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On “poetical science” and making beyond the “space” (Updated with Sarah’s input)

In his history of the digital revolution, The Innovators, Walter Isaacson reveals Ada Lovelace’s significant legacy–that the humanities and technology could happily coexist as a poetical science. This particular coexistence, he notes, does not usually exist in our schools.
Many people who celebrate the arts and the humanities, who applaud vigorously the tributes to their importance in our schools, will proclaim without shame (and sometimes even joke) that they don’t understand math or physics. They extol the virtues of learning Latin, but they are clueless about how to write an algorithm or tell BASIC from C++, Python from Pascal. They consider people who don’t know Hamlet from Macbeth to be Philistines, yet they might merrily admit that they don’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, or a transistor and a capacitor, or an integral and a differential equation. These concepts may seem difficult. Yes, but so too, is Hamlet.  And like Hamlet, each of these concepts is beautiful. Like an elegant mathematical equation, they are expressions of the glories of the universe. (487)
And Isaacson predicts:
The next phase of the Digital Revolution will bring even more new methods of marrying technology with the creative industries, such as media, fashion, music, entertainment, education, literature, and the arts. . . This innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors. In other words, it will come from the spiritual heirs of Ada Lovelace, creators who can flourish where the arts intersect with the sciences and who have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of both. (488)
I recently met an English teacher who appears to be one of Ada’s spiritual heirs.

I met Sarah Roman through my former student Liz Lien, who had a feeling we’d get along.

Sarah  teaches Honors English and Advanced Placement Literature in a paperless classroom at Raritan High School in Hazlet, New Jersey.  As you can see in her recent TEDx talk at Stockton University, Teaching Literature with the Raspberry Pi, her creative efforts involve some unexpected connections between technology and literature. She believes that integrating technology into her classroom allows her so access aspects of her students’ talents and interests seldom tapped in a literary room.

Sarah does not have a school librarian at Raritan, but it was clear to me after our half hour chat about the projects she is crafting for her classes, is that she’d be a librarian’s dream. In terms of collaborative practice, I couldn’t help but think of the lovely damage we–she and so many of us–could do together and how this work might easily scale across grade and ability levels and curricula.

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Outside of any separately identified space, Sarah regularly engages students in digital and physical making in order to, essentially, breathe new life into their texts and authors. And she assures me this is possible even under the constraints and stresses of an AP environment.

Here’s a list of some of her recent projects that you’ll likely want to share with your own English teacher partners:

  • Building an entire video game and game console based on Dracula
  • Creating a competitive hand-held game in order to critically read the first act of Macbeth
  • Writing an eighties-styled “Zork” text adventure based on King Lear, where the students were responsible for incorporating Late Middle English, soothsayers, anachronisms, the heath, and other aspects into their coding
  • Teaching Python by intertwining it with the learning of grammar, syntax, proofreading (debugging), and word choice
  • Putting together a data-logger to mimic the movements of Addie’s coffin throughout As I Lay Dying
  • Writing NDEF data to NFC cards in order to engage in our classroom Dungeons and Dragons campaign – a fun and backend way to teach literary devices (they are entwined in the monsters they battle)
  • Creating a large interactive mural using “smart mirrors” and paper circuitry – ex. “If Ralph from Lord of the Flies got out of bed and looked at his bathroom smart mirror, what would it be displaying to him?”
  • Re-imagining the old Operation game for Frankenstein and having the students make their own version
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While the projects are decidedly text heavy, all are backed with stringent writing experiences and the discovery and defense of text-supported evidence. Sarah believes in connecting technology, literature, and STEM to strengthen literacy and prepare students for success.

For instance, in discussing her integration of coding for the Dracula project, Sarah makes a compelling case for the value of understanding syntax:

We had an interesting conversation during which they realize that using coding like Scratch or Snap! or Python, we’re doing the same things they have to do in their writing. For those of you code, how many times have you seen syntax error pop up on your screen because you’ve made a mistake? My students are making syntax errors 24/7 in their essays.

It’s about proving that to them, showing them there are very definable qualities between coding and the English language and this opens up the avenues in which to speak about that. We have to talk about word efficiency. We have to talk about word order. We have to talk about debugging–another word for proofreading. If there’s an error in that code, if you miss a period in your essay and you don’t complete that thought, it will not work.  So it starts to really open up the conversation around these things as being intrinsic.

When you go out into the world, you may not remember all of your grammar and mechanics, but that it’s purposeful, it’s useful.  These things are necessary in order to convey your ideas and to make sense. So that’s how we start to marry the ideas of grammar, mechanics, diction, syntax.  This re-purposes and re-wraps what it is we’ve been talking about for so long and sometimes begrudgingly.

Check out Sarah Roman’s Continually Pairing Literary with the Device website for more integration inspiration and her Projects page for PDF descriptions, a proposal, code, images and video.

UPDATE: Sarah recently shared her own reflection on what drives her creative instructional efforts:

Admittedly, English class can sometimes become a little stale. We live in a stasis where Jane Eyre is forever helping a surly Rochester back onto his horse, where Grendel has consumed a seemingly infinite number of Hrothgar’s Danes, and where Macbeth should casually consider subletting Banquo a spot at his dinner table. Our characters, traversing decades and often centuries, become predictable. Our students stumble their eyes and fingers across diction and syntax, countless rhetorical devices, themes iterating the depths of human experience, and yet they find moments where the texts lack luster. I tend to think, during these moments when students’ eyes begin to glaze and wander, how does one bring back this lost luster? How does one access high levels of engagement while staying true to content? Ultimately, how do I make them want to read?

Fitfully, I’ve pondered this throughout my classes. While pushing my glasses a quarter inch up my nose, I’ve studied their pervasive habits; while searching for poorly named documents in their Drives (read: “english thing”), I’ve learned their ups and downs with various technologies. In turn, I’ve discovered, as many others have over the recent years, that one of our ever-ubiquitous standards is the influx of various hardware and software to the classroom. Understandably, I want to use this to my advantage.

Aside from engaging in the traditional behaviors of the proverbial bookworm, I consider myself to be somewhat of a tech hobbyist. If I hadn’t graduated from The College of New Jersey with a degree in English Secondary Education, one might have then found me plunking away in a computer science course. I decided in 2013 to round out my education further, as I’m now within the Technical and Professional Communications Graduate program at New Jersey Institute of Technology. Assuredly, after spending large amounts of time with mutable hardware and exciting software, I wanted to bring them into the classroom with me. Truthfully, the results have been incredible.

Over the past couple years, the students and I have worked together to create an entirely paperless environment. Our school had fortunately implemented a one-to-one Chromebook initiative that lets us extensively use the Google Apps for Education Suite and its peripherals. In the times when students aren’t relentlessly sharing their complicated lives and files to me via the Drive, we’ve been finding moments that allow us to supersede the conventions of English class. What I hope to do is share these moments of triumph and defeat: the moments where the students ask me if they get to eat pie when I’m discussing the Raspberry Pi; the moments when the students blink their eyes at the LEDs that have finally stuttered forth life; the moments when their Arduino-powered robots travel more than a few inches; the moments when we shake our heads at bits of coding that don’t seem to make any sense; and finally, the moments when students realize that technology and literature don’t have to live ages apart and that the burden of relevancy falls upon our shoulders, not those of our authors.

Isaacson, W. (2014). The innovators: How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution. Simon and Schuster.

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Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza

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