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To Kony or not to Kony

Posted by jodi.rice Mar 21, 2016

This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


If you haven’t been hiding under a rock recently, you probably have heard of the viral video campaign by aid organization Invisible Children, called Kony 2012. Certainly your students already have – it went viral on Facebook and Twitter within 72 hours of being posted.


With slick production and unavoidable emotional appeals, the video compels sympathy for the child soldiers of Northern Uganda and outrage at the apparent ignorance about uncaptured war criminal and head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony. It has spurred a flurry of online activity – not only by the millions of people around the world sharing the video with their Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but also by those criticizing the organization that created it and the implications of the video, both for those who are inspired by it and for those whom it purports to be helping.


It’s a brilliant teachable moment for an AP® Language and Media Studies teacher like myself.


Unfortunately (fortunately?) my school just broke for March vacation, so I had about 40 minutes to spend in my Media Studies class on the last day, discussing the video’s constructions and examining some of the responses online. But I wanted to share with you some of those ideas, and a few others that you might consider using for a more lengthy examination of the topic.


In my Grade 11 Media Studies class, we had just finished a unit on examining the ways in which documentary films construct reality in order to underscore and enhance the filmmakers’ arguments. (For this unit, I used the excellent book Reading in the Reel World, by fellow High School Bits contributor John Golden – thanks, John, for this awesome resource!) So we spent a few minutes examining the video’s opening for clues about the argument and the ways in which the conventions used established it.


The video is really a masterful work of visual rhetoric. In the first few scenes, the audience is drawn in through a powerful mix of emotional montage, personal storytelling, and stark contrasts.The opening segments quickly and efficiently portray the power of social media to connect people in their happy, nostalgic, and supportive moments, showing images of famous viral feel-good videos such as the one of the woman hearing for the first time, punctuated with simple clicks of “Share” buttons.



From there we escalate to the significance of using similar social-media methods to share news of world events and so motivate entire movements that have been changing the face of politics and international relations, as we saw recently in the Arab Spring.


Cut quickly to scenes that at first seem oddly juxtaposed against this background of human interconnectedness and historic activism: home video of a baby being born and growing up, with a voiceover by the filmmaker about his son’s birth and his desire to show him a better world. The little boy, Gavin, grows through Viewmaster-style scrolling snapshots into a gorgeous towheaded toddler with a penchant for making iPhone videos of things spectacularly exploding to many giggles. He’s irresistibly adorable, he’s happy, he’s lucky to have every advantage in life that his father can give him.



When we cut again, then, to the story of Jacob, a former child soldier in Uganda who has escaped his brutal life to land in another kind of post-traumatic hopelessness, the viewer cannot help but be shocked by the contrast that underlies the already heart wrenching images of these ragged, sad shells of boys huddling together for comfort and talking nonchalantly about how they would rather be dead than continue without a future.


And that’s just the first seven minutes.


After we watched these first scenes, I asked the students about their own reactions when they had first seen the video (all but two had seen it before that day). They had been justifiably moved, and many were ready to join its cause. We made a list on the board of the benefits of activism via social media. Their conclusions: it’s a fast, easy, and inexpensive way to disseminate a message; you can use all the technological tools that make a message interesting and catchy; it appeals to a large range of people, particularly to youth; it can bring a large group of people together and inspire them; it can expose you to ideas and issues that might have been outside your earlier frame of reference.


Then I had the students read and discuss these websites:


We then had a brief discussion about the drawbacks of activism via social media: rumour and unsubstantiated information spread just as easily – if not more easily – than substantive fact; trending topics can peak quickly but disappear just as quickly as people move on; it can create awareness but rarely does that lead to action; it’s designed for and promotes short-attention-span thinking that privileges acceptance of a message's face value over more difficult critical thinking requiring careful weighing of information and further investigation; people develop “awareness fatigue” and stop paying attention.


