Sunday, April 01, 2012

Middle Earth 11: a rough course proposal

Here's an idea about the Interplay of Language, Landscape, and Imagination that I've been thinking about lately. How about a Middle Earth 11 course for class of Gr. 10-12 students inspired by the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien?

Students would get credit for English 11 and Geography 12, taking half of their "200 course hours" in class; the other half is flipped, blended, online, independent, connected to the teacher and others outside of the regular timetable (some synchronous and asychronous). The overall goal is to apply critical thinking in the Humanities and Environmental Studies to a creative and relatively unexplored subject area, an experiment in how well our students have "learned how to learn." It would also be interesting to see how students inquiry is shaped when many of them are immersed in the subject material. This is also the kind of experimentation that needs to take place if we want to pull value from the BCED plan and advice on blended learning.

We would read some key works by Tolkien, short and long poetry and prose, and would also consume other Tolkien and Tolkienish media including literary criticism, art work, music, podcasts and fan fiction. We could make use of Tolkien recordings and interviews, Our smaller projects and learning activities (in accordance with the English 11 PLOs) would exploit skills in speaking, listening, reading, viewing, writing, and representing. Use of social media, creative software, and interactive digital tools would be used to reflect and extend what we do in class, and connect the students to the large and dynamic online Tolkien community. The opportunity to publish critical review and creative response online is almost unsurpassed with Tolkien enthusiasts, the forums, wikis, and blogs are all out there waiting for us. Students could create forms of expression that borrow from favourite Middle Earth elements such as the use of Tengwar script, Elvish languages, annotated maps, and archaic poetics. There would also be flexibility on what they read (or consume), past some staples, and delve into some personalized learning with the contents of their portfolio, the lead on project design, and a buy-in on assessment matrices.

We would study the historical geography of Middle Earth, gleaning understanding of ecology, climate, geology, geomorphology, conservation, and human geography (in accordance with the Geog 12 PLOs) from the environs of Eriador, Gondor, Beleriand, Valinor and the like. We would build comparative cultural geographies, examining how Tolkien's peoples an societies were affected by their environment and shaped their landscapes. Of course we'd also have some fun exploring rivers, glaciers, deserts, seascapes, caves, and mountains, and learning about the same basic geographic concepts and principles that govern our planet. Key comparisons with local (northern BC) examples allows me to keep it real and retain what works the best in my existing Geography 12 course.

Putting these two course mandates together is the awesome part, and the place where most of the critical thinking takes place. Tolkien's work had many themes, but two important ones were language and environment. From our "real-world" vantage, Middle Earth is a the perfect learning laboratory in which to learn about how language affects meaning, how people interact with place, how authorship and agency work, how story connects meaning and context, how realistic Tolkien's descriptions were of geographic phenomenon... I could go on about this for a while.

Pre-requisites: English 10 and Social Studies 10, an ability to work independently, a willingness to write/express/discuss in an intense seminar environment, permission to post and express online, and an interest in Tolkien (preferably they've already read Hobbit and LOTR so we can fast forward to discussion and entertain other titles). Students get full credit for English 11 and Geography 12, with all work completed in one semester. I'd use 2 (of my 7) teaching blocks for this double-course, one in-class and one in release of the out-of-class time for the flipped/blended/online/sync/async aspects (most of which would happen during the 2nd block, but some of which would be taking place anytime, anywhere). As such, it would be cost neutral, as the two registered blocks fund the two teaching blocks.

The two courses and PLOs themselves are not new, so board approval would probably not be necessary, not that I would mind. The name of Middle Earth 11 (or whatever) is a placeholder for the two gov't approved courses, not a unique offering. The design approach, teaching & learning strategies, and learning resources are unique, but that is what every teacher makes choices about with every course. The Ministry of Ed and leaders province-wide are begging for blended learning experiments, so the other hurdles for permission should be minimal.

Aside from the massive online Tolkien content, part of the learning resources strategy would be to build a shelf of singleton Tolkien books in the library (as much of the reading would be personalized and not require class sets), perhaps buy one set of class books (e.g. Children of Hurin). Involving our dynamic library & librarian would be a natural; the Tolkien collection becomes a negotiation between student passion and balanced guidance from educators. ePubs are another way to go, so if we could squeeze a few tablets out of the tech budget stone, we could load them up with the CoH or LoTR or the Silmarillion. I think the whole "text" question would involve about between $1100 and $2000, less than a single class set of texts in most other courses. Other existing Eng11 and Geog12 texts could be used as needed. If this was extended include a full-scale tablet or e-reader pilot, we'd have to enlarge our thinking.

