Teachers & Technology: English with an Edge


Teachers & Technology is a regular column featuring teachers who share specific technologies or strategies that have made positive differences in their students.

Andie Brown believes in sedition--well, a form of it, anyway. She purposely gives her students the assignment to challenge the status quo, and they use technology as a means toward that end. The result is truly meaningful education; students learn that what they do may have a powerful impact.

Andie Brown

School:Parkway South High School, Manchester, MO
Subjects:Composition (for advanced college credit); John Grisham and Social Issues; Vonnegut: Science Fiction & Social Commentary
Started teaching:1978
Formal technology training:several workshops in using iMovie

What I use: In my Vonnegut class, we study contemporary satire. The final assignment is for students in groups of two or three to create a three- to five-minute satiric film. They must focus specifically on at least one aspect of modern American society and comment in such a way that it causes their audience to think deeply about the subject and make them laugh or at least chuckle. I use Mac computers and iMovie.

Once the groups are set and they've identified their subjects, we brainstorm awards categories for our RIDDYS, an acronym for Ridiculing Ignorance & Debunking Degenerate Yankee Schlock. Past categories include Best Film, Best Sound, Most Likely to be Administratively Offensive, and Best Recovery.

The results: The students, instead of limping their way to graduation with acute cases of senioritis, really get into the project. Even students that I wasn't sure had really grasped the concept of satire did great projects. Because students vote on the RIDDYS, an outcome I got but didn't predict was that they were tremendously supportive of one another--even at the bitter end.

I was very nervous about sending students out and about to film. I was even more nervous that an administrator who happened into my room during the film festival wouldn't understand what they were seeing. I think it's probably a good thing that I'm not a teacher who is new in the profession. Being "experienced" or just plain fossilized is definitely a plus in this case.

Figuring out a way to take advantage of something like YouTube was my aha moment. Students today sometimes don't believe that they can make a difference in society. In a pendulum swing that's polar, where my generation tuned out, this generation has plugged in, but the effect is the same. When the students see their small movie projects screened and really get to feel the response of the audience, they seem to deeply understand the place satire has in a free society. They also see that there are many, varied ways to seek change, but that humor and art are two of them.

I recall a young man who was amazingly intelligent but so bored with school that his grades were average and below. His satire about campus police was hilarious and pointed. He spent way more time on this project than anything else we'd done all semester, and the final product was great. He left high school on a high note I don't believe he would have reached without this techno-English assignment.

Another group, the primary writer of which is currently at Johns Hopkins, wrote a hilarious "end of the year" spoof--the kind we're relentlessly treated to in December--except theirs were predictions of our future. A couple of my favorites were: "In the year 2008, after winning the presidential election, Mitt Romney will move the capital to Salt Lake City and our new capital building will be the Mormon Tabernacle. And finally, in the year 2076, on her deathbed, Paris Hilton will demand the firing of all nuclear weapons because, 'without her, the world is useless.'"

My advice: Best Buy has a grant program each fall. That's one way to get cameras.

This is one of those authentic assignments that take lots of hours. It's worth it. Plus, just lock the door when you're viewing them. You can turn off the TV before you open the door!

If I could have, free, one piece of hardware or one software program for my classroom, it would it be:
Adobe Premiere and Nero for PC's or iMovie's newest version, GarageBand, and a top-shelf Mac laptop.

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About the author: Neal Starkman is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

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