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Remixing Metamorphosis: Kafka Gets a Makeover at TC

An original, multimedia performance inspired by the 100-year old classic novel

The Metamorphosis is the title of Franz Kafka’s story of a man who awakens one morning having turned overnight into a cockroach—but it also describes the experience of a group of teachers and high school students this past July in Literacy Unbound, a summer professional development institute for high school English teachers at TC.

Twelve teachers from around the country (plus one from Colombia) and 12 New York City high school students arrived at TC on July 6th. Shedding their roles as “teacher” and “student,” they became players, engaged as peers in deep reading of The Metamorphosis, the 100-year old, often told and adapted story about a man who gets out of bed one morning and discovers, to his horror, that he has been transformed into a “horrible vermin.” The workshop culminated in a one-time only multimedia performance called “The Meta-Metamorphosis,” on July 16th, in Milbank Chapel. (To view a video of Part I of the production, visit here.)

Early in the performance, a time-lapse video of one of the players, Jerry Hendershot, an art teacher and master ceramicist from Idaho, illustrated another aspect of the program:  an emphasis on process rather than simply the end product. (To see Hendershot at work, visit here.)

Working on a potter’s wheel, he builds a human figure out of a lump of clay. Then, in a depiction of the concept of metamorphosis, he builds a second sculpture of a roach, complete with skinny arms, legs and antennae, around the first sculpture, encasing the man inside a roach. He pauses the wheel, takes a few seconds to admire his work, then turns the wheel back on and spins the new sculpture between his hands, pressing down until it disintegrates, returning it to a wet lump.

The video seems to say that the value of art is not in the finished product, but in the making of it—articulating through metaphor the message of Literacy Unbound.

“The program was created in the deep belief that the process is the learning experience,” said Dr. Erick Gordon, Senior Research Fellow for Innovation at TC’s Center for the Professional Development of Teachers (CPET) and co-creator of the program. “Even in production-centered work, the product—in this case a performance for the stage—drives collaboration and puts the players in conversation with a larger audience.”

The process began one month before the players arrived at TC, when they received in the mail a handmade leather notebook and an envelope filled with 100-year-old ephemera. Each morning for the next 30 days, before the institute began, they received an “invitation to create,” asking them to reread the novel and respond through both writing and visual creations and connect the ideas from the book with clippings from early 20th-century magazines, old photographs, and other bits of ephemera.

In addition to grappling with questions about the text, the “Kafka Journals,” as Gordon calls them, “are meant to surprise and delight the players. We want to challenge them to break out of learned approaches to reading from the onset, and help limber their creative impulses and ready them for our work together.”

In the first week of the institute, the players worked in groups with professional musicians, dancers and choreographers to respond to the text in a variety of media and begin framing questions about it that they wanted to explore more deeply. In the second week, they selected pieces from all that they created during that first week and stitched them together into the performance, expanding and elaborating during the rehearsal process and creating an original, multimedia mash-up, including original sound mixes, videography, poetry, music, choreography, and handmade costumes and masks, based on Kafka’s story.

“We’re using a framework of remix—not creating a literal depiction of the novel but re-contextualizing, asking and provoking new questions and responses,” Gordon said. “Remix allows us to work in conversation with the text in new ways, incorporating multiple media and fluidly moving across modes of inquiry and expression. Remix provides a powerful framework for studying literature in the 21st century.”

In part, Literacy Unbound is a response to the Common Core Curriculum’s emphasis on nonfiction over fiction and de-emphasis on the deep, aesthetic reading that the program’s creators believe can ignite a love of classical literature in students. By breaking down barriers between critical and creative pursuits, participants learn to work on both sides of their brains, Gordon said.

The program also is designed to break down barriers between teachers and students, based on the idea that teachers have as much to learn from their students as the other way around. For nine days at TC, they were “no longer students, no longer teachers,” Gordon told the participants on the first day. “From now on, you are all players.”
One way to get the players on even footing was to combine students’ everyday communication technology skills and practices, including video and sound recording and mixing, with old-school skills like writing poetry and original music and choreographing original dance, in the belief that these activities can unlock classical literature which might previously have been outdated, inaccessible or unappealing to them.
Literacy Unbound (formerly Performance at the Center) was created by Gordon and Adele Bruni Ashley, a doctoral student in English Education at TC who co-directs the program. Ashley is writing her dissertation on the longer-term effectiveness of the innovative program by following the first cohort of teachers, who produced a multi-media performance of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” last year.

Gordon and Ashley hope the program will have lasting impact on the way high school literature classes are taught. Participating teachers are encouraged to take what they’ve learned back to their schools and train their teaching colleagues in the Literacy Unbound method.

"Literacy Unbound is, at its core, about challenging—unbinding—traditional approaches to reading and writing,” Ashley said. “What does it mean to read and make meaning in the company of others? How might we begin to embody the texts we read? How can we read and write through sound, through movement, through images? These are some of the questions we hope teachers will carry back into their classrooms."