Microunits would be themed around a central inquiry related to language and landscape and would focus on a teacher-student negotiated set of places, times, and body of written and graphic work. I would provide a series of scholarly Oxford-style lectures (live, but also recorded for our youtube page), and move into a series of lessons, talks, in-class activities, online explorations, etc. and presentations from students.  I envision each student giving his/her own top-shelf lecture (live, plus archived for our youtube page) on a work they have read and a theme they have explored. So much has been written (and created) by and about Tolkien that students are almost guaranteed they could pick something unique. There is also almost unlimited potential for literary (and geographic) comparison with other Fantasy & Sci-Fi authors. I have no doubt students would arrive with specific ideas of what they wanted to get out of the course.

There lots there to assess already, maybe too much, from either the English 11 or Geog 12 angle, but I also imagine a single summative project would take shape near the beginning and consume more time (and soul) as the course progressed (like a ring of power). One project that comes to mind is the creation of an artifact, like a leather-bound tome or an inscribed object, that carries some (or the best) of the student's learning and blends digital skills with graphic design, multi-modal voice, multi-genre fluency, and critical inquiry. The process of creation would also be documented in writing and film, a component of the "blended" part of the course, maybe something like what did Neil Stephenson did with his cigar box project. I have some newish ideas on assessment that would be great to try here, too, a system where students contract for achievement competencies based on their interpretation of the PLOs and their design for learning and assessment. The result is a kind of matrix that nuances rather than offloads assessment, giving students as much control with assessment design as they want, to the exact degree as they take responsibility for learning outcomes. The way I envision students grasping and working with this process is akin to the kind of character choices gamers make when selecting RPG characters, maybe even with a mimetic digital process. I'm not in to "that" end of the fantasy genre, but I recognize the addiction. To put it simply, I want to know if assessment can revolve around student intention and intrinsic motivation, and still meet high standards in our public education system.

What do you think?
I'm curious for feedback from students, teachers, and administration... would you support something like this, say for 2013-2014? If you're a student, would you take this combo-course? I'd like to hear from others before I sink any serious time into the idea. I realize that every one-off we have in our school of 750 complicates other elective offerings, but that shouldn't stop one from having dreams. 2012-2013 would have been the way to go, capitalize on the first installment of Jackson's Hobbit Movie coming out, but job action kind of killed the ability to plan ahead as a school team. I have no misgivings about the kind of work it would take to set this up, but I also think it would be a great "21st century learning" experiment that would engage students, me, and other educators and provide some evidence about what works and what doesn't with blended learning.

As a Tolkien expert with an English & Geography degree, I'm surprised I didn't push this 15 years ago. The idea has been smoldering for many years, but I suppose I don't move very fast, very much a Hobbit at heart, even if I look more like a Beorning.


messyprofessional said...

Very cool idea - I was thinking along simlar lines with a History 12/English 12 full year course. We are working on the full year blend of humanities in 8/9 so that we can build the relationships and develop skills of students. The students stay with a single teacher for both years. I was thinking -why not take this into the senior years. I love the Geography/English connection - how does geography impact culture and history is one of my favourite essential questions. Wow - I can't wait to see if you do it. Very, very cool. I want to take your course!

Thielmann said...

Thanks! Since writing this post (a few hours ago) I've dreamt up another 50 ways to develop the concept and frame the course inquiries, your comments and some I've had via email and twitter help. Over the years, students with whom I shared "Middle Earth" conversations have suggested that I teach a Tolkien course. We mostly laughed it off, thinking about getting distracted with long conversations about Gondorian politics, recipes for Hobbit fare, and the fate of the Ent-wives. They say "exactly!" I suppose I've been thinking about this for a few years, but I think it needed the grounding that would take place with the Eng 11 and Geog 12 corner-posts. What better place to simultaneously experiment with assessment, technology, ecology education, and multi-modal literacy? I've informally pitched it to my staff, and hopefully give it a try sooner or later.