With more time, I might have explored this moment more with my Media Studies class and with my AP® Language group as well. With the latter, some great argument and/or synthesis topics might have arisen, such as:

  • Examine the extent to which “awareness” helps a cause.
  • Argue the value of activism via social media in inspiring civic involvement or activism.
  • Identify and evaluate the key considerations in sending aid (monetary, military, resources, etc.) to developing or strife-damaged nations.


We might also have had a discussion about evaluating sources (especially as the APs® are currently working on Annotated Bibliography skills), weighing the significance of competing voices in a controversy, and synthesizing those voices to develop one’s own perspective on an issue.


Moments like these are golden opportunities for teachers of our courses, taking advantage of our students’ heightened interest to reinforce the value of critical, inquiring citizenship and purposeful involvement in worthwhile causes.

[Images from KONY 2012 on YouTube]



®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

Trouble Divided

Posted by jodi.rice Mar 21, 2016

This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


Nothing is more well-known---or more contentious---in Northern Ireland and Belfast than the Troubles between Catholics and Protestants, and their legacy.


Among the most visible traces of that legacy are the political murals spread out throughout the city of Belfast, most notably along the Shankill and Falls Roads, where the Troubles found their epicenter. The murals trace a sad and acrimonious history through their vibrant but often provocative imagery, ripe for analysis.




We were told that the best way to view these murals and get insight into their meanings was to take one of the famous Black Cab tours, run by local cabbies, both Catholic and Protestant.



Our tour guide for the day was Brian Sands, a relative of the famous Bobby Sands, who was involved in the hunger strikes of the early 1980s. (Bobby Sands himself died in 1981.) Although Brian is Catholic, he gave us a balanced tour of the murals and the history that goes with them.



Although the turbulent period known as the Troubles only technically started in the 1960s, mirroring the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the enmity between Irish Catholic and Protestant goes back as far as 1609, when William of Orange, a Protestant, overthrew the Catholic King James II of England with the help of English Protestants who had felt threatened by James' return to Catholic ways, including increasing patronage of Catholic-leaning nobility and a decline in power of Protestant nobles. William's ascension began the institutionalized persecution of Catholics, particularly in subjugated Ireland, where landlords were all Protestant, with most living out of the country in England.



The details of this history can be easily researched---there is plenty to tell from both sides of the fence---but viewing the murals themselves adds an important visual dimension that helps even the most uninformed visitor perceive the emotion underscoring this generations-deep conflict. An even more stark and visceral reminder of the divide is the actual fence that runs through the middle of the city---30 feet high in most places, with gates opened only during daylight and in some cases closed throughout weekends.



The murals evoke plenty of emotion, and provoked a long discussion between David and me about the impact of religious divides on populations such as those in Ireland, Israel, Afghanistan, and even in the United States these days. Some teachers might be leery of introducing religious conflict as a discussion topic into the classroom (or might even be prevented by school policy), but there are plenty of opportunities for rich research, argument, and analysis to be incorporated into such a discussion.

At the very least, Jonathan Swift's classic satire A Modest Proposal is relevant here. Students should be introduced to the historical context of the piece, which decries the heartlessness of absentee Irish landlords, many of them merchants and businessmen granted Irish land by Oliver Cromwell. These men knew the value of a buck, were often entrepreneurs and investors, and could be counted on, in Swift's experience, to consider their “Popish” tenants as chattel rather than as individual human beings.



The attitude towards Catholics as second-class citizens prompted Catholics to demonstrate on the Falls Road in the 1960s, bringing the weight of the British army down on them and igniting some of the most well-known religiously-based conflicts of the Twentieth century.


The Protestant community in Belfast is fiercely loyal to its English roots, not least because of its sacrifice during the First World War, in which it sent more than 700 soldiers into the Battle of the Somme in support of Britain and saw only 70 return. To Protestants, the Catholic desire for self-rule is tantamount to efforts to cut them off from their own heritage.



Of course, the Irish conflict is not the only religious or nationalistic one that occupies our newspaper headlines these days. Many visitors to Belfast leave their mark on the “International Wall,” the murals that change every two years or so to reflect current events showing sympathy with the Irish problem. On our visit, the murals commented on Cuba, the Basque peoples caught between Spain and France, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and other, smaller conflicts that reflect civil rights issues.



