Show Your Work

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One of the most annoying things about doing math, in the minds of the k-12 student, is being reminded to ‘show your work.’ Don’t deny it, either. If you don’t remember being irritated about being asked to ‘show your work,’ then you either have a faulty memory, or you were never a kid. After all, we have calculators! And besides, everyone knows that six times seven is forty-two.

I’m not going to try to convince you that we should be teaching students to show their work, since that debate has come and gone, with universal agreement that, after a certain point, students should have to not just show that they can do math, but demonstrate how they do math. And, what I think is vital, this extends to every other discipline, and is a fantastic way to teach in a cross-disciplinary way.

There are elements of every discipline in every other discipline, and not just in the overt ways (reading a novel in history class, learning vocabulary in math and science, having a good grasp of history in ELA, etc.) but in subtle ways as well. Take, for instance, evolutionary theory. It isn’t enough for Darwin to have noted that there is variation within every species and that this variation caries with it survival advantages, and that over time, that variation will bring about new species. He had to demonstrate how this would happen, and bring forth evidence of that. And then, the work that he did had to go through committees and peer-review, a process that Darwin’s work is still subjected to.

But what does this have to do with the ELA classroom? Lets say that a class is teaching Othello with the thesis that the main reason Iago is trying to destroy Othello stems from racist ideologies. The next step would be to use the text in a way that will prove the hypothesis being pushed by the teacher. You have to have evidence to support your textual claims, and if you do not have that evidence, then you cannot push a theory.

That covers science (having to draw on evidence to support claims) and mathematics (having to demonstrate that evidence in a way that supports your ‘answer’), but what about history? Once again, we’re going to go with Othello. The play itself was written in 1603 or thereabouts, and the source that the play is derived from, “Un Capitano Moro,” places the setting around the beginning of the sixteenth century. With a thorough examination of attitudes pertaining to race in Cyprus and Italy around the sixteenth century, you may be able to make a case that Iago’s attitudes towards Othello are derived from racist ideologies. The question is, whether or not Shakespeare is counting these historical attitudes towards the way that he wrote his characters and his plays. The issue remains whether the text supports the claim or not. A much better use of historical exegesis would be to explore Othello’s historical character, the place that someone like him would have in the military during the sixteenth century since there are certainly some characters in the play (Brabantio and Roderigo most notably) that do have prejudicial attitudes towards Othello due to his race. This would make a rather interesting study, and could be supported by the text, unlike an attempted analysis that would paint Iago as a racist.

This is what makes ELA such an exciting and compelling subject to teach and to study. There are so many different disciplines that go into the subject, and so many different ways to study a text, but just like science, mathematics and history, if there’s no support in the text for the claims that have been made, then it has to be dropped. You cannot just make ideas and analysis up out of thin air, just as you cannot say that π = 3.

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