Slice of Life: At the Movies with Rango

Slice of Life 2011It was a rainy post-winter/pre-spring day yesterday, so I grabbed my middle son and a friend and went to the movies. The place was mobbed. I suspect they were all feeling as we were: get out of the house.

The movie we chose was Rango (with voice by Johnny Depp as Rango the lizard) and I have to say it had to have been one of the oddest animated movies I have seen in quite some time. I’m not sure if it is was for kids, or for the parents. The story opens in a way that brought me right back to college, when I was completely taken by the Carlos Castaneda series of Shaman Philosophy books about finding oneself by metaphorically exploring inward (peyote apparently helps).

“A man can’t walk out of his own story.” (or something like that)

This quote came and went throughout the movie as the protagonist (who calls himself that at the start of his adventure in a sort of meta-nod to the audience watching) is thrust into an Western adventure where water is a commodity in short supply. And it rambled around  in my head.

Rango is filled with references to many movies and books that completely escaped the kids. Here are some that stuck out with me:

  • Greek drama (some birds sing out the Greek Chorus)
  • Chinatown (“control the water”)
  • Wizard of Oz (the hawk/witch gets killed)
  • The No-Name Westerns of Clint Eastwood
  • Shane
  • Any old-time Western movie you have ever seen

I’m not saying Rango was great. It was interesting. My son and his friends didn’t like it. I tried to explain that what I liked was how it didn’t feel like a Disney movie — it had a different style.

“It’s not Disney, dad, it’s Nickleodean,” my son grumbled.

Peace (in the hot sun),

March Book Madness: Feed

Feed (2002), M. T. Anderson

This is part of my March Book Madness series, which mostly includes student work. Periodically, I am going to include my own book reviews, too. Today is one of those days.

It’s not often that I admit that I don’t know what to make of a book. But here, with Feed by MT Anderson, I am not sure now if I liked it or not. I had heard great things about it, and I wanted to like this tale of the future world, but there was something about the writing and the characters that kept jarring me as a reader. I almost abandoned the thing at least twice. But I couldn’t. Something kept drawing me back.

The story is set in the future, where people have “feeds” installed in their minds (sort of like an internalized RSS built around interests and likes, and run by commercial entities. Imagine lots of spam cramming into your head along with important information. That would be your feed.) People “chat” each other up; get hacked into by others; go “mal” by messing with their feeds; and are connected to some internalized network of information flows.

It’s a chilling prospect, as Anderson imagines it, and the plot centers around two teenagers — one (Titus) who takes the life of the feed for granted and the other (Violet), who is slowly dying from it and wants to see life for what it is.

Anderson’s skewering of corporate America, and our increasing dependence on technology for information, is bitingly satiric. That’s what kept me coming back, I think. During the reading of the novel (which I read in class during our silent reading — this is not a book for middle school kids, by the way), I also remember reading articles in Time Magazine that seemed to echo in reality the world that Anderson had created. I can’t recall now the articles, but they sort of jolted me. Here were hints of things to come around information technology that could (only could, not will) lead to the kind of world that Anderson envisions. (Gosh, I wish I could remember the articles.)

What I didn’t like was Anderson’s stilted writing, and I never really connected with the characters. I wanted to. I kept waiting to feel some emotional response to their plight of living in this world, and trying to make sense of it all. I just couldn’t do it. It’s very possible that that distance was Anderson’s design all along — to show how technology removes us from each other. I was so removed, I felt like removing the book.

What I did find interesting is all of the invented language that Anderson uses here, as the kids talk in future slang influenced by products and commercialization. When one character gets a verbal tattoo from Nike, and begins injecting the word “Nike” into everything he says, I wondered how far off that might be. (far, far off, I hope).

Peace (without the need for feed),

Slice of Life: The First Comic

Slice of Life 2011I completely missed the boat on this year’s Slice of Life Challenge with Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers. It’s March; It’s Slice of Life. I didn’t make the connection and I must have zoomed past their call for writers in my RSS or something. Thanks to my friend, Bonnie, the Slice of Life is back on my radar but I think I will only do it periodically.

What is Slice of Life? It’s a feature in which folks write about a small part of their day, and then share it out. It could be a little nugget of something that seems larger in reflection. It could be something that happened. It could be a quiet moment. It could be whatever you want it to be.

Join the Slice of Life Challenge at Two Writing Teachers.

So, here’s mine for today:
Rowan's First Comic March2011

I was reading the newspaper yesterday morning, when my youngest son (6 years old) came up and jammed a piece of paper in front of me. He had dug it out of his kindergarten backpack.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“My very first comic,” he answered slowly, proudly, closing his eyes and raising his head for dramatic effect.

I took a  look. Before I could ask, he said, “It’s Star Wars and Batman. See?”

He then went into the whole story behind the picture, which (to be honest) I had a bit of a difficult time following. But I nodded my head, pointed out various elements of the comic and gently encouraged his excitement.

“Great job,” I said, hugging him.

“I know,” he said, walking away, leaving me with the comic.

Peace (in the sharing),

The Messy Work of Dissecting Sentences

We’re in the midst of a unit on Parts of Speech (hey, did you know yesterday was Grammar Day? I didn’t, even though we were working on grammar all day. The video — March Forth — is from The Grammar Girl). We’ve been working on nouns, verbs, adjective, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, interjections (!) and conjunctions for about two weeks and now they are into a project in which they color-code various parts of speech in their own writing. (See the project handout)
Parts of Speech sample project

I can’t say they are having fun with it.  Isolating words  and trying to determine what role they play in context of a sentence is difficult work for sixth graders (heck, and for most adults), but I do hope that by using their own writing, it is a bit more authentic of an activity.

Of course, who am I kidding? Knowing Parts of Speech does not make you a better writer. Still, this is one of those topics that the curriculum requires and on some level, I do believe they need to have a grasp on what role words are playing in their writing. The Parts of Speech unit follows our work around the Origin of Words, and we will next move into Sentence Structure, and then on to Paragraph Writing, and then to Essays. I’ve tried to make our work a logical progression of sorts, so that students see how their longer writing is built out of smaller pieces.

The projects are due next week. We’ll see how they do.

Peace (that’s a noun, right?),

March Book Madness: Treasure Island

I’ve been sharing a log of Glogster poster projects as part of my March Book Madness series of independent book reports from my students, but a handful of my kids decided that they did not like Glogster at all and wanted to go a more traditional route. That was fine with me. Here, the student read a version of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, and made connections with the book to various elements of popular culture and foods.
Treasure Island
Peace (on the island),

Disheartening News: NWP Gets Cut

One of my favorite bands is Los Lobos, who shot to fame with their version of La Bamba but whose album How Will the Wolf  Survive is a classic mix of mexicano rock and roll. I was thinking of the title track yesterday of the wolf surviving in the midst of change as I received some disheartening news from the National Writing Project. In a recent budget action, President Obama signed a bill that cuts NWP (and other educational groups) out of the federal education funding formula.

Here is part of the text of the NWP bulletin:

Dear NWP Colleagues,

Yesterday President Obama signed a bill to keep the government running until March 18. The bill cuts about $4 billion in spending from the FY 2011 budget, eliminating funding for a number of education programs, including the National Writing Project, Reading Is Fundamental, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and Teach for America. These cuts impact NWP’s federal funding beginning October 1, 2011.

I know you have many questions about what this means for us as a network and for each of us as individuals. While we cannot answer all of these questions today, below are some we can answer. Despite the funding decision, legislative offices continue to voice strong support for NWP and the work of Writing Project sites in local communities. While this funding news is a significant setback, your countless efforts to reach out and educate Congress have had a tremendous impact.

NWP was founded on a set of principles and values, and these ideas still guide us today. We began as a single site in 1974, before federal funding, and we are a strong “human network” of sites and individuals that will not go away with the stroke of a pen. We are a powerful organization and we are here to stay!

We will continue to pursue options for federal and non-federal funding and will share them with you as soon as we have a definitive path.

Sigh. Anyone with any understanding of politics knows that once funds are removed, it is very difficult to get it back in a budget. That said, I am sure that teachers and administrators who are connected to NWP will make their voices heard and push for support for a network that provides important and valuable professional development around writing, reading, technology, social justice, and more. A spring  meeting that is also a prime lobbying effort by NWP folks (including my wife) will no doubt be fraught with anxiety and passion, and provides a time to bend some important ears.

The NWP has a site set up for information related to the funding issue: come visit NWP Works.

I can’t imagine the National Writing Project going away, but I can imagine that things will be different. Like the wolf, which still thrives today (just not everywhere it once did and not in the same way it once did), the NWP will still be a vital connection for many of us whose practice and thinking has been transformed by the experience of being part of something that began with a few teachers talking about how to become better teachers.

Peace (in the survival),

March Book Madness: Dirt Bike Racer

Today’s book project as part of my March Book Madness feature is from a very reluctant reader, who finally latched on to some books centered around the thing he talks about, dreams about and does outside of school. Dirt Bike Racer by Matt Christopher
excited this student like no other book, so much so that he had to lobby his mom to go out and get him more. I’m hoping that translates into more interest in other reading this year.

Peace (on the track),

Yertle the Turtle and Middle East Politics

Yertle the turtle

Some days, things just fall into place nicely. Yesterday was one of those days, as the celebration of the birthday of Dr. Seuss allowed me to have discussions with my class about allegory of stories, the art of picture books, and mature themes that can reside just below the surface of even the most silliest of stories.

I’m talking about Theodore Geisel’s Yertle the Turtle and its connection to the uprisings and political movements of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries in the Middle East/Northern Africa region.  Here is a story about a turtle king who cares only for his glory, and expanded influence, and does so on the backs of his subjects (literally) until one of them (a little turtle named Mack) gets so fed up, he revolts. Of course, he revolts in typical Seussian style: he burps and that burp topples the king.

Here is an excerpt:

Then again, from below, in the great heavy stack,
Came a groan from that plain little turtle named Mack.
“Your Majesty, please… I don’t like to complain,
But down here below, we are feeling great pain.
I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.
We turtles can’t stand it. Our shells will all crack!
Besides, we need food. We are starving!” groaned Mack.

“You hush up your mouth!” howled the mighty King Yertle.
“You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle.
I rule from the clouds! Over land! Over sea!
There’s nothing, no, NOTHING, that’s higher than me!”

In class, we talked about the connections between the modern political landscape and this story, which was written in the aftermath of World War II and was more of indictment on European countries with despotic rulers whose people were suffering. We also noted how the protests in the Middle East might seem like a good thing, but really, the uncertainty there will be unfolding for years to come. “Pay attention,” I told my kids.

Our discussions then moved on to other Dr. Seuss books: The Lorax as an indictment of corporate greed and environmentalism (brought to light yet again by the recent $18 billion ruling against Chevron for its mess in the Amazon Rain Forest); The Sneetches (racism and acceptance); and The Butter Battle Book, which took aim at the Cold War mentality of more bombs, bigger bombs, better bombs.

You know that moment when you see something in your students’ eyes — that moment when they see something different now — well, that was our Dr. Seussian moment yesterday. These books that always seemed to them to be little children’s books suddenly were something bigger — maybe a little scarier, too — and for me, as a teacher, those are moments of discovery worth savoring.

What did you do to celebrate Dr. Seuss?

Peace (in the world of little Macks),