Sunday, July 12, 2015

What Batman and Superman can tell us about ethics

What do Batman, Superman and Dungeons and Dragons have in common?

The new trailer for the upcoming “Batman vs Superman” movie are upon us, and something is amiss!

Gone, apparently are the utopian days of the “Superfriends” I grew up with...
Smiling family portraits and spandex have given way to fistfights in thunderstorms and unkind graffiti.

This messes with my head. Shouldn't Superman and Batman be on the same side? But how can they, when their whole approach, indeed, their very definitions of "justice" might be completely different? Damn you, postmodernism. I preferred it when the Superfriends just got along and played frisbee with Wonder Dog on the front lawn of the Hall of Justice.

I was wondering how I might unpack this into an ethics lesson for students when I realised a connection with Dungeons and Dragons.

In D&D, players use a character alignment grid with a 3x3 matrix to describe the attributes of their character. Lawful -> Neutral -> Chaotic lays along one axis, and Good -> Neutral -> Evil lays along the other, thus:

Putting well-known fictional characters into such a grid is apparently, a popular game, as any Google image search shows.

So what attributes can we ascribe to Superman? He obeys the law. He believes in the system. He is incorruptibly (Black kryptonite notwithstanding) good, and takes his cues about what that notion of goodness is from an outside source (Remember, "Truth, justice and the American Way"?) He is not impelled by a sense of vengeance.

And Batman? He's a vigilante. He mistrusts the system's ability to deliver justice and gladly bypasses the system to deliver his own judgement on the scum of Gotham city. His wealth and power gives him the ability to make his own rules and determinations about what "good" is. Finally, he is motivated, at least in part, by his desire for vengeance over the death of his parents as a boy.

We call Superman's willingness to take "the American Way" (whatever that is) as the benchmark for goodness as a Deontological ethical framework. This is just a fancy way of saying that ultimate judgements about what is good and evil are externalised to some degree. They may be "handed down" to us, so to speak. People who believe in God may ascribe their sense of morality to scripture. Unfortunately, they then go on to be exceedingly proscriptive in areas in which scripture may not be clear. It has been said that trying to understand the true meaning of the Bible without interpretation is like trying to eat an apple without chewing it, but that leads us to a discussion we will have another time.

In contrast, Batman's ethical framework could be said to be Utilitarian or Consequentialist (two related terms), meaning that the "goodness" of an action is largely determined by the outcome, and not by some immutable external measure.

In fact, it has been said that the intent of a person employing a Utilitarian ethical worldview is less important than the outcome they achieve.

This leads us to the central question of any lesson you might lead on the question of superhero ethics, and that is

"Is it ever OK to do a bad thing for a good reason?"

Superman would answer that question "no", and Batman would probably answer "sometimes". What do you think?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Billions and Billions... The Scale of the Universe

We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.
--Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn

Can I just say, Carl Sagan is my all time, number one personal hero? And that I would happily teach children to evoke a sense of the numinous from the heavens for the rest of my days?
Right. Done.

Today's lesson facilitates a section of the NSW Stage 5 Science Syllabus, called "Earth and Space. This page simply gathers some online resources used in the lesson.

The opening 4 minutes of the movie, "Contact" (1997). A beautiful and haunting presentation of a scientifically accurate reverse zoom, starting at the Earth and backing away to encompass the entire visible Universe.


Bonus question: The music and speech overlaying the first two minutes are significant. Why? Clue: Google "S.E.T.I".
Über-geek Bonus: Read the book by Carl Sagan. It's awesome.

There are any number of more educational representations of the scale of the universe, such as the very famous "Powers Of Ten" video, made in 1977...

and this deserves to be contrasted with a much more recent mega-reverse-zoom from the American Museum of Natural History, which incorporates the latest scientific data from satellites and telescopes:

Here is one comparing not only the size of our moons and planets, but also comparing our Sun to other, larger suns.

However, I really like this one, a great interactive flash animation that takes us all the way from the ultra-microscopic world of the Quantum Foam and upwards to whole galactic clusters!

The Scale of the Solar System.

If the Sun were a ball, say, about 10 centimeters across (A largish Softball would do), then how big would the Earth be, and how far away? What about Jupiter? And far-away Neptune?
We will be going onto the school oval to explore these questions with some resources provided by NASA.

