Book Review: Blind Spot

Some books just pull me and leave me lingering. I’d put Teju Cole’s Blind Spot in that category. A mix of intriguing photographs from different parts of the world, combined with small essays that are inspired by the photographs, or the taking of the photographs, this book by Cole is a wonder to experience.

What struck me most was the construction of the essays, and the way I had to “read” into the photographs to understand the slant that Cole brought to his writing with each small piece. And small, they are. For the most part, the essays are a paragraph or two. The ideas he can pack in just a small bit of writing is amazing, and inspiring, and has me thinking of ways photography might better inspire insightful writing.

There’s no one narrative thread through these pieces (there are more than 150 pieces here), except Cole has an eye for humanity, for struggle, for hidden stories, for a sense of place off the beaten path where life shows itself in different ways. He weaves in personal narrative — an eye injury is part of the underpinning of many of his stories — yet finds balance with the global view.

Some of his sentences are so beautiful, so poignant, they could be framed as art. I had read and enjoyed Cole’s Known and Strange Things, but Blind Spot is very different, on so many levels.

I borrowed Blind Spot from the library, but I am thinking now that this might be one of those books I splurge on at some point and get my own copy. I can see myself returning to these essays and photos from time to time, learning more about how to write, how to use images to see the world, how to explore deeper topics.

Thanks to Terry E for recommending Teju Cole, including Blind Spot, a few months ago …

Peace (goes deep),
Kevin

Stepping Into Immersive Virtual Reality Art

Wandering in VR Space

I had the day wrong, I realized later. I had read a news item promoting a “Print and Book Festival” in an art space in our city’s downtown, and convinced one of my sons to come with us to see what it was about. It was billed as 30 small press publishers and others, sharing comics and chapbooks and more. It was a rainy Saturday, so why not? (Plus, well, we love books in my family.)

It turns out that event is TODAY. Yesterday’s event in the same space? A showcase of Virtual Reality immersive art and gaming, with about five stations of VR headsets to try out. This VR event was connected to a local film festival going on up the street in the downtown theater. We live in a very art-orientated community.

In one VR station, you walk a plank jutting out from the top window of a skyscraper and then you need jump to the ground (that one freaked out my wife). In another, you play a version of Frogger, running through traffic to get to the other side. That was fun, if a little frenetic.

VR Gallery

One other area had someone printing out local Snaps from Snapchat, using some local tag, and the printed images were then put on one side of a plexiglass wall. Visitors were invited to doodle with markers on top of the image (but on the plexiglass side), using the Snap as the frame for art, and then the original was removed, leaving the doodled art in thin air (on the plexiglass).

Painting in VR

My favorite (and my son’s favorite) was a station in which you can use the Google software called Tilt Brush, which allows you to draw with all sorts of colors and inks and techniques in a virtual landscape of your choosing. It felt as if you were surrounded by ink, and waving the wands brought the pens into motion. I started to draw in space, and then on the desert, and then with bubbles in a pink surrounding.

I have never heard of Tilt Brush, have you?

At the front of the gallery, an artist was hard at work, using Tilt Brush and her own VR set to make some sort of gallery art installation in Virtual Reality, and watching her work in silence was fascinating. She’d wave her wands, as the monitor screen showed her art in progress.

So, a mistake made for an afternoon adventure, and the cool thing is? That original Book and Print Festival is still happening later today, so I have a chance to get “immersive” in good ol’ paper and ink.

Peace (immerses us in reality),
Kevin

Sussing Out Ideas with Crowd Annotation

Annotation: Copenhagen Letter

I followed an invitation by Maha Bali to annotate a document known as the Copenhagen Letter. Maha had her university students in Egypt doing annotations on a digital text, and she put out a call on her blog to others.  The Copenhagen Letter is an open letter to the world by a gathering of technology and social media folks, and other “thinkers” of some kind or another, as a manifesto for change when it comes to technology. (Here is a link to some of the background of the conference and the letter itself).

We used the Hypothesis add-on for crowd annotation, which is such a handy tool for this kind of work. You can read through the nearly 40 annotation observations by following this link: https://via.hypothes.is/https://copenhagenletter.org/ and I suppose Maha would say, Come on in and add your own thoughts, too.

As I dove in to the letter from the margins, I found myself feeling mixed about the content. On one hand, the letter is a call to action as a counter to the negative vibes and corporate for-profit threads that seem to be changing the entire DNA of social media spaces. It’s clearly the voice of frustration in terms of corporate desires overtaking user needs. On the other hand, the content of the letter is so vague and so general that is seems almost meaningless as a call to action.

I noticed, as I read the margin notes of Maha’s students and others, that not only was I not alone in that critique, but others were far more critical, questioning many phrases and intentions behind the letter. Someone even shared out Aaron Swartz’s 2008 Guerilla Open Access Manifesto as an counter example of calls to action.

