Making Connections: 56 Teenagers Suggest Creative Ways to Link School Curriculum to the World of 2020

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Teva Alon, Bergen County Academies, Cresskill, N.J.: “The American Dream” by Edward Albee and “Welcome to the Era of the Post-Shopping Mall”

This year, we read “The American Dream,” a satirical play by Edward Albee that explores the materialism and superficiality of American society. The characters are fully engaged in a capitalistic society and therefore exclusively focused on their jobs, purchases and status. Through the characters’ shallow dialogue, it is evident that they lack both meaningful personal relations and excitement from life that doesn’t come from an exchange of money. At first, this play was hard to comprehend and even harder to connect to my everyday life, mostly due to Albee’s absurdist style of writing. But everything clicked when I read Amanda Hess’s article, “Welcome to the Era of the Post-Shopping Mall,” discussing the opening of “The American Dream” shopping mall. This 3-million-square-foot mall has dedicated over half its area to entertainment, with the Big Snow ski resort, a Nickelodeon theme park, a DreamWorks water park, and much more.

This may seem like a dreamlike fantasy, but Hess chose to describe the American Dream as “vulgar.” While recounting her awe and nostalgia while skiing at Big Snow, Hess also confronts the emptiness of stepping on a ski lift and realizing that she is skiing in a vacant metal warehouse. This vacancy is present throughout both the mall and the play. In “The American Dream,” the character Young Man discusses his profound emptiness and inability to feel emotions. This perfectly parallels the empty corridors that connect the ostentatious attractions of the American Dream. The unfinished hallways, filled with vibrant posters of cartoon animals, are nothing but cheap diversions attempting to combat their true bareness, just surface-level platitudes meant to distract from its deep misery.

“The American Dream” was written as a satirical critique of what was considered in the 1960s to be the peak of capitalism. However, the American Dream makes it clear that this is the true peak of capitalism. The American Dream isolates outside experiences inside of metal boxes, covers every imaginable surface with obstructive advertisements, and always promises to elevate and enlarge every experience possible. Corporations, dissatisfied with simply selling products, have moved on to selling experiences that, as Hess put it, “are simulations of [life’s] extremes.” We are promised heightened bursts of adventure as a way to escape from the dullness of life, convincing us we need to empty our pockets just to feel something. I now find it strange that Albee’s play is considered “absurd” when it is as normal as life itself. The American Dream Mall is just an extension of a capitalistic nightmare that Edward Albee could only dream of, signaling that if we are not careful, we are inching closer to a world where we truly believe that money can buy happiness.

Brennan Bower, South Forsyth High School, Cumming, Ga.: Orbital velocity and “Boeing Starliner Ends Up in Wrong Orbit After Clock Problem”

Television signals, weather patterns, GPS location: these are all provided by satellites. The mystery of how these satellites transmit information was solved in my physics class. By reaching a certain orbital velocity given a radial distance from the Earth, satellites can orbit at the same speed at which the Earth spins. This gives us the information we need, as satellites can send and receive information from the same location in relation to the Earth’s surface.

While reading “Boeing Starliner Ends Up in Wrong Orbit After Clock Problem” by Kenneth Chang, I recognized the failure that caused this wrong orbit. Yes, as Chang said, the thrusters fired at the wrong time due to inaccurate clocks, but the underlying cause is tied back to the concept of orbital velocity. By firing at the wrong time, the rocket achieved a speed different than that which would have put the rocket on a radial target toward the International Space Station (ISS). The mission was a failure, and the rocket was returned back to Earth to not waste fuel on a trajectory away from the ISS.

