Animation and Teaching
Enhancing Subjects from the Curriculum by Using "The Simpsons" in High School English TeachingBy Andreas Kristiansen
When the animated comedy series "The Simpsons" about a lovable, dysfunctional family in a small fictitious town premiered on January 14th 1990 in the US, not many people knew it would become the longest-running entertainment series on prime time television. Over 250 episodes later and still running, the 22-minute TV show has fans worldwide and has become a phenomenon that appeals to grown-ups and adults alike. While Life magazine called it "a savagely satirical animated half hour of family therapy", the serious TIME magazine included in 1998 Bart Simpson on its list of the top 100 cultural and influential figures of our century. "The Simpsons" has been the subject of three Master's Degrees worldwide, and serious articles and books have been written on subjects like "The Simpsons" and philosophy and the show's attitude to religion. In America, catchphrases like "Don't have a cow, man" and "Underachiever and proud of it" have become part of the vocabulary. "The Simpsons" is a show satirizing every element of society and culture, but at the same time swiftly becoming part of the cultural heritage of the culture it is mocking!
"There is no other series on television, either comedy or drama, where the environment is depicted so fully and consistently." The show "revolves around the normal American family in all its beauty and all its horror."
What business could an animated TV show inhabited by ugly yellow characters have inside the classrooms of our schools? If the statements above are remotely true, there is a chance we can lean something about American life and culture from the show. This paper has a two-fold objective:
Consequently my thesis statement can be stated as follows: What aspects of the curriculum can be stimulated and taught by using animation from "The Simpsons", what are the strengths and weaknesses of using such material, and what advantages and disadvantages will it give the teacher in relating to his/her pupils?
Admittedly, the material we are dealing with is vast, and my aim is to give an overview and lift aside a small part of the veil to show some of the possibilities that exist. I have no knowledge of any former work that deals with animation and teaching, so I clearly see the need for deeper and detailed analysis in this field.
There are five members of the Simpson household:
Homer - father, lazy, overweight but likeable nuclear plant worker.
Marge - mother, housewife and community do-gooder.
Bart - ten year old anarchist and vandal with a good heart.
Lisa - eight-year old super achiever, feminist, vegetarian and social activist.
Baby Maggie - quietly sucking her pacifier.
Why use "The Simpsons"?
Elisabeth Ibsen writes: "The best way to learn about a country's culture is to stay in that country. The second best way to find out how other people live and think is through literature. A piece of literature is condensed life." I will here assume two things: That "The Simpsons" is literature in a broad sense of the definition, and that it possesses an asset that makes it even more valuable - satire, which is condensed and exaggerated life. It may occasionally miss the mark and be hard to understand, which we will discuss later, but when it works, it has great value. Ibsen seems to agree when she later writes: "Mitt ønske for fremmedspråksopplæringen er at våre elever skal bli i stand til å forstå et folks grunnleggende metaforer, og ikke minst humor. Når du kan le med og ikke av et folk, er du kommet på innsiden av en kultur."
The opening images of "The Simpsons" as the clouds part to reveal the town of Springfield are two grayish towers engraved with a symbol of the atom: "Welcome to Springfield Nuclear Power plant" a sign says. After two seconds of the show, we therefore find something very different from the Norwegian experience. Most kids have never seen a nuclear power plant. In America, there are many of them, and in Springfield it is the cornerstone industry, Homer's place of employment. The camera sweeps further down the hill into a window of an elementary school where a boy is doing detention, writing the same line over and over on the blackboard. The boy is ten-year old Bart (anagram of brat) and it is not a wild guess to say he has been given his assignment by Principal Skinner, which gives us a clear idea of the pedagogical principles the school is governed by. This is a joke not many people will clue in on, and "The Simpsons" are brimming with similar obscure references, which makes it an enjoyable tool for study and teaching. Says Matt Groening, the creator the show: "I get lots of letters from teachers and college professors who have used "The Simpsons" to illustrate some point in class." A University in Edinburgh even teaches the course "Having the donut and eating it: Self-reflexivity and "The Simpsons".
