This blog post can be viewed as an extension of a previous post...
I was lucky enough to follow two 12th grade students during my dissertation research who discussed the difference between writing an essay on Brave New World (Huxley, 1932) and creating a public service announcement on the same novel. They attended an
urban high school in California that incorporated media literacy throughout its curriculum. In the 12th grade, students took a course that included three different classes: English, history and media. This one course was an integration of three subjects. This is the course in which I followed Teresa and Bianca throughout their senior year.
Meet Teresa and Bianca: Stellar high school students, on their way to 4-year colleges; Teresa a dancer and Bianca a spoken word poet. Their assignment: "Imagine that you now work for the Department of Propaganda. It is your job to produce a public service announcement that will reinforce the values already taught through hypnopaedia and take it one step further. You will add the power of imagery to our messages. Remember that our goal is a happy, stable, efficient society. Your PSA should incorporate a theme and at least one slogan from the book, be between one and two minutes long, and rely on powerful words and dynamic images." (Students were limited to recurring themes such as consumption, instant gratification, obedience, happiness, drugs such as soma and a caste-based society, and had a number of slogans from which to choose.)
When I asked Teresa and Bianca to reflect on the designing process of filmmaking, they discussed the process as having “free reign,” “opportunity,” and “space” to take any aspect of the book and “make it look like whatever we want it to.” Specifically, Teresa explained how they were able to “really use our elements” by incorporating movement, sound, face paint, and language into their PSA, but they were also required to experiment and become “creative” during their production process. The two filmmakers found the genre of a public service announcement to be an opportunity to explore a novel in another medium deemed (almost) free of limitations.
When I asked Teresa and Bianca about their process of writing an argumentative essay, the language and tone of both students changed drastically. They employed terms and phrases such as “constraints,” “right and wrong,” and “independent.” As Teresa claimed, “In an essay, there are way more ways to be wrong than to be right. There is a set of rules and your challenge is to see if you can fit your creativity and your voice into those constraints. Where as a movie is your creativity and your voice.” For Teresa, the five-paragraph essay was a formulaic assignment in which her “creativity” and “voice” had to be molded to “fit” its constraints.
Communication, including the writing of argumentative essays, is constrained by “the rhetorical situation” (Bitzer, 1968) including audience and exigency. Within a formulaic requirement, it was easy for Teresa and Bianca to lose “the rhetorical situation” (Bitzer, 1968), or the purpose, audience, risk-taking, and reasoning that so defined the “creativity” and “voice” in their public service announcement (Fox, 2004). Observing students in their English and history classes as they worked on their five-paragraph essays, I witnessed students not as active participants in a writing process; they did not feel they retained authority over the content and form of the essay. However, in media class, students felt that they were simultaneously teachers and active participants in
creating media that were accurate representations of their visions, struggles, and stories.
If students’ experiences of writing argumentative essays are divorced from purpose and simply based on form, then educators are missing the substance of filmmaking that appealed to Teresa and Bianca: what it is for, what it does, and how it enriches their lives (Fox, 2004). Vygotsky (1978) acknowledged that writing was a complex cultural activity but he also advocated that it was important that students experience writing as both useful and meaningful in their lives. How can we make argumentative essay writing meaningful? And, more importantly, how can we make school more meaningful?
Bitzer, L. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1, 1–14.
Huxley, A. (1932/1998) Brave new world. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.