As an unmanned rocket launch, the computer system issues were irreversible since their location in between satellite signals made it impossible to communicate with the home base during the untimely jet thrusts. These thrusts tossed the rocket out of its preferred orbit, and sent its path at the wrong radius. By the formula V=GMr, where M is the mass of the Earth in kilograms, r is the orbital radius in meters, G is the constant for gravity, and V is the resulting velocity, the rocket thrusters gave the rocket the wrong velocity at the wrong radius, leading the rocket mass to be off target of the ISS. The inopportune firing of the jets — a result of a simple timing mistake in the system’s computer — had serious physical consequences, costing Boeing millions of dollars in their failed mission. Their economic consequence wasn’t just from resources lost like fuel and boosters, but in public relations (given the 737 Max controversy, another system failure doesn’t exactly give airlines confidence in Boeing airliners). The cost of the inability of the rocket to correctly execute their launch with the guiding formula for orbital velocity is much greater than the perceived severity of a miscalculated clock.

Everything relating to the launch of a rocket is tied to physical phenomenon, from powerful synthetic fuels, to the need to overcome the gravity of Earth. Learning the basic, yet important, laws of physics taught in school is instrumental to the successful launch of not only rockets, but also to the correct execution of military technology, machinery, automobiles, and of course, satellites.

Christina Cheng, Woodside Priory School, Los Altos, Calif.: The principle of explosion, a law of logic and mathematics, and “Pinterest Restricts Vaccine Search Results to Curb Spread of Misinformation”

“Because if false can be true …” my math teacher frequently says, and I finish the sentence in my head: “then all of math falls apart.” This is the principle of explosion, or ex falso quodlibet: “from falsehood, anything (follows).” When one false statement (for example, 1+1=3) enters the math universe as an apparent true statement, it contradicts the genuinely true statement (in this case, that really 1+1=2). From this contradiction, the number of apparently true statements “explodes” — anything can be inferred as true — through an endless chain of falsehoods emanating from that one false statement. We can prove 2+2 = (1+1) + (1+1) = 3 + 3 = 6 and countless other math statements. When truth and falsity are blurred, logic is rendered meaningless and the entire system of mathematics collapses.

The principle of explosion extends beyond abstract numbers to public health and the rise of vaccine misinformation, which can be traced back several decades to inaccurate studies falsely linking vaccines to autism and toxins. As reported in “Pinterest Restricts Vaccine Search Results to Curb Spread of Misinformation,” social media platforms have recently been “infiltrated” with these vaccine falsehoods, presented as truths. Now, in the field of vaccines, truth and falsity is blurred to the extent that “everybody’s an expert.” This misinformation has wreaked havoc across the globe, triggering deadly outbreaks of measles in Samoa and Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with thousands killed or infected, disrupting societies. Indeed, the World Health Organization declared vaccine hesitancy one of last year’s “10 notable threats to global health.” Social media platforms have attempted to contain this “explosion” by resolving the contradiction — vaccine misinformation. Last year, Pinterest banned vaccine-related searches, while YouTube demonetized anti-vaccine videos, and Facebook and Instagram banned anti-vaccine ads and downgraded anti-vaccine searches. These platforms are making good progress, but have not yet effectively combated vaccine misinformation. As Dr. Gregory Point points out, “It’s a mess that I don’t see easily solved.”

However, our experience with the principle of explosion in math offers guidance on how to successfully resolve the proliferation of vaccine misinformation. In 1901, mathematician Betrand Russell discovered a contradiction (Russell’s Paradox) in naive set theory that threatened the validity of all of mathematics. According to the principle of explosion, this contradiction potentially invalidated all mathematical proofs. Mathematical pioneers, including Ernest Zermelo and Abraham Fraenkel, persevered and prevented this mathematical “explosion” by creating a new subbranch of mathematics, axiomatic set theory, thereby resolving the contradiction and reaffirming the validity of mathematics. Their successful resolution affirms that through diligence and persistence, we can prevent the rampant spread of misinformation on social media from jeopardizing public health and creating catastrophe.

Jonathan Gao, Brooklyn Technical High School, Brooklyn, N.Y.: The French Revolution and “Hong Kong Protest, Largest in Weeks, Stretches Several Miles.”