Conflicts such as these are always complicated. Teaching students how to build Rogerian or concession-style arguments, looking at the situation from both sides in all their complexity, and avoiding extremes and simplistic conclusions are steps in helping students understand that issues are never black and white, and solutions are never easy; they require patience and understanding. To begin to move toward a resolution in Ireland, often politicians have had to put aside their own deep-seated feelings and see things from the other side while working toward the common good. As Brian, our tour guide, reminded us, it's an ongoing process even after the Good Friday agreement, and even today Belfast remains a profoundly divided city trying to build on hope.


Photo credits: David Kruger

This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

Today’s guest blogger is Elizabeth Hollow, who teaches middle and high school English at the

Lycée Français de New York.


While AP® teachers and students are taking a well-deserved rest, I’ve been grappling with how best to help my students—juniors and seniors preparing for the American option of the French Baccalaureate—to write a comparative essay, one of the primary tasks of their English literature exam. Of course, writing a strong comparative essay is a crucial skill for any student and for many disciplines, which only adds to my concern that my students start now to get it right.


At first I assumed students would easily make the transition from writing in depth about one text to writing about two, but this assignment proved a major challenge. The real issue, I quickly realized, is how to best to formulate a strong comparative thesis, one that knits the texts together in a significant way. Too often students write about the two works discretely or in parallel tracks, without a genuine comparison. My goal has been to help students focus on the relationship between the texts and to articulate that relationship in a specific, arguable thesis.


To that end, I developed the following handout, borrowing heavily from a model by Dr. Kerry Walk, former director of the Princeton Writing Program. I hope it will prove useful for your students as well.


Developing a Comparative Thesis

One of the central tasks of your upcoming exam is to write a comparative essay: one in which you consider two works in relation to a particular question or theme. Although this assignment is similar to other analytical essays you’ve written, it also requires some additional thinking.


To write a good comparative essay, you must take your raw data—the similarities and differences you’ve observed between two texts—and make them cohere in a meaningful argument. Here are some of the elements required:


Frame of Reference: This is the context in which you place the things you plan to compare or contrast, the umbrella under which you’ve grouped them. The frame of reference may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem, or theory. Most comparative essay assignments (including exam questions) give you this frame. Here, for example, is a classic comparative essay prompt:


“Much madness is divinest sense to the discerning eye.” —Emily Dickinson


Can madness be said to show or yield wisdom? Discuss this question as it relates to two works you have read in this course.


Notice how this question gives you a general theme—madness—as well as a narrower point of focus: madness that results in (or doesn’t result in) wisdom. Even with this more specific focus, however, many of your texts would be good candidates. Your job is to choose those texts that provide the most interesting comparison. To do so, you must:


  • Read the question carefully.
  • Recognize and define key terms.
  • Brainstorm about how various texts relate to the question or frame of reference.
  • Consider your specific “grounds for comparison” in combining particular texts.


Grounds for Comparison: Let’s say you’re writing an essay on the question above and you’ve chosen to write about Hamlet and Medea. Why these particular texts? Why not The Bluest Eye and A Streetcar Named Desire? Your rationale or grounds for comparison sets up the kind of analysis you’ll do and lets the reader know why that choice is meaningful, not random.


You might begin by considering your chosen texts’ response to the initial question. Do both A and B answer it positively, showing that madness does yield wisdom—or is there an immediate contrast? You might also think about more specific commonalities, such as genre or style, character or situation: both Medea and Hamlet’s madnesses could be said to spring from the need for revenge, for example, while Blanche’s and Medea’s arise in response to mistreatment by male characters. Finally, keep returning to your key terms: are there similarities—or interesting differences—in the kinds of madness (or wisdom) that various characters exhibit?


Keep in mind that your own grounds for comparison will vary with the initial frame and the texts you choose. Remember also that even as you focus on similar themes, it’s important to acknowledge major differences in genre, historical contexts, or style.