Sheets will be pre-printed representing each celestial body and affixed to bamboo garden stakes (each 1m high). A walking odometer is used (a wheel whose circumference is exactly 1 meter, and which is run along the ground via a handle, and which clicks for each complete revolution) to measure our distances. Students are given responsibility for "their" planet and the group pace out the indicated distances appropriate for our scale model. We quickly find that the earth is a pin-prick less than one millimeter wide, located ten and a half meters from our softball-sized sun. Jupiter, 1cm across and 54m away, and Neptune, one-third of Jupiter's size and well beyond the likely fence at 315m away!

The triumph of navigating the space probe Voyager II over this distance since 1977 should be evoked, as should it’s current mission beyond the Heliopause at a scaled distance of 1078m (at 23-8-2013).

The point may be driven home by observing that, at the same scale, the nearest star to the Sun, which is Alpha Centauri (4.37 light years away), will lay some 290,000km from the sports oval, which is the same as going completely around the Earth some seven times, or three-quarters the distance to the Moon.

Another point you may wish to make is that this kind of "all in a line" planetary alignment, called a Syzygy, almost never happens. A kind of alignment happens every few centuries, but it's not perfect. Astronomers talk about planets being in the same "quadrant", roughly the same part of the sky, with the next one due in the 29th century.

There are  a number of videos that present a scale model of the Solar System, such as this one from Bill Nye:
I take the view that, with Cosmology being such a largely theoretical topic, it's a good opportunity to do something tangible and which can employ student's own senses, rather than leaving the topic in the realm of the almost incomprehensible "billions and billions", both in terms of years and of light-years.

Part II: the scale of the Universe in Time.

We will wrap up our study of the scale of the Universe by looking briefly at its scale in time.
The best aid here will be a short video from the incomparable Cosmos program where Carl Sagan puts the life of the Universe, and of our existence as a species and as a civilisation, into perspective with his "cosmic calendar".

A History of Cosmology.
A mindmap of some concepts requiring coverage by the NSW Physics Syllabus. The ones in orange are the ones we are looking at today, including some of the key discoveries in Cosmology.

In the second lesson, we will complete our survey of  the scale of the Universe and turn our attention to the history of how we have understood its composition, age, and arrangement.

The lesson should take the form of a teacher-led exposition of the key ideas and figures, with picture aids as required (a sample are included below). Students should take dot-point notes and demonstrate those notes would be sufficient to recall the relevant facts in an exam.

Mesopotamian Cosmology: (~16th century BCE). A circular Earth surround by a "Cosmic Ocean"

Biblical Cosmology: (until the 4th century BCE, when the Greek, and later Ptolemaic views were regarded as consonant with scripture). Remind the class it took the Catholic church 400 years to apologise to Galileo. It consiseted of the Heavens existing above the (flat) Earth, and an Underworld below, with the "waters of chaos" surrounding.

Aristotalean Cosmology: (3rd century BCE).The Four Elements
Aristotle believed that all bodies are made up of four elements: earth, water, air and fire. These elements naturally move up or down, fire being the lightest and earth the heaviest. 
The cosmos is then made of a central earth (which he accepted as spherical) surrounded by the moon, sun and stars all moving in circles around it. The celestial bodies are perfect, and although finite in extent, were eternal in time. The initial motion of these spheres was caused by the action of a "prime mover" which acts on the outermost sphere of the fixed stars; the motion then trickles down to the other spheres through a dragging force.
Aristotle created a complex system containing 55 spheres which, despite being wrong, had some predictive power in explaining most of the observed motions of the stars and planets.
He posited "Aether" and "Quintessence" as two substances that filled the heavens. Aether was a kind of celestial "air" and "Quintessence" a magic substance which the stars (and other planets) were made of. The presence of a small amount of "Quintessence" on the Earth accounted for the influence the planets could have in people's lives.

Archimedes and The Sand Reckoner: (3rd century BCE)
Archimedes attempted to estimate an upper bound for the number of grains of sand required to fill the Universe. To do this, he used the heliocentric model of Aristarchus of Samos. The original work by Aristarchus has been lost, but it describes the Sun remaining unmoved while the Earth revolves about the Sun. In Archimedes' own words:

His [Aristarchus'] hypotheses are that the fixed stars and the Sun remain unmoved, that the Earth revolves about the Sun on the circumference of a circle, the Sun lying in the middle of the orbit, and that the sphere of fixed stars, situated about the same center as the Sun, is so great that the circle in which he supposes the Earth to revolve bears such a proportion to the distance of the fixed stars as the center of the sphere bears to its surface.

