“How are you?” A year ago this question was simply a greeting, but given the events of the past year, it has become something much different. COVID-19 has changed everything. These simple words have become a checkpoint, a question about how one is coping with a world that has been turned upside down. Like so many others, every aspect of my life has been altered in positive and difficult ways by COVID-19.
As a direct result of the pandemic, I have been exploring a new frontier. I’m an English teacher, passionate about literature. I believe deeply in its transformative power, especially for students who are willing to explore the complexities of human existence. So one would think that the various lockdown measures made necessary by the pandemic would have been an opportunity for me to read, and read some more. Instead, I was ushered into new worlds of creativity, storytelling, and artistic expression, guided by some of my teenage and adult children who returned home temporarily during the beginning of the pandemic.
I stepped back into the classroom to teach a course titled “New Media,” which focuses on new forms of storytelling and artistic expression, including multimedia and multimodal texts.
A few years ago I took a step back from the classroom to focus more on my role as the principal of our K–12 school. This year, as the pandemic continued, I stepped back into the classroom to teach a course titled “New Media,” which focuses on new forms of storytelling and artistic expression, including multimedia and multimodal texts. This meant joining my students in the world of Netflix, Youtube, Instagram, Tiktok, Snapchat, and other media platforms. I must tell you: I began this journey with quite a bit of fear and trepidation.
But I’d like to invite you to join me on my journey. Many of you may have already begun or perhaps are further along the path than I am. I would like to tell you a bit about this journey and then suggest a number of compelling texts that I encountered en route.
Throughout this journey, many of my assumptions about literature, storytelling, and social media have been significantly challenged. I am now much more willing to embrace other mediums as a means to engage students in narrative and artistic expression.
My approach to teaching literature is influenced by Roger Lundin’s book Literature through the Eyes of Faith, but I find myself uncertain about his distinction between escape and interpretive literature. Christians have always had a problematic relationship with escape. Influenced by utilitarianism, pragmatism, and asceticism, Christians have often been dismissive, if not contemptuous, of certain forms of escape. But perhaps one positive thing about the pandemic is that we have been forced to rethink this relationship. Hours spent “doomscrolling”—a new word used to describe our tendency to endlessly dwell on negative news—has left us feeling anxious and depressed. Our need for escape and leisure has never been greater. As Leland Ryken states, “Legitimate pleasure and enjoyment [are] God’s gifts to the human race. The way to show gratitude for the gift of enjoyment is to accept it and experience it” (265).
While celebrating God’s gift of leisure and escape, I entered this new world with a sense of fear—an emotion that is well justified. As a society, we are addicted to our devices—the gateway to this world. Some studies suggest that teenagers spend upward of seven hours a day on their devices for entertainment purposes, with adults not too far behind (Jacobo). We know about the negative impacts of social media on our communal and individual psyches. But sometimes I worry that by focusing predominantly on these realities, we miss out on helping our students and ourselves navigate the dominating presence of media through the eyes of faith—both in what we participate in and how we do so.
I continue to hold on to the power of storytelling and narrative. I’m worried and disheartened by how little exposure my students have to this central element of our faith. It is our challenge in the world of YouTube rabbit holes, memes, and mindless TikTok videos to present compelling narratives to our students. I will continue to hold on to the tremendous power of traditional texts—Shakespeare will always have an important place in my school—but I have expanded my world and embraced other forms of expression.
So I’d like to share several pieces of media that I enjoyed in my journey in the hopes that you’ll find something that touches your soul.
Podcast: Serial, Season 1 (anywhere you get your podcasts; not rated but appropriate for high schoolers)
This is an engaging and award-winning series from the creators of This American Life. It is hosted by Sarah Koenig and is a multiple–award winner. The first season centers on the disappearance of a high school senior by the name of Hae Min Lee and the subsequent arrest and conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for her murder. Over twelve episodes, Koenig sifts through evidence, talks to a variety of people connected to the crime, and uncovers a much more complex story than the one presented at the trial.
The story is incredibly engaging because the listener feels the changing emotions and perspectives of the storyteller as she digs deeper into the story. Koenig challenges the stories of all those involved, especially Syed, and the listener goes back and forth between believing his claims of innocence and doubting his alternative narrative. It is an engrossing exploration of perspective, high school culture, and race. Koenig is both objective and subjective at the same time, and this mixture of perspectives keeps the audience on edge, wondering if the storyteller herself can be believed.
Television series: Voices of Fire (Netflix; rated PG)Voices of Fire is a gem I discovered within the bowels of Netflix. It is a series infused by faith that centers on stories of grace, redemption, forgiveness, and resilience.
Jacobo, Julia. “Teens Spend More Than 7 Hours on Screens for Entertainment a Day: Report.” ABC News, 29 October 2019, https://abcnews.go.com/US/teens-spend-hours-screens-entertainment-day-report/story?id=66607555.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw-Hill, 1964.
Ryken, Leland. Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure. Baker Books, 1995.
Chris Steenhof is the principal of Bulkley Valley Christian, a K–12 school in Smithers, British Columbia. Chris has worked in various capacities at the school for the past twenty-seven years. He is passionate about education at all levels, and he currently serves on the board of Kings University in Edmonton, Alberta. If you have an engaging Netflix series, podcast, etc., to share, feel free to email him at email@example.com.