Not all is 'Lost' in education; ABC show delivers many teachable moments

LOOKING THROUGH THEM: Teacher Emily Kleinman is seen through a student diagram of the connections among characters.
LOOKING THROUGH THEM: Teacher Emily Kleinman is seen through a student diagram of the connections among characters. (Photos By Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010

When Chris Walker signed up to take an advanced honors seminar at the Field School, teacher Emily Kleinman was concerned. The junior hadn't met the prerequisite for the course, and that meant Kleinman needed to have a serious conversation with his mother.

"I called his mom because I was really worried because he hadn't seen any episodes of 'Lost,' " Kleinman said. "And I wanted to make sure it was okay with her that he watch all five seasons in three weeks."

Ingesting hours upon hours of inscrutable narrative twists and Smoke Monster attacks is a requirement for an honors seminar? It is at the Field School, a private middle and high school in Washington that for the past two years has offered the elective "Lost in Philosophy," a wide-ranging, often student-driven course that delves into numerous disciplines -- philosophy, literature, ethics, science -- and explores them all through the prism of ABC's series about plane crash survivors desperate to understand a befuddling island. (You know the show we mean. The one that comes to an end Sunday night in a much-hyped television event destined to have hardcore fans simultaneously tweeting and weeping.)

The pass-fail class, offered at a beginners' level during the 2008-09 school year and as an advanced option this year, is co-taught by Kleinman, a history instructor, and Kabe ErkenBrack, who teaches geometry. They meet once weekly with their dozen students, mostly juniors, to parse plot developments and engage in more intellectual "Lost"-oriented pursuits.

They read the works of philosophers whose names are referenced on the show, Age of Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and John Locke, and explore the ways their work might synch up with their character counterparts. (British empiricist John Locke saw the mind as a blank slate that could be molded by man, while "Lost" character John Locke jibber-jabbers endlessly about destiny. Discuss.)

They plumb the ethics involved in the famed Milgram experiment at Yale, a study of people's willingness to blindly follow orders, which dovetailed nicely with the "Lost" castaways' perpetual pressing of computer buttons throughout Season Two. They read Genesis for greater insight into the show's biblical themes. They build Faraday electromagnetic motors (an homage to "Lost" physicist Daniel Faraday). They deliver oral presentations on time travel and create art -- from paintings of "Lost's" elusively evil Man in Black to wood carvings of the show's iconic four-toed foot -- as their final projects.

And they say every moment has been an education.

"When I told people I was taking an honors [class] on 'Lost,' they were like, 'You can't do that. That's a TV show. What is that going to teach you?' " junior Nora Colman said. "I think the interesting thing about the class, and 'Lost' itself, is that we talk a lot about ethical and moral arguments. . . . It's taught us in an interesting way how to have a healthy debate."

Honors seminars at the Field School are nontraditional; Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac and the history of pirates are among previous offerings. But this is the first time one has been born from a TV show, although it's hardly the only case of educators finding teachable moments in "Lost."

A small group of students at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown meets regularly at lunchtime to watch episodes. But Jessica Engle, the teacher currently overseeing the sessions, said the group has dwindled to two or three regulars.

Universities, including Tufts in Boston and Vanderbilt in Nashville, have given credit to degree-seekers for demonstrating deep Desmond Hume knowledge. And in their unwavering instinct for capitalizing on fan trends, the show's creative team included a series of video classes, dubbed Lost University, on the Season Five DVD set.

"It takes a lot of smarts to watch television these days, and to do it well," said John Sloop, a Vanderbilt associate dean and communications studies professor who taught a writing seminar called "Lessons From 'Lost'." "And I think 'Lost' is a key example of that," given the show's academically rich themes.

Although the show is coming to a close, Sloop hopes to revive his course, in which students explored connections between the island and such topics as global politics and gender issues, during a future semester.

But at the Field School, "Lost" might have reached the end of its lesson-imparting line. Both Kleinman and ErkenBrack are heading to graduate school, and it's unclear whether another teacher will take on the class.

For now, the "Lost" students are looking forward to the finale, which they plan to watch with their teachers, and relishing their last moments of "Lost" academia.

And in case you're wondering how their parents -- you know, the ones who pay that $30,000-plus annual tuition -- feel about their scholarly pursuits, the kids say they're very supportive.

Even, yes, Chris Walker's mother, who fully backed her son's successful attempt to cram in the first five seasons of "Lost" before class started.

In fact, when Chris missed a couple of episodes, she made sure he did his homework. "When I didn't really take the initiative to catch up on them," he said, "my mom got mad at me."

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