Defamiliarizing Our Way to a Better New Normal.

(A Lesson Plan for Now, An Action Plan for Later.)

Thinking on some questions that feel sort of essential

How are the choices we make everyday bringing us closer to what we hope for later? How can we take care to handle immediate challenges in ways that do not reinforce the root causes of our troubles or undermine our future and that DO align with a human-centered, nature-reverent, community-minded, justice-seeking, freedom-filled, BEAUTY of a longer-term vision? How can we actively work toward a better next New Normal during the Right Now?

These are questions any of us might do well to ponder but in this unique moment, while school buildings are closed and regular instruction is in flux, I’m specifically thinking about how they might guide us and help us clarify our roles as educators. So I had a little brainstorm about what this could look like in the form of an interdisciplinary lesson, and in this particular Right Now in which nothing feels normal, it seemed apt to integrate the technique of defamiliarization…

***

Authors and artists use many techniques that prompt us to consider things from new points of view, which provokes us to examine our own perspectives and expand our understanding of the world. When teachers share literature and art with our students and guide them to consider it critically, we help them to become careful observers, analytical thinkers, reflective audience members. When we teach students to identify literary and artistic techniques and invite them into creative practice through emulating potent examples, we help them to become thought-provoking artists and authors themselves.

So. Let’s not squander the opportunity we have as their audience to learn from our students. We should trust enough in their wisdom (and in our teaching!) to believe that their work has the power to provoke us to new and greater understandings. Many of us recognize and do this already, in which case I’m suggesting we double down on this idea.

Since we grown ups are arguably in great need of greater understandings Right Now, this would be a GREAT moment to create such opportunities and really trust in and listen carefully to what our students can impart. One example of one idea for one way we might do this is through teaching a lesson on defamiliarization–a lesson that occurred to me when my own personal teenager encountered the Strange Planet comic series and said “oh! defamiliarization,” and the idea rolled from there…

Defamiliarization or ostranenie (остранение) is the artistic technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way (literally “making it strange”), in order to enhance perception of the familiar.

New World Encyclopedia*

In Strange Planet, creator Nathan Pyle uses defamiliarization to prompt examination of mundane aspects of human experience. By substituting alien beings for human beings in everyday earthly activities, he invites the reader to interpret commonplace situations through an uncommon lens.

Sometimes, Pyle points to the ridiculous things we have normalized. He provokes us to recognize ourselves as complicit in absurdity and to laugh in surprise (discomfort?) at the ironies we enact regularly but rarely (never?) question. (Think of the one with the cat in a box, that zooms out to humans living in their own boxes.)

At other times, the Strange Planet evokes a sense of warmth and resonance. We feel recognized or comforted or maybe even cheered by small moments that reflect our humanity back at us and remind us of the common experiences we share. (Think of the one where one friend hugs another who is crying.)

Most of the time, the residents of the Strange Planet elicit a response from us that is really a mix of the two–we have affection for these tender moments that involve arguably absurd behaviors. (Think of the one highlighting our birthday party traditions.)

The Strange Planet occasionally also has some commentary about school, like this one.

OK. So here’s one way we can proceed…

The Lesson Plan:

(Or at least the bones of the activity progression for students.)

Teachers: Edit, adapt, swap, scaffold or extend as you must for any grade level and for your particular community of students.

  1. Imagine extraterrestrials. Draw beings from other parts of our universe as you imagine them to be. Label and annotate, describing the qualities you imagine them to have. Save for later.
  2. Read Strange Planet by Nathan Pyle. Read aloud. Read silently. Partner read. Close read. Do a literary scavenger hunt. Do an open sort of a whole bunch of them. Do a closed sort of a whole bunch of them (sample categories: This is absurd! This inspires affection! Both!). Don’t miss the opportunity to discuss, do word work (and word play!) with any fun vocabulary, look for cognates, play with translating to other languages, analyze the drawings. Enjoy reading.
  3. Discuss: What are the characteristics of Nathan Pyle’s style? What is Pyle’s purpose and what techniques does he use to convey his message? What makes his work unique? Funny? Resonant? Thought provoking? Effective? Generate a collective list of answers. [Teachers: this will reveal how much your students already get the idea of defamiliarization and any other techniques they notice. Plan any other instruction about this accordingly.]
  4. Brainstorm: What do you think is ABSURD about school? What practices, habits, behaviors happen at school that are ironic or at odds with the purpose (pause to discuss: what IS the purpose? according to the explicit/implicit/omitted curricula?) of school? What is just silly about school? What aspects of school are problematic or even harmful? What are the things about school that you are glad to miss when you cannot be there? Generate lists.
  5. Brainstorm: What about school inspires your AFFECTION? What things are memorable in a good way? What traditions or activities are you fond of? What have you created or done that you are proud of? What aspects of school help you feel protected, supported, or empowered? Who are the people you appreciate? Which relationships that are important to you? What are the things about school that you miss when you cannot be there? Generate lists.
  6. Create: Your own comics inspired by Strange Planet. Reference your original sketch of extraterrestrials. Reference your lists. Contemplate how your imagined E.T.s would behave in/react to your school. Use some of the techniques used in Strange Planet, to create your own strange planet–show and describe the things at school that you think are simply absurd, for which you have affection, or that you think of affectionately as charmingly absurd.