To see a video about the Frankenstein project, click here.

Published Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015

Remixing Metamorphosis: Kafka Gets a Makeover at TC

The Metamorphosis is the title of Franz Kafka’s story of a man who awakens one morning having turned overnight into a cockroach—but it also describes the experience of a group of teachers and high school students this past July in Literacy Unbound, a summer professional development institute for high school English teachers at TC.

Twelve teachers from around the country (plus one from Colombia) and 12 New York City high school students arrived at TC on July 6th. Shedding their roles as “teacher” and “student,” they became players, engaged as peers in deep reading of The Metamorphosis, the 100-year old, often told and adapted story about a man who gets out of bed one morning and discovers, to his horror, that he has been transformed into a “horrible vermin.” The workshop culminated in a one-time only multimedia performance called “The Meta-Metamorphosis,” on July 16th, in Milbank Chapel. (To view a video of Part I of the production, visit here.)

Early in the performance, a time-lapse video of one of the players, Jerry Hendershot, an art teacher and master ceramicist from Idaho, illustrated another aspect of the program:  an emphasis on process rather than simply the end product. (To see Hendershot at work, visit here.)

Working on a potter’s wheel, he builds a human figure out of a lump of clay. Then, in a depiction of the concept of metamorphosis, he builds a second sculpture of a roach, complete with skinny arms, legs and antennae, around the first sculpture, encasing the man inside a roach. He pauses the wheel, takes a few seconds to admire his work, then turns the wheel back on and spins the new sculpture between his hands, pressing down until it disintegrates, returning it to a wet lump.

The video seems to say that the value of art is not in the finished product, but in the making of it—articulating through metaphor the message of Literacy Unbound.

“The program was created in the deep belief that the process is the learning experience,” said Dr. Erick Gordon, Senior Research Fellow for Innovation at TC’s Center for the Professional Development of Teachers (CPET) and co-creator of the program. “Even in production-centered work, the product—in this case a performance for the stage—drives collaboration and puts the players in conversation with a larger audience.”

The process began one month before the players arrived at TC, when they received in the mail a handmade leather notebook and an envelope filled with 100-year-old ephemera. Each morning for the next 30 days, before the institute began, they received an “invitation to create,” asking them to reread the novel and respond through both writing and visual creations and connect the ideas from the book with clippings from early 20th-century magazines, old photographs, and other bits of ephemera.

In addition to grappling with questions about the text, the “Kafka Journals,” as Gordon calls them, “are meant to surprise and delight the players. We want to challenge them to break out of learned approaches to reading from the onset, and help limber their creative impulses and ready them for our work together.”

In the first week of the institute, the players worked in groups with professional musicians, dancers and choreographers to respond to the text in a variety of media and begin framing questions about it that they wanted to explore more deeply. In the second week, they selected pieces from all that they created during that first week and stitched them together into the performance, expanding and elaborating during the rehearsal process and creating an original, multimedia mash-up, including original sound mixes, videography, poetry, music, choreography, and handmade costumes and masks, based on Kafka’s story.

“We’re using a framework of remix—not creating a literal depiction of the novel but re-contextualizing, asking and provoking new questions and responses,” Gordon said. “Remix allows us to work in conversation with the text in new ways, incorporating multiple media and fluidly moving across modes of inquiry and expression. Remix provides a powerful framework for studying literature in the 21st century.”

In part, Literacy Unbound is a response to the Common Core Curriculum’s emphasis on nonfiction over fiction and de-emphasis on the deep, aesthetic reading that the program’s creators believe can ignite a love of classical literature in students. By breaking down barriers between critical and creative pursuits, participants learn to work on both sides of their brains, Gordon said.

The program also is designed to break down barriers between teachers and students, based on the idea that teachers have as much to learn from their students as the other way around. For nine days at TC, they were “no longer students, no longer teachers,” Gordon told the participants on the first day. “From now on, you are all players.”
One way to get the players on even footing was to combine students’ everyday communication technology skills and practices, including video and sound recording and mixing, with old-school skills like writing poetry and original music and choreographing original dance, in the belief that these activities can unlock classical literature which might previously have been outdated, inaccessible or unappealing to them.
Literacy Unbound (formerly Performance at the Center) was created by Gordon and Adele Bruni Ashley, a doctoral student in English Education at TC who co-directs the program. Ashley is writing her dissertation on the longer-term effectiveness of the innovative program by following the first cohort of teachers, who produced a multi-media performance of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” last year.

Gordon and Ashley hope the program will have lasting impact on the way high school literature classes are taught. Participating teachers are encouraged to take what they’ve learned back to their schools and train their teaching colleagues in the Literacy Unbound method.

"Literacy Unbound is, at its core, about challenging—unbinding—traditional approaches to reading and writing,” Ashley said. “What does it mean to read and make meaning in the company of others? How might we begin to embody the texts we read? How can we read and write through sound, through movement, through images? These are some of the questions we hope teachers will carry back into their classrooms."

To see a video about the Frankenstein project, click here.

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