I've mentioned the idea to a few students today and received some gobsmacking enthusiasm. One student (who would probably graduate before this course could be offered) said he'd come back to high school just to take it.

Something we'd have to think about is what students do with the 2nd "flipped" block. Our school is not used to the idea of students being in the building (or not) for learning time without being in a classroom, so some education on blended learning will be necessary. I suppose some students will use this flexibility to either work/play/learn outside of the building or perhaps take an additional elective. This doesn't scare me, we need to be proactive on the problems and possibilities of ed reform (i.e. blended learning) if we want to build success from the start. The alternative is having someone else's scheme imposed on us... that rarely works out.

Sarah Holland said...

A preliminary parent response - I would have *killed* for a course like this when I was in high school!

Can you fit it in as a 21st century learning initiative?

Prince George receives for 2012/13 funding for: "SUPPLEMENT FOR THE EDUCATION PLAN" of $264,418, "The Supplement for the Education Plan is in place for 2012/13 to assist districts with implementing initiatives as part of the Education Plan. This supplement is not confirmed for future years."

Steve Moore said...

What a great idea! Please let me know if you come up with an outline ( I teach English, and have been able to do semi-combined courses over the years in English Lit and Philosophy, Creative Writing, etc., but nothing official like this. Good luck with it!

Thielmann said...

Thanks, I'm quite sure I am too late to get this course going for 2012-13, but that gives me a year to put it together and build some anticipation. Please check in for an update at some point, I'll certainly make everything I plan public as is my custom. Before I get too excited I'll need to get some formal staff/admin support. The people I've shared this with have generated some great ideas like Hobbit feasts and a costume finale, or mapping the school with Tolkien names (library as Rivendell, for example), or identifying local landscape with those from Middle Earth. I look forward to surveying some of the deep themes in Tolkien related to expression, being, consciousness, indivuation, exploitation of nature, creeation of cultural forms, nature of beauty, etc. I'm hoping the blended approach allows us to capture the best of brick-and-mortar (interaction, expert in the room, accountable time, empathetic support) and distributed (students can follow their deep goals without interference, learning can move in surprising directions). Both of these contexts would be needed for a course that centers on imagination.

Anonymous said...

I love the idea. This is a fantastic way to engage students, will teach them unique skills, and force them to take responsibility for their own learning. These skills will be of great benefit to them later in life.

I hope you are able to make this happen.

Thielmann said...

Yes, I think the engagement factor could allow some experimentation with assessment and responsibility for learning. I'm not sure it would "force" anything, although I suppose when students are driven by motivations and knowledge that pre-date a teacher's curriculum, the result is ownership in the truest sense. Thanks for your comment.

Aaron Larsen said...

I believe that this is an excellent opportunity for students who wish to explore a deeper form of literature than those provided in ordinary English courses in the province. Rather than giving students a group of generally disliked short stories and novels for study, they would be able to find themselves in one of the most beloved and beautiful literary works ever written by one of the greatest authors of the modern era.

The timing couldn't be better, as students' curiosity will be piqued with the release of Peter Jackson's two Hobbit films over the next two years, possibly attracting students who may have not been interested in the topic before. In the end, possibly the greatest result of this course would be encouraging students to read, something that most English curriculum books fail at miserably.

In the end, Middle Earth 11 would be an excellent course for a wide variety of students who seek not only a challenge but also an opportunity to enrich themselves in the splendor of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth.

Thielmann said...

Thanks, Aaron, I appreciate your perspective as a student and Tolkien scholar in your own right. I'd be curious to learn from you about what kinds of online interactions (the "distributed" or web-based part of the course) you think students would engage with. For example, teacher-directed, independent, or group-oriented? A mix of media (social networks, twitter, tolkien forums, wikis, etc.) or concentrate on one process (e.g. class blog)?

Rosser said...

You never cease to amaze me Mr. Thielmann! This is an excellent way to combine literature with geography; two subjects which people often think are unrelated. I have read the the LoTR trilogy myself and as I was reading each book I would think what an amazing author Tolkien is. He combines my love for literature and my love for geography. His words create a landscape that I can envision and see. Not only that, he has produced many maps for analysis and discussion in class as well.

One thought that came to mind is this course may also meet some of the languages PLOs as well, considering that Tolkien was a bit of a linguist and created new languages.

If you need any help or resources developing this course I would be very interested in contributing to a project like this!