Teaching The Hero's Journey: The "call to adventure" vs. the "call to heroism"

I often get tripped up by the hero rejecting the call to adventure in the "official" hero's journey, since in so many of the examples I can think of, the hero is champing at the bit to start the adventure. 

I can illustrate this with the two films I'd like to show in class to introduce the hero's journey, and map it as a class: Stardust and Moana. Neither of the heroes of these stories refuses the call to adventure (on the contrary, they chase it with a zeal that encroaches on foolhardiness).

In Stardust, Tristan is so eager to get to the "extraordinary world" that he successfully gets past the man whose family has been guarding the gate for centuries. 

In Moana, Moana is so eager to start her adventure that she nearly gets killed attempting to sail past the reef early in the film (Maui refuses the call, and one point I'll want to draw out in Moana is that every story contains multiple heroes' journeys, and would be very different stories if different people were put in the center of it). 

As I'm typing, it occurs to me that Finding Nemo is a good example of a hero reluctant for adventure, but the "reluctant hero" definitely feels like a (mostly comic) subgenre.

So anyway, here's what just occurred to me: having an adventure is not the same thing as being a hero. Tristan is eager for adventure, but it takes him an incredibly long time to give up on kidnapping a star (making him actively villainous) and instead become a hero. Moana is thrilled to go on an adventure (and unlike Tristan she is morally driven from the start of the film) but when things get really tough she stops believing she CAN be a hero, and literally refuses the ocean's call to heroism. 

How I will teach this is to ask students at the start of class to write about a time they had an adventure, and a time they did something heroic, making it clear that they don't need to be the same incidents. Then we'll discuss the difference between "having an adventure" and "being a hero" and introduce that nuance to the hero's journey. 

How the Hell did it Come to This? A Reading List

How the Hell The Right Came to This

"How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind" by David Wong (Cracked.com October 12, 2016) - the title is classic misleading clickbait. This was one of the most insightful pieces I read during the campaign. The fact that it was published on the online platform of a Mad Magazine ripoff boggles my mind.

"The Great Republican Revolt" by David Frum (The Atlantic, January/February 2016) - this was written over a year ago, and it was one of the first pieces I thought about after Trump won. Basically its about the difference between Washington conservatives and the Republican base. 

"Why Nobody Cares the President is Lying", by Charles Sykes (New York Times, February 4th 2017) - Charles Sykes is a former conservative radio host who saw the way conservative media was changing from the inside. 

"Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology" by David Roberts (Vox, May 19th 2017) - This is an analysis of why facts don't matter much at the moment.

The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter (The Atlantic, 1964) - this is over fifty years old, but Hofstadter nailed it.

How the Hell the Left Came to This

"How the Left Lost Its Mind" by McKay Coppins (The Atlantic July 2, 2017) - an account of the left's own hyperpartisan, conspiracy-obsessed media landscape. The writer makes it clear that it's dwarfed by its counterpart on the right, but it still exists and it's not good. Also the graphic (a tinfoil pussy hat) is pretty clever.

"Fairfax County, USA" by Matt Karp (Jacobin, November 28 2016) - an analysis of the Clinton campaign's unfortunate strategy of winning the presidency by appealing to wealthy, college-educated moderates

When I found my words on someone else's website. A story a tweet and two emails

I demonstrated Turnitin.com to my students by submitting a draft chapter I was writing for a book about project-based learning. 

This wasn't a great move: the submission lit up like a Christmas tree with incidents of "plagiarism" - most of it was self-plagiarism, because I had copied chunks of previous work into the doc to use as guides. 

But a few lines all came from a South African education website, all from a post about project-based learning. The lines all looked familiar - I double-checked, and sure enough, they all appeared in the book I wrote in 2012, Work that Matters: The Teacher's Guide to Project-based Learning.

I did this sleuthing during class, while my students were posting their own papers on Turnitin, waiting for their results, and comparing scores. 