As I read from my history textbook, the French cried out the Chant du Départ: “La victoire en chantant, nous ouvre la barriére.” Fear became anger and anger became violence; the French took to the protest-torn streets to participate in the storming of the Bastille, the reformation of societal policies, and ultimately, the end to the monarchy. The widespread acceptance of violence during the French Revolution transformed society into one that would accept nothing less than “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

In the article “Hong Kong Protest, Largest in Weeks, Stretches Several Miles” written by Javier C. Hernandez and Elaine Yu, I realized that Hong Kongers drew inspiration from the French; Hong Kong is alike in their attempts to break from the tight grasp of authoritarianism. The authors discuss the large turnout from local Hong Kongers in a march to pressure the government into meeting the peoples’ demands. From images of masked students clashing with police to Canto-pop political anthems to the makeshift barricades, these actions are reminiscent of France’s revolutionary political culture. The French newspapers captured a society in shambles where the middle class rioted and burned barricades in the streets.

History is characterized by continuities, and these revolutions were no different from each other. Though having occurred more than two centuries ago, the French Revolution is important for its emergence of civil rights, democratic ideals, and liberties. Hong Kong’s demands for universal suffrage and a leader elected by the people, along with calls for the right to freely speak and assemble draw from the Enlightenment ideas that helped shape a new France.

The violence from both historical events is not to be overlooked. In France, the people armed themselves with weapons and gunpowder from the Bastille. As civil society quickly collapsed, commoners armed themselves in preparation for a counterrevolution from militaries abroad during the Great Fear. In a similar fashion, Hong Kongers have barricaded themselves in the city’s universities and central districts. Arming themselves with Molotov cocktails, gas masks, and bricks, they are provoking China to send in their own “counterrevolution” as they vandalize pro-China businesses and legislative buildings.

Though having occurred more than two centuries ago, the actions of the French Revolution continues to reverberate throughout time. We are all bearing witness to a series of turbulent situations not only in Hong Kong but in a greater wave of protests throughout the world. Each protest highlights the greater issue of corruption that runs amok in authorities and the need for popular sovereignty. As the world treads down a path of intense opposition, we must ask: How can we safeguard our rights and freedoms and maintain a society when the government is working in their own interests?

KellyAnne George, New Milford High School, New Milford, N.J.: Shakespeare’s “Othello” and “Brother of Qandeel Baloch, Pakistani Internet Star, Gets Life Term for Her Murder”

While reading Othello in class, I couldn’t help but stumble over Othello’s reason for killing Desdemona. He explains that his murder was, “not in haste, but all in honor.” Othello’s thought process is similar to people who justify honor killings. Since it is uncommon in the US, countless people overlook honor killings completely. Unfortunately, in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, the term “honor killings” is all too common. Women are slaughtered for reasons that are incomprehensible to most Americans; these reasons include having a boyfriend, leaving their spouse, or marrying outside their race or religion. In Othello’s case the reason was Desdemona’s supposed affair. When asked to speak for his actions, Othello asks to be called an “honorable murderer.” This reveals that Othello uses the loss of honor to justify his actions. In class, we were asked to think about the extent to which Othello is a tragic hero. I, however, failed to see heroism as I was blinded by his abusive nature.

In the article “Brother of Qandeel Baloch, Pakistani Internet Star, Gets Life Term for Her Murder” a horrible story is portrayed of a brother who murders his own sister for sullying the family’s honor. The victim in this story is a woman named Fauzia Azeem, Qandeel Baloch on social media, who became relevant by “posting provocative views and images, including seminude pictures, on Facebook and Twitter.” This was enough for her brother to take his revenge. What’s even more unsettling is that the parents had said that “they had absolved him and [is] asking the court to do the same.” According to this article, it is very common for an assailant to not be charged with murder if the family forgives him.

In Othello, this same message is portrayed as Othello only feels guilty and kills himself after finding out that Desdemona was innocent of adultery. This means, that to Othello and the other characters in the play, her murder would have been valid if she was really having an affair. Often times in the play people see Desdemona getting abused by Othello, and simply pass it off as Othello having a bad day.