Teachers: Assess students thoughtfully based on any relevant Literacy, Language Development, Social Emotional Learning, and Fine Arts standards (or LILAC expectations!)–but acknowledge the larger value of this student work beyond the progress it represents toward established standards. Allow yourself to learn from it. And honor it with action.

The Action Plan:

(Or at least the bones of one for educators.)

  1. Read what your students have shown you. Read carefully. Note the more overt feedback AND look for the subtle insights and implied pleas. Do a closed sort to reveal the range of what they find absurd, and of what inspires their affection. Do an open sort to surface any other themes. What policies, structures, practices have they pointed out as troubling? What experiences have they recalled warmly?
  2. Reflect. Reflect with a minimum of ego and a maximum of empathy. Walk around in your students’ points of view and let them inform your own. What has confirmed your suspicions? What has surprised you? What did you already know but didn’t really think about until now? What mirrors your own experiences as a student? Reflect on what other opportunities you should and could offer your students to weigh in on their school experiences. Consider these comics as a valuable data set and reflect on how it should drive your next steps.
  3. Respond. Respond immediately and carefully to anything urgent. Respond thoughtfully within your current scope of control. Keep the conversation going with kids. Do more research, gather more input, seek out more perspectives. Reach out to others and expand your collective scope of control. Respond collaboratively to anything that requires collective attention.
  4. Resolve. Commit to continued inquiry, reflection and responsiveness. Take the action you have revealed to be necessary. Make a point of and a plan for sustaining all the positives (sometimes keeping a good thing going is the hardest!) as well as addressing the negatives. Involve your students, families, and colleagues as partners in problem solving, as co-conspirators in dismantling what needs to be dismantled, as collaborators in building and doing better. Resolve to create schools where we trust in the truth of our students, where we abolish harmful absurdities, and where we insist on everyone’s right to be free and flourish.

This feels like a good time to quote Carla Shalaby (and to urge you to read her book Troublemakers. Oh my. It’s so good.) …

“…we all need to work especially hard to resurrect our capacity for human being, as a verb. That is, these are times that call upon us to sometimes break the rules of institutions and traditions…in favor of resurrecting our capacity to better see, hear, and talk to one another as human beings.”

A Letter From Carla Shalaby
Mid-Atlantic Education Review, Vol. 6, No. 1 (28-30), 2018

Of course, this was painfully true when Carla Shalaby wrote it, and really, had been true for a very long time already. But how does context inform how we read these words today? We are living in a unique Right Now, in which the Coronavirus has already caused an abrupt break in many rules of institutions and traditions and is prompting us to really develop clarity about what is important, what is essential, what is necessary for BEING. This interruption in some ways is prompting us to defamiliarize our notions about schooling…forcing us to consider our perception of the familiar with new eyes, to look at our assumptions about what education should be, and to question what we have accepted as normal.

We already know that much of what has been normal in schools is just not right. How we choose to handle these extraordinary circumstances–events that have both thrown the inequities and toxicities of our systems into sharp relief, AND revealed the power of love and strong relationships in our learning communities–will set the precedent and shape the course of action we take when we are allowed back into our school buildings.

So. The lesson/action plan I offer here is just one example of how we might proceed toward a better new normal. I think it aligns nicely with a Take Care approach to the curriculum, if I do say so myself. And if you are going to give it a whirl (and even if you’re not), I recommend you try out the activity yourself–see what your lists look like, try your hand at conveying the ideas in a visual text, talk to your colleagues about what emerges. I have invited teachers to do this in my workshops and the conversation was powerful. I also tried it out with a 5th grader I know, who was gracious enough to grant me permission to share one of her comics with you here:

Student reflection on schooling, 2020. Inspired by the style of Strange Planet.

I don’t know about you, but I’m loving the idea of our students mapping out a vision for a beautiful New Normal, one comic at a time.

Take care. Be well. Much love.

___

*New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Defamiliarization,” New World Encyclopedia, //www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Defamiliarization&oldid=890864 (accessed April 1, 2020).

1 Comment

  1. I’ve been pondering ways this new normal could be creatively adapted. For example: adapting Waiting for Godot as a Zoom call. Or a Black Mirror style webisode. Or an homage to the old Brady Bunch theme song.

    Liked by 1 person

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