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.

Article: Why the real story of the Irish Famine is not taught in U.S. schools –

Teaching is never neutral. Every educator brings his or her perspective to the material. A “lack of viewpoint” is, in itself, a viewpoint.

And when we’re teaching material that should provoke our students to mourn or at least wrestle with difficult truths about our broken world—like the causes of the Irish Potato Famine and ensuing suffering—we might be failing our students if we don’t bring them face to face with these questions.

This article outlines the problem. The tone of the piece may be a little harsh, but the point is well made: mainstream textbooks tend to skip some of the most important material students should be learning.

“Uniformly, social studies textbooks fail to allow the Irish to speak for themselves, to narrate their own horror.”

The school curriculum could and should ask students to reflect on the contradiction of starvation amidst plenty, on the ethics of food exports amidst famine. And it should ask why these patterns persist into our own time.

More than a century and a half after the “Great Famine,” we live with similar, perhaps even more glaring contradictions. Raj Patel opens his book, Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System: “Today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than one in ten people on Earth are hungry. The hunger of 800 million happens at the same time as another historical first: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight.”

via Why the real story of the Irish Famine is not taught in U.S. schools –


Testing, Common Core, and Classroom Creativity

a telling quote from a teacher in a Common Core state: 

Sad reality in an assessment-driven culture


The article as a whole discusses the fact that teachers in Common Core states, launched with little aligned curriculum yet responsible to meet the standards, have been writing a lot of their own curriculum. 

Common Core’s unintended consequence

Wish List: Piecing Together an Ideal School From the Ground Up | MindShift

Wish List: Piecing Together an Ideal School From the Ground Up | MindShift.

Couldn’t have said it better myself! This is a great, short piece at Mind/Shift about inquiry learning, interdisciplinary teaching, trusting students as active participants in their learning process, assessing through multiple means, investing in teachers through professional development, and not locking in too quickly on how to use technology in a classroom.


Game Design influencing School / Curriculum Design

Enjoyed this perspective on how technological innovation should be changing schools, rather than just digging up fancy toys for students and teachers:

What Happens when School Design looks like Game Design (Mind|Shift)

The thing about tools is that their strength is usually derived from the way they approach a problem rather than in the particularity of the solution they offer….

In the current world, our schools should be focused on teaching both linear and non-linear ways of knowing. We need to remember that the goal of technology is ultimately to help us mentor our youth so that they become familiar with the many ways of knowing that humanity has discovered. It’s not just to develop proficiency with today’s tools while maintaining yesterday’s predominant thinking.”

Link: We Will Never Be Truly Standardized

“We have to teach specifically to our students. We cannot plow our way through scripted curriculum and not stop when a child doesn’t understand or we see an opportunity for further investigation. If we do, then we are not doing our job as teachers. The very nature of what we do and who we do it with prevents true standardization even if politicians think they can test us into submission and sameness.”

We must recognize that all good teaching happens in the context of a relationship. In fact, I’d say it’s impossible to achieve GOOD teaching without building that bridge to every individual student.
And once you’ve built the bridge, you can no longer ignore the individuality of the learners who populate your classroom. 
I don’t have as negative an opinion of the Common Core standards that this blogger does — I found the reading & writing core to be helpful and thoughtful.  But no matter how “standardized” our curriculum could become, education rests on the backs of individual TEACHERS.  
And any teacher worth his/her paycheck knows that you cannot standardize wonderful, difficult creatures we know as humans.  It’s part of the imago Dei.