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Man on Wire

August 13, 2012

The artistic crime of the century

I have been watching Man On Wire this week as a documentary study exploring “Language and the World” with my year 11 2B English class.  Discussions in class before I distributed the assignment were engaging, and the level of thinking was higher-order (especially since we traced links with our current reading of The Great Gatsby through a set of visual imagery I’d been collating for a VoiceThread presentation).

History students were happy to shed light on their collective understanding of social and cultural context:

CC Image credit  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunch_atop_a_Skyscraper

Plus our in-class meme exploration roamed from famous stunts like those performed by Houdini…

CC Image credit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Houdini

… to Evel Knievel. In a serendipitous moment of bliss, I came across BrainPickings‘ evaluation of Petit’s auto-didactic personality, which I shared with students in an Edmodo posting.  We even reviewed the visual codes which work to position viewers’ responses through considering a multitude of web-based still images. By this stage, we were convinced that our film subject was heroic at the least, perhaps even iconic.

So why did the assessed oral presentations descend to lacklustre?

Now that I’m in reflective mode, I think it may have something to do with the way in which I failed to connect their 15 year-old experience as students metaphorically walking the wire, with Philippe Petit’s determination to succeed in his goal. I assumed this was a leap they would make for themselves (no pun intended).

In the documentary, director James Marsh emphasises that six years of methodical planning went into this incredible accomplishment, and that’s a fair analogy for sitting WACE exams at the end of next year. Petit discusses his approach in this short commentary taken from a PBS interview. Maybe I should have set a provocative question in order to hammer home this personal connection for my students.

Instead, most of their assessed responses – where choice of topic had been promoted – focused on questions of morality and criminality; they also considered the death urge which drove Petit as a negative impetus, as opposed to something creative and liberating, which is how all the support team interpret his “audacious stunt” in the documentary.

Here’s an aftermath recap:

Following students’ considered evaluation of these oral presentations, where approval was heaped on peers who bravely spoke in French accents and used gestures in their role plays, while aspersions were cast on the general tendency to read from large sheets of script-laden paper, I could see that the real learning was happening after the event, not during as I had anticipated.

Too late for this assessment perhaps, but blog posts students subsequently produced in response to Man on Wire, and their less-than-illustrious oral interpretations of the set text suggest that the exams might prove a better forum for discussing their ideas.

I hope so!

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