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.


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