This winter, I am discontented. I see less of the “click” of recognition in a student’s eyes when he or she “knows something”. At the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy (“old-fashioned person,” 1871, American English, of uncertain origin), my students used to come to class pre-loaded with information; they had a predictable set of stories in their brains. These were often fairy tales such as Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk or folktales such as Rip Van Winkle or Johnny Appleseed. And speaking of apple seed, students used to know many of the Biblical stories as well. They may have been misinformed that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was an apple and did not know that they could thank John Milton’s Paradise Lost for that substitution, but at the very least students used to be familiar with the Garden of Eden stories, the genesis of multiple allusions.
Today’s students’ lack of content, specifically story content, means that a good deal of class time is spent on a “back story” so they can better understand all the allusions or references in a particular text. Allusions are critical to understanding almost anything taught in English: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bronte, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Steinbeck, etc. For example, our 10th grade is beginning Beowulf this week, and we read the Burton Raffel’s translation. He opens with the monster Grendel down in his cave howling at the sound of men singing the song of creation. Grendel swears vengeance against the “Almighty” for the exile of his ancestor Cain:
He was spawned in that slime,
Conceived by a pair of those monsters born
Of Cain, murderous creatures banished
By God, punished forever for the crime
Of Abel’s death.
“Can anyone tell me who Cain or Abel is?” we ask.
This year, only two out of 27 students had any idea about the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s relationship to Grendel is part of the monster’s motivation, and so we were forced to do a little “Bible as literature” storytelling. Unfortunately, the number of students who have no information about the most basic Old Testament stories, which happen to be the same stories in Torah and the Koran, grows every year.
Fortunately, we are a 1:1 district and our students are equipped to quickly use their devices to learn who Cain and Abel are, so we can stop and have them quickly research any allusion, but this immediate research on a digital device disrupts the flow of the story of Beowulf. Moreover, the need to constantly look up information ultimately turns every text into a hyper-text.
This constant researching could be reflected in measuring the lack of information our students have when they approach a task. Last December (2012), the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study were released and, despite significant improvements, students in the United States did not rank as high as did students from other countries. The results were discussed at a forum at the Washington Post where David Conley, CEO of the Education Policy Improvement Center noted,
“One of the great ironies is that we are headed into an age where students can get almost any piece of information off their phones, yet, what we are doing is getting more and more information into their heads. The goal is to go beyond that and make them understand that they have to own their own learning.” (Conley, Ed Policy Improvement Center)
I agree; students need to own content for successful recall and application. I have no objection to students improving their research skills; even Wikipedia is acceptable for quick textual reference research, but students must understand the content in their brains in order to apply that information when they encounter a text. Employing content and applying information is different from employing the skill of accessing information. Owning content is critical to understanding an author’s use of allusions or references. Owning content contributes to fluid reading and better understanding. However, not all owned content is equal.
My admiration for the plethora of animated cartoon sources that do provide story content with a modernized twist is a bit mixed. For example, the popular Shrek series is riddled with storybook allusions. Unfortunately, students often do not understand allusions in these modern re-tellings as parodies. Students need to be disavowed from a belief that Puss ‘n Boots is fat and wears a pink bow or that Snow White is very proud and vain. One could argue the same modernized treatment was done for the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales which have been made more palatable and child-friendly. However, these gruesome original stories were the allusions for writers in earlier centuries. When the Common Core State Standards suggested reading list is filled with the literature and informational texts from centuries past, the recently released cartoon parodies of the originals may not be particularly helpful in understanding these allusions.
While the students today are exposed to information from a myriad of sources, they need to own information to be educated. Students need content, stories and information that they understand, to apply to a text or problem without relying on a digital device. So, this winter, the heightened level of my discontent is measured by the increase of fingering for information on devices. I miss the light that would go off in the students’ eyes when they “knew something,” particularly if that “something” was a story.
I miss content.