During my first class, I set the tone for discussions with our Rights Balloon exercise (see previous post), hopefully impressing upon the students that it’s ok to see things differently than others. Then we move on to an essential question that will guide our discussions during the year: How do you know it’s good? How do you make a judgement or evaluation of an idea or a piece of literature?
To get them thinking about this concept, I come armed with a playlist. It’s a mix of classics and one-hit wonders. I instruct them to write down numbers 1-10 (the # of songs I have) and that I will play the first part of each song to them. They are to write down their answer to the question: Is this good music? They simply write G for good, B for bad and N for neutral. I tell them not to discuss it, comment or even snicker. I want their gut reactions, ones that are not influenced by their peers. We start with Mozart, cruise through Bieber and Black, The Stones and The Beatles, U2 and The Back Street Boys. My grand finale is the Barney theme song. Once we’ve been through all of the songs, we discuss their reactions. I ask “Is it good music?” for each selection. I start with Mozart and will get a mixed reaction. Several will say it’s baaaaad. But then I ask how old it is, how many instruments it takes to create the music. We have a discussion about what the word “good” means. If you don’t like it, but it’s been around for hundreds of years and many, many people listen to it, isn’t it good music? Is it better to say, it’s good, but it’s not my thing? The Barney song is a good example of this too–teenagers usually groan when it starts to play, but a class of five year olds would get up and dance–it’s good music for the age group it was created for.
Next, we start to compare the classics to the one-hit wonders: will people still listen to John Lennon’s Imagine thirty years from now? Probably. But what about Rebecca Black’s Friday? Not likely. So the next question is this: What makes something a classic, and something else a fly-by-night hit? In other words, what makes it good? Great discussion usually ensues.
Once we discuss all of the music selections, I move on to reading an essay with them called, “How Do You Know it’s Good”, by Marya Mannes, the inspiration for my lesson. It’s dated, and somewhat challenging to read, but I use it for two important reasons: it delivers the message I want my students to get, and it’s a good resource to model active reading. Before I begin, I ask them if they have ever read an assignment, actually gone through the whole thing, and not have a clue what they read, either because they didn’t understand it, or because they were actually thinking about something else the whole time? Many agree that they have. So we discuss that your presence is not all that is required when you read; you need to actively engage with the text. If you get to the end of a passage and don’t understand it, reread it. Reread it again if you need to. If, after several attempts you still don’t get it, make a note and ask someone the next day; write down questions. If you don’t know a word and can’t figure it out from the context, look it up. And, if the author causes you to think of something, or question her points, write those down as well.
After this discussion, I read the essay to them, modelling the process I would have gone through the first time I read it. I highlight passages that I think they might find difficult and break them down. I stop and ask them questions as we go, building their understanding of Mannes’ points. Finally, I want to make sure that they get her point: in order to make good judgments, you need experience. She states that that the more you read and see and hear, the more equipped you’ll be to practice that art of association which is at the basis of all understanding and judgment. She concludes her essay with this advice: deciding whether a piece of literature or a work of art
is a decision which only you, on the basis of instinct, experience, and association, can make for yourself. It takes independence and courage. It involves, moreover, the risk of wrong decision and the humility, after the passage of time, or recognizing it as such. As we grow and change and learn, our attitudes can change too, and what we once thought obscure or “difficult” can later emerge as coherent and illuminating. Entrenched prejudices, obdurate opinions are as sterile as no opinions at all. Yet standards there are, timeless as the universe itself. And when you have committed yourself to them, you have acquired a passport to that elusive but immutable realm of truth. Keep it with you in the forests of bewilderment. And never be afraid to speak up.
I wrap up the lesson with my message, very similar to Mannes’: I want you to read and think and evaluate, but most importantly, I want you to always be willing to speak up, to tell us what is on your mind. It’s not an easy thing for some teenagers to do, so we need to try to cultivate an environment where it’s safe for them to express their ideas.
If you’d like a structured version of this lesson, you can find it here.
Check out my other favourite ways to start the year here: Part One, Part Three and Part Four.