Slice of Life, the weekly series, Chapter 8

(This is part of a weekly feature called Slice of Life Project)

Bryan and I have been in somewhat sporadic contact since the fall when I received an email out of the blue, asking me if I would consider being his “virtual mentor.” Bryan is a senior in Kansas and his senior project was around claymation. I guess I never asked where he got my name. I just assumed it was from some folks in the National Writing Project or maybe it was through some various online activities around stop-motion animation that I have done.

Bryan wrote:

“Seniors are required to research a topic and complete a 2500 word essay. Also, we must have a demonstration of knowledge. This project will be time consuming and will take most of the school year to complete. I have decided to study claymation and filming a claymation movie. I was informed that you may be familiar with this topic and wanted to know if you would be my outside mentor. This may sound like a big responsibility, but it really is very simple. I would email you about twice a semester with any questions I may have on this topic and it would be fine if you didn’t know all the answers. I just need an outside source who knows something about my topic.”

I was flattered and I loved the idea of trying to help someone get deep into claymation movie making, even if it was from afar. Bryan is a thoughtful student, it seems to me, and quite interested in exploration. I like that Bryan and his class have to find a virtual mentor to help them delve deeper into a topic of interest. This seems to me to be yet another way to tap into the strength of connections through the Web World.

Every few weeks, I would get an email from Bryan, asking questions and advice on:

  • the type of webcam to get;
  • the editing program I use;
  • how important the lighting is to the final movie;
  • what kind of clay to use;
  • the process of creating a movie;
  • where to share it.

I did my best to guide him , although it is clear now that he had plenty of ideas of his own and that his investigation into claymation was really a love of his this year. I tried to share with him some different stop-motion animation sites and movies that I found that seemed to be good examples of how clay can be used for creative expression.

A few weeks ago, Bryan informed me that he had finished his final project — a collection of short movies that he had made throughout the year. Now, we struggled with how to get the movie to me. My online storage site did not allow movies that big to be uploaded by a guest. I suggested a few video sharing sites, but I urged him to get permission from his parents first (and to check in with his teachers).

Finally, the email arrived, and he gave me the link to his claymation collection on YouTube. Oh. I love it. I think it is fantastic and since this is the first time I have seen Bryan’s work – after all those emails — I feel proud to have been able to give him some tidbits here and there, if it helped him. Maybe he just needed a sounding board from time to time. Whatever.

Here is Bryan’s Claymation Movie Collection:
I have now turned the tables on Bryan, asking him to become a mentor to my sixth graders as they begin filming their claymation movies around climate change. I have asked Bryan to write up some advice for my students, using his experience for reflection. Will he do it? I hope so, but I know that graduation and other things are now consuming his time.Good luck, Bryan. It was great to be your mentor this year!Peace (in movies),
Kevin

Slice of Life, the weekly series, Chapter 7

(This is part of a weekly feature called Slice of Life Project)

Both Larry and Nancy tagged me to be part of this Meme that seeks to get a little deeper into who we are as people (yep, I am not a blogger-‘bot … yet). And I was thinking how much that is part of the Slice of Life adventures, too.

So here, goes:

1. What was I doing 10 years ago?

Ten years ago, I was ending a ten-year stint as a newspaper reporter, going back to school to become a teacher and beginning a two-year journey as a stay-at-home dad (which I loved).

2. What are 5 things on my to-do list for today (really, yesterday):

  • Go to post office to mail off present for niece (already late)
  • Go to Staples and makes some copies (hear strange SNL voice in my head)
  • Read with son, who is home sick today (and I am home with him)
  • Work on getting ready for Tech Across the Curriculum workshop on Saturday (crap — it’s right around the corner)
  • Remember to get other kids from school (very important!)

3. Snacks I enjoy…

Bananas, apples, yogurt, cookies.

4. Things I would do if I were a billionaire:

Fund an innovative school for inner-city kids; buy a new guitar; build a recording studio; become a professional writer.

5. Three of my bad habits:

Act too quick on impulse; am better at writing mind then voicing my mind on emotional issues; and sort of messy at times.

6. 5 places I have lived:

  • Connecticut
  • Massachusetts
  • New York
  • Georgia (in military)
  • my mind

7. 5 jobs I have had:

  • Third shift gas attendant
  • Handyboy for dentist (and he had me shovel coal, if you can believe it)
  • Newspaper reporter
  • Sax player in Portuguese wedding band (when I was a teen and not for long)
  • Teacher

8. 6 people I want to know more about:

Bruce Springsteen (and his songwriting process)
Sonny Rollins (and his saxophone ideas)
Barack Obama (is he for real?)
ee cummings (for his style of poetry)
Frank Lloyd Wright (for imagining something altogether different)
Georgia O’Keefe (because my mom was fascinated and I wonder why)

I will offer to pass this along, and like Larry, say that you can pursue it or not, depending on your time and energy and interest.