When Othello strikes Desdemona, all Lodovico says is “make her amends.” This line emphasizes that there are no repercussions for Othello’s actions. Although the other characters see Othello hit Desdemona and hear him call her a “strumpet” and a “devil,” none of them seem concerned. Similarly, stories of honor killings are ignored and the perpetrator often gets away with his crimes. It would seem that even Baloch’s story only got attention because she was already popular prior to her death. This ignorance causes shame culture to continue and makes murder seem honorable.

Justin Hsieh, Fountain Valley High School, Fountain Valley, Calif.: “Polite Lies: On Being a Woman Caught Between Cultures” by Kyoko Mori and “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.”

Who am I without my environment?

I faced this question after reading “School,” Kyoko Mori’s account of the formative differences between her Japanese and American educations.

In “School,” a chapter of her memoir “Polite Lies,” Mori explains that she writes her books and poems in English rather than Japanese because she “was never taught to write in what was [her] native language.” Her Japanese language classes were formulaic and esoteric, and the rigid and arbitrary nature of instruction provided few opportunities to explore and improve in topics and styles of writing that interested her. By contrast, her English classes gave her that freedom and feedback, and “by the time [she] was a high school senior, [she] wanted to be a writer, and English was the only language [she] could write in.”

For me, Mori’s story — a powerful example of how instrumental schools are in shaping our youth’s identities — triggered an identity crisis. Many values I hold dear and see as key, nonnegotiable parts of who I am have clear antecedents in my childhood environment. If I had not grown up here, with these experiences, who would I be? If my identity is so changeable and contingent upon circumstance, what meaning does it have? Am I anything beyond a block of wax, a portfolio gathering stamps of “wealth,” “race,” “parenting,” or “schooling?”

During this crisis, I encountered Dana Goldstein’s article, “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.” Goldstein details how California and Texas versions of identical history textbooks differ in portraying topics of political sensitivity, from immigration and the legacy of slavery to environmentalism and the role of capitalism in American history. These discrepancies, from revisions by government-influenced review panels, mean the states’ existing political demographics are being reinforced, generation after generation.

This story’s impact, for me, was in how tangibly it substantiated the idea of environmental identity. As a proudly progressive Californian with multiple card-carrying conservative Texan friends, this article made me wonder how different our stories might be if ten years ago we had switched Texas and California textbooks. What meaning do our political values have if they are the product of the books we happened to be raised with?

I did not leave my crisis with answers. I left with better questions. How can we condemn people for holding beliefs we disagree with, or praise ourselves for our own, when in reality all we’re doing is dutifully reflecting the influences of our environments? How can we judge people for who they are, what they’ve achieved, and what they believe without at least understanding the circumstances that got them there? In the grand scheme of things, the question of nurture versus nature is an argument for empathy.

Jenny Hu, The Seven Hills School, Cincinnati, Ohio: “I Saw a Chapel” by William Blake and “Pope Francis Abolishes Secrecy Policy in Sexual Abuse Cases”

When studying William Blake’s “I Saw a Chapel” in my British Literature class, I was surprised by both the harshness and the modernity of the poem. Blake depicts a shining, golden church scaring off its weeping congregation, only to be desecrated by a vile serpent tearing through it. With graphic imagery, the poem paints a vivid picture of a church whose innocence is ruined by its worldly desires; hope and faith are lost in a descent into corruption.

The criticism felt strikingly applicable to today — the poem’s description of the serpent’s rape of the chapel is easily equated to the crisis of sexual assault ravaging the Catholic Church. Darkening the Church’s principles, each accusation only emphasizes the paradox and betrayal of a priest being a rapist. Though the Church has traded much of its nineteenth-century lavishness for something less concrete, the hypocrisy is unchanged. The ostentatiousness of golden chapels and white pillars has been replaced with equally conspicuous values of goodness and morality. In both Blake’s poem and this current crisis, the Church betrays its congregation.