Interestingly, the figure he arrived at assumed the Universe was only about two light years across, and yet, if it were totally packed with sand, would contain about the same amount of nucleons (subatomic particles) as we now estimate the Universe has, which is about 10^80 (called the Eddington number). So Archimedes was kind of right, even while he was wrong.

Islamic Cosmology: (~8th to 13th Centuries)
The Persian world, for a time, preserved the knowledge of the Greeks at a time when Europe was in the Dark Ages. Various Islamic astronomers proposed ideas which were ahead of their time, and which did not gain experimental verification until the Renaissance began. These included:

  • Criticizing the idea of the Earth's centrality within the universe.
    Rejecting the Aristotelian view of a single world or universe in favour of the existence of multiple worlds and universes.
  • In contrast to ancient Greek philosophers who believed that the universe had an infinite past with no beginning, medieval philosophers and theologians developed the concept of the universe having a finite past with a beginning. Islamic cosmology incorporated this belief.
  • Determined that because the Milky Way had no parallax, it was very remote from the earth and did not belong to the atmosphere.
  • Proposed the Milky Way galaxy to be "a collection of countless fragments of the nature of nebulous stars.", and that it was "made up of many stars which almost touched one another and appeared to be a continuous image due to the effect of refraction from sublunary material".
  • Recognised that the stars are much larger than the planets, and thus arguing Astrology must be wrong; for if the planets were smaller, why should they be seen as having influence over human lives?

Tycho Brahe: (16th century)
The Tychonic System posited the planets orbit Sun, but that the Sun orbits Earth. This was in an attempt to preserve some elements of the Ptolemaic system but to come up with a better explanation for the restrograde movement of the planets as seen from Earth.

Nicholas Copernicus: (1543)
Copernicus revived the idea of the Heliocentric theory in his work "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium". However he believed that the orbits must be circular as circles were more perfect, even though observations of the planets showed errors when circles were assumed.

Johannes Kepler: (1610)
Kepler discovered that the orbits of the planets were elliptical rather than circular, with the sun as one focus of the ellipse. This allowed theory to almost perfectly match observation.
Kepler's three laws of planetary motion were:

  1. The orbit of every planet is an ellipse with the Sun at one of the two foci.
  2. A line joining a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time.
  3. The square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.
Isaac Newton: (1687 )
Newton formulated his "Laws of Motion" and gravity and this allowed the motion of
bodies in space to be explained through the effect of gravity acting under the inverse square law.

Pierre-Simon Laplace: (1825)
Laplace refined mathematical descriptions useful to astronomy; he determined that the orbits of the planets could only be stable if there existed some ratio in the orbital period between adjacent planets (for example, two orbits of Saturn equal five of Jupiter).
Laplace moved astronomy from a mathematical footing of mere geometry and into the realm of calculus, allowing more problems to be solved.
Laplace also developed the "Nebular hypothesis" which said that the Solar System began as the  accretion of a great cloud of dust and gas collapsing under gravity and rotating due to the law of conservation of angular momentum. He even speculated about bodies whose gravity was so great that even light could not escape them, anticipating the discovery of Black Holes.

Edwin Hubble: (1929)
Hubble discovered other galaxies by imaging them in photographic plates attached to his telescope and demonstrated that they were other "island universes" like our own Milky Way galaxy. Previously, our own galaxy was the only one that was known of. This greatly multiplied the scale of the Universe in our conception.
He also took the spectra (the mixture of light) from distant objects and observed that the further away an object was, the more that pattern of light was "shifted" toward the red part of the spectrum.  This is caused by objects receding at greater proportions of the speed of light, and by working backward, Hubble realised that the Universe must have been, at some point in the past, more concentrated (the theory which became known as the "Big Bang".

The above is only the briefest precis of the history of Cosmology. There are some developments not listed here, such as more recent discoveries afforded by the Cosmic Microwave Backround Explorer (COBE), and work undertaken to discover the nature of so called "Dark Matter", and whether this would allow the total mass of the Universe to remain "open", "closed" or "flat" ("flat" is presently the favoured theory). Related theories such as the Anthropic Principle should also be introduced to explain the "fine tuning" of the Universe (or at least the Earth) as favourable for life.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Here are some resources for a series of lessons on "Disasters".

