Middle and high school language arts teachers are increasingly being taught to educate students in interdisciplinary units that not only reinforce the conventional knowledge covered in the “three R’s,” but in ways that stimulate different students in different ways and touch on the various learning styles that have become so important in the forming of the modern American curriculum. The conventional textbook based classroom that so many of today’s teachers were brought up on simply doesn’t work in a society where computer programs, the internet, video games and push button satellite TV fills a child’s day. We are increasingly called upon to spice up our lesson plans, get away from strict text-based learning and invite students on a journey of learning that will include not only language arts, but also other disciplines. We are encouraged to use a variety of mediums, including the arts, music and film. As the world gets smaller, faster and more technologically advanced, having a student study literature with nothing more than the text in front of him or her is becoming decreasingly effective. For modern education to really work for young people, it has to be able to compete with a world that becomes more and more fascinating as technological advances carry us to new heights. Learning must be an adventure for children. We need to lead them on a journey, an adventure that will stimulate them and stay with them long after they have left the classroom. When the Yale New Haven Teacher’s Institute offered the seminar “Geography Through Film and Literature” I knew that this would be the seminar that would help me lead my students on the adventure of a lifetime without ever leaving the classroom.
It has always been a dream of mine to travel the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Beijing, China to Moscow, Russia. There were several times while living in Asia that I came close to taking the trip, but as of this date have not made it. This seminar and unit will allow me to invite my students on the trip of my dreams. Through literature, film and geography this unit will allow us to explore cultures and worlds that most students will find very different from what they are used to. I hope to present both literature and film to the students as a place for them to creatively explore both other cultures and their own lives. I hope to introduce the students not only to different cultures, but also to a method of creative journal writing that will help make them more observant and critical thinkers. Through a series of lessons that will carry students from Beijing to St. Petersburg via railroad, students will be working with maps, exploring literature and film, and exploring the cultures of the various “stops” that our journey will be making. Students will be asked to keep a travelogue where they will comment on their experiences and explore the wonders of travel as they read the literature and examine worlds that many of them might never otherwise visit. Students will plot the journey on their own maps and will learn of the areas through writers such as Li Bai, Amy Tan, Lao Tze, Anton Checkov, Doestoevsky, Pushkin, Akhmatova and others. The films the students view will put them inside the areas being explored. Clothing, language and music will all be touched on as the students make this wonderful trip across Asia.
My rationale for doing the project is twofold. First of all, students in language arts classes are increasingly being asked to write personal responses to literature as part of the middle and high school curriculum. In the CT CAPT test high school students are asked to write about literature in ways that shows them using deeper thinking and deeper understanding. I am simply adding a component to this task by asking students not only to respond to literature in their travelogues, but to respond to film as well. Secondly, I am also basically creating a social studies unit here. Students will be working closely with maps, traveling through several countries and examining the culture of those countries through the films they will view. I want students to be able to recognize and label Asian countries and cities on their maps as well. In an arts magnet school the use of the arts in all of the subject areas is a central part of the school curriculum. The use of film is a wonderful tool in teaching that more widely captures the focus and interests of all the students. This form of visual arts will give students a new way of experiencing narrative. Film can be explored almost exactly as literature is. Setting, conflict, resolution, character all play an important role in film. I often tell my students to visualize when they read. Film is simply a ready-made visualization.
This unit should be a fun learning experience for children. Seventh and eighth graders in CT as well as all over the nation are increasingly being asked to write very structured and formulated essays. The five paragraph persuasive essay has turned many students away from writing. The students are being taught to be very noncreative in this type of writing. Students will enjoy keeping a travelogue as they travel the rail through Asia. At the same time they will be responding to the literature and film and growing to appreciate other cultures while also finding a new, powerful and fun outlet through their writing. The maps, which will be as individual as the creators themselves, will be excellent learning tools that students will be able to utilize along the long journey they will be undertaking. I hope teachers find the journey as fulfilling as I am certain the students will. All aboard!!