“Imagine. . .”: John Lennon as an Entry Point to Learning about Transcendentalism

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*As part of my studies in the Certificate for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education I was asked to write a Teaching Portfolio section on entry points to learning. We were asked to connect this entry point with Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences. In this abridged version I introduce the difference between MI and entry points, and then give an example of a musical entry point that I use to introduce students to Transcendentalism.*

 

Susan Baum et al offer a useful differentiation between Multiple Intelligences (MI) and Entry Points. They state that

While both MI theory and entry point approach concern the process of learning, MI theory describes different aspects of those doing the learning, while entry points describe different aspects of what is being learned. MI theory and entry points coincide at the place where the learner “meets” the content to be learned. (2005, 78)

MI theory posits that intelligence cannot be measured on a single scale. Rather, each person possesses an intellectual toolkit within which a range of intelligences are contained. No two toolkits are exactly the same. Thus, MI theory respects the individuality of each learner and encourages a plural approach to how we articulate our subjects for students.

Howard Gardner (2006) categorises intellectual ability into the following 8 criteria (visit Gardner’s website for MI theory here):

  1. musical-rhythmic,
  2. visual-spatial,
  3. verbal-linguistic,
  4. logical-mathematical,
  5. bodily-kinesthetic,
  6. interpersonal,
  7. intrapersonal,
  8. naturalistic.

Entry points approach can be broken down into the following:

  1. Narrational,
  2. Quantitative/Numerical,
  3. Logical,
  4. Foundational/Existential,
  5. Aesthetic,
  6. Experiential/Hands On
  7. Social.

These latter categories respond to MI theory and offer a way to apply it in the classroom. A “hook” to reel them in and keep them focused on the lecture is precisely what an entry point is intended to be. Without realising it, I learned the importance of engaging students with entry points in a surprising setting; reading the Harry Potter Series and following the adventures of the protagonists during their time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry demonstrated the importance of making even the most mysterious and magical subjects intriguing from the very beginning.

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), readers are first introduced to the Hogwarts curriculum. The pedagogical approaches are as diverse as the subjects that Harry and his peers study. The Potions Master, Professor Snape attempts a narrative hook, but simply results in isolating the students by ridiculing them and the other subjects they study:

As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses. … I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death — if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach. More silence followed this little speech. Harry and Ron ex­changed looks with raised eyebrows. (n.pag)

Professor McGonagall, the Transfiguration teacher, takes a different approach: “she changed her desk into a pig and back again. They were all very impressed and couldn’t wait to get started” (n.pag). Opening the first class meeting with this demonstration offers the students both aesthetic and foundational entry points. They see exactly what transfiguration is and what potential expertise there is to be gained by learning it. There are enthused and ready to learn as opposed to isolated and uncomfortable in the previous example.

via GIPHY

Furthermore, boredom is an unfortunate outcome of any class that does not reel students in with an appropriate hook early on. Professor Binns teaches History of Art in a manner that is devoid of any intellectual energy, best illustrated by the fact that he himself is a ghost:

Easily the most boring class was History of Magic, which was the only one taught by a ghost. Professor Binns had been very old indeed when he had fallen asleep in front of the staff room fire and got up next morning to teach, leaving his body behind him. Binns droned on and on while they scribbled down names and dates, and got Emeric the Evil and Uric the Oddball mixed up. (n.pag)

One thing that is sure to inspire lack of interest among students, is a lack of interest and poor content knowledge shown by the teacher. If we are to teach to multiple intelligences using entry points to learning as conduits, our approaches must be diverse, but also bolstered by passion for the topics at hand.

While Harry Potter is somewhat of a departure from other pedagogical resources, it offers a compelling argument for the value of a well-executed entry point. I have experimented with a range of entry point approaches, from reading paintings and short poems, to short games and quizzes. For the purpose of this post, I’ll discuss a musical entry point that has proven successful.