This is a topic that should make it easy to engage your students. Who doesn't share a morbid fascination with things that blow up, fall down or cause mayhem?

First, let's make an inventory of catastrophes that might overtake us (Catastrophe, by the way, comes from a Greek word used in the theatre and simply means 'overturning' or a 'sudden turn'). We'll divide them into categories:

Natural disasters:
  • Earthquakes
  • Volcanos
  • Hurricanes / Typhoons/ Cyclones
  • Tornados
  • Tsunamis
  • Bushfires
  • Floods
  • Drought / Heatwave
  • Hailstorms
  • Landslides/ Avalanche
  • Pandemics
  • Asteroid or comet impact
Man-made disasters:
  • War
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Famine
  • Explosions
  • Crashes (rockets, planes, trains, cars, Zeppelin, etc)
  • Shipwrecks
  • Toxic spillage (chemical, radioactive)
  • Grey goo scenario
  • Quantum singularity / strange matter scenario
  • Overpopulation
  • Climate change / greenhouse effect
  • Tragedies of the Commons

A range of activities can be undertaken to explore these phenomena. These resources are geared towards the Life skills section of the Year 7-10 NSW Science Syllabus, and will be suitable for presentation to lower secondary or mixed-capacity classes requiring special assistance.

Students could view any number of the following video fragments and answer questions about those disasters, such as
  1. Categorising them as natural or man-made,
  2. Estimating its severity (by destruction or mortality),
  3. Commenting on the rarity or repeatability of the disaster,
  4. Describing the circumstances necessary for a person to be at risk (eg, living near a volcano, living near the coast, living in a certain climate or environment).
Engagement tasks:
Students could write a first hand account of a disaster, describing what happened and how it felt.

Students could construct a model of a volcano out of papier mâché or modeling clay and simulate an "eruption" with a variety of benign reactions. Sudsy vinegar and bi-carb soda is one option, potassium pomangenate (Condy's crystals) and Glycerine is another. Both would require an outdoor lesson to do safely.

Students could undertake an experiment to try and create a vortex. The simplest vortex experiment consists of two large soft drink bottles taped together, mouth to mouth, with one bottle filled with water.  Another experiment is more elaborate, involving setting up a large flat indoor space with five or more pedestal fans in a circle, angled slightly inward. A smoke machine in the centre makes the vortex of spinning air visible, although some effect could also be demonstrated with any gossamer material such as a silk scarf, plastic bag or styrene pellets.

A third outdoor experiment could be done under teacher supervision as a companion to a viewing of the Hindenburg disaster. Two party balloons can be filled; one with Helium to demonstrate a non-flammable lifting gas, and another with natural gas (if Hydrogen gas is too hard to come by). Both balloons are placed at the end of long poles and brought into contact with a candle flame. The relative safety of flammable and non-flammable gases will become obvious.

Video material:

Flooding (especially relevant for Hawkesbury Nepean residents - footage is of local floods).




Hurricanes, Typhoons and Cyclones (you might want to spell out that these are the same)


Asteroid Impact

Hindenburg Disaster
Oh, the humanity!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Romeo and Juliet

Here you will find a humorous 4 minute summary of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet made using some animation software called "Videoscribe" from Sparkol.
This software is available as a free trial and provides an easy-to-use interface for the creation of multimedia content.
Not only does this video teach you about Romeo and Juliet, but it should inspire you to think about how your students could use this (or a similar tool like Prezi) to create multimedia.

This was created by myself and fellow teacher Zach Jones.

You can go directly to the video at YouTube HERE, or click the play button in the embedded video below.

This is a demonstration of the kind of text that a Year 10 Advanced English Class will need to produce as an assessment task. The assessment task would require students to combine knowledge of their chosen text, critical analysis and digital textual creation skills, specifically with a direction to compare texts with similar themes or motifs.

The analytical skills developed throughout this task and the teaching sequence leading up to it will begin to scaffold students towards the level of text analysis required in years 11 and 12. 