Critics agree that Springfield is a miniscule America, with all the elements and idiosyncrasies of modern suburban life. It has been called the "most accurate and nuanced reflection of real life in contemporary America". If this is true, we get the insiders view of America - how an educated portion of its citizens (the writers and producers) themselves feel about their own country. As outsiders, we get to watch insiders looking at themselves! Preparing this paper I was asked by an American whether foreigners laughed at Americans or if we also identified with the characters. Hopefully everyone can find his or her characters to identify with as well as laugh at American society. By studying the themes of the show, we can understand what Americans are proud and ashamed of, and what they consider important contemporary issues. "Education experts and parents alike say that if it is taught right, a class on popular culture can provide a unique look at political systems, stereotypes and corporate influences in society."
The real world and "The Simpsons"
There are three distinguishing differences between the world of "The Simpsons" and our world: 1. Their skin is yellow. 2. They have four fingers instead of five on each hand. 3. They always have a bad hair day. These differences are merely superficial and enhance our understanding of the irony. The family is different from us on the outside, but they deal with a lot of the same problems and dilemmas as we do. As the daughter of pastor Lovejoy says to Bart: "I'm the sweet minister's daughter and you're just yellow trash."
The use of animation
For some reason, animated cartoons has a unique appeal to kids, and if we dare to admit it, also to us adults. Everything looks neater when it is animated - the food looks better, the houses seem cozier and the people appear more attractive. Everything is exaggerated, and that goes for the voices, too. The actor giving an animated character a voice cannot rely on body language and gestures, and therefore the voice must be sufficient on its own. This is very useful when teaching English as a foreign language. We get authentic material that doesn't have the constructed feel of most texts designed for teaching, while it is distinct and understandable.
The voice will express many valuable entities: It conveys the inflection of the language, specifically when it comes to different emotions. In order to make the characters stand out there is also a wide variety of ages, sociolects and accents in cartoons. Not only are there national and regional differences, but class structures are voiced through the use of accents. This gives the listener a broad perspective on the language and an understanding of how varied the language is. If we can't take the class around the world, we must bring the world to the class. One way of doing that is through cartoons.
The use of humor
In my internship during PPU1 I taught in a jr. high school where the class had been a little dissatisfied with their teacher. I know, because she told me so. And one of the complaints was that the teacher used too little humor in class. I don't believe you need to be a stand up comedian to be a good teacher, but I do acknowledge that the students will be less motivated to learn if class seems like a funeral every day. And since teaching English entails promoting an affective as well as a cognitive development, some teachers see the value of using humor as a pedagogical and motivational tool. In order to learn to speak a language, something foreign and strange, it is vital to feel secure, safe and relaxed. Humor can assist in creating such an atmosphere.
Doctors also remind us from time to time about the medical fact of the health factor in laughter. There is strength in humor, something they have recently discovered in India with their laughing clubs (not the banging-people-on-the-head kind of clubs, mind you).
"Trying to analyze what is funny is a deadly enterprise," one critic quotes E.B. White. He then adds that watching "The Simpsons" is "like watching a Nöel Coward play performed in a burning fireworks factory." What is sure, though, is that it appeals to different people on different levels because it is comprised of so many types of humor. "They use physical, intellectual, lowbrow and highbrow comedy, satire, stock characters, sarcasm, puns and one-liners", not forgetting parody, irony, incongruity, exaggeration and allusion. Some of this is difficult to understand at any age, but that is also some of the appeal of the show.
The use of film and video
When using "The Simpsons" in a classroom, the easiest means of presentation is using the VCR and videocassettes. Most kids are used to watching TV, and like it, but this also presents a challenge: We need to find a way to bridge the gap between entertainment and teaching to bring about real "edutainment." In other words, we must make sure the attitudes of the pupils are geared towards learning even though we watch television. That means we need to use video with care and wisdom, not as an escape route when we have nothing better planned. We need to be consistent in this respect, so the pupils know that although it is a different form of teaching, it is teaching nonetheless, and that they are supposed to remember what they are watching. We can give them questions to fill in as the program progresses, or they can have comprehension questions to do afterwards. Making them guess what will happen next or what has gone before can also stimulate their imagination, something which is too often neglected in the school system. "Ikke en gang den best tilrettelagte film kan stå "på egne bein"."
