading the way I did. If, eventually, they found Melville and Auden and the Bard, so much the better. But to force it upon them meant it only led to the inevitable question of why they needed to read it in the first place.

It is an interesting side note that the authors of these books are writers who were probably English majors at some point in their lives so perhaps the lesson here is that, if you plan to become a writer, then reading literature is part of the career path.

And then there’s this blog entry from Edutopia just published today: Why Do We Need To Learn This? Allen Mendler offers strategies for answering the question that might diffuse the immediate situation but never gets to the heart of the answer which is that someone, somewhere decided that “this” was important for everyone to know and, as Mendler does point out, it is going to be on a high-stakes test:

Upon hearing the “When will I ever use this?” refrain, a high school teacher I work with tells her students, “I’m not sure because I don’t know what you want to be in your life. But if you give me a list of everything you plan to do and accomplish, I’ll do my best to let you know when we cover something that I think you might use.” When kids say, “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” her response is, “Exactly. You might need it next week, next year or never. But it is going to be on Friday’s test, not because I want to make you miserable, but because at the end of the year, it is going to be on the state test, and if you want to pass, you need to know it.”

So, you have to know it because I’m going to test it and later someone else is going to test it? I think this is probably the worst answer to the question but the most relevant in our high-stakes world and that just makes me sad.