Friday, December 4, 2015

Unit Three: Agency and Victimhood (The Evolution of a Unit)

Glossary (just to clarify how we use these terms in the classroom):
Victimhood: Allowing oneself to be ruled by circumstance, constantly shifting the locus of control away from oneself.  Victimhood is characterized by giving up and the feeling that one is out of options.
Agency: Taking responsibility for one's circumstances, placing the locus of control on oneself, to take a stand against oppression and injustice.  In this unit, we sharpen this definition through a Biblical lens, adding that agents are courageous, selfless and proactive not in spite of, but because of their faith.  We recognize that pop culture and society may define agency differently than Scripture.


Just over a year ago, I wrote about Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  When I inherited the Humanities class nearly six years ago, this was one of the key texts in the curriculum.  I thought the book was great, but the trouble was, I didn't know how to teach it.  In my first few years, Incidents fell into the middle of a long unit about the Civil War, a unit that was often bursting at the seams with way too many understandings that I had deemed to be essential for the students to learn.  Incidents itself pulled in about five different directions at once, or at least that was how many prompts the students could write on in their essay afterward.  However, in the process of stuffing this unit with so many themes, I'd caused the students to have a difficult time taking away consistent understandings, and even more difficulty seeing the connections between the history and the literature we were studying.

After all, that's the point of the Humanities block: to examine literature and history in tandem, to engage with bigger themes.

After an underwhelming conclusion to the Incidents unit two years ago, I decided it was time to go back to the drawing board.

One of the many themes of the prior unit caught my eye: Agency and Victimhood.  Previously, this had been part of a short "sidebar" in the unit in which I would invite our Head of School--and the original architect of the Humanities class--to guide the students in viewing the movie Amistad.  He would challenge the students to think through what was historical fact and what Spielberg had fabricated, all with the goal of getting the students to see how Spielberg had "messed with the audience" by making the role of Cinque the slave more pivotal to the Supreme Court's decision to free the slaves--turning a story that could easily have been another edition of "white man savior to the rescue" into a compelling tale of agency.

I latched onto this theme and made it the foundation and even the title of the unit.  From there, everything fell into place.  Here is a list of eleven things that I really like about this unit:

1. I get to lead off by singing "Let it Go" from Frozen.  This is fun, and it also kicks off our opening discussion of how Disney movies have shifted from victimhood to agency over time.

2. The Biblical perspective in this unit is completely organic.  We spend the first two days sharpening our definition of Agency through the lens of Scripture and then use that definition for the rest of the unit.

3. The history we look at organically supports the theme, and the literature of the unit: we look at the history of slavery and abolition to set up the context for Incidents; we look at the various reform movements of the 1800s to evaluate the ways in which average citizens rose up as agents of change; we look at the evolution of the women's rights movement to establish context for (and a counterpoint to) Kate Chopin's heroines.  The historical details are not random or arbitrary and the history itself is not "the point" of the unit.  That's as it should be.

4. Each module is punctuated by an in-class essay.  The students write four in-class essays throughout the unit which serve as a quick check on their understanding, and also as the building blocks for their bigger unit essay on Agency & Victimhood.

5. Our examination of rhetorical fallacies fits well in this unit, too.  Aside from the bizarre and manipulative rationale that slaveowners would use to justify slavery, we can also see the breaking down of old appeals to tradition by reformers, the rejection of false dichotomies by slaves and women at the time who refused to accept "submission or death" as their only options, and the tragic way in which Kate Chopin's heroines so often succumb to those same false dichotomies.

6. We get to have daily student-led discussions on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  It was fun to watch the students wrestle with the themes of agency and victimhood as they come up in the story, and also to watch the students gain confidence in contributing to class discussions.  While our class discussions are still very much a work in progress, we've come a long way over the course of this unit.

7. We get to take a look at the way in which definitions of freedom and equality change over time, and why.  Students get to look into modern examples of slavery and evaluate what is currently being done to fight against them.  We even briefly discussed what it means to be agents ourselves without stripping those we are helping of their agency--in other words, what does it mean to empower and not simply enable?

8. Students get to evaluate works of pop culture over and against our Biblically-informed definition of agency as the presentation for the unit is a short analysis of a book, tv show or movie that shows agency, victimhood, or some distorted version of agency.

9. Students get to practice peer-editing as we do a peer-editing workshop complete with sample essays from past years near the unit's end.

10. There are natural connections to themes and works from previous classes at CAJ.  Students are quick to compare Incidents to Night by Elie Wiesel, and to compare The Awakening by Kate Chopin to A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, both of which they read the previous year in 10th Grade.

11. This unit is a clear and vital component of our overarching theme of "Becoming People of Justice."  The students don't (or at least shouldn't) need to wonder how this unit fits into our bigger picture.

Sadly, I had to make the decision to cut "Amistad" from the unit.  While this was the lesson that inspired me to make this the theme for the whole unit in the first place, it took several full days of class time to watch the movie and I have not been able to carve out that kind of time.  Perhaps in a future year, I'll shorten my first or second unit to open up more time in this unit... but really, it would just underline something that the students already understand.

Overall, I am happy with how this unit has developed.  It is in this development that I really see curriculum design as an art--a craft that I enjoy, and one worth investing in.  I hope I can continue to develop and refine this unit, and others, in future years!

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