Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Questions and Working Definitions (Meditation 1)

In college, I was delighted to be in many thought-provoking history courses. Rather than choke down a series of facts, figures, names and faces, we spent a lot of time discussing historical events not simply as play-by-play but what made them important. In a class about the American Frontier, we discussed archetypes of Western fiction and their historical implications and roots. This was also one of the first times I was introduced to a teaching concept called "working definitions."

Working definitions is a classroom exercise in which the class and teacher come to an agreement over a definition of an important term. This term is usually more conceptual than technical, so it would be used more in the context of, "What is an American?" versus "What is metal?" These questions are used to spark a class discussion with the teacher encouraging development of a somewhat, consensual answer. Obviously, everyone's opinions will differ and one catch-all definition is nearly impossible, but there are elements that can be taken to form the "working definition" for the class. This working definition will be tested and changed throughout the unit, chapter or semester. I personally think, when applied properly, this technique can provide a great answer to the age-old question, "What did I learn?"

This concept became very useful over the course of a semester. After each book or exam, we would return to the original working definition question and compare how our answers evolved.

When I was student-teaching as part of my degree in secondary education, I tried this approach a few times to some success. The "success" here is of course, very subjective. Though I was afforded a lot of wiggle-room in my lessons I was still held to Massachusetts State Standards as well as the school's own standards for lesson planning. For a unit on the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government, I spent two class periods creating lessons about presidential campaign television advertisements. I sourced all of my advertisements from The Living Room Candidate, which features television ads from 1952-2012. The first "working definition" question that I asked my students was, "What makes a successful advertisement?" This question was used to probe their prior knowledge of advertisements in addition to starting a class discussion. This question soon evolved to, "What makes a successful presidential campaign advertisement?" and this was a way to return to the task at hand, the analysis of these specific kinds of advertisements.

Since I was teaching this class in the spring of 2012, I was fortunate enough to have access to current presidential advertisements as well as the historical ones. USAToday, Reuters and other news websites had repositories of campaign ads by Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry. After spending a day watching a selection of historic advertisements including, in my opinion, the two best: Reagan's 1984 ad, "Bear" and Clinton's 1992 ad, "Journey" I created a graphic organizer for my students to answer specific questions about each ad we watched and some space for them to write down their own thoughts. All of the questions were quick, subjective questions that were designed to be answered with quick notes. I figured that after watching all of these ads in one sitting, most of them would blur into one another and my students might have difficulty recalling specific instances from each one, hence these quick questions. But above all, the ultimate test was to expand on our working definition of a "successful presidential campaign advertisement." I was happy to see that many of my students took this as an opportunity to answer this question in a way that affected them personally. Since the majority of them were either eighteen or turning eighteen that year, they answered the question with "Well, for me, this ad wouldn't work..." or "After seeing this ad, I would definitely vote for him..." which was exactly my desired outcome.

Their homework assignment that night was a very brief essay that just expanded on some of their thoughts about the ads: Which ones did they like more and why, which ones did they not like and why, just more of their thoughts written on paper.

One of the "bigger picture" reasons for this exercise was to promote discussions about politics in a manageable way for my students. The vast majority of Americans will never meet decision-makers that operate at a national level. And for the ones who do, it is rare that an actual friendly relationship would develop from that meeting. Additionally, the political system is still very foreign to most American citizens. Who passes laws? Why are certain ones passed and not others? Who really pulls the strings? All of these questions can be simplified and extended to give concrete answers. But they can also lead to confusion, anger and apathy. Rather than discussing the political issues in this exercise, I thought we could take another approach to our perceptions of the candidates. I believe it was one of the best exercises I ever had the privilege of teaching in a classroom.

I think about this activity often, especially when I see political advertising. I meditate on this idea of developing working definitions and try to stretch it to what I'm doing at the time. There are accepted definitions of "historic preservation" and "preservation" but I feel that as someone who is maturing in this field, I need to supply my own, even if its for my own sake. In graduate school, I often have to think about my course material on a literal/practical level as well as a philosophical/conceptual one. I did this briefly in undergrad but its definitely in full force now.

An exchange of emails with a lawyer in Chicago really encouraged me to meditate often about why I am studying historic preservation and why it is important to me. The lawyer I spoke with, who deals with a lot of preservation law issues told me, "If you're going to answer the question of why you want to preserve history, and if you want to answer it right, you will have to think about the emotional and practical aspects of why." He continued with, "...because preservation hasn't really evolved as a philosophical or practical movement, you'll hear many canned answers about the importance of heritage and history, but that's about as deep as anyone is willing to get." This conversation affected me in a very profound way and I spent most of my time home in Massachusetts during Christmas trying to answer these questions. But it was through these meditations that I felt I was getting closer to the answer and that was what I found more important. I know I'll spend my life pondering and meditating on these questions but I feel that's the point. The point isn't that there is one answer, the point is that the answers are fluid. To put it another way, "the journey is more important than the destination."