At the end, where folks can “sign” the Copenhagen Letter, I wondered aloud: Did anyone in the margins ever sign the open letter? No response yet. (I did not sign it.)

An ancillary conversation on Twitter pursued this frame of thought a bit more – about whether such a manifesto does any good or if it only exposes the fuzzy language of how we talk about social media and technology in our lives. I’m still unsure about how I feel about the letter, but I appreciate that folks took the time to come together, to recognize the need for change, and worked to articulate concerns to the world. That’s not easy to do.

I’ll leave us with a comment by my CLMOOC friend, Sheri, who is wise and always has insightful and positive things to say about the world:

Which leads me to share out news that the group behind Marginal Syllabus, in partnership with the National Writing Project, is launching a project called Writing Our Civic Futures, in which various documents will be open for public annotation with Hypothesis over the course of a few months. This project begins this coming week, so now is the time to engage in discussion and discourse.

Learn more about Writing Our Civic Future here. And read the first invitation to annotate a post by Henry Jenkins about youth culture and social media, and change.

And a bit about Hypothesis:

Peace (in the margins),
Kevin

 

Making Writing Visible

Making Storywriting Visible

My sixth grade writers are in the midst of a fiction writing project, where our focus has been on plot design, dialogue writing, proofreading, openings and more. As usual, as they have been writing, I have been writing, too, and as I try to do, I have been sharing my drafts and process as we go along.

Yesterday, I shared out this opening to my story, in which the narrator is sent back in time by Book (a character I’ve pilfered from our reading of Book: My Autobiography) to Gutenberg’s time, in order to help him with the printing press and find a way back home for the narrator. I made lots of notes in the margins, and read them out as I read them the story, trying to articulate my “moves” as a writer.

It’s not that I want them to emulate my story construction, but some of the techniques become more visible this way.

It occurred to me later that a good activity would be to do a crowd-sourced annotation of a story with them, and ask them to identify and annotate places where various writing techniques are visible in the text.

Hmmm …

Peace (stories abound),
Kevin

100 Years From Now … State of the Book

Books (stories) of the Future

I mentioned the other day how I use Book: My Autobiography as a read-aloud with my sixth graders at the start of the year as a way to introduce creative non-fiction and a history lesson around the evolution of stories and books over time.

A writing prompt in their writing notebook afterwards asks them to consider the world 100 years into the future — 2117 — and sketch out and explain some ideas about what stories will look like and/or how stories will get delivered to readers. In other words, what will books be like in 100 years?

The picture above is my example — I envision Tattoo Stories which can be shared and remixed with others.

Stories of Future Collage

My students have a range of ideas, including:

  • Embedded story contact lens for your eyes (and/or wearable glasses that do the same thing)
  • Holographic characters who act out the story in front of you (and other variations of virtual and augmented reality concepts)
  • A device that you sit in and punch in information about protagonist and antagonist character traits, and a story gets created into some form, in the moment
  • Books and stories that float nearby, and move along with you as you walk around, so you always have new stories in reach
  • Story microchips inserted into your mind so that you can active a tale at any time
  • Portable personal libraries that appear when you need a book from the shelves and disappear when you don’t need it
  • Foldable books that can easily — no matter the size — fit into the corner of your pocket
  • Story cars, busses and trucks — the entire vehicle is a moving story of some sort and the driver is the reader

Who knows. I suspect we will still have good ol’ book with us, too. I hope so.

Peace (thinking forward),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Not Yet Grounded

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

So much of the start of the year is about finding out more about who our students are as learners, as writers. I’m still figuring that out, particularly now that I have a short story project underway that involves multiple steps (planning, drafting, etc.) and involves more critical thinking and effort that anything we have yet done this year. One of my four classes has quite a mix of struggling writers and behavior issues that stems from the grouping of students, and some of these students already seem disinterested in what we are doing (five weeks into the school year).

I lost my patience in class a bit with one of the students yesterday who was being disruptive, even after some warnings and moving to another part of the room. I knew in the very moment it was happening that calling them out was the wrong approach. This student clearly needs a more personal approach, and other ways to engage, and I am going to make time to today for a one-on-one chat, to both apologize for my approach and to try to brainstorm ways to deal with that behavior if it comes again. That doesn’t mean the disruption is acceptable. But I could have figured out a better way to address it.

Much of the behavior issue stems from a resistance to writing (so, it is going to be a long year, since writing is a key feature of everything we do) and struggles with learning. The behavior is clearly a way to divert attention, to provide a front for peers. I get it. I’m going to have to work through all that cloud to get to the real kid in there and help them make gains with their writing.

It’s on me, as much as on them.