The assessment task will ask students to create a plot summary of a written text of their choice, highlighting major themes or plot features. This could be recorded as a voice-over, and accompanied by images highlighting popular texts (movie, T.V. show, graphic novel etc) that share the identified plot devices or themes. The video will be composed using VideoScribe, and should be between 3 and 4 minutes long. Through this task students will achieve a number of the outcomes in the NSW 2012 English Syllabus: Outcome 1 (EN5-1A), as they compose an informative text through digital media that draws upon both written and visual texts. Students will also achieve Outcome 2 (EN5-2A), combining a range of skills and processes to respond to texts and compose their own digital text.

Teaching Sequence
This assessment will occur at the end of a unit in which students study John Boyne's 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas', and the film 'Rabbit-Proof Fence' through the theme of barriers. This will have given the students an understanding of the principles of intertextuality and analysis. The teaching sequence leading up to the issuing of this task will begin with showing the class a short video (for example the Tropfest 2011 finalist, 'Missing Her', available on Youtube). The teacher would then facilitate a class discussion in which students highlight the major plot devices and themes of this video. A mindmap could link these plot devices and themes to other texts the students suggest that utilise the same devices:

 (created using Mindmeister software).

This in-class activity will scaffold students into the assessment task, familiarising them with the identification of major themes and plot devices, and how these can be linked to similar popular texts.

At this point in the lesson, the demonstration video will be shown to students, modelling the type of text they will be required to create. The video will be explained by the teacher, especially highlighting the use of particular techniques (such as transitions and sound effects), in order to convey an understanding of the digital textual creation skills that can be utilised to convey an engaging message. An explanation of the task, and class discussion answering any questions will follow. A lesson will then be devoted to familiarising students with the digital tools necessary for the completion of this task, prior to work on the task itself. It is assumed that the school has purchased a license for VideoScribe, which the students can log on to and use the software. If this is unavailable, Prezi software is available for free, and could be used to develop a comparable product. Students will be advised that several programs will need to be used in combination to achieve the desired effect. The demonstration text used Audacity (for sound recording), Garageband (for editing and foley) and VideoScribe (trial version), with images and royalty-free sound clips sourced online, and tropes researched through sites like the excellent

This type of digital text offers a number of affordances, including engagement, and the capacity to highlight relations between voice and images without specifically explaining them. One benefit of this text type in the context of the task assigned to students is that it requires the use of several different ICT tools to create a single product. This combination of ICT tools, text analysis and the comparison of texts required in this task make for a rich learning experience, engaging higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and creation, as identified in Bloom's revised taxonomy. This task will scaffold students towards the higher levels of text analysis, comparison, and contrast required in stage 6 English. The demonstration text highlights the intertextuality that forms a core component of this task, and this will be explained to students in the teaching sequence. Students are not only able, but are required to employ this rhetorical device, combining images from visual texts with a voice recording, detailing the major plot devices and themes of a written text. They will learn to identify the common themes that run through many works, even in different genres. Romeo and Juliet, for instance, evokes West Side Story, The Notebook, Boy Meets Girl, Avatar, The Godfather, and many others (feuding families, forbidden love, secret marriage, etc). If the text chosen matches the archetype of the Hero’s Journey, reference could be made to Joseph Campbell’s TheHero of a Thousand Faces, and its identification of tropes seen in Star Wars, The Matrix and so on (The chosen one, the sage, the refusal of the quest, etc).

The demonstration text also highlights the useful use of humour in creating an engaging narrative. Similarly, the combination of written, visual and oral/aural texts required in this task, cater to a variety of learning preferences in students. Students will not be specifically informed of this affordance, but will benefit from it regardless as they complete the task, and, to a lesser extent, simply in viewing the demonstration text itself.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Decade study - the 1970s

We will be looking at some videos from the 1970s. Some news, some advertisments, and we will be using them to answer some inquiry questions.

Clip 1: News Events of the 1970s  (1m15s)

Clip 2:  TAA Advertisement (1972) (28s)

Clip 3:  Uncle Sam Deodorant Commercial (38s)

Clip 4: McDonalds advertisement

Clip 5: Channel 7 "Colour your world" station ident, 1976

Clip 6: Cox Southern Motors ad (1978), (1m)

Clip 7: Tronic Tape ad (1978 - John Laws)

Clip 8: The dismissal of the Whitlam Government (5 minutes)

Clip 9: A selection of 1970s popular music

Clip 10: Vietnam War protest in Melbourne, 1971 (3m)

If time remains, we can fill the lesson with other 1970s themed videos from this excellent YouTube Playlist:


Thursday, March 21, 2013

They're Made Out of Meat

In this post, I'm putting some lesson plan information you might find useful to teach some lessons about a great, humorous science fiction short story by Terry Bisson called They're Made Out Of Meat. (<-- link takes you to the text of the story)

A still from the best adaptation of They're Made Out Of Meat.
The story was first published in Omni magazine in 1990.
It’s the story of two alien beings conversing about their discovery that the intelligent life on Earth, is made out of meat. Flesh. Us. This is evidently a disturbing and nonsensical proposition, and the beings decide to delete the records of their discovery to avoid further discomfort.
The story works because it’s punchy and brief, with the dialogue between the two protagonists flowing and exuding variously disbelief, bemusement and yet a very alien detachment to the hopes of mankind.

This story has been cited in sociological and philosophical contexts. One example is its use to demonstrate “Carbon chauvinism”; the idea that intelligent life can only “look like us”. This has an obvious analogue at a cultural level. Is our way of looking at other ways of being, the only valid way? How do we feel at the way the aliens treat us? This relates directly to a number of cross-curriculum priorities stated in the NSW English syllabus, including “Ethical understanding”, “Intercultural understanding” and “Diversity and difference” (p9 of the 2009 Syllabus)

The original story gives no clues as to the location or physical description of the protagonists. Bisson has presented the story theatrically and provides this description:

The set is a deep space galactic panorama projected on a screen--the Universe. Two lights moving like fireflies among the stars on the screen represent the the TWO VOICES

Lesson 1 begins with the best adaptation of the story, a short film made by Stephen O’Regan in 2005. As you can see, it dispenses with Bisson’s setup, and demonstrates its wonderful malleability.

I wrote to O’Regan (now in New York) to ask about how his version differs from the text (the flourishes with costuming, the behaviors of the extras, the music, and his excisions from the original. He wrote back:

Regarding the excisions...we shot all the dialogue...but simply dragged too long on screen no matter how clever the writing was on page. So I had to be tough on it. one point I cut it down to a 2 minute version. 

The video is watched twice. Once in isolation so it can be absorbed without preconception. Then again reading along with the text to compare it to the original. Differences are noted. Students examine how the choices affect the meaning of the story. Multiple discourses are evoked: How are humans represented? How are the “aliens” (focus on “otherness”)? Does the film exist in only one genre? Are there analogies between the aliens attitudes to humanity and our attitude towards other complex life on Earth? (Dolphins? Termites? Primates? Western culture vs other cultures?). How does costuming, the music, or the pacing of the dialogue affect meaning? Could this story suggest an answer to the “Fermi Paradox”? (the lack of evidence for intelligent life in the universe when the scientific consensus is that, statistically, it could be common). Why would the aliens be so averse to the idea of sentient meat? (Aside: our word meat comes from old English mete, meaning food generally. Are we food?)

As far as language is concerned, we explore several features. It is vernacular (The use of “Omigod”, “Nope”). Adjectives, exposition, in fact any context, are lacking. The repetition of the word “meat” is so pervasive, the phenomenon of “Semantic Satiation” occurs (when a word is repeated so much, it loses its meaning. The falling-apart of signifier and signified. Who knew there was a term for that?) As the text is entirely dialogue, with no descriptive element or exposition, we are left to infer the what/who/where. What effect to these choices have? (For example, do we end up thinking of this meat as, say, a steak, than our own meat? Our own grey matter and viscera?)

If time permits, vignettes from two other filmed adaptations and one audio-only adaptation can be sampled (although I don’t recommend watching them all in their entirety) for contrast. How do they differ? For example, in one, the alien kills a human. Do they use the "whole" text? Which one is best? I'll wager the one with the most changes. Can you cite other works that have changed in adaptation? What about the the “reboot” phenomenon in Hollywood? The difference between the Tolkien books and movies, etc. 

At the end of the lesson, students are grouped and told in the next lesson(s) they will be creating their own interpretation of the story.

In lesson 2, students choose from some options to extend their exploration. They could record an audio version of the dialog (in pairs) or a video version (groups of 3 or 4) using what are likely to be a plethora of student owned smartphones or iPods. Students choose which role to play, and more importantly, what could be added to their performance to make it distinctive. For those struggling for inspiration, suggest: Being robots, speaking with an unnatural cadence, deliberately mispronouncing words, emphasizing a particular emotion (disgust, incredulity, amusement), wearing attire (sunglasses, hats?), dubbing their dialog over footage of other animals or objects (Two dogs? Two rubbish bins? Sock puppets?). As the aliens are evidently in “human” form, are they phantasms? Have they “possessed” two bodies? Either assumption may change the performance. Could intertextuality between this work and other texts (X-Files? Invasion of the Body Snatchers?) inform or influence our understanding or representation here?

