Ira Glass in the Classroom

Every guy in my junior high school was really excited for Health class. On the first day, our teacher asked us to discuss the definition of “Sex”. One person cautiously offered “gender” and then Lucas from the back yelled “LUUUV MAKIN’” and he and his crew started hooting, jumping on chairs, high fiving and all that, and everyone had a laugh.

That was the last laugh we ever had in health class because the class dived into identifying organs, memorizing diseases, and listing laws. Lucas got a C because he couldn’t write a 200 word short answer on the history of syphilis and broke down halfway through the semester. Half the class was asleep as the teacher taught us how to apply a condom. We were excited when he wheeled in a television in but once “The Miracle of Life” began playing Eric and Sasha’s faces turned green and vomited. To be fair, no one in that class was ready for bush. The class was sterile as it can be, courtesy of the curriculum approved by Chicago’s Board of Education.

The presentation of information has since then fascinated me. How did this exciting topic taught to kids at their most immature age be rendered boring?

I’m going to take a detour.

This isn’t the first time I’ve listened This American Life. Throughout high school I worshipped it to the point I didn’t miss a single episode. The soothing voice of Ira Glass, mellow ambiance created by the music, poignant stories, and non-traditional narration drew me in. This American Life did this thing were every week, I was introduced to a topic I would have never taken interest to. Every week, they would take a simple idea – in this case, discipline – and shed light through new angles. Waking up, Regrets, Getting Lost, Patience, 180 Degrees turns, even Taxes… I loved it.

Now why can’t I apply that to school?

In a video recording of an interview, Ira Glass goes through his own past mistakes and advice for viewers. This may seem strange for a radio host to be on video but in this case, the video is utterly unnecessary as every nuance, transition, and advice can be captured through the audio. Glass himself sits largely motionless besides a few meaningless hand gestures, and facial expressions are difficult to decipher through the pixels.

Glass gives out two important lessons: cut the crap, and let the information be told in story-form, in conversations.  It seems to be two contradicting advice, from my experience writing lab reports and short stories. But this is advice even my poetry professor has given out. “Murder thy darlings,” she’d purr the night before our portfolios are due. Glass’s advice to “cut the crap” as per say – shorten, but to eliminate distractions. Is the question raised by the repeated phrase, “and the house was very quiet” going to be answered? If not, cut it. Does this anecdote tie in with the moral of the story? Will this piece of information divert from the pacing, the established mood, the reality viewers are submerged under right now? If not, cut it, it’s crap.

Another lesson Glass give us is for the information to sound natural, it needs to be a conversation. This is an opportunity to learn about other humans – other American lives. The story cannot be about the storyteller, yet it cannot be entirely about the other party as well. Like yin and yang the information looses relatability when Glass’s presence isn’t noted for a long time, or a narcissistic commentary on one’s own life when it focuses too much on the storyteller.

But what does this have to do with high school?

To me, the 50 minute class periods are similar to radio programs do; the information is presented auditorily. Some may argue seeing the lecturer is important, but Youtube videos like Khan Academy have shown a static blackboard is all that’s needed.

A screenshot of a Khan Academy video about the synthesis of alcohol using NaBH4 as a reducer… and I’ve already lost the reader.

Why is it working so effectively? Like Ira Glass’s This American Life, Khan Academy’s videos have a human presence through hearing the voice of the narrator. What I’m trying to say is, education is becoming a largely auditory experience.

The high school curriculum needs a lesson from Ira Glass. Cut the crap, give the information in a more human manner, and establish a conversation. How many times have we been given a bucket of information to memorize? How many times have we sat in lecture hall and let the professor issue out a stream of names, dates, and buzzwords before the exit door whips open and it’s 12:50 again? How many times do we hear classmates mutter “why are we learning this, we’re never going to use this in real life!” only to have the teacher justify it as “for college, for your major…”.

To get a job with a decent salary, our parents and grandparents might’ve needed a high school diploma but for us and for future generations we need a master’s degree, a PhD. There’s more information than ever at our fingertips and more information we need to learn, but oh just how horribly it is organized!

Movie poster of Bollywood film, 3 Idiots. Also one of the best movies in the world.
Movie poster of Bollywood film, 3 Idiots. Also one of the best movies in the world.

Students need a better way to absorb in information than simple passive listening, and for education systems like online videos and the overflowing classrooms that have no time to give out individual attention to students, there needs to be a better way to present that auditory information: take away distracting information, give students a more meaningful goal to work towards, and create a conversation between lecturer and viewer.


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