I wish every class were this well-oiled machine, where everything flows perfectly. It’s not. Almost never is. And that’s one of the most challenging elements of being an educator — the unpredictability of kids and their lives, and how what happens in expected moments of the classroom changes the dynamics of the space  — and one of the things that makes being a teacher so rewarding when breakthroughs happen.

Peace (finding my ground),
Kevin

Stealing/Borrowing/Remixing Music

I spent part of the other morning re-reading a comic book from Duke University that resonates with my own interests around music, composition and remix.

Entitled Theft: A History of Music, the book explores copyright law and music composition through the ages. If that sounds boring, it isn’t. The book weaves in lots of humor and visual creativity as it shows the path of “borrowing” other people’s music for remix over time.

What’s great is the book is free for download, or for reading online. You can also purchase a copy, but the intent of the university’s Center for the Study of Public Domain is to educate the public, so the book is free for educational purposes.

What becomes clear pretty quickly is how much we always have borrowed from each other, and how legal codes over time have moved to protect the original artists even as those codes tried to balance the possibilities of moving art in new directions. This is the conundrum of the current musical scene, where hip hop artists build new songs out of samples of old songs. Or used to. Now, it costs a lot of money to do that, with lawyers jumping all over the samples.

This is not necessarily a bad thing — it is forcing rappers and others to hire musicians who can play instruments (listen to Kendrick Lamar) or learning themselves how to play (listen to D’Angelo) so that they are making all of the music. But that has changed the nature of hip-hop, too. It’s all very intriguing, I think.

I appreciated this history lessons here and I need to come back to Theft for a second, deeper read. I think I need to get it into my Kindle for a better reading experience, though.

The book may not be good for my classroom — the vocabulary and concepts are beyond the sixth grade — but I can see pulling out some pages for times when we talk about digital writing and remix in the classroom, and how the current music scene is just a glimpse of the debate that has been raging since Plato’s time (he argued against remix).

Peace (in frames),
Kevin

 

Teaching Attribution

This “card” will be helpful for my students to have in from of them when I get into my lessons around digital media and attribution principles, with a focus on how to search for Creative Commons for projects and how to use what other people have made in our own work.

This tutorial image comes from a useful post over at KQED called “Pause Before Downloading” and that article also includes a helpful list of places to look for Creative Common images.

And I don’t want to forget that Alan Levine’s handy attribution tool for images is something to install as a bookmarklet on our school laptop browsers. Alan has created a simple way to make sure you have the language of attribution down. Just drag the bookmarklet into your browser and whenever you find a Creative Commons image, just click on it and it will give you options for attribution. I use it all the time at home. Simple. Powerful. Handy.

Peace (link it),
Kevin

 

Book Review: A Lowcountry Heart (Reflections on a Writing Life)

It’s an odd thing, to read a book about writing by a writer you’ve never read. Oh, I’ve heard of Pat Conroy before — with The Great Santini and My Losing Season and The Prince of Tides — but I never picked up one of his books and read it. Not even once.

So why pick up A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life?

I suppose my interest in writers writing about writing has me poking around the stacks at the library and there it was, a cute cover and a wondering about the thinking process of this writer I’ve never read. Conroy is part of the Southern tribe of writers, and apparently, used his own personal life as inspiration for his novels about living in and living beyond the American South.

This collection of small essays, curated by his wife after Conroy’s death, is a curious tome of voice. Conroy’s engaging and funny observations of people, and himself, come through loud and clear, as does his obsession with the Citidel, tradition, and Southern Culture — all of which he seems to both cherish and ridicule in equal measure as he takes stock of the world around him.

via Washington Post

via Washington Post

 

In some ways, this is less about the art of writing and more about Conroy’s view of the world as a novelist, mostly told through the lens of the tapestry of people who were woven in and out of his life over time, and whose quirks and friendships and falling outs made their way into his fiction. As his wife explains, Conroy was a collector of stories — and he was apt to steal and adapt any story you told to him, and apparently, he was a master at getting you to talk.

I believe it. His writing is very personal and inviting, and you feel as if you sitting around the sitting room, sipping iced tea on a hot Southern day, as he tells the stories he writes about here. There are great moments of Humanity here — I am thinking of his friendship with a gay Southern man who died from complications of AIDS and how Conroy moved to San Francisco to take care of his friend, and to understand the disease better so that he could help others.

I’m still not sure that his writing style is my reading style — it all feels a bit too John Irving for me, and I find I am not in a John Irving mood these past few years, although I read Irving at one time — but I admire what Conroy does here. He’s working to peel back the layers of a writer, to show how life is the biggest point of inspiration, and how it takes courage and insight to bring fiction into a light that seems true and worth writing about.

And any insights into what makes a writer click .. that’s always worth a read.

Peace (writing it about),
Kevin