Film Interpretations of "The Raven" & Introducing Transcendental "Vision"

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SWBAT interpret film adaptations of "The Raven" and apply scientific elements to the Transcendentalists' distrust of their senses using videos from Dan Simon.

Big Idea

Watching video interpretations of a source text is a Common Core Standard? That sounds like a plan my students can get behind!!


30 minutes

Before we start talking about the essays, I will get some feedback from students on their impressions of the ending of "Where is Here?".  The story ends rather ambiguously, which is ideal for discussing places where the text leaves matters uncertain and making inferences about what was actually going on within the text.  Both of these tasks are wrapped into the Common Core Standards, and both require students to embed evidence into their discussion of the text to support their assertions and logic.  To frame this discussion, I will ask students the following questions, which are intended to solicit more questions from students that will then be answered by students:

  1. So what did you make of the ending?  (Students will posit their own inferences about what the end of the story meant.  I will be willing to accept many answers and inferences, with the caveat that students must support their inferences with evidence from the text.  Once one student offers their impression, I will open the discussion up to other students who can either add more information supporting the inferences further, expanding the student's ideas with more inferences and evidence, or contradicting the inferences with other supported inferences of their own.  Their suggestions will likely vary widely, but I will be sure to ask the additional questions below if they are not already organically addressed in the discussion.)
  2. The demeanor in the house really changed after the stranger left.  Do you think the stranger did something to "hex" them?  Or do you think it was some other type of situation?  What evidence are you using to make your judgment?  
  3. What did the shadow appearing on the wall suggest?  Is there any other evidence to support this suggestion in the story?
  4. Out of all of the interactions in the world that Oates could have written between the stranger and the son, she choose a math riddle.  Specifically, a math riddle about infinity.  What significance might that have?  Thinking about that incident, does that make a difference to your overall interpretation of the story?
  5. How does this ambiguous ending reinforce or inhibit the Gothic message?


After discussion "Where is Here?", I will ask students to tell me about their reading experience of "The Raven."  They have previously had some exposure with the text, so this reading should be more familiar to them.  I will also ask if any students chose to listen to the recordings of the poem by James Earl Jones or Christopher Walken (and if so, which reading was better).  

Finally, we will discuss the essays students created to compare and contrast the two pieces.  Before reviewing the content of their essays, students will share with the class their strategy for organizing the essay.  Some students will have used a pattern explaining one story's Gothic elements, then the other story's Gothic elements.  Others will have chosen an organizational structure framed around each of the five Gothic elements, addressing each story simultaneously in a topic-by-topic manner.  Several strategies can be utilized for this type of essay, which I want to highlight through student discussion.  I also want to emphasize the importance of CHOOSING a structure before writing, rather than simply writing down ideas as they randomly occur in students' minds.  This seems like a really commonsense statement, but as English teachers, we all know that it's on worth repeating.  Often.

After our discussion about the structure, students will briefly share major ideas from their essays with the class to identify and review the Gothic elements in each work.  They should be fairly comfortable with this task, as our extended discussion and their writing activity should have amply prepared them to participate.

Building Knowledge

35 minutes

Next, we will view two short versions of "The Raven" to allow students to gather practice with another Common Core Standard that requires students to watch multiple visual interpretations of a source text and evaluate the interpretation.  For this activity, I found dramatically different interpretations which I think students will really enjoy!  While viewing, students will be asked to consider where the films deviate from the original text, how consistently the versions relate to the original theme, and what the purpose of producing each interpretation may be for varying audiences.  

First, students will watch a clip that is just under six minutes from a Halloween episode of "The Simpsons," featuring Homer Simpson as the main character.  

We will discuss the characteristics that students noted while viewing, then repeat the activity with one more version that is very different than the first.  This version is approximately eleven minutes long, and it's very dramatic!  Students will likely enjoy this version, which is very similar to the original.  Even the raven itself adds to the Gothic theme since it looks so unnatural!  This version also contains other details that might help students see it in a different light.

Again, we will discuss the elements students were tracking while viewing, and we will also compare the intended audiences and purposes for each work and decide which one is more entertaining and true to the original version.  Students will also have the opportunity to ask any outstanding questions about Gothic literature or these two works before we move on to our introduction of Transcendentalism.  

To prepare for our study on Transcendentalism, students will pull up their graphic organizers describing Romantic and Transcendental literature.  We will review the characteristics of Transcendentalism and discuss the major tenets of the school of thought, especially focusing on their ideas about nature and the possibility that a person's senses are not very reliable.  


