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Handmaid’s Tale Project

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Last year my students read The Handmaid’s Tale in American Lit. I’m reworking my unit this year to really emphasize the relationship between Atwood’s dystopian world and real-word political, religious, and human rights issues throughout history and in contemporary societies. It’s easy to get caught up in the strangeness of the story itself — but Atwood is directing her story toward real issues we face. We read The Handmaid’s Tale following The Crucible, so it makes for an interesting transition regarding themes of women and power and the impact of religion on politics. With increased access to chromebooks in my classroom this year, I’m hoping that this final project — a PowerPoint (or Google Slide) presentation will give my students a chance to practice real-world skills and conduct meaningful research.

Final Project, The Handmaid’s Tale

  • Goal: Connect the surreal, dystopian world of Gilead to real issues faced by individuals and societies today or in the past.
  • Role: American Lit teacher.
  • Audience: Members of your American Lit class.
  • Situation: An opportunity to share the world of The Handmaid’s Taleand more importantly, its emphasis on satire and social commentary, with your class
  • Product: An interactive PowerPoint (or Google Slide) presentation that you will present in a five minute presentation

Process

Pick one of “Atwood’s Targets” (satire & social commentary points) to focus on:

  • “Rapid change into extraordinary brutality from an apparently civilized society”
  • A superficial and misleading focus on “family values” in oppressive societies
  • A focus on indoctrinating the young in repressive regimes
  • To oppress groups, oppressive leaders first dehumanize them
  • Books and literacy were seen as threats in oppressive societies
  • Oppression of women — e.g., requirements to be fully covered, limitations on their education
  • Objectification of women, women = their bodies, women’s bodies are their most important asset
  • Government through fear — brutal punishments to intimidate the population
  • Rigid gender roles — each gender serves a specific, prescribed function in society
  • The evils of slavery

Review your copy of The Handmaid’s Tale and find two instances of this “target” being examined, explored, satirized 

Research governments or religions that contain elements of oppression or face human rights challenges (either historical or contemporary) and take notes on how this government or religion exhibits your chosen “target.” Check out these resources to get a feel for the types of sources you should be consulting:

 Review these resources for how to create a high quality, interactive PowerPoint. 

Review PowerPoint or Google Slide software so you know what you’re doing, tech-wise. 

Create your PowerPoint (or Google Slide) presentation connecting your research to The Handmaid’s Tale. Cite your sources. 

Script the verbal part of your presentation and rehearse. 

RUBRIC
Total Possible Points =160

Criteria A – 36-40 pts B – 32-35 pts C – 28-31 pts D – 24-27 pts F – 23 pts or below

Explanation of Ideas & Information

Regularly builds in audience interaction

Presents information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically, audience can easily follow the line of reasoning

 

Does not read off the slide and is well-rehearsed but not scripted in delivery

 

Conveys passion for ideas and show

Builds in audience interaction at some points

Mostly presents information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically, audience can follow the line of reasoning

 

Does not read off the slide and is rehearsed in delivery

 

Conveys passion for ideas and show

 

Rarely builds in audience interaction

May not present information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically, but audience can generally follow the line of reasoning

Mostly does not read off the slide and is mostly rehearsed in delivery

 

Conveys some passion for ideas and show

Does not build in audience interaction

 

Presents information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence in a way that is confusing and/or incoherent; audience struggles to follow the line of reasoning

May read off the slide frequently; delivery is unrehearsed or overly scripted

 

Conveys minimal passion for ideas and show

Builds in no audience interaction

 

Sloppily presents information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence; audience can’t follow the line of reasoning

 

Reads off the slide frequently; delivery is unrehearsed or overly scripted

 

Does not convey passion for ideas and show

Organization

Meets all requirements for what should be included in the presentation

Has a clear and interesting introduction and conclusion

 

Organizes time well; no part of the presentation is too short or too long

Meets all requirements for what should be included in the presentation

Has a clear introduction and conclusion

 

Mostly organizes time well; for the most part, no part of the presentation is too short or long

Meets most requirements for what should be included in the presentation and has an introduction and conclusion

 

