Deep Learning with Fahrenheit 451

I recently completed the EdX course in Deep Learning – highly recommended, by the way! – and the culminating project for those of us taking the course for credit was to post the outline of a lesson or unit crafted using deep learning techniques and principles.

I reworked a unit I used to teach regularly to my 8th graders when we were reading Fahrenheit 451. This is definitely an improvement on the original. Feel free to use or adapt as you’d like.

Course: Literature
Grade range: 8th-10th 
Central text: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

In this integrated unit pulling content from multiple disciplines to support its central questions, students will engage deeply with core issues arising from Bradbury’s famous dystopian view of America given his front-row seat on McCarthyism in the 1950s. Bradbury envisions a nation so lost in its wall-sized TV screens and in-ear music stations, that few people know or care about the grinding, endless war or the pervasive government censorship that removed from citizens’ view any book that might make them “unhappy” by introducing dissenting viewpoints.

Central questions (students may suggest others and the class will select three)
• What defines a meaningful life?
• Does technology enhance or diminish humans’ enjoyment of life? Are we the masters of technology, or do our devices master us?
• What should we as a society do with ideas we disagree with, condemn, or dislike?
• When facing a crisis decision, what values anchor your choices?

Unit Introduction:
DAY 1: As a class, we will review 7-12 headlines drawn from a wide variety of American fringe “news” outlets, from Breitbart to Mother Jones, on a controversial recent topic. (If I were teaching this unit in the spring of 2017, I’d probably use articles related to President Trump’s “Muslim ban.”) The key here would be to have several articles that presented their content with a strong bias or offensive, incendiary language.

DAY 2: After reviewing the headlines of the articles as a group and inviting students to ask questions about the underlying current event (to make sure everyone had at least a foundational knowledge), I will ask students to pair up. Each pair should select whether they want to argue for these media outlets’ having Constitutional freedom to publish their slanted news, or to censor some or all of the “news articles” we reviewed earlier.

The pairs will write out their position at the top of a large sheet of butcher paper (CENSOR! or FREEDOM!) and then list at least 3 arguments to defend their position at the time. We will hang these lists around the classroom so the students can see the general “mood” of their classmates at the beginning of the novel.

Students would be welcome to cross out their reasons or change position altogether as they read by marking the changes on their posters and signing the date and their initials.

Reading and responding (2 weeks)
During the two weeks the students are reading Fahrenheit 451, we would use a variety of methods to access the novel’s content, including sustained silent reading, audiobook or read aloud, short improv skits to re-enact the content just read, character journals, and reflective journaling.

Students would be expected to finish the novel by 5 large “chunks” using their choice of reading method and responding in their preferred way at least 4 times during the two weeks.

Discussions: Socratic discussion (1 week)
The class will brainstorm central questions once we reach the end of the novel, working from the starter list of my core questions (see above) and adding/subtracting/refining as they saw fit until the group agreed on at least three questions they wanted to explore through Socratic dialogue.

Depending on the size of the group, we will create an inner circle of students who discus and an outer circle of observers. These two groups will switch roles the following day, and the Socratic discussions would continue until all three core questions had been explored. Students will vote at the end of each class period whether they wanted to spend an additional class period discussing that topic.

During the Socratic discussions, the observers should use pen/paper or an app like Padlet to keep track of the topics in the conversation, and the branching ideas. Save 10 minutes at the end of each period for all students to review the discussion graphs and vote on one or two to hang on the wall as a record of the Socratic discussion.

Optional homework assignment or wrap-up activity: “Write in response to today’s discussion, highlighting points of agreement/disagreement to your own views, and identifying questions or problems you’d still like to address.”

Culminating project: Collaborative policy-making, peer feedback, and presentations

After the discussion, students will collaborate in groups of 2-3 to develop a policy statement on one of the three central questions. The specifics here will be up to the group in conjunction with teacher guidance, but groups would be required to elicit feedback from at least two other peer groups during their planning and development stages.
The peer feedback form could include these questions:
1) What is this group’s policy idea?
2) What one thing could they do next to improve (not necessarily change or fix) their policy?

Groups would work independently to research their topics as needed and to communicate with experts in their relevant fields. (The teacher would facilitate these introductions as needed). The goal is to promote deep engagement with the question, including exploratory talk, logical examination of the issues and counter-arguments, and interaction with external experts (whether in person or through reading position papers, watching interviews, doing a Skype interview, etc).

Finally, groups will present their policies to the class, with as many “experts” on hand as can attend.