Blake’s Catholic Church’s root flaw lay not only in its greed but also in its hypocrisy — at once both discouraging avarice and pursuing it. Sadly, Elisabetta Povoledo’s article “Pope Francis Abolishes Secrecy Policy in Sexual Abuse Cases” points out the Church’s continued legacy of hypocrisy; its public condemnation of sexual abuse is incongruous with its private protection of accused priests. She outlines the fact that until December 2019, the Vatican enforced high-level secrecy about sexual-abuse accusations against members of the clergy to shield them from criminal punishment by secular authorities. Despite claims that the confidentiality was meant only to protect and not to hide, traditional pontifical secrecy often led to covering up sexual abuse within the church and discouraging victims from speaking up. Similar to Blake’s poem, the church’s actions resulted only in the disillusionment of both victims and the general congregation.

Blake concludes his poem with the narrator abandoning the corrupted and unfaithful church for a pigsty. However, while the poem ends on a bitter note, Pope Francis’ latest changes bring hope for a more transparent and open Catholic Church. In response to the public outcry, he has begun to address the numerous allegations against prominent bishops and Church leaders. Though not resolving all of the problems pointed out by victim advocates, such as the fact that guilty priests are technically allowed to remain part of the clergy, the new canon law takes strides to confront the Church’s sexual abuse crisis. Perhaps this is the first step toward slaying Blake’s serpent, the chapel’s plague.

Sara Jarecke, Lakewood High School, Lakewood, Ohio: Study of rhetoric and “We Learned to Write the Way We Talk”

Speak

Anastrophe you say,

Yoda I think.

Last year they told me that in AP Language and Composition, I would find my writer’s voice. After five years of nothing but annotating works of fiction, however, I was a little skeptical.

In entering AP Lang, I immediately found it consisted of a lot more than just writing essays. I was introduced to something new: rhetorical strategies and the striking impact that they could have on our written words. I stumbled my way through foreign terms — epizeuxis, amplification, anastrophe — and learned their meanings and sound.

The New York Times article titled “We Learned to Write the Way We Talk” by Gretchen McCulloch shone a light on what I’ve been learning about strategies, but for so long failed to see. McCulloch discusses the new occurrences and patterns in our written word, observing how we’ve shifted from a formal way of writing to an informal and even messier way of writing. However, despite the growingly consistent “likes” and “ums” in our works, McCulloch came to a conclusion: no matter how we write, either informally or a breath away from perfection, we write to connect with others.

Writing is all about communication. Writing is used to convey a message — your thoughts, your ideas, your opinions. It is used to tell a story, to share your point of view, to ask questions; on the contrary, it can also form an ironic double meaning that is usually found to be delightfully humorous. But most of all, writing is used to connect deeply with other people in a state of vulnerability achieved by nothing else.

As McCulloch said, “We’ve been learning to write not for power, but for love.”

I’ve found this vulnerable voice in each of our rhetorical devices. When we see epizeuxis, we hear the voice of any great leader or powerful person. When we see amplification, we hear a voice full of emotion. When we see anastrophe, we think, of course, of Yoda.

I’m sure that it’s rarely thought that rhetorical strategies are a way of writing the way that we talk, but this is the way that I see it. Even while our writing world is changing due to things such as tablets, texting, and Twitter, our voices remain unique and distinct through the written word.

We’ve learned to write the way we talk in more ways than one. While our written works are not always going to be full of “likes,” “ums,” or “wowwwws,” we are still able to communicate our voices with the use of rhetorical strategies. Even with our written word, we can expose our feelings for what they are, creating deeper and more vulnerable connections with others.

Alexander Patel, Mercer Island High School, Mercer Island, Wash.: “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl and “Should You Add a Microchip to Your Brain?”

Stripped of their humanity, relentlessly beaten, and crowded into crude barracks, the prisoners in the concentration camps of the Holocaust were left to die. The lives of millions were dangling at the end of a thinning string, their oppressors the puppeteers.

While the physical existence of the prisoners was controlled by the Nazi guards, they still had the freedom of emotion, feeling, and ideas. Dr. Viktor Frankl’s novel “Man’s Search for Meaning” details his use of the thoughts and memories in his brain, of loved ones and his working manuscript, to detach from his suffering. This existential free will, argues Frankl, allowed him to survive through optimism, whereas those trapped in a cycle of hopeless acceptance of fate did not live.