Post processing in a computer might alter the pitch of voices or the hue of skin. Imagination is more important than mastery in execution, and students should at least present some evidence of their intent in development by the end of the lesson if the project will go on. Some students may choose a representation that does not lend itself to a recorded format, and has to be performed live. Some students may choose to re-write the story in a different genre or perspective, or to write a sequel.

Enterprising students should be given leave to develop their project in this lesson but not record it if they have undertaken to film or record it elsewhere. These two lessons may be assumed to be the first of 3 or more lessons on the subject (the assignment criteria didn’t say they couldn’t be). Future lessons could be ICT lessons in video or audio editing, podcasting or vodcasting the raw material accompanied with a discussion about how the medium and technology enable new meanings or change the perception of the text.

The textbook Charged with Meaning (p275) suggests that the principles necessary to support students in creating screen or drama narratives are to encourage collaboration, promote self-management, to express contemporary cultural knowledge, employ flexible learning in space/time, permitting trial and error, and utilizing intertextual knowledge. These activities are geared toward applying these pedagogical principles.


 The freeloader adaptation (2005) directed by Stephen O'Regan. In my view, the best adaptation of Bisson's story there is.

Another adaptation, using the whole story, but the alien kills a human (definitely not in the original!)

Yet another one, not very good.

Lastly, here's a link to an audio-only radio adaptation.  

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Raven

Edgar Allan Poe's 1845 poem, The Raven is one of my all time favourites.

This post is, unlike others on this blog, for students. Rather, I have collected here some resources you as a teacher may wish to use to present the poem to high school students.

First, some audio visual links. The Simpsons version is wonderful (can you believe it dates from 1990?) There are no good versions on YouTube, but a passable one here:


It's far superior to other youtube renditions that are little more than readings with photos like those from Bob McGraw, John DeLancie or Christopher Walken

I'm also a fan of the Interactive Raven web page, which allows you to select a stanza and have the poetic devices, and some difficult terms, explained.

I've prepared some sheets with the poem, and some resources relating to the poem for you:

Click this thumbnail for a PDF of the poem

Click this thumbnail for a PDF of a glossary of likely problem words and phrases from the poem

Should your students ask about a Hollywood movie titled "The Raven" with John Cusack, you can disabuse them of the thought it has anything to do with the poem. It's a murder mystery that casts a fictionalised version of Poe as a sleuth in pursuit of a serial killer who is using Poe's own horror stories as inspiration. Sounds insipid.

Here's all you need to know about Poe himself:

  • Born: Boston, January 19, 1809. Died: October 7, 1849 (aged 40)
  • Born as Edgar Poe. Orphaned young when his mother died shortly after his father abandoned the family.
  • Taken in by John and Frances Allan, of Richmond, Virginia, but they never formally adopted him.
  • Attended the University of Virginia for one semester but left due to lack of money. 
  • Had a contentious relationship with his foster father John Allan, so hardly ever used his middle name. He always published as "Edgar A. Poe"
  • Published his first work, a book of poetry, at the age of 18.
  • In 1835 (at the age of 26), he married Virginia Clemm, his 13-year-old cousin. She died of Tuberculosis 12 years later.
  • By 1843, Poe was so broke that he found himself down to his last $4.50 and spent time stopping people on the street to ask for money for food.
  • When "The Raven" was published in 1845, it became an instant hit.
  • Poe was dead, two years later.
  • The cause of his death is unknown and has been variously attributed to alcohol, brain congestion, cholera, drugs, heart disease, rabies, suicide, tuberculosis, and "other agents"
  • In 2000, New York University announced plans to demolish the home where Edgar Allan Poe lived from 1841 to 1844 in order to make room for its law school. Outraged preservationists and Poe fans took to the streets in protest, leading to a compromise in which NYU promised to use the bricks from the original façade in the new building.
  • Every year since 1949, an anonymous fan known as the "Poe Toaster" has visited Poe's grave on the night of his birthday and has left a partially filled bottle of cognac and three roses.
  • As a student at West Point, Poe used to tell fellow cadets that his grandfather was the infamous traitor Benedict Arnold. Great story, not true.

