The question I’m exploring is how to use media to address cultural context required to study content that requires it. In this post I’ll lay out how I’ve been approaching it so far, using Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury as an example.
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Establishing previous knowledge
To start with, I explain when the novel was written, and ask my students if they know anything about the 1950s. They’ve usually heard of the Cold War and the space race. Here’s where we hit our first snag:
First of all, they have a completely different perspective on the Cold War. To give an example, my students often consider Richard Nixon the most important American president because he formed diplomatic relations with China when they began opening up to the Western world.
There’s also the issue of age: When I ask my students about new technology that was common in every household in 1950s America, they often say “computers” or “cellphones”. (Every year I feel older and older after hearing these answers…)
Key knowledge specific to the novel
What was life in 1953 like for the TYPE of characters we’re going to see in the novel? (White, middle-class, young-ish, married to an opposite-sex partner). Think about the economic situation, compare their lives to the previous generation, consider the psychological effects of the Cold War on every day citizens.
What do you think television and other technology did to society? How did it affect people’s lives? (Note: We did a unit on social media the semester before, and there are lots of examples and connections to draw on.)
How can media support this knowledge?
First, we watch the first episode of the Jetsons from the early 1960s. (Well, the first 10 minutes… I’ve taught this for three years, if I watch the full episode with every class I’ll lose my mind). We focus on two things:
1: What do you notice about family roles in this series? Pay special attention to Mrs. Jetson, and,
2: What is most of the technology in this show used for? (Convenience.)
This gives a general idea of an “ideal” family at that time (obviously not actually “ideal”), general values and family roles, and an interesting perspective on technology and how it could benefit society.
After reading through the first few pages of the novel, I then use another video and some images to give a visual impression of the time period. I believe this has been successful in helping the students visualize the novel. An example is copied below:
I also use images when we discuss the characters. Mildred (one of the main characters in the novel) can be represented as both a “typical” 1950s housewife from the video above, and the flip-side of that: a depressed, lonely woman with nothing to fulfill her intellectually or emotionally.
I also have access to some videos by Ray Bradbury discussing the ideas he brought up in the novel. It’s a good way to show the students possible critical questions that people were discussing during the 1950s from the perspective of someone who was living through it.
Next post: Strategies for determining existing knowledge with students? What knowledge is considered “key” or “essential” when establishing historical or cultural context? Benefits of using media (video, images, music) for establishing context?