A few of my students were fascinated by my unfolding plagiarism drama. One student documented this sleuthing, and tweeted it:

It took a day before I wrote the "strongly worded email". Here's what I wrote:

Hi _________

I was looking at a post from Schoolnet SA, and I recognized some of the material in it from Work that Matters: The Teacher's Guide to Project-based Learning, which I wrote for the Innovation Unit in 2012 (for example, in the list of essential questions, and the information about check-ins).

Work that Matters is a free resource, and it's great to see it being used around the world. I also know it's been used in lots of other resources, not always with credit, so it's entirely possible that you've never seen it before! 

I'd be grateful if you could acknowledge as a source on the page.

All the best
A few days later, I got a reply:
Hi Alec

Thanks so much for writing and apologies for not replying sooner. 

Thanks for pointing out the resource Work that Matters: The Teacher's Guide to Project-based Learning. What a superb booklet - your writing ability is excellent. I don't recall seeing the booklet before but I wrote the post a few years back. I apologise profusely for not acknowledging your resource (or the resource where I took it from). How embarrassing! I have now acknowledged your resource, hopefully in the appropriate places. Thank you very much for pointing this out so pleasantly.

Warm regards

The page in question has been updated. So, happy ending!

The tension between “personal” authenticity and “real world” authenticity

It's surprisingly difficult to reconcile work that engages every student's passions with work that leads to outcomes that are meaningful on a scale that goes beyond students and their families.

Here's what I mean by that: if students are doing a project that connects with what is meaningful to them personally, everyone will be doing their own project. I'm a big fan of this, and kids still work collaboratively when they do this, because they critique each other's work.

What this work lacks is scale - when everyone's doing their own thing, you can't so something like run a big science experiment. If you're doing meaningful, cutting-edge science, you need everyone working on what they're commissioned to work on. This means that you're going to be doing work that doesn't resonate with everybody - or rather, you might be able to find a piece of the project that resonates with everybody, but there will be a lot of work that people need to do that they don't find innately interesting. This applies equally to teacher-led and student-led projects: even if you are doing a large-scale science project that's student-driven, it will only work if it's driven by a few students, with everyone else getting on board to help realize their vision.

This means that you need to help individual students find their own “entry points” into a project that will make it meaningful to them.

There are moments (such as the project launch and the exhibition) where every student gets pumped up and joins in for pretty much the same reasons, and it feels good to be working as one big group. But full-group enthusiasm is ephemeral. It doesn't get you through a six-week project.

When you're talking about the project (as opposed to the project launch day), engagement is much more like trying to pass a bill through congress - every single person has their own particular interest that you need to appeal to. And the very fact that one group of people is excited about a project will be enough to make other people think "ehhh, this probably isn't my thing."

This isn't really surprising. Imagine going up to a group of fifty adults and saying "Hey, you all live in the same general vicinity, I'd like you all to work on a complex and important science experiment together, over the course of several months." It just wouldn't fly.

The extraordinary thing is the extent to which most students, most of the time, are ready to go out on a limb and give something a try, even it it's not the thing they would personally choose to do with their time.

Subjects and Folders, Projects and Tags

School subjects do harm to educators' power to reason. Here's what I mean by that: imagine a school stops teaching history. There's just no class called "history" anymore. Let me guess what you're thinking about this school: its students will be intellectually malnourished. Depending on your ideological predilection, here are a few worries you might have:"they'll grow up unmoored from their heritage", "they won't learn from the mistakes of the past (for example, how can you understand the potential implications of this political moment without knowing about Germany in the 1930s? And how can you understand Black Lives Matter if you don't know about the Civil Rights movement?)", "without turning a critical lens on the stories we tell ourselves about the past, students won't be able to understand the power structures that undergird all contemporary discourse." 

OK, I share all these concerns. But here's a thought experiment: let's say that in every school across the United States, all students took a class called Philosophy. In it, students learned about the fundamental principles of argument, and the various attempts across the millenia to create a coherent theory of justice, of judging right and wrong, and (more recently) of fundamental rights. They learned the mechanics of argument and logic. Now imagine that the schools decide to stop teaching philosophy, an replace it with history. Wouldn't that seem like a catastrophic loss to these fictional educators?

One explanation for our attachment to our current slate of school subjects is what behavior economists call the "endowment effect", by which people tend to overvalue what they own ("overvalue" in the sense that people tend to want more money for things they already own than other people are willing to pay). 

In the case of school subjects, we fear what we would lose by getting rid of a subject. But this fear implies something totally inaccurate: it implies that there is a really good reason that we teach the set of subjects that we teach. But if you consider the skills and knowledge that you need as an adult right now (let alone what we might need in the future) it's obvious that English, History, Pure Math, Physics, Biology, and Chemistry are an odd set of categories to build an education around. And I'm not making an instrumentalist "we should be educating people for the careers of today" argument here. Rather, I think this is a weird list of subjects for ANY POSSIBLE desired educational outcome. The only outcome it fulfills is "to become an educated person according to the current definition" and arguing for the current list of subjects on that basis is (as we'd all know if we'd taken philosophy in school) circular reasoning. 

Here's what I think: subjects are a weird way to organize school. If we were creating the concept of "school" now, there's no way we would use them as an organizing principle, because they aren't a good way to organize learning. They are, in fact, a "folder" system, and what we need is a "tag" system. 

The "folder" system was, until recently, the only way to organize information: when I was growing up, information was mostly stored on paper, and sorted in folders. Because organizational structures tend to outlive their usefulness (sound familiar?), most computers still use folders to organize information. 

This is not optimal - documents do not have only one characteristic and if I'm trying to file an interesting article that argues that you can learn a lot about the 2016 presidential election by studying the fight over Title Nine in universities, what folder should it go in? "Political Analysis?" "Current Events?" "Women's Rights?" "Sports?" "Higher Education?" "Argumentative Writing?" It depends on what I want to use it for - and what I want to use it for will vary from semester to semester. 

Because of this, computers increasingly (though not as quickly as I would like) organize files by tagging rather than by folders. That article about Title 9 can only go into one folder, but I can give it as many tags as I want. 

Education should have a tagging system. If students are learning through interdisciplinary projects, it's easy to identify what they are and aren't learning in each project - which means it would be easy to give it "tags". Over the course of the year, these tags would make it easy to see what skills and information a student had been taught, and what they hadn't (and if these tags connected to assessment - for example through portfolios and Presentations of Learning, you'd be able to see what the student had actually LEARNED which is a lot more important than what they've been "taught"). 

So let's ditch "subjects" as an organizing principle - they make us think in terms of what's taught rather than what's learned, and they reinforce the endowment effect in totally unhelpful ways. 

For more on "subjects", check out "Changing the Subject" by Larry Rosenstock and Rob Riordan, which Andrew Gloag turned into an animation narrated by Larry. 

A logistical report from the midst of a podcasting project - mostly about mics, some thoughts on punk

We're approaching the final week of the Mad Props Project, students have recorded a lot of tape and are starting to record narration, and today most (but not all) of the computers stopped recognizing one of the yetis (those are mics, for the uninitiated) and at least one computer appeared to have stopped recognizing all of the yetis. 

So I have some observations and thoughts about the technical aspects of recording with students.

1. The existential nightmare of the unrecognized device

Two different yetis are now in some state of non-functionality. One (donated, which means trying to claim warranty will be complicated) just stopped responding entirely. The light on the mute button that indicates that the Yeti is alive and communicating just doesn't come on. I've tried different cords, different USB ports, different laptops, and both mac and PC and I'm getting nothing. No idea what to do about that (and the internet hasn't been forthcoming either). 

The second problem yeti plugs in, lights up, and then doesn't register with the computer, which (I eventually realized) acknowledges its existence on a not-immediately-obvious window as an "unrecognized USB device" (or something like that), but refuses to go any further. A former student checked it with all the PC laptops and found that it worked with exactly two laptops.

I'm hoping our IT guy will be able to solve this, but I sure can't, and it raises an interesting issue: updates get pushed out to our laptops from IT central, and even our IT guy doesn't know when they'll come or what exactly they'll do, so it's possible that an update led these laptops to lose whatever driver they need in order to recognize the Yeti (I don't really understand PCs). So what this means, I now realize, is that any hardware that plugs directly into a school laptop is at the mercy of whatever changes in the world of school IT. Now, I suspect that if, say, a new Mac operating system rendered the yeti non-functional, it would be the first thing you read about when you googled "Blue Yeti", and Yeti would be scrambling to tell us all how to fix it. But HTHCV upgrades don't get the same kind of press, so I'm adrift. 

2. The delicate flower that is the mini-usb cable

The yeti is a USB mic. It has a mini-USB port in its base, and then plugs into the USB port on a computer. The mic itself is attached to the base in such a way that you can rock it back and forth - and, without much difficulty, guillotine the mini-USB cable, bending or even shearing off its head so it ends up looking like this:

This has happened A LOT to our students. To be honest, I've nearly done it myself. I'm going to go out on a limb and call it a design flaw.

3. Punk Rock PBL vs. Equipment

I want to share my favorite quote about education, which comes from the song "Try this at Home" by Frank Turner:

The only thing that punk rock should ever really mean

is not sitting 'round and waiting for the lights to go green.

What I love most about being a project-based teacher is when kids make a project their own, and start figuring out their own solutions and workarounds. So, for example, since this project started students have asked if they can go find a quiet room to record, left with a mic, got permission from another teacher to use an empty room, and recorded. Last week, two students who'd secured an interview with someone on the east coast interviewed her by huddling together outside the door of the school, using a telephone mic. The audio from that won't be pristine, but they looked around, decided outside was better for background noise than in, and got it done. I don't think there's any better sign that a project is "working" than students DIYing solutions like this. 

The downside is that stuff gets broken. Now, had I declared that my makeshift office studio, with its one mic and "studio-in-a-box" sound insulator, was the only place anyone could do interviews or record narration, I could probably safeguard my equipment better. I also would have lost a huge amount of time, because only one group would ever have been recording at a time. 

I was thinking about this a lot today, because throughout this project my feeling has been "students just need to treat the yetis really carefully, and every busted usb cable is a sign of their shortcomings (and therefore of mine, as a teacher, for failing to make them conscientious). But take a moment to consider the following: which do I want to cultivate more in my students - a punk-rock 'I can figure this out for myself' attitude, or a careful and tentative approach to using equipment? Obviously, I want them to be punk rock about this.* 

4. Let's hear it for XLR

And once I realized this, something else occurred to me: I'd been laboring under the assumption that USBs were the default connector of microphones. This is insane. XLR is the default connector of microphones. And how many XLR mics have I seen get knocked over onstage? How many times have I dropped my sax mic? Sooooooooooo many. And they tend to do great. So there is a durable audio technology - the industry standard. Another great thing about XLR? It doesn't require any software for a mixing board to recognize that a mic has been plugged into it. 

So next year I'm planning to get a couple of XLR mics, run them to a mixer and thence into a digital recorder, and then (I think - stop me if this seems dumb) transfer files from the recorder to the squad's laptop via SD card. I'm thinking that an mp3 on a SD card is more likely to be reliably recognized by computers than a yeti is. 


*Just to be clear, I think there's a separate issue about using tools properly and treating them with respect - for example, practices like holding laptops by the monitor, or absent-mindedly whipping laptops up and down in your hands while conversing with a friend so the monitor swings open and shut, are to be discouraged. 

The correct response to "We did a project just like this in 8th grade!"

This just occurred to me. 

When, as happens in PBL schools, students inform you that they already did a project that, to them, sounds similar to your project, and you can hear their frustration that they're just going to be going over old ground, the correct response is "Thank God for that. If lots of you have experience in this, that means we can make this product to a professional standard."

From the Innovation Unit Vaults: "Shakespeare would have wanted the kids at Kingsmead school to study the Simpsons"

This summer, I'm re-posting some of the blog posts I wrote while I was working at the Innovation Unit in London, which disappeared when the Innovation Unit discontinued its blog. This post was my big moment in the sun: someone had managed to get national coverage for starting a petition demanding that students at a school stop studying The Simpsons in their Media Studies class, and focus on Shakespeare instead. Stephen Fry weighed in, and at one point tweeted the words "Well exactly" with a link to this post. Over 25,000 people read it. And now you can too:

The BBC reported today that over 400 parents at Kingsmead Community School in Somerset have signed a petition demanding that the school's Media module stop using class and homework time to analyse The Simpsons, and devote the newly freed-up time to studying Shakespeare. On BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, parent Joseph Reynolds particularly recommended A Midsummer Night's Dream. 'There's a time and a place for The Simpsons,' Reynolds said, 'but it doesn't belong in the classroom.' Reynolds appears to have a particular understanding of pedagogy, based on two commonly-held but erroneous premises: that the main function of education is to expose students to new things, and that education that prepares students to negotiate the day-to-day world they'll be living in is not 'real' education. I'll look at these assumptions in turn:

Exposure is not the same as understanding

People who don't understand education often think that a teacher's job is to introduce students to unfamiliar things. Actually, the best teachers help their students to look at familiar things with new eyes - so physics teaches students to look at suspension bridges in a new way, biology completely alters their understanding of saliva, and learning about the Holocaust completely transforms what they think when someone calls somebody else 'queer' on the playground. It's wonderful when a teacher introduces you to something that you've never encountered before, but it's just as wonderful when teachers turn the everyday into something rich and strange. To their great credit, Kingsmead are standing behind their Media teachers. Assistant Head Andy Dunnett told the BBC that 'Students are encouraged to look at the text in a critical way. Initially it's about building up their skills as critical thinkers. They also learn about different aspects of the media audience, visual narrative, presentation and stereotypes, and some quite high level thinking ideas like satire, irony and parody.' This brings me to my response to Reynolds' second assumption...

Education should prepare students for living in the world

You might think everyone feels this way, but the curriculum suggests otherwise. To give one example, most schools take it for granted that 'there's a time and a place for economics, but it's not the mathematics classroom'. So, students graduate able to measure a triangle within an inch of its life, but not to compare interest rates on mortgage offers. And they graduate able to identify a sly reference to Spanish succession in an Elizabethan play, but not to critically engage with popular media - that is to say, the billboards, posters, magazines, TV programmes, and advertisements that tell them they should buy more, lose weight, plug their sweat glands, indulge in snack foods, despise those who come to this country looking for protection from tyranny, and get angrier at benefits cheats than at tax cheats. 

There's some pretty dodgy stuff in a Midsummer Night's Dream (the play's first scene explicitly argues that if a woman falls in love with the man who kidnapped her, it's a good thing), but kids aren't going to be encountering it every day for the rest of their lives. William Shakespeare himself suffered the slings and arrows of the dreary snobbery that animates Reynolds' petition - Ben Jonson alluded to this when he interrupted his memorial poem to Shakespeare to point out that his subject 'hadst small Latin and less Greek.' Shakespeare got his own back most effectively in Love's Labour Lost, with the latin- spouting buffoon Holofernes, who analyses a contemporary love poem as follows:

You find not the apostraphas, and so miss the accent: let me supervise the canzonet. Here are only numbers ratified but, for the elegancy, facility, and golden cadence of poesy, caret. Ovidius Naso was the man: and why, indeed, Naso, but for smelling out the odouriferous flowers of fancy, the jerks of invention? Imitari is nothing: so doth the hound his master, the ape his keeper, the tired horse his rider. But, damosella virgin, was this directed to you? (IV,2,1268)

It's easy to imagine a real-life Elizabethan Holofernes petitioning a school to stop teaching Shakespeare, and teach more Ovidius Naso. 'There's a time and place for Shakespeare,' he might have said, 'but he doesn't belong in the classroom.' Shakespeare, who in his time was a contemporary writer (a fact often-forgotten by crusaders like Reynolds) vividly understood how education calcifies when it neglects what is happening NOW.