20 minutes

Transcendentalists sometimes get a bad reputation by my students of being crazy, radically pro-environmental, and very weird in general.  In the past, students have had a hard time of understanding Transcendentalism on a broader scale, so I want to make sure to put it in some perspective as early as possible in  this unit!  The best way I know how to do this is to make them start questioning their own beliefs and certainties, just like the Transcendentalists did.  Last year, I discovered this amazing researcher named Daniel Simons from the University of Illinois who studies perception.  He has several videos on YouTube, a book called The Invisible Gorilla, and has been featured in the popular National Geographic series Brain Games.  In this section of the lesson, I will use his videos to help my students come around to the idea that their perception really is more subjective than they might think!  My progression through this section will be as follows:

  1. [Holding up a dry erase marker] How do you know that this is a marker?  (Students will offer that it looks like a marker, we use it like a marker, it smells like a marker, and we've been taught it is a marker.)
  2. The Transcendentalists believe that you can't trust your senses.  Is it possible this really isn't a marker?  (Students tend to eye you suspiciously here before vehemently saying that there is no way it's not a marker.)
  3. Well how possible is it that your senses lie to you?  What ways have your senses lied to you before?  (Students might offer a few examples, or they may need some prodding.  Examples of your senses lying to you abound!  I think it's fair to say that we've all had a moment where we thought we saw someone at a table across a restaurant or on the street, only to approach and be mortified that it is NOT that person.  We've all heard weird noises when watching scary movies or thought we heard someone say our name when they really did not.  If that's not enough to convince students, we have certainly all had a dream we were convinced was real--the full sensory experience--only to wake up and return to "reality."  Optical illusions are another great example of how our eyes purposely trick us!)
  4. The Transcendentalists maybe aren't so crazy afterall!  I remember a story that a former biology teacher in high school told us that really amazed me.  She wasn't aware that trees had distinct leaves on them until she was almost 10 because her eyesight was so poor.  When she got glasses, she was shocked to see that trees did not, in fact, look like green cotton candy!  What if we're all like that in our own way?  How much could our vision change how we see the world?  What if what we see is all a construction of our minds?  That's awesome!  Feedback on that idea?  (Students will still probably be hard-sells on this concept, but that's absolutely fine!  We'll get them to consider the possibility with our upcoming videos!)
  5. So do you think it's possible that your eyes are lying?  Let's check out a video and see if your eyes are the dirty rotten liars the Transcendentalists claim they are! 

While we watch this video, you'll need to count how many times the players in the white shirt pass the basketball.  If you can get the number right, you'll know that your eyes are working correctly!  (For all of these videos, I only show the actual activity, then pause it to talk to students, replay it as requested, then play the end of it so they can hear the scientific reasoning behind the study.)

(Depending on whether or not they have seen the video or activity before, they may or may not catch the fact that a giant gorilla legitimately scrolls across the screen during the game.  Additionally, the background changes color, and a player leaves the game!  They usually get the number correct though!)

Okay, so how many times did the ball get passed?  Did you see the gorilla?  Are you starting to come around to the Transcendentalists' ideas yet?  How do you miss a GORILLA???  They might be on to something here.  Do you think that was a trick because it was moving and a lot was going on?  Let's do the same activity, but easier so you can get it.  Watch the picture.  One thing will change.  When the video is over, see if you can identify what it was.

What was the change?  Did you catch it?  (Most students will not get this change.  In fact, many students will actually think that they observe something that doesn't really happen!  This is perfect for discussing the Transcendentalist perspective, as their minds are actively ignoring sensory input and fabricating information that never existed!)  

Have I convinced you yet that your eyes lie?  Let's watch one more video to illustrate this point.  While watching this brief video, listen carefully to what the women are saying.  You'll be asked questions afterwards.

So did you notice anything weird in the movie besides their conversation?  Would it surprise you that NINE separate things changed in that video right before your eyes?  Did anyone catch anything?  (Students may offer one or two changes.  Play the remainder of the video to show them the rest of the changes.)  

Okay, last video for real this time.  This one is really crazy!  It will actually freak you out how little you notice about the world.  There isn't anything to watch for in this video, but consider the information and possible consequences of our brain's power on our perception.

  • In light of all of this information, what conclusions can you draw about your own perception of reality?  
  • How are your perceptions similar or different to those of Transcendentalists?
  • What historical context exists during this time period that might lead to this kind of thought process?  Do you see this attitude in any Americans today?


5 minutes

Today, students will only have very brief homework to allow them time to consider Transcendental ideas and to really grapple with the short, but intense, reading assignment.  Students will read Chapter 1 (Nature) from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Nature."  While they read, they need to determine three good questions that they really need help with or didn't understand from the text.  These questions need to be posted on a classroom board that I set up on, which is a website that I use from time to time for backchanneling during whole group discussion and small group projects when multiple groups could benefit from other groups' questions (and answers).  The website does not require logins, so it is very easy to set up and use.  

Next Steps

Next class period, we will begin the hour by addressing the student-generated questions about "Nature."  I will ask the questions from the feed that are mainly repeated to the classroom, and they will work collaboratively to answer their peers' questions.