Some parts of the presentation may be too short or too long

Meets some requirements for what should be included in the presentation but many elements are missing

 

Parts of the presentation are too long or too short

Does not meet requirements for what should be included in the presentation

 

The presentation is disorganized; time is not used effectively

Eyes, Body, & Voice

Keeps eye contact with audience most of the time; only glances at notes or aides

 

Uses natural gestures and movements

 

Looks poised and confident

 

Speaks clearly, not too quickly or slowly

 

Speaks loudly enough for everyone to hear; changes tone and pace to maintain interest

 

Rarely uses filler words

 

Adapts speech for the context and task, demonstrating command of formal English when appropriate

Keeps eye contact with audience most of the time; only glances at notes or aides

 

Mostly uses natural gestures and movements

 

Mostly looks poised and confident

 

Mostly speaks clearly, not too quickly or slowly

 

Mostly speaks loudly enough for everyone to hear; may change tone and pace to maintain interest

 

Uses filler words occasionally

 

Demonstrates some command of formal English when appropriate

Keeps eye contact with audience some of the time; may look too closely at notes or aides

 

May use unnatural gestures and movements

 

May not look poised or confident

 

May speak too quickly or too slowly at points

 

May not speak loudly enough for everyone to hear; may not change tone and pace to maintain interest

 

May use filler words often

 

Demonstrates some command of formal English when appropriate

May struggle to keep eye contact; may look too closely at notes or aides

 

Uses unnatural gestures and movements

 

May not look poised or confident

 

Speaks too quickly or too slowly at points

 

Does not speak loudly enough for everyone to hear; does not change tone and pace to maintain interest

 

Uses filler words often

 

Doesn’t demonstrate command of formal English when appropriate

Does not make eye contact; looks too closely at notes or aides

 

Uses unnatural gestures and movements

 

Is not poised or confident

 

Speaks too quickly or too slowly at points

 

Does not speak loudly enough for everyone to hear; does not change tone and pace to maintain interest

Use filler words

 

Doesn’t demonstrate command of formal English when appropriate

PowerPoint

PowerPoint follows all guidelines in assignment instructions – simple, readable, incorporates pictures or video — and effectively contributes to audience engagement and understanding

 

Demonstrates thorough research; sources are cited

PowerPoint mostly follows all guidelines in assignment instructions – simple, readable, incorporates pictures or video – and contributes to audience engagement and understanding

Demonstrates some thorough resources; sources are cited

PowerPoint follows some guidelines in assignment instructions – simple, readable, incorporates pictures or video – and somewhat contributes to audience engagement and understanding

Demonstrates research; not all sources may be cited

PowerPoint is missing several important guidelines in assignment instructions – struggles to contribute to audience engagement and understanding

Demonstrates minimal research; not all sources may be cited

PowerPoint is missing most guidelines in assignment instructions – does not contribute to audience engagement and understanding

Lacking in research quality and citation of sources

Pushing the Bard in House of Cards

Brian Rinker House of Cards CC BY 2.0I resurface today after too long of break from this site! My excuse is that I’ve been busy with all the details of moving. But I admit, I also have a little fessing up to do, because there’s a far less upstanding reason for my hiatus. It’s called Season 3 of House of Cards.

I was initially reminded to watch when I came across an article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic by Christopher Orr, called “Why the British Are Better at Satire.” Orr contrasts the American show with its BBC predecessor from 1990, in addition to critiquing Veep and its British counterpart, The Thick of It, as well as lamenting the general lack of satire on American TV, despite quite a few shows wheeling and dealing in Washington intrigue. From Orr’s vantage point, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are the closest we have to British satire, with their quick-witted, unrelenting, barbed sensibility.