Peace (in bios),
Kevin

Slice of Life, the weekly series, Chapter 6

(This is part of a weekly feature called Slice of Life Project)

Poetry ended on a humorously macabre note in class yesterday as we wrote out some epitaphs for fictional characters, my classroom mascot (an old stuffed polar bear who has lost a lot of beans this year), and anyone they wanted, including themselves. Many of my young writers chose to eulogize their long-lost, but not forgotten, pets in their short gravestone poems.

Now, I shift into songwriting, and it always makes me a bit nervous. But I know it is a lot of fun and something completely different for my students.

Here is what we do:

  • We examine some lyrics and songs that they are (hopefully) familiar with. Today, we’ll be listening to the Goo Goo Dolls (Better Days) and Green Day (Good Riddance) and thinking of how the poetic devices we have used in poetry is used in songwriting and lyrics. I will be bringing in my acoustic guitar and trying to coax them to sing the Green Day song with me.
  • Tomorrow, I will bring in my electric guitar, drum machine and set up a little PA system with microphones in my classroom. I then have a worksheet that has them reflect on songwriting, and then I play them a song that I wrote called Just Believe. My song has a missing verse, and their job is to write a verse, and then … come up to the front of the room on the following day, and sing it the song with me.
  • Last year, I tried to record some of the kids singing, but it was too loud and distorted even for me to listen to. We’ll see about this year.

I love the intersection of the arts and writing, and I see some of my students suddenly think of songs in a different way after these lessons. And I try to remind them that anyone can write a song and everyone SHOULD write a song (at least once in life). The combination of words, music and rhythm are a powerful medium of expression.

And speaking of music, tonight is our school’s Talent Show (the teacher who organizes it whispered to me yesterday, ‘we’re going to start calling it Variety Show to be a bit more accurate in what it is ‘ and then laughed). Each year, the staff puts on an act, and this year, we are performing Stray Cat Strut (by Stray Cats) as a live band. I am playing the saxophone and singing some of the lead parts, and we are going to ham the whole thing up as much as possible. It should be fun.

Music will be a big part of today, that’s for sure.

Peace (in rock and roll),
Kevin

Slice of Life, the weekly series, Chapter 5

(This is part of a weekly feature called Slice of Life Project)

I love Love That Dog, a short novel in poems by Sharon Creech, and yesterday, I began reading it aloud to my sixth graders as part of our poetry unit. A few have read it on their own before, but most had not. They were mostly quiet as I read — taking in the story of a young boy (Jack) who does not like poetry but is asked by his teacher to keep a journal, reflecting on the poems he has heard, read and written.

The story begins with Jack stating outright that “Boys don’t write poetry. Girls do.” (That got a few laughs … from the boys)

But slowly, he opens up his eyes to the possibilities of poetry, and Jack’s story of his dog and what happened slowly gets told through journal entries told in Jack’s endearing voice. The journal entries themselves are poems, and Jack watches as his teacher — Miss Stretchberry — types them up and puts them on display. It is through this that Jack realizes the power of his writing, and then digs deep to understand a tragedy that happened in his world.

Throughout the book, Creech shares the poems that Jack is learning about, so the reader gets to peruse Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, William Blake, and others in the poetic canon.

Yesterday, I stopped at the point where Jack is all excited about Shape Poems (poems where words take the shape of the thing the poem is about, is how Jack puts it) that have a humorous bent to them. The one in the book — called Apple by S.C. Riggs (Creech herself) — shows an apple with a wormy worm in the center. Jack creates his own poem about a dog, with a tongue dripping drool and the tail wag-wag-wagging. We then began creating our own funny shape poems (I did a football with grass stains and air hissing out of a hole).

I had more than one student ask, this is poetry? Yes, I said, this is poetry, and isn’t it fun? They are so used to prose and sentences and paragraphs that they are surprised by the freedom of poetry. Too many students balk at poetry because they think everything is about rhyming. I hope they are learning that poetry is about exploration and questions, not answers. (This was made obvious by our discussion of William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow, which confused the heck out of them).

We’ll continue reading the book out loud again today and likely finish up tomorrow, and I always get a bit choked up at the moment when we learn the true story that Jack is struggling to tell and only finds his voice through poetry. I often have a few kids with tears in their eyes. There is an emotional resonance to Love That Dog that any middle school student, or older, should experience.

Peace (in poems),
Kevin

Slice of Life, the weekly series, Chapter 4

(This is part of a weekly feature called Slice of Life Project)

Nine years of legal battles finally ended this month and a developer is set to destroy a plot of woods near our house for some upscale homes. It breaks our heart. Although we know this land is not ours, we feel as if it is kin to us. We have walked the paths for what seems like forever, with our dog and then with our kids. Resting spots along the trails are homes for treasured memories.

And now, the trees are almost gone and the place looks like some wasteland littered with sawed-off stumps, fallen trees and dead brush. The birds don’t sing quite as loud, nor as happy, as they once did, it seems to us. And where have the deer gone? The chipmunks? The moose we saw running to there one year? And the bears and fox and fisher cats. All moved to some other destination, no doubt, by the roar of machinery.