Video can be a good way of reaching everybody at his or her different level of learning. "På praksisskolen så vi spillefilmen "Før regnet faller" for å illustrere krisen på Balkan, og selv med en såpass innviklet film, oppdaget vi at den svakeste eleven i klassen hadde fått noe ut av den. Det eneste hun klarte å svare på til prøven var spørsmål fra filmen og en kartoppgave. Film appellerer til "Pathos", skaper nærhet, beveger, og kan få følelsene i sving."
Video gives the kids a break from the teacher and a variety of more authentic English voices to take after. There are endless variations of English and it is important for them to be exposed to other types of English than the teacher's version. The use of video also provides another function when it comes to the role of the teacher. "Det er eleven som må være den sentrale og aktive deltaker." Strangely enough, a medium criticized for making its users passive, frees the student from the teacher-controlled situation and puts him in control of the interpretation.
Video gives the use of language a wider and authentic context. To see the language in actual use takes the focus away from the technicalities of the languages on to the content, in line with the present tradition of communicative language teaching. "Without a lot of exposure to reading and listening material students who learn languages in classrooms are unlikely to make much progress." It also provides much more information than just the language: body language, non-verbal signals, values, traditions, clothes, food, social-linguistics. "Når det gjelder kulturundervisning, er video det fremste hjelpemiddelet i klassen."
Video should be used more selectively and sequential. "Bruken må plasseres i en sammenheng, bli en del av et læringsopplegg." "Korte sekvenser fra video for å forklare, understreke eller repetere spesielle poenger, eller som en introduksojn til videre arbeid, vil være av stor verdi for den daglige læringsprosessen." This is exactly the use I`m proposing in this article.
In the future it might be even easier to utilize images. DVD and other digital media give us the opportunity to skip around in the subject matter - we can start at the end, watch a scene many times etc. The opportunities are limitless - the only requirement is that we have pop- cultural knowledge and the ability to discern quality from trash.
The curriculum for both jr. and sr. high school in Norway lists many aspects of the culture that should be covered in class during a year. I have tried to summarize these under the following headlines. Teaching culture is one L97`s four main areas, while the curriculum for sr. high points to an array of cultural specifics. "The Simpsons" is a show set in America and therefore about American culture, steeped as it is in the culture it is portraying. In the following I am providing a look into where "The Simpsons" are touching on some of these issues. I am not proposing teaching solely by using film clips, but rather that film clips be used to enhance the students` interest in (and understanding of) the subject and the quality of the class.
"The Simpsons" and school:
The difference in the school systems is a topic that is taught in many grades in Norway, specifically at grunnkurs. Here are a few American public school traits that can be highlighted by clips: The students always address their teacher by last name. The grading system is different from ours (they use the letters A-F) and they are graded in lower-grade classes. They have a cafeteria where hot meals are served. They have extra-curricular activities at school, like band and ballet, which in Norway is often consigned to local organizations. The school often stages performances, exhibits and pageants of various sorts, like talent shows and musical numbers ("the mediocre presidents of America"). In SWEET SEAMOUR SKINNER`S BADASSSSS SONG the kids have "show and tell" in class. In the same episode the topic of prayer in schools is touched upon, which might facilitate a nice discussion in a VKII class.
"The Simpsons" and work & industry
The cornerstone business concern in Springfield is the Nuclear Power Plant. Time and again we are shown how money and security conflict at the plant and that dangers to the surroundings often is the result. This also links up with the subject of environmental issues, best voiced by Lisa in THE OLD MAN AND THE LISA. Another profession that is highly criticized is the attorney. The character of Lionel Hutz is a sleaze-ball and a bad lawyer who tries to exploit every opportunity he gets to sue someone. That also displays a central part of American society - the power invested in the judicial branch. In teaching the subject of job interview, there is a segment in TAKE MY WIFE, SLEAZE where members of the motorcycle gang "Hell's Satan's" are taught proper behavior by Marge. It is priceless for a discussion on pointers for a job interview.
