BRIDGING POP CULTURE AND THE CLASSICS Teacher links Poe with 'The Far Side'


When Dick Thompson's seventh-grade language arts students enter their West Middle School classroom this fall, they'll discover that "Jurassic Park" has taken over.

Discussing the sensational movie about dinosaurs brought back life by man is Mr. Thompson's way of introducing his students to Greek mythology.

"Probably the biggest theme in Greek mythology is that man has certain limits and if you go beyond, you get in trouble. Like the myth of Icarus: Men should not fly," says Mr. Thompson.

" 'Jurassic Park' is exactly the same concept . . . as it relates to us in the 20th century. It's about greed and not going beyond the natural order of things."

Popular culture often provides a bridge for discussion of great literature in Mr. Thompson's classroom.

"Really good teachers are connectors," he says. "You have to understand what kids are into, and key into that."

He uses modern media: movies, television, cartoons, even movie soundtracks, to extend their exploration of literature. His students might watch a movie scene without the sound to examine the story line. They might watch a movie version of a novel they've read and study editorial changes.

"We discuss how the film version is alike or different, what was improved or what didn't work. It's a neat way for [stimulating] critical thinking skills," he says.

"The premise is you teach literature and relate the corollary skills such as speaking, listening and writing," says Mr. Thompson. "You get a lot of neat creative writing, but also prepare for college [essays]. That's the highest point you can teach. That's the very best you can do for kids."

In January, they study stories by Mr. Thompson's favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe. They use Gary Larson's "The Far Side" cartoons for a related journalism project.

"Both [Poe and Larson] have a totally different way of looking at things," says Mr. Thompson.

In Poe, he admits, "Most people think of violence, gore, killing. But most important is that Poe is probably one of the most moral, ethical writers that ever lived. He is very flashy on the surface, but underneath that decay and violence there are contemporary values that kids are going to remember.

" 'The Black Cat' was all about the dangers of alcohol . . . which destroys a man's life. 'Hop Frog' is about discrimination. What more important points can we teach today?

"The problem is as a teacher, you have to hit that core. We need to teach kids values and ethics. Literature is a fantastic way to do that."

After reading Poe, students write a newspaper story based upon a Gary Larson cartoon. The cartoons from which they choose have no captions. The students must create their own explanation of the image.

"They come up with fantastic things," Mr. Thompson said.

For several years, his accelerated group of students has created a literary magazine called Tributes. Their point of departure is classical music. Students select from about 20 unidentified cassette tapes. Each student writes a story based on what he or she has heard. Much later, they learn the identity of the music.

One year they did themes composed by John Williams, famous for soundtracks for "Star Wars" and Indiana Jones movies. Last fall, they listened to Miklos Rozsa, a Hungarian composer who scored 90 movies, from "Ben Hur" to "El Cid" to "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid."

"Movie clips are a wonderful way to connect to classical literature, so for the last two or three years, we've used music -- classical and soundtracks," he said.

Students read their stories, in time to the music, to the class. This "speech and drama component," says Mr. Thompson, "brings out the best in their innate abilities."

The literary volume the students publish includes biographical sketches of themselves.

"It is a freeze-frame moment in [their] lives," explains Mr. Thompson. "Why it's so important is they give it to their parents. The kids make this for them."

When the volume is presented at an assembly, he says, "Each kid writes a dedication to their mom and dad and tells them what they should tell them all the time but don't. This is an opportunity for these kids to say, 'You're really important to me.' "

Parents have told him later, "The most touching part was what my child said in her dedication."

His encouragement to his students does not stop when they leave his classroom. Former students entering ninth grade receive a postcard. He sends it because he remembers his own transition to high school.

"I was scared to death, I think," he says. "I send a postcard saying, 'Good luck as you start high school, drop me a line when you get settled.' It's not a big deal. It was something small that I could do, to let them know someone's thinking about them at a time that could be traumatic."

When his students graduate from high school, they receive a letter of congratulations.

The two most important things a person can be, says Mr. Thompson, "are being a good parent and being a good teacher."

"If these two jobs are done well, then we'll be able to solve any problem. Most of the kids I've seen are up to the challenges of the future. That's probably one of the most rewarding things . . . seeing how many kids become mature adults, productive, successful . . . to see that you had just a little part in this."

With his 20 years in the classroom, some students know Mr. Thompson because he taught their parents.

"That was a jolting experience" the first time it happened, he said. "So I say, 'When Mr. Thompson finally has grandchildren in the classroom, that's when I'm retiring.' "

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