(This is a path that used to be like a tunnel of overgrown trees. We used to have to stoop to get through. Now, it is just wide open space, and not in a good way)

Yesterday, the five of us walked through there again on a beautiful Spring day and I remembered:

  • The twin Big Rocks that are sliced down the middle where the kids used to climb and eat apples, just resting and listening. It was always apples, in my memory. The rocks seemed smaller but I guess it is because the boys are bigger;
  • The little island the boys call Frog Island that requires them to balance across log bridges. There are no frogs there and I can’t recall anymore how we came up with the name;
  • The place just beyond the Big Rocks where the woods suddenly change to dense Mountain Laurel, and the rocks on the trail become slippery and hidden from sight;
  • The fallen log that my oldest son used to try to crawl under, instead of over, and now finds his body too big. The log is still there. Still blocking the trail like some silent guard.;
  • The upward incline on the path where I slipped one winter morning with my toddler son in the backpack and slammed his head into the tree (no serious damage except intense guilt);
  • The place where two rivers connect just beyond a tunnel, which sits below an old railroad bed, which may be home to a bike trail someday if that legal battle ever gets resolved;
  • The sense that all this will disappear so very soon and my kids will be poorer for it.

I tried to joke with my youngest that the Lorax might pop up out of the tree stumps but he would not have any of it. “No Lorax! No Onceler!” he shouted, and I wish this world had no need for the Lorax and that the Oncler understood what he was doing before the devastation of the Truffula Trees. Sometimes, such knowledge comes too late.

I am experimenting here with the new Flickr Video feature. This is the stream that runs into the tunnel. I made the video with my digital camera. Peace (in preservation),
Kevin

Slice of Life, the weekly series, Chapter 3

(This is part of a weekly feature called Slice of Life Project)

My mind is adrift with poems and positions, and it is feeling a bit tangled up. The poetry aspect is good. I love daydreaming of the poems. And writing every day … that is great and inspiring.

The positions? Well, that has to do with the game of Quidditch that we play at our school and the Big Championship is tomorrow. All the sixth grade classes play before the entire school. It’s a madhouse affair, with loud screaming, action and school spirit on full display all day long.

The kids are amped up and I, as coach, am working on squads for three different matches that are fair and equal and give everyone a chance to play. It’s difficult, though, to make that happen and time is running out. My kids seem to understand that I do the best I can and they were sympathetic and impressed when I showed them the grid that I used to map out who is playing what position, when. The reality: I need to get the squads done today and I don’t have the time! (No, I know, I will make the time)

We play a scrimmage match this morning against another class and so I get another look at my class on the Quidditch court. I told them yesterday that I am incredibly proud of the attitudes they have had so far. Usually, we have to deal with snippets of trash talking from team to team. Not this year. Everything has remained real positive, and that is just such a relief.

I don’t care if we win or lose. I just want them to have a good time and I want everyone — from my natural athletes to the ones who would fade into the wall if I let them — to feel involved and part of the class.

Wish us luck!

Peace (in beaters, quaffles and snitches),
Kevin

Slice of Life, the weekly series, Chapter 2

(This is part of a weekly feature called Slice of Life Project)

Where I live, the signs of spring are comin in two flavors: baseball and flowers.

The feverish, crazy youth baseball season is already fast upon us. As a bit of an update for Slice of Lifers, my older son did not get on the team that he wanted. Instead, he was recruited to move up to the older league and is now on a team that everyone I talk to says has the nicest and best coach in that league. We had one stressful night where we pulled him out of the older league and then reconsidered, allowing him to make the choice on what he wanted to do. He chose moving up. He feels flattered that the coach wanted him so bad (he’s a lefty, he’s quick, he plays first base and pitches) and he knew he was not going to be on the team coached by our neighbor because he was so coveted by other coaches in the drafting process. However, by moving up, he left his younger brother available to be chosen for the neighborhood team, and that is a good thing. Our neighbor is allowing both boys to practice with the team a few nights a week (the older son’s team hasn’t yet scheduled a practice).

And so, baseball begins …

Meanwhile, in our front yard, another sign of the changing seasons is emerging. My youngest son and I are keeping careful track of the little green buds sprouting up from the ground in the small patch of Tiger Lillies. Last week, he helped me rake the leaves away that we forgot about before winter. We bent down to examine what was there, which wasn’t much — just a few green dots below the soil. Each day since then, things are changing as the weather slowly (and I mean slowly) gets warmer. He races over to the spot every day and we marvel at the progress of the plants. He warns me not to step on them. He puts up his hand in the stop sign motion to make sure I understand. Then he slowly circles the land, informing me that these are flowers. I don’t have the heart to tell them that these particular Lillies are late bloomers and may not open up until summer.

But, boy, won’t he be surprised when they do. These are his flowers now.

Peace (in signs and signals),
Kevin

Slice of Life, the weekly series, Chapter