"The Simpsons" and values and religion
The show makes constant references to materialism and consumer culture. The old Nuclear Power Plant owner Mr. Burns can be seen as a symbol of materialism, and he is depicted as cruel, callous and destructive. The characters are often confronted with a choice of wealth or devotion to their family - the family always prevails. Values are an inherent part of the narrative of every episode, and it always takes multiple perspectives. Empathizing with others and seeing their point of view is often difficult for teenagers, which makes "The Simpsons" worthwhile viewing material also in this respect. The highest goal of every teacher should be to create socially conscious human beings that care about themselves and their community. "Although "The Simpsons" may seem to make fun of moral standards, it often upholds those standards in a back-handed way. Each show ends on an uplifting note of moral integrity. Good always triumphs over evil."
To a Norwegian student it might seem strange and even hypocritical to learn that it is common to go to church on Sundays, regardless of a deep commitment to the faith or not. Reflecting this fact we observe the Simpson's and indeed most of the Springfield community in church under the pulpit of reverend Lovejoy. He is satirized as being judgmental with a holier-than-thou attitude, but the evangelical Christian neighbor Ned Flanders is shown in a different light. He is boring and strict, perhaps, but also kind, self-sacrificial and law-abiding. Critics are starting to argue that it "takes religion's place in society seriously enough to do it the honor of making fun of it." The Simpson family say grace in their own twisted way before meals and they pray to God in moments of crisis. As religion is a huge part of American society so it is in "The Simpsons".
"The Simpsons" and race, politics & history
This is an area where there is a lot of material to pick from. In the flashback episodes THE WAY WE WAS and LISA'S FIRST WORD we are taken to the years 1974 and 1983/84 respectively. Fashion, hairstyles, music, slang and events provide good exemplification of the time. In another episode, Homer wants to become a hippie, and we learn about the hippie movement from his failures. Other current issues that are touched upon are gun control, sexual harassment, corruption in politics, and the failures of the public school system.
Almost all the presidents are mentioned one time or another, along with the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. The American Dream is exemplified in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? and in another episode Lisa wins a trip to Washington in an essay contest and is appalled to discover corruption and dishonesty in Congress.
"The Simpsons" and everyday life and traditions
Like many Americans in suburbia, "keeping up with the Jones" is important. When neighbor Flanders buys a mobile home for camping, Homer promptly does, too, even if all he can afford is a shabby camper. The characters deal with real emotions like jealousy, rage, boredom, feeling overlooked and being taken for granted. The family celebrates holidays like Christmas, thanksgiving, 4th of July, and the fictional "love day" and "whacking day". Each year showcases a Halloween special of short horror-comedy segments perfect for a celebration of that tradition in class.
"The Simpsons" and literature
There are numerous references to literature and authors throughout the episodes. Sometimes a whole story line is alluded to, like in OH STREETCAR where Marge has the lead role in a stage version of "A streetcar named desire". If the class has studied this text, it would give them both a good laugh and a fair amount of repetition to watch this episode. Another complete reference is to Poe's "The Raven", where the poem is read unabridged with illustrations involving the shows familiar characters.
"The Simpsons" and music
Music is also a huge part of culture and the cultural heritage, and music styles has come to define historical periods. L97 expressly states that music and pop lyrics ought to be used in the teaching of English. "The Simpsons" contains a variety of musical styles from country to rock and the Live Aid-inspired celebrity fundraiser "Throwing our love down the well". The episode SIMPSONCALIFRAGILISTIEXPIALI(ANNOYEDGRUNT)CHOUS is a take on the musical Mary Poppins, as the Simpsons hire a nanny. Another time, Homer joins a barbershop quartet and inspires a craze similar to Beatlemania complete with Beatles references.
"The Simpsons" and sports
Sports are a major part of American life and some of the major ones are not very common here. Baseball may be hard to understand to a Norwegian, but it is dealt with on the show several times. Once Homer becomes the mascot for Springfield's team "the Isotopes", and another time he becomes a star himself. Other featured sports are football, ballet, ice hockey and soccer. The American practice of having celebrities sing the national anthem before a major sport's event is marvelously spoofed in DANCIN` HOMER.
