Other Stuff: At the Movies

(Note from Kevin: this another diversion of writing for me this week as I move away for a bit from education and slip into other important stuff: like watching movies, or watching the crap that comes before the movies. I hope the sarcasm drips into your RSS . I added an audio of the essay, too.)


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I was so blissfully happy the other day to have found myself in a cold movie theater, just in time to watch the commercials. Back in the day as kids, we would scramble to the 99 cent movies early so that we could not only glimpse coming previews but also the periodic “short” movies that only Pixar seems to create these days. In place of those little bits of entertainment, we are urged to relax in our comfortable chairs, dark and cold on a hot summer day, and soak in product endorsements. You would think that a seven dollar ticket would buy you just the movie! But no. We get some bonus minutes, too. They are just too kind, those corporations with my own interests at heart.

I laughed with everyone else as some hip-hop hamsters danced and rapped about “this” and “that.” I knew it was a car they were selling me and I was buying, except the popcorn, candy and water sucked the green out of my wallet. Instead, I swayed my head to the song and relished the day when small furry animals might be able to make music along with the rest of them. It never occurred to me until later that there might have been people in those costumes. Now that’s what I call entertainment.

The Coca-cola commercial was just as interesting.  Some dude was calling on scientists to figure out the time travel that we have always been promised in our books and movies. Darn right, I wanted to shout at the screen. What good is a man in space? I want to see the future. This fellow wanted to travel back in time to woo his girlfriend. All I wanted was a cold drink of sugary soda that I seemed to have forgotten at the counter. Is that so bad?

Down the hallways, the movie “The Last Airbender” was underway, but wouldn’t you know it? We got ourselves an inside look at the video games that come with the movie. On a screen as large as the one in front of us, and with the sound cranked up, it was as if I were in the game itself. I almost left the theater right then and there to rush out to the nearby game store to buy the Wii edition. I didn’t, but you know, I wanted to.

As the commercials ended, I almost got up to leave, thinking I had just gotten my money’s worth and completely forgetting that I was there to see a movie. I sat back down, sitting through eight previews, and then could not help noticing some very helpful product placements in the movie itself. Man, when they talk about synergy of media, this is what they mean, right? I was so thankful to be part of that experience. There’s nothing like a hot summer day to get bombarded with advertisements. And to pay for it, too? That was just icing on the cake.

Peace (in the dark),

Other Stuff: Breakfast Cereal Bags

(Note from Kevin: It’s summer. Time for me to take a break from writing about learning and technology and all of that. I am going to try to write some short humor columns about other things over the next few days. One of them might evolve later into something to submit to our local newspaper. Or not. I’m going to call this series “Other Stuff” because I am feeling very wordy creative right now. Honest. Today’s piece is inspired by my realization that they just don’t make cereal bags like they used to. )
kevin flakes

Here’s what I imagine: in some factory somewhere, as loads of Captain Crunch or Rice Krispees or whatever cereal you like is being pumped into boxes by some machine, some worker is using a massive glue stick to close up the plastic bag that is dropped into the box by another worker farther down the line. I know this is some false idea of the breakfast cereal factory, probably inspired by some distant memory of Laverne and Shirley or I Love Lucy. The reality is more likely robots doing the work.

Still …

The glue stick — the one being held by that worker — is super powerful. In fact, the glue stick is probably something designed by NASA for plugging up holes in the International Space Station and somehow, the owner of this factory knew the director of NASA’s glue stick center (maybe they went to kindergarten or something and, ahem, bonded over glue).  It’s so strong that maybe BP should give them a call and mention a little hole that needs plugging up. Anyway, the glue gets rubbed on by the worker at the cereal factory, the bag gets closed, the bag gets dropped into the box, and then the entire thing is delivered to the store where I go out and buy it and bring it home.

That’s the chain of events. So far.