Although Frankl’s work is critical in revealing the atrocities of the Holocaust, its underlying message is especially important: with the brain’s freedom, human beings have some semblance of control over their lives. Decades later, however, Dr. Susan Schneider’s op-ed piece “Should You Add a Microchip to Your Brain?” portrays a dystopian world of cognitive “upgrades” that challenges Frankl’s conception of human freedom. To keep pace with the advances in artificial intelligence, humans must resort to technological brain sharpening, potentially at the expense of their unique attributes. Suddenly, the line between “being” and thing becomes blurred; do you become a robotic prisoner stuck in the mindless cycle Frankl describes? How much of your life do you even control?

The parallels between the works of Frankl and Schneider force the consideration of what happens when the human experience is vested in the computer, with algorithmic efficiency replacing philosophical understanding. Dr. Schneider’s message is an ominous one: once artificial intelligence loses the “artificial,” humanity is at the will of the technological ecosystem, and the experiences of Viktor Frankl in captivity become meaningless. Individuals will lose fundamentally important aspects of the human experience: critical thinking, choice, consciousness.

Society today is driven by a continuously expanding technology behemoth; from consumer items to healthcare, innovation remains at the forefront of our lives. However, in this decades-long expansion, it seems that the world has turned a blind eye to DARPA’s “Super Soldiers” and the “Internet of Things” in households worldwide. Little consideration has gone toward understanding the relationship between the computer and the free individual; we have quickly accepted technology as the answer to many of our problems. Yet in this attempt to improve the human experience, embrace of shortsighted advances may actually be tearing it down.

As Viktor Frankl states in his novel, “When we are no longer able to change a situation … we are challenged to change ourselves” (117).

One must wonder: Are we changing ourselves for the better?

Rachel Shey, PA Homeschoolers, Walnut Creek, Calif.: “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams and “The Jungle Prince of Delhi”

When I read The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, my puzzlement and subsequent careful examination of Laura’s outwardly passive character (which nevertheless tied to the theme) reminded me of “The Jungle Prince of Delhi” by Ellen Barry, which also told the story of a mother, a son, and a daughter. When Barry first begins her investigation of the House of Oudh, her tireless pursuit is driven by a hunch that their story is connected to the larger tensions of British departure from India. I fixated on Laura because she felt integral to the themes of The Glass Menagerie, but exactly how she fit in flummoxed me.

What stuck with me about “The Jungle Prince of Delhi” was how it showcased the appeal of a dramatic story, then lifted the veil to show that nothing was how it seemed. I reread the pages several times, shocked that the truth was so different from romantic tale I wanted to believe. No descendant of a royal family, Wilayat was actually just a “megalomaniac.” Barry did not present these facts with the air of a racy exposé; she seemed almost to regret finding out the truth, ruminating that Prince Cyrus would surely have been saddened to think of his remarkable family so trammeled and common.

Similarly, The Glass Menagerie also pitted exciting adventure against a crippling reality. Tom’s frustration with real life is palpable throughout the play; he escapes by watching movies. Laura, passive as she may be, intrigued me because she seemed to represent the dream itself. Williams lets us see her adventure, the “climax of her secret life,” but then he lifts the veil and destroys the hope for a romantic happy ending. The broken unicorn perfectly illustrates this. When Barry found the stack of receipts and started to uncover the truth behind the House of Oudh, she broke the horn off the glass unicorn. Now the story of the House of Oudh was like all the other horses, just the story of another family broken by Pakistan’s separation from India. But the integral difference is here: where Williams paints the romance of the glass unicorn as pathetic, though perhaps “holy,” Barry suggests that falsity resounds more strongly than mundanity. “What could be more interesting than the story they told about themselves?” Sometimes, do we really want to know the truth?

In today’s political atmosphere, one that many glib pundits describe as “post-truth,” The Glass Menagerie and “The Jungle Prince of Delhi” remind us that a story can be beautiful and emotionally affecting without being true, and that an exquisite lie can move people more than any reality. Paired, they illustrate the value of dreams, tempered with grounded pragmatism.

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