Problems and possibilities in dealing with this kind of material
Returning briefly to L97, it tells us that "gjennom et allsidig tekstutvalg som kan gi inspirasjon, vekke nysgjerrighet og være forbilde når de selv skal uttrykke seg på engelsk, får elevene kontakt med det levende språket" (my emphasis). Early in the run of the show, it was under massive criticism in the US for giving kids a lousy role model in Bart. If we ignore the moral implications and look at the linguistics, I have to agree. Both Homer and Bart have limited vocabulary, but I choose to see this as something positive: It ensures that everybody in class can understand at least some of the characters. It is a kind of "individualized teaching". There are fortunately also many exquisite language speakers to take after, most importantly Lisa and Sideshow Bob, the eloquent villain.
Is it known in Norway?
In the US, "30 percent of the viewers are teenagers or under", an estimated 4,62 mill each week. I knew that I had been watching the show for ten years, but I was not sure how well aware Norwegian school children were of the show. Therefore I decided to make a very unscientific study by visiting a class of students in the 8.year grade. To get a comparison of their cultural knowledge I showed them two pictures - one of President Bush and one of the Simpson family, asking them to identify the names. As it turned out, 18 out of 22 could identify the President. Exactly the same number could identify at least one character on the show, three of the boys and one girl naming all of the characters. What we can conclude from this mini-study is that the show is fairly well known. If I wanted to know how they viewed the program I would have needed more in-depth questions. But I feel this is an excellent starting point for revealing some of the subtext of the show. Most kids know (or think they know) "The Simpsons". Imagine also what their subconscious has picked up about American society from watching it!
What can we say about its appeal? Does it appeal to boys or girls more? Perhaps boys feel more related to Bart than girls do to Lisa. Every boy has a mischievous Bart inside, but few girls will ever be as mature and intelligent as Lisa. On the other hand, girls often do feel mature compared to boys their age, and that is reflected in Lisa and Bart. And we should not forget that Lisa still is a normal girl in many ways - she dreams of having a pony and she is addicted to the Corey-hotline.
Dealing with subtitles
The material we are dealing with are mostly episodes taped from Norwegian TV3/Viasat +, where every episode have subtitles. Is this a good thing in the classroom? Will it help the students in understanding more or will they just rely on the Norwegian words by habit? Perhaps there are ways of making subtitles work to our advantage, too? Mistakes abound, and we can show a passage that includes serious translation mistakes and make the students identify and correct them. Two common fields of mistakes are cultural knowledge and American idioms, which suits our purpose well. We can point out that if the translator paid a bit more attention in English class he would master his job better. Another method could be to cover the subtitles, which wold make the students focus more on the language spoken, but this often provokes protests. We could give them an assignment as translators, whereupon students could compare notes and later their version to the official one. It should be interesting for students to note that nobody ever gets the exact same result. Dealing with a certain topic, this exercise would be great for focusing on vocabulary, expressions and idioms.
"Kids seem to have the best discussions when they don't know they're having a discussion", writes Sigmund Ro. I will be so bold to add that this also goes for learning in general: The best learning experiences are when we're not aware that we're learning. That is what all teachers strive after; to have the kids so entranced in what they do that they forget they're at school. For the communicative-oriented teacher, getting their students to talk and discuss various subjects will be a major goal. One way of doing this is to start the class by showing an segment from an episode. For a discussion on equal rights and feminism, show an extract from HOMER BADMAN, where a zealous college student wrongfully accuses him of sexual harassment. If the topic is environmental issues, show the appearance of the three-eyed fish Binky, due to radiation pollution in TWO CARS IN EVERY GARAGE AND THREE EYES ON EVERY FISH. While these segments do not provide many facts, they are starting points for a discussion. One can then divide the class into two and play a role game by giving them opposite sides to defend. One group is the environmentalists who accuse the powers that be, and the other group can be the plant owners defending themselves, giving valid arguments. Another way of using the segments would simply be to ask them what they just saw and get them to compare it to what they have previously learned about the subject. If the class is a quiet one, this may not work that well. But if you give them time to think and discuss in groups, it is worth a try. Or, now that you have their interest, teach them something on the topic.
Will they understand the satire?