Thesis: As in any argumentative essay, your thesis statement will convey the gist of your argument. And as always, your thesis should be:


  • Clear and specific
  • Interpretive—not just an observation, but a statement of what this observation means
  • Debatable—an intelligent reader could thoughtfully disagree
  • Significant to readers’ understanding of the work

In addition, in a compare-and-contrast essay, the thesis must show how the two things you’ve chosen to compare actually relate to one another. Does B extend, complicate, contradict, correct or debate A? How can you best state the connection between them?


In the most common compare-and-contrast essay—on focusing on differences—you can state the precise relationship between your texts by using the word “whereas” in your thesis.


Whereas Medea shows the damage that occurs when madness blinds us to the results of vengeful action, Hamlet shows the subtler madness—and painful wisdom—that can come from a hyper-awareness of those consequences.


®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

Why Synthesis Matters

Posted by jodi.rice Mar 21, 2016

This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


Do the facts always "speak for themselves"?


The founders of the Creation Museum seem to think that evolutionary geologists and paleontologists make too much of an assumption when they say that the facts of continental drift and biodiversity support a scientific explanation of the earth's history, rather than a divine one. Yet, as New York Times science reporter Kenneth Chang writes in a blog entry extending a recent article he wrote about paleontologists visiting the museum, facts can play both sides: even in trying to dispute them, the creationists ended up demonstrating their truth (or at least their likelihood).

In that case, it's all about the spin.


For example, according to the museum, modern foxes and dogs share an ancestor in a doglike creature that boarded Noah's Ark, despite the fact that they vary greatly -- and demonstrably -- in their genetic makeup. Scientists happily explain this diversification through the branching-off from common ancestors based on adaptation, a core principle of evolution. And oddly, so do the museum's creationists, who otherwise staunchly reject the principles of evolution.


Chang writes:


In reporting the article, I talked with Andrew Snelling, the museum geologist who helped put together the flood exhibit. He said the rapid diversification occurred because of the open ecological niches after the flood and the geographical isolation of small population groups.


His explanation fits with the usual biological explanation of how evolution works.


The main difference between the explanation given by scientists and that given by the creationists?


[. . .] to explain how the few species aboard the ark could have diversified to the multitude of animals alive today in only a few thousand years, the museum said simply, “God provided organisms with special tools to change rapidly.”

“Thus in one sentence they admit that evolution is real,” [visiting paleontologist] Dr. Bengtson said, “and that they have to invoke magic to explain how it works.”


My point here is not to ridicule creationists or challenge them to accept evolution. It is to point out that in trying to reconcile the facts to their world-view, they've had to perform some curious mental gymnastics, and yet there are plenty of people for whom this explanation is convincing. Their conclusion, though, doesn't much satisfy the paleontologists who visited their museum, even if they succeeded in at least amusing the ones cited in the article.

I wrote earlier about why synthesis matters, and this collision between faith and science seems to me to illustrate an important real-world application of the kind of work we do when we ask students to examine different points of view and the ways in which they shape their arguments around the facts. Do the facts always speak for themselves? Perhaps not, since the particular selection and arrangement of facts usually end up telling the story.


Learning to think critically about how to approach these different opinions and facts also helps students to recognize how others do so, and whether they do so successfully or not. Seeing the same topic addressed in radically different ways, as well as in ways that overlap but still conflict, helps them to learn about the construction of logic, though it can be difficult for them to divorce their own personal assumptions and beliefs from objective assessment of argument.


If your school community is open to classroom discussion of controversial issues like this one, you can get some cracking good real-life interaction going, not only between students in your own class, but even with people outside of class, as in the case I cited earlier of Mark Lukach's Global Issues Initiative students, who communicate by podcast about issues about which they are passionate. Thanks to Mark's encouragement of their critical thinking and their willingness to engage with different opinions. And it's this kind of engagement that we really wish for when we teach these skills to our students.


What other controversial topics do you think hold enough "real-world" significance for your students to be worth seeing just how they entice the facts to "speak"?