15 September 2006

Dead White Guys

This week in all my classes I've been assigning their first project of the year.  They have to research a famous "American" and then give a presentation to the class on what they've learned and why this person is interesting to them.  Then their classmates will interview them, as if they are that famous person.
We start this day by brainstorming all the "Famous Americans" they can think of.  As I expected they mostly name movie stars, musicians, and a few politicians from the news.  Britney Spears, Madonna, 50 Cent, Bruce Willis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill Clinton...you get the idea.  A debate always arises when they name Arnold Sscwarzenegger about whether or not he's "American."  I stay out of it, trying to facilitate their thoughts on the complicated question of what it means to be "American."  I think they have no idea what a big question that is, and I enjoy watching their thoughts unravel.  First they say he's not American because he wasn't born in the U.S.  Then usually someone will argue, but he lives there!  And I say, I live in Ukraine, does that make me Ukrainian....you get the idea.  At the end of the discussion I have them vote whether or not he's American.  All of my classes have decided he is.  The deciding arguments: he is a politician, he speaks English, and most importantly, he has an American wife.  Hehe, one girl tried to argue that he didn't have American features.  I asked her what those were....good luck!
It's been really great.  I can see in their faces that these are issues they've never really thought about as their idea of what it means to be Ukrainian is fairly narrow and rarely challenged. 
One thing that shocked me on the first day I taught this lesson was who my students chose to research for their project.  After hearing who they named in the brainstorming activity, all of the modern pop stars and a few current politicians, I was shocked to read the list of dead, old white guys they had chosen for their project.  On the first day, they had signed up for: George Washington, Robert Frost, Theodore Dreiser, JFK, and Charles Dickins (oops).  I thought it would be fun and interesting for them to research a famous person, but clearly their choices were made based on who they would find in their library's ancient encyclopedia collection.
As I've taught this lesson, I've emphasized the importance of choosing someone they're actually interested in learning about, not just someone they know will be in their Literature books.  I understand their reliance on outdated materials, you make the best of what you have, but am encouraging them to give the more difficult options a try.  A few of them use the internet, another thing I have to remind when I assign projects like this one.  It's such a given in my world.  I hope to arrange a training for them at the local "Internet Access & Training Program" Center in town, where they can use computers for free.
I'm getting better at teaching this lesson as the week goes on, and students are becoming more daring.
Today's list of people my students will research: Madonna, Eminem, Sandra Day O'Connor, Christina Aguilera, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Swank, Leonardo DiCaprio, Britney Spears, Andre Agassi, and Julia Roberts.  For better or worse, at least it's what they're interested in.

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