Smooth Criminal

One day last year, we were working on procedural papers (how tos, basically). We read tons of models to figure out what traits good procedural papers include, but we also attempted to follow the directions on a few of them to analyze the accuracy of the directions. We made kites out of newspaper (some flew, some didn’t, but the kids had all kinds of great ideas for how to improve them next time). We experimented with teasing siblings (that one they had to try on their own, and were warned that they did not have permission to harass them extensively). My favorite to try, though, was “How to Cope if Zombies Attack” from How to Be the Best at Everything (The Girls' Book).

Now, obviously we were not in the middle of a zombie attack so some of the instructions could not be attempted (especially the parts about how to kill zombies; I told all of my classes that they specifically were not allowed to assume someone was a zombie and try to kill them), but we could do the part on how to act like zombies. The directions were to tilt your head to the side, moaning and drooling, while looking straight ahead and walking with your arms held out in front of you. And that’s what we did (drooling was optional).

Most kids thought it was super fun, because really, how often do you get to act like a zombie in the middle of your Language Arts class? When I told my husband about it that evening, he asked me if any had done the Thriller dance to act like a zombie (see a delightful version by inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines here - it's awesome). I laughed, because a couple of kids had, but not many. Few of my students knew much about Michael Jackson, though I'd guess they know more now.

Michael Jackson’s death has left me torn. On the one hand, he was a hell of an entertainer – his music, his dancing, his style (back in the day, at least) were all incredibly influential. On the other, he was probably a child molester, which is unforgivable, even if he himself was probably also abused as a child.

Much of the world seems divided into two camps, and each group can only see their own side. Either you adored him and mourn his loss, or you reviled him and celebrate for the children who will no longer be hurt. And I get both sides – I just don’t see why it has to be exclusively an either/or.

Why can’t we acknowledge that he was brilliant but troubled? Why can’t we despise his personal acts and his abuse of his power while still admiring his talent? Why can’t we learn from what happened to him and what happened to the children who trusted him, and use that as a lesson that, hey, some people are insanely talented in one particular area but are still huge assholes? And while you might admire their skills, you can also judge their acts? Wouldn’t that be a great lesson for kids to learn?

My students love music, hip-hop especially but also rock. We did research projects this year on their favorite musicians; choices included TI, Chris Brown, Metallica, 50 Cent and a number of others. They had three main tasks that went along with their projects: a biographical presentation on their musician(s)’s lives, a paragraph on what other careers their musicians might have chosen if not performance, and a paragraph on whether or not their musicians were making good choices in their lives.

The kids had a really hard time deciding if their subjects were making good or bad choices; in the end, almost all of them determined that their musicians were making a mix of good and bad decisions. The Chris Brown groups, for example, all felt that Chris Brown had been making good choices (by working with a tutor to continue his education and by doing performances for charity) but had recently started doing some terrible stuff (this was February, right when the news was all abuzz with his attack on Rihanna). One paragraph that I particularly enjoyed concluded with, “Will Chris Brown ever make good choices again????” Clearly all four question marks were necessary to show the author’s confusion and intense interest in the answer to this issue.

I thought that was pretty rockin’, that they were able to look at these musicians whom they adored, and be able to think, “Hmm, I like the music but not the lifestyle.” Hopefully they’ll remember that and continue to analyze pop culture icons beyond that base of admiration. Because giving people who screw up a pass simply because they’re famous doesn’t serve them or their fans well.

(Photo credit to earnest70six,


"I'm a dreamer but I ain't the only one Got problems but we love to have fun" -K'naan, "Dreamer"

I teach eighth grade Language Arts at an urban school. My kids kick ass and will change the world. I want everyone to know.
Copyright 2009 I'm a Dreamer All rights reserved.
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