Friday, February 17, 2017

Begin February Break Now!

My February break has begun!

It was a hectic day, but not a bad one. Friday is when I have both my 5th and 6th grade classes, and despite my grumblings, I actually do enjoy it.

The 6th grade has been especially fun for me because I've centered the class around scary stories, which they always enjoy. But rather than just reading the same books to them, I have developed 'units' based on themes that often arise in urban legends and ghost stories. For example, we just finished discussing the classic Vanishing Hitchhiker. This commonly known legend usually involves a person driving along a lonely road at night, spotting a person on the side of the road, offering the person a ride to someplace, and learning soon after that they were actually giving a ride to a ghost. Over the past few weeks, I  brought up the real story of Resurrection Mary, the famous ghost of Chicago. I read stories from the Alvin Shwarz books as well as On the Day I Died by Candace Fleming, and we watched a couple of episodes of my old favorite show Are You Afraid of the Dark?. I even played them the song "Last Kiss" by J Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers so they could see that this idea is present in all types of media and pop culture- not just "scary stories." As a fun clip, I showed them the part in Pee Wee's Big Adventure when Pee Wee gets a ride from Large Marge, whom he finds out is actually a ghost.

Most of the kids have never seen the full movie (heart-breaking, I know!) but they specifically asked to watch that clip again today. Despite their sometimes obnoxious behavior, I do have a soft spot for boys this age- they're just so funny. The things they come up with make me laugh- not the fake kind of "haha- yeah that's pretty funny" type of response, but real belly laughs. Today during the Pee Wee Herman clip, I guess one of the boys passed some gas, because one of the others soon exclaimed "Man, that smells worse than Large Marge's face!". There are more fart references than I'd prefer, but I guess you get used to body humor working in a middle school.

What did that kid eat?!

Crude humor aside, I think that the kids are beginning to make connections between the stories and the ideas contained in them. Today I read them the story of "The Drum" (from one of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books) about two girls who meet a gypsy girl. This gypsy girl has a very fancy toy drum, and the girls want it. The gypsy girl tells them that she will give it to them if they act very naughty. This story is a very basic way to introduce the Faustian tradition in literature: selling one's soul in order to gain material goods/prestige. I told them about the basic premise of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, about how even Dorian is a selfish person who leads a life full of bad deeds, that he has sold his soul to never look older. However, the portrait of him that's locked away in the attic reveals the truth about his character.

So to accompany this theme, we watched "The Tale of the Vacant Lot" from Are You Afraid of the Dark?. In this story, a teen girl named Catherine who is tired of being average comes across a mysterious boutique, run by a woman dressed all in black. The boutique contains an assortment of things that she is convinced will help her: new sneakers that make her run faster and earn a place on the track team, fashionable clothes that receive compliments, concert tickets that she uses to ask out a boy she likes, etc. Every time she takes something from the booth, the mysterious woman tells her that the payment is something that's not of value, so it won't be missed. With each transaction, it becomes clearer to Catherine that she is changing. She is being mean to her friends and her younger sister, getting greedy, and she keeps seeing spots on her skin in the mirror.

She learns that the woman who runs the shop, Marie, was also once a teen girl who was tired of being ordinary. She traded herself for the material goods she thought would help her, but instead she lost herself, including her face. When her face is revealed, it is blistered and scarred and generally scary looking. Her teeth are very yellow, which made one of the kids say to the screen "Maybe she should get some Crest Whitening Strips or something" which made me laugh.

Even though Are You Afraid of the Dark? is cheesy, and pretty dated now, the stories contained in the series really do hold up, and it illustrates some classic tropes of urban legends and literature in general. I would never expect a 6th grader to read The Picture of Dorian Gray and discuss it with me, but they did understand the basic concept of the book after watching this episode.

It's kind of like zucchini brownies: a rich, decadent dessert that has a really healthy ingredient hidden in the chocolatey taste. They think they're just watching some goofy, 90's Canadian TV show with hilarious hairstyles and fashion, but they're absorbing some good stuff in there. 

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