Student pairs will revisit their original censorship/freedom posters to discuss whether their views have changed. As a class, the teacher will facilitate a discussion where students generate questions they’d like to explore on their own sometime, and what key ideas they will take away from the unit as a learning experience.

Give students a place to air grievances

A good piece by John Warner about methods he uses to give students a place and time within his classroom to air their issues with the course, the process, the assignments, even the grading structure. When students have a say in the process, they are much more invested.

More importantly, this kind of teacher-student dialogue builds trust if the teacher is willing to listen and change. That takes humility – always a good trait.

The Airing of the Grievances (Inside Higher Ed)

from Jesse Stommel, on student-shaming

A powerful piece from Professor Jesse Stommel on the topic of student-shaming, a practice many of us educators have employed when our frustrations run over. The entire piece is good; here’s an excerpt from the end of “Dear Student”:

The work of educating from a place of care might seem abstract, or might be dismissed as touchy-feely, but if our goal is truly to resist the corporatization and standardization of education, we must recognize the ways that the failure to acknowledge students as full agents in their learning is a process that runs immediately parallel to the failure to acknowledge teachers as full agents in the classroom. The process that makes teachers increasingly adjunct is the same process that has made students into customers. And the gear that makes this system go depends on the pitting of students and teachers against one another.

The gear that makes this system go is obedience — mere compliance at the expense of critical engagement and complex human understanding.

For education to work, there can be no divide between teachers and students. There must be what Paulo Freire calls “teacher-students.” Specifically, he writes, “no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught.” So, “teacher” becomes a role that shifts, and learning depends upon a community of teacher-students. Any authority within the space must be aimed at fostering agency in all the members of the community. And this depends on a recognition of the power dynamics and hierarchies that this kind of learning environment must actively and continuously work against. There is no place for shame in the work of education.

Read the whole post here

What can writers learn from hockey players?

A great article about what writing teachers can learn from street hockey games: that over-engineering lessons takes not only the fun out of students’ learning, it robs students of the freedom and responsibility to own their own learning:

I’m starting to think that my assignments are over-engineered.

Source: The Benefits of Disorganized Learning | Just Visiting by John Warner

Teaching students not to fear

Excellent read:

It may be that some people inside higher education think students aren’t ready for college because they don’t know what they should know. Or students don’t come with the abilities we think they should already have. Or they don’t know how to learn. Or they can’t think critically. Or they don’t know correct grammar. Or they don’t know how to manage their time. All that may be true, but I believe none of it is going to be repaired if we don’t help them learn how to stop fearing questions, themselves and others.

None of our concerns about student readiness for college are ever going to be resolved if we don’t help students learn how to stop fearing questions, themselves and others, writes Laurence Musgrove.

Source: The importance of teaching students not to fear (essay)

The most helpful concept I’ve discovered in her teachings is “bodhichitta,” the ongoing consciousness of those who have developed the fearlessness necessary to extend compassion to one’s self so that it might be extended to others.

Chodron defines bodhichitta as the ready mind and compassionate heart capable of overcoming the fears we feel toward ourselves and others that often result in aggression, prejudice, despair and even indifference. According to her, those who dedicate themselves to training in bodhichitta are called “bodhisattvas or warriors — not warriors who kill and harm but warriors of nonaggression who hear the cries of the world. These are men and women who are willing to train in the middle of the fire. Training in the middle of the fire can mean that warrior-bodhisattvas enter challenging situations in order to alleviate suffering. It also refers to their willingness to cut through personal reactivity and self-deception, to their dedication to uncovering the basic energy of bodhichitta.”

(emphasis mine)

Why Are IEPs So Expensive and Frustrating for Schools and Special Education Students and Their Parents? – The Atlantic

I think she’s diagnosing the wrong cause for this problem, but the description of the mess is definitely worth reading.

It feels like all of the rules set up to educate exceptional students (who are not severely restricted from a “typical” learning environment) are an attempt to solve problem by throwing rules at it. In my experience, what works in the classroom is the caring relationship of a teacher to the student in his/her care and the family of that student. To do that relationship well, teachers must be trained and they must have a small enough class size to invest the time necessary. And schools need to give those teaching professionals the latitude to structure their classrooms and lessons in the way that best fits the particular students in their care.


Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, are one of the greatest pitfalls of the country’s school system.

Source: Why Are IEPs So Expensive and Frustrating for Schools and Special Education Students and Their Parents? – The Atlantic