In opposition to Jon Stewart’s fast-paced repartée, the American House of Cards is notably “declawed,” according to Orr. It amounts to melodrama, the stuff of soap operas, a “sleek, intriguing portrait in menace” versus the “jaunty” British version. Wile both American and British versions share the same, basic narrative arc — a politically mired “Francis” who is denied a much anticipated promotion, then sets out on a vengeful, transparent quest for power — Orr outlines vast differences in tone and style. For starters, the cast of the main character: Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is an ambitious conservative Democrat whose Machiavellian scheming reads as ridiculous and absurd when compared to Ian Richard’s Francis Urquhart, a “winking, bred-in-the-bone conservative.” According to Orr, the Lady Macbeth vibes of Francis’s wife are also toned down and muddled in the American version, and his chief of staff Doug Stamper is caught up in the stuff of soap operas (alcoholism, unrequited love…) Lastly, Orr points out that Frank Underwood is one corrupt Washington official among many, whereas Francis Urquhart is a “genuine villain,” the “one dishonest man” who upsets the hapless political framework surrounding him.

Diving into one episode and then the next, I can’t shake Orr’s critique. The American series’ melodramatic tone is addictive and alluring (hence, my recent binge) but it does ring hollow at times, striking me as a little bit off, incomplete. And then I wonder — does the melodramatic style necessarily cheapen the show, or does the American version simply strive to create a more stylized, self-contained, Shakespearean world set in modern-day Washington? In a 2013 interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Kevin Spacey talks about playing Richard III as preparation for Frank Underwood. Orr characterizes Spacey’s asides to the camera as “ridiculous,” but so are the antics of Shakespeare’s ruthless king — you could argue that Spacey is playing Frank with a similar sort of gravity and bravado that he brought to the stage as Richard. These overt references to Shakespeare, and the straightforward styling of Frank as an old-fashioned, ruthless evildoer, seem to be part of the American show’s allure. There’s even a scene in season three where Underwood is addressing the camera through his own blurry, distorted reflection in a White House window, a nod to Richard III’s hunched, deformed physicality. There are plenty of moments where Underwood drives home the despicable, tyrannical nature of his character with a straight edge — the opposite of a “winking” demeanor — not least of which when he visits his father’s grave and pees on it just outside the sight lines of the press. While Kevin Spacey’s theatrical flair for his character’s malice is somewhat fascinating to watch, I have to agree with Orr that viewers of Francis Urquhart probably enjoy his character more, because there’s so much more to mine with the weird mix of light and dark that defines satire. By the end of season three, Frank Underwood and his much emphasized, increasingly frequent asides become something of a deadbeat, all too familiar.

Maybe the caricature aspect of Frank Underwood is why Season 3 keeps turning to his wife, Claire. Orr is right that Claire is too complex to be a Lady Macbeth type, though she nods in that direction at times. Take her sleek, angular wardrobe, omnipresent stilettos, and icy blonde highlights — an image that projects the severity and singularity of her ambitions, especially when coupled with that squinty, loaded gaze, the object of many a close up. There’s the moment when a dejected Francis calls Claire for solace and she tells him she “can’t indulge him” if he’s doubting himself, and plenty of other moments in between when Claire’s relentless pragmatism reads as ruthless, as if she never shifts her gaze from their marathon climb to the top. It becomes increasingly clear, however, that Claire is not at the helm of her husband’s quest for power. Instead, she clings to their political partnership increasingly out of desperation, not because she doesn’t long for power and status, which she does, but more fundamentally because she doesn’t love her husband. Her commitment to Frank’s scheming is more about a dogged persistence to preserve their union in some form, and of course, because she’s already in so deep, implicated in her husband’s trail of evildoings. In my opinion, watching Claire evolve into an increasingly self-honest, vulnerable character is one of the most satisfying parts of season three, but it does reinforce the feeling that the American House of Cards is softer around the edges, and ultimately apolitical.

I think the most salient effect of side-stepping satire for a more menacing, melodramatic political portrait is that House of Cards completely dodges any meaningful relationship to the real-life theatre of American politics. Instead we get a stylized, operatic, self-contained and unmistakably fictional world to peer into for some good old-fashioned intrigue. The lack of a political critique is why everything feels so stylized — the Shakespearean overtures don’t push us to think critically about our own political climate, they just plunge us further into a strange, dark world with a little extra flourish. It’s simply a difference of approach, but with the recent outcry over John Stewart’s leaving The Daily Show, it seems that Americans audiences are hungry for a more pointed social critique instead of these heavy, angst-ridden worlds that ultimately function as an escape from our own.

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