I teach a second year module called Nineteenth Century American Literature (EN2046). This module offers students an introduction to a range of literature, including poetry, short stories, essays and novels that define the literary and cultural life of that century in the U.S. This is a team-taught module that is divided into two parts. I teach the first half while a colleague teaches the latter half. The primary texts in my section are strategically chosen, not only to introduce students to key literary works of the era, but also as a means of introducing them to foundational concepts and historical contexts. They then build on this knowledge as we go through the module with them.

The very first concept and literary movement that students are introduced to is Transcendentalism using some essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson as primary texts. This is a challenging topic that has the potential to disarm students at the very beginning of the course. Information overload is a danger due to the variety of principles, key figures and events associated with the movement. The density of the primary texts assigned in this section of the module can also drive students away from the topic and indeed the entire module early on rather than drawing them in. Therefore, I open the first lecture with the music video for John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

The music video that I play is John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The song lyrics contain a range of ideological and political principles that, while penned well over a century after Ralph Waldo Emerson and Co starting lecturing and writing about Transcendentalism, dovetail nicely with the defining principles of the movement. I invite the students to sit back, relax, listen and watch while considering what the key messages of Lennon’s “Imagine” are. Given that there is usually a minimum of 100 registered students in the module, this also serves as a useful signal to a bustling room that the lecture has begun. As soon as the video ends I tell them to keep their ideas about the song to hand as we will come back to this song towards the end of the lecture. Then I begin defining the topic, its history, discussing the key principles, introducing some Transcendentalist writers who will be the focus of the next lecture, and then landing back at Lennon’s “Imagine.” I ask them to compare John Lennon’s “Imagine” philosophy to the concept of Transcendentalism, and we generally have a 10 minute class discussion.

A demonstrator offers a flower to military police at an anti-Vietnam War protest at The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, 21 October 1967 By S.Sgt. Albert R. Simpson. Department of Defense. Department of the Army. Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations. U.S.

This is one of the more successful entry point approaches that I have tried and tested. Because the song lyrics are less dense than Emerson’s essays, it serves as a bridge of sorts helping them to get a foothold on the material. The usually students respond by referring to particular lines in the poem that appear to them to be an articulation of Transcendentalist belief. They also make historical connections between Transcendentalism and the 1960s and 70s civil rights movements, flower power, and the Summer of Love. A number of them note that a lot of the Transcendentalist ideologies were similar to the ones touted by Lennon and his contemporaries. Their ability to make these cross-century connections demonstrate that they are already starting to understand the long-term influence of Transcendentalism, an issue I really want them to grasp early in the module.

Some students focus on the aesthetics of the music video. They note that the sounds of chirping birds and Lennon’s feet crunching the gravel as emblematic of the Transcendentalist principle of the importance of being within nature. One student took this a step further, stating that clearing mists at this point in the video symbolise the divine inspiration that Transcendentalists believed awaited those who opened their minds up to nature and all of its creative possibilities.

Playing the full music video rather than just an audio file allows students to engage this entry point approach in a number of ways. Verbal-linguistic, musical-rhythmic/harmonic, and logical reasoning skills all find room in this exercise: viewing the cinematography, listening to the words and the melody, and considering what the ideological message is. Moreover starting and finishing with this means that both interpersonal and intrapersonal strengths are challenged. The discussion towards the end of class allows those who find their feet in discussion and debate to engage with this. Asking them to watch, listen and think at the beginning benefits those who need space to meditate and reflect individually.

I play a version of the music video that has subtitles so that students with impaired hearing can access the lyrics, and so that all students can jot down words and phrases that stand out to them if the visual of the words appeals to their thought processes. Accessibility should be a consideration in every aspect of education, from curriculum design to devising entry points. I am reminded of the Digit(al) Shakespeares project which seeks to transform the way we think about Shakespeare’s works being primarily literature that must be heard:

By bookending the first lecture with this entry point approach, students are greeted with a familiar song that they are asked to read using literary techniques they are comfortable with. Their introduction to a challenging concept is then cushioned again by the opportunity to reconnect with the familiar lyric. Thus, I have come to the conclusion that a significant benefit of entry point approaches is in creating a learning environment that not only seeks to connect them intellectually with the topic, but one that also assures them that they can connect with it.

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