Dealing with humor of the intricate sort like allusion, satire and sarcasm, we need to ask the question whether the kids will understand the satire. There is nothing so unfunny as explaining humor in detail, and there are few things as frustrating as not understanding a joke when everybody else is laughing. First of all, the students will not understand it all. Not even long-time fans of the show get all the subversive satire and obscure references. Secondly, they should have learnt about irony in jr. high school, and "The Simpsons" may be a helpful tool for really understanding and identifying these literary analytical devices. Thirdly, when we use segments after we have learnt the facts, it will be easier to spot the satire. As an example, let me use the episode BART VS. AUSTRALIA, which I have used several times in teaching. The family arrives "down under" to discover that groups of Australians are lurking around waiting for a chance to steal their wallets. This is making fun of the fact that early British immigrants to Australia were convicts sent there by force. The class knows this, and therefore they will get the joke. A way of working with the material then would be to "find the faults in the episode" where the students point out what is divergent from the real facts and what is merely exaggeration. In the aforementioned episode, they should be able to point out that there is no such thing as "booting" as official punishment in Australia.
In this age of irony and double-irony it is hard for anyone to know what they mean. As one teenager tells another in HOMERPALOOZA:
Teen 1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He's cool.
Consider also the satisfaction it provides to be inside the fold, so to speak. Getting the students to realize that knowledge gives them a funnier world because they will understand more, some might be motivated to turn their brains up a notch - here are tangible challenges for the nerds and intellectuals alike! The danger of a few students missing out on some points of satire must be accepted and faced. Kids learn in different ways, so this way is not perfect for everybody either. But perhaps it has value for most of the class? Each individual class responds differently to methods of teaching, so nothing can ever be taken for granted. The teacher has to study his class carefully and make decisions based on that.
Teaching is serious business. Therefore it is vitally important that we know how to provide the best setting for learning in class as we can. Humor is one element that may help students overcome nerves and shyness in class, bringing out the best in them. We must, however, employ it with skill and not overdo it. I am not proposing that "The Simpsons" should be used as a substitute for good teaching material - I am rather suggesting that it could be used as additional material to provide humor, confidence and variation. I have tried to show and discuss how "The Simpsons" may be used in teaching, with regards to content and a lesser extent, to specific methods. "The Simpsons" is a show many children know and are familiar with to some degree (18 out of 22 in my study knew the name of at least one character). When we sneak knowledge in the back door in the guise of entertainment, we go from the known to the unknown in their world of reference, pushing the proximal zone of development. A philosophy professor states that "the finely blended texture of the allusions in "The Simpsons" allows both the old and young, the sophisticated and naïve, educated and ignorant, to enjoy the same show." It is entertainment, but the clever teacher can make that his advantage. Hopefully we can spur interest and attentiveness in weary pupils, causing them to emanate the message Principal Skinner cunningly sticks to the back of Bart (who simultaneously sticks the message "KICK ME" to the Principal's back) without him knowing it: TEACH ME! As they go their separate ways, they laugh contentedly to themselves. It's the endless power struggle between teacher and students - but with Bart in our VCR we might have a shot at reaching the brats er…Barts in our own classrooms!
On The Simpsons:Most of these articles can be found at http://www.snpp.com/misc.html
1. A selection of the different accents we stumble upon in "The Simpsons":National: Indian (Apu), English (Emily Winthrop, Shary Bobbins), Scottish (Groundskeeper Willie), French (Jacques, Ugolin and Cesar), Japanese (Akira), German (Fritz, Uter), Mexican/Spanish (Bumblebee Man, Dr. Nick Riviera)
Regional: New York/mafia (Fat Tony, DonVitorio, Luigi), New England (Sideshow Bob) South Carolina Hillbilly (Cletus), Californian (Jimbo Jones, Otto).
Cultural: Upper Class (Millicent), African-American (Bleeding Gums Murphy, Dr. Hibbert)
2. A list of literary references:Edgar Allan Poe ("The Tell-tale Heart"), Walt Whitman ("Leaves of grass"), Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens ("A Christmas Carol"), William Shakespeare ("Romeo & Juliet"), Ernest Hemingway ("The Old Man and the Sea"), Allen Ginsberg, John Steinbeck ("The Grapes of Wrath"), Herman Melville ("Moby Dick"), William Golding ("The Lord of the Flies"), "Treasure Island" and "The Wizard of Oz".
© Andreas Kristiansen (firstname.lastname@example.org), Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, 2001.
Last updated on September 22, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (email@example.com)