Here are my edited lesson notes:

These are two lessons where we look in detail at Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, in its context as a “short text”.

Poe’s poem is iconic, and lends itself to being examined in its original written form as well as appreciated also as a performance piece (lesson 1), and even as parody (lesson 2). I chose it because it’s a classic, cracking supernatural “scary story” (horror, always a winner), because there are adaptations (eg the Simpsons version) that make an otherwise fusty poem fun, because it will challenge students in terms of their vocabulary and their knowledge of metaphors drawn from mythology, because the enquiry questions force students to “take sides” and realize that meaning is negotiated, not handed down, and frankly because there are lots of great resources already out there on the poem.

Ambitiously, I intend to perform the poem, from memory, in a setting easily created (a darkened room such as the school’s drama room), by the light of a candle, with some thunderstorm effects playing softly in the background. I’ve actually done this, the whole poem, from memory.

We spend some time talking about the metalanguage of the poetic devices used by Poe (assonance, alliteration, trochaic octameter, etc), but this is intentionally brief, and yields to a more detailed analysis of the poem’s allusions, meanings, and themes. Students will be invited to make a personal response by stating what they think, or how it makes them feel. What is its value as… a scary supernatural story? A tragic tale of lost love? A study of the descent into madness? I will encourage students to look deeper and to suggest that these, and other layers can be simultaneously true and valid responses. Poe’s own essay on the composition of the poem can be introduced, and his views of value of the poem being in the “totality of its impression on the soul” (paraphrase), and the almost mechanistic process he used to craft it can be cited. We can ask: Is the only valid view of the poem Poe’s view, or do we create our own meaning arising from the interaction of the text with our own minds, experiences and culture?

Lesson 1 builds the scaffold: Present the poem in a theatrical environment isolated from distractions. Demonstrate first hand its mood and pace. Examine the poem for difficult words or phrases so meaning is not lost because of any ignorance of terms. Begin to explore the allusions, the mythological and biblical references, and comb the text for the phrases that set the scene, the time, and the position and internal state of the narrator. The brief treatment of the metalanguage can go here.

The enquiry questions may be introduced, but not debated, since this is the purpose of lesson 2.

Lesson 2 begins with the adaptation of the poem that appeared on the first Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode in 1990, narrated by James Earl Jones. Online versions are available, but not on YouTube (see my blog). Not only is this good fun, but it challenges students to examine how texts change in adaptation or parody (e.g note the Simpsons version excises Stanza 15 and 16), and we ask “Is this as valid as the unadulterated work?”, “Would it matter if Poe would not have approved?” and muse on the phenomenon of the “mashup”; blendings of texts, even between 168 year old poems and postmodern pop-culture cartoons. What other blendings of classic works and pop-culture can we think of (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet? How about the book Pride and Prejudice, and Zombies?) When does an adaptation so depart from the original it becomes… something else? (eg old vs. new Battlestar Galactica?)

Then I reintroduce the enquiry questions and put the students in a fishbowl or debate format as they argue for or against some key questions surrounding meaning. Was the Raven actually speaking? Did the Raven have a message? Were the questions the Raven was “answering” all in the narrators head? Was he going mad?

Here are some enquiry questions you can use (adapted from another source)

  1. Do you think the speaker, the narrator of the poem, is insane? Is there another explanation for his behaviour?
  2. How does the narrator’s behaviour change over the course of the poem?
  3. Is it possible that the speaker is making up or imagining some of the weird events in this poem?
  4. Do you think the Raven pushes our speaker over the edge, or does he do it to himself? Is nature torturing him, or his own mind?
  5. Why do you think a raven was for Poe a useful symbol? What if, instead, the ghost of Lenore had showed up?
  6. Do you think religion plays an important role in this poem? If so, where do you see the evidence?
  7. The speaker half-suspects the Raven is an evil spirit. Does this seem reasonable to you? What evidence can you muster for or against this theory?
  8. Does the talking Raven actually seem supernatural to you? Is it possible that there is nothing going on here that can't be explained in a scientific manner?
  9. Does it seem like the idea of heaven provides any lasting hope in this poem?

And here are my links to my two lesson plans, in PDF format