I was browsing my Twitter feed the other day when I stumbled upon one of those little wars that sometimes erupt on social media. They’re usually small and self-contained, but if you’ve got an hour and a bowl of popcorn they can be terribly fun to watch.
This one happened to be about a lovely little arthouse theater in Austin that had dared to set up women-only screenings for the upcoming release of Wonder Woman. I know; how dare they, right?
Cries of “reverse sexism” were instant, followed immediately by the counter-volleys from enlightened guys and gals making fun of the fragile egos of the men so affronted by a film screening they weren’t invited to.
Like I said, a lovely sight to behold! It got me thinking, though, about how rapidly culture conversations shift–and what that means when we try to help our kids consider their context for writing.
And once you get a teacher thinking about a topic, he’s going to want to have students write about it. And if he’s going to have students write about it, he’ll probably want to make sure they understand it first. And if he has to figure out how to help them understand it, he’ll probably get hungry for some pancakes.
Or something like that…
What You Need to Know That They Know
Anyway, once I finished my pancakes, I started thinking about just how wide the gap often is between the contextual knowledge of my students and the contextual knowledge of my own life experience. One might rephrase that in less generous terms by simply pointing out that I’m old.
image via Twitter
So for the sake of my fragile vanity and the best interests of students, let’s put it more succinctly in terms of classroom decision making: I started thinking again about how often the contextual knowledge students possess is misaligned with the assignments I ask them to apply it to.
Do my students care about sexism? Yes–they do. Fiercely. But what would they think of this strange issue of a theater holding a no-boys-allowed screening? It was certainly a fiery issue amidst adults on the internet. But for students, this issue might feel too obtuse: It’s about how we define public and private forums and how equity and equality are not always the same things–all in addition to the direct issue of sexism in film.
In other words, they might write about the topic with high interest, but their perspectives would be clumsy. Most of them would reveal a thin contextual understanding of some or all the issues I mentioned above. They could certainly research their way to a fuller understanding of the issue, but even that would take guidance.
The Shallow End of the Contextual Pool
Conversely, teachers sometimes fail to recognize that there are topics where it is we who lack a real context. Consider outstanding resources like The New York Times’ argumentative writing prompts which have rightly become enormously popular in many classrooms. While well-meaning (and largely popular with students), these prompts sometimes miss the boat in ways we don’t realize–but our students certainly do.
The Times helpfully provides prompts in relevant categories like “Dating and Sex” as well as a whole slew of prompts about media and video games. The topics in general speak to . But…that is precisely where we begin to see the gap between what we as adults think are the “relevant” issues and what our students believe the conversation should be about.
The media category includes that old chestnut about violence in video games. Is it making children more violent? Is it creating a future generation of lawless criminals? Should I be clutching my pearls more tightly? Won’t somebody please think of the children?!
For better or worse, people under 30 have put that topic to bed. Animated violence is the new Woodstock. Or whatever it was old people were doing recklessly a few decades ago. The prompt, in other words, despite being well-intentioned, actually falls somewhat flat with its intended audience.
So what does deep context look like in the world of video games? Well, this weekend a few hundred angry white men on Twitter suddenly took to calling an upcoming video game (Far Cry 5) “Treasonous” and “anti-White”.
I’m not at all familiar with The Far Cry game series, but here’s what the latest entry that prompted the outcry is about according to gaming website Kotaku: “What most clearly sets Far Cry 5 apart from its predecessors is that …it’s about blasting through a section of modern Montana controlled by a Bible-thumping madman who runs a heavily-armed militia.”
The dialogue that ensued online was quick to point out dozens of titles that have casually treated minorities as shootable villains for years. For all the research papers and teachers and parents crying out for more insight into the role of video game violence in the lives of gamers, the gamers themselves have long since moved on to much more nuanced (but important!) cultural battles.
So here’s our conundrum as teachers trying to make students believe that writing is a relevant task for them: Sometimes when we try to make a good-faith effort to show them how writing can give them a voice on issues they care about, it turns out that we ourselves are a bit misguided in understanding those things.
Context is a necessary part of good writing. Not to mention thinking. The first step towards improving student writing is the one that most teachers have already made–towards increased student choice. The next step is perhaps a bit harder than we think. When students need contextual knowledge, we have to help them learn where to find it. But if we’re going to give students increased choice in writing, we also have to know the limits of our own contextual knowledge. Sometimes perhaps our students can be our best resource.
Just give them fair warning–if you give a teacher a topic…he’s going to want his students to write about it.
How do you help kids consider context? Got any great resources you use to keep yourself well informed about pop culture? You can connect with me on Twitter @zigthinks or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.