Oh. I forgot something. Something important. The plastic for the plastic bag. Unlike the glue, which is clearly an incredibly adhesive, the plastic bag that holds all of those particles of cereal is made of such poor quality that I imagine it being concocted by some strange scientists who are trying to outdo each other on who can make the weakest bag possible. They have daily “bag tearing competitions” in which they determine which bag design rips the quickest and with the biggest tear. That design is awarded some trophy. Maybe the trophy has an emblem of Captain Crunch on it or something. I’m really not sure.

So, here I am, the mild-mannered consumer at home the next morning (or maybe it’s dinner, if I am a bachelor with no one to smirk at me for having a bowl of cereal for the main meal of the day), with my box of cereal that features the combination of the most powerful glue in the world coupled with the weakest plastic pouch in the world.

Listen: I remember being a kid, and perfecting the opening of my morning cereal. I could, in fact, do it all in one seamless tug, right along the seam, so that the top of the bag opened just the right amount. Sort of like a little mouth. When I tipped the box, the mouth would open up and out would pour my breakfast.

Not anymore.

Now, when I try my patented rip method, the entire bag splits open from the sides, cereal pouring out like the Mississippi in spring. The bottom of the cardboard box becomes now filled with cereal. I want to leave the cereal pieces in there, probably out of laziness if I am being truthful, but if I do, then I will have to contend with the possibilities of either stale cereal at some later date or an invasion of ants into the cupboard. Or maybe a scolding from my wife. Take your pick. So of course I pull the plastic bag out of the box, and dump the spare cereal from the box into my bowl. The rip in the plastic bag, of course, takes on a life of its own, moving like the vertical fault line of an earthquake as it gets bigger and deeper. The bag completely splits, the cereal spills and the dog is at my feet, munching away at the debris.

Somewhere, a raving scientist is shaking his fist in celebration. But not at my house. In my house, I am left holding the bag. Literally.

Peace (in the  crunch),


So simple, even a 5 year old ….

My little guy (five years old) asked yesterday if  “I could make a movie” with the clay he has been working with. I’ve had clay all over the place for the past week or so and he has been making little characters and stuff, and then storing them in a box that he created. It’s very cute. And he’s been watching his older brother film some sort of epic stopmotion movie (I’m not sure what he’s doing — he has his studio set up in his bedroom) that involves paper cutouts (his favorite technique).

You want to make a movie, too? Sure.

I set up the Mac, turned on iStopmotion and let him make his movie (I helped here and there with the computer and did the final version in iMovie with music, but he did everything else himself.)

The movie is called “Chase Revenge” and that’s a King and a Queen being searched for by their dog, and a farmer, and they united and live happily ever after.

Peace (in the claymation),

Plink, Plink, Plinky

plinky story

Thanks to my friend, Jpeg (Jenny), I wandered over to Plinky this weekend to discover another cool writing place. I suppose it is sort of like others, in which you are given a prompt (this morning: Use third person to tell about an awkward school experience), a box to write in and then you can choose from a selection of images from Flickr to go with your writing.

I like the simplicity of Plinky, and also, that I can either get inspired or ignore the prompt, and then wander back tomorrow. Maybe. The writing choice is up to me.

I’m not sure if this site has possibilities for students (maybe high school) but you could easily “borrow” the writing prompts for activities in the classroom. Drop another idea into the classroom. Plink.
Peace (in the writing),

Bassman hits 10 (comic strips)

(This is still sort of a rough draft of a comic about a band. I’d like to do my own art in the future. Right now, I am focusing in on the writing and characters.)

Peace (in the music),

Book Review: Reality Hunger


Such a strange, interesting book. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields is an examination of the evolving nature of the personal essay, and yet, it really isn’t that, either. Shields’ technique is like a collage, using small passages of his own thoughts remixed with the words of others, stitched together into more than 500 pieces of writing take out of context of their original home around themes of writing. What comes across from this wonderful book (I happen to like the non-traditional narrative that Shields promotes and uses here) is that the act of writing itself is the act of reinventing and stealing and appropriation and reformatting ideas of others through our own lens of interpretation. And, he notes, the most interest forms of writing are the ones that push against boundaries and forge new terrain.

His larger point about writing is that we, the writers, never tell the truth. We never know reality. We only know our version of it, and then we writers twist and turn and rework our reality to make it flow on the page. So, he believes that biographies and autobiographies and most non-fiction is false work, and the truest way to show reality is through fiction, since it is clearly made up yet becomes an interpretation of the writer. And both writer and reader are in tacit partnership on this.

The book garnered some headlines when it first came out because Shields did not want to cite or credit any of the hundreds of authors that he steals from here and Shields tells us, his readers, that ” …I’m trying to regain a freedom … (but) Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations …” which Shields does. He then tells the reader to pull out their scissors and cut away the citation pages.

I didn’t.

In fact, one of the greatest pleasures I had with this book was digging back to the citations and seeing just where and from whom it was that Shields stole from. I found that quite fascinating to try to figure out the voices and I played a sort of game with myself, the reader, in trying to determine if it was Shields the writer, or Shields the stealer.

Peace (in high art plagiarism),

Webcomic Camp Comes to a Close

And so, the final frame has been inked.


Yesterday, our four-day Webcomic Camp for middle school students came to an end and even though it is a lot of work to plan for the camp and sucks up half of a summer day, I was pretty sad to see our artists/writers walk out the door yesterday. They had accomplished a lot in four days.

One idea that my colleague Tom had was to have each student present to the rest of us some of their comics, even if the comics were still underway and uncompleted. They could use any platform they wanted — digital or not — and it was nice to see a whole mix of comics and graphic stories underway or completed. This idea of a presentation of some work really gave the kids focus during the last two days of camp, as did the use of some forms around character development and plot design. Tom also set up a table where he regularly checked in with kids (while I was doing tech work).

There was a whole range of talent, from just beginning to one kid who clearly has incredible talent as an artist and illustrator and was completely engaged when watching The Cartoonist documentary about Jeff Smith and his Bone series.

This eighth-grader has already created an entire world for a graphic novel, complete with characters with back stories, and although he did smaller pieces for camp, he “sees” a much larger story unfolding for a graphic novel in the future. This kid has talent, and luckily, he already knows Hilary Price (of Rhymes with Orange fame) and will work with her a bit.

Me? I was so wrapped up in helping kids and gathering their work for our camp website (which we used as our presentation platform) that I never got to even start a comic with them. Tom did, though, and I hope he keeps going with it. I did finally figure out how to use iPhoto this camp, however, and how to resize photos (How come I can’t do it directly in iPhoto?) that allowed me to work on our camp website right in class as they were completing their work. (The Mac is still my learning curve).

We had them leave camp with our style of exit slip: they had to draw us a final comic on paper, and when they handed that in, we gave them a camp t-shirt and another free graphic novel (from my pile). And since we have our Bitstrip site up for at least another month, they can continue to make comics on their own. I hope they do.

Peace (on the funny pages),

Report: The Tech Divide

tech survey report

Another report — another glimpse into the chasm between the kinds of media and technology composing, creation and use being done by our students outside of school and inside of school. I don’t think there is too much new in this release of the  “21st Century Classroom Report: Preparing Students for the Future or the Past?” by CDW Government LLC, which is a company that seems to sell technology products and plans to educators (so, view the data through that lens).

A press release about the report notes that the survey of 1,000 students and teachers:

“… found that just 8 percent of high school teachers said that technology is fully integrated into the classroom; and the technology that is available is primarily used by teachers and not students.”

That use by teachers, and not their students, is something that is pretty widespread in my experience and we need to do a better job of filtering the tech out of the hands of the teachers (once they understand the tech themselves) and into the hands of students.

The report offers up a few suggestions on moving forward.

In order to successfully prepare students for their future, the 21st-Century Classroom Report recommends that districts:

  • Understand student needs: Just one-third of students say their high school seeks student input on classroom technology. Consider using the 21st-Century Classroom survey tool to get an accurate picture of student, faculty and IT staff needs. Use the results to discuss 21st-century skills with students to determine what technology they find most beneficial and seek guidance on how to effectively incorporate technology into the curriculum
  • Improve faculty resources: Districts should bring together faculty and IT staff to discuss must-have resources and implement professional development that aligns and reinforces the district’s technology plan
  • Look to the future: Focus on professional development and 21st-century skills to create a curriculum and classroom environment that promotes learning and seamless technology integration. Consider how today’s students learn and how to bring their native technology into the classroom

All good advice, even if it comes from a technology business.

Peace (in the data),

Character and Plot in the Webcomic Camp

Comic Camp in Bitstrips

(I made this in Bitstrips with all of the student avatars, which is a neat feature of the site)

Yesterday was Day Three of our Webcomic Camp for middle school students and after letting them play around with our Bitstrips site, my colleague, Tom, guided our comic creators through a focused session around developing either a character they will use in a series of comics or a plot for a larger graphic story, and then, we had them fill out some brainstorming sheets around their choice of focus.

(This is how we continue to weave lessons around writing into the fun of comics, but don’t tell the kids!)

We will also be having each student do a short presentation today about the comics or graphic story they are working on. Tom and I hope this will give a good sense of focus to the group of students, who are wonderful and creative but can get off-track at times. Our aim is for them to “complete” something, even if it is part of a story or a few comics in a series of possible strips that they will continue after camp ends today (yikes!).

While we continue to show them a bunch of tools (ComicLife, Bitstrips, Make Beliefs Comics, traditional paper, and today, our ToonDoo space), they have complete freedom on their work, so we do have kids working on all sorts of different ideas in different formats. While this is billed as “webcomic camp,” there are at least three kids working with pencil and paper right now.

One more note: After every tool we use, we spend about ten minutes reflecting on what they liked about it and what they didn’t like about it, and how it might be improved. We’re trying to build in this reflective practice, particularly when it comes to online sites, so that they don’t feel “locked in” by what a site offers and conform to the site’s limitations only.

Peace (in the frames),


A Peek Inside the Webcomic Camp

I’ve been taking pictures and grabbing comics as we go along through our Webcomic Camp for middle school students. It seemed logical to stuff all of those images into Animoto and see what came out (and I wanted to use their new Earth theme, too).

Here is a brief overview of what we did yesterday:

  • We started the day off with an idea from the Adventures in Cartooning activity book, in which the kids were given a comic that had all of the dialogue but was missing the artwork (a reverse from the first day of camp). It was pretty interesting to see how engaged some of them became when they were just being the artists.
  • I then showed them how to use ComicLife software. We have the 30 day trial on the computers we are using, and after a quick tutorial about using MS Paint for creating images and the basics of the software, we set them loose for about an hour or so. I was surprised at how quickly they got it and understood the platform. Not that it’s all that tricky, but it is a bit complex.
  • We transitioned into using one of our Webcomic sites — Bitstrips for Schools — and they worked on creating avatars of themselves in the site. It’s neat that once they have created their comic representation of themselves (which is a huge hit as an activity), Bitstrips populates the “classroom” on our homepage with their avatars. We all got a kick out of seeing what each other made.
  • We took a break when visitor Bryant Paul Johnson arrived and Bryant, who has published his own webcomics and is working on a graphic novel,  did a fantastic job of working on the concept of comics as a combination of words, images and time. The concept of “time” is tricky because it involves the sequence of the story as it unfolds outside of the field of vision (what happened before this frame, what happened after this frame). Bryant then worked on a few comics on the whiteboard, with ideas from the students.
  • They then had some time to choose what they wanted to work on — ComicLife, Bitstrips, Make Beliefs Comix, or just regular paper and pencils. A little of everything was underway when the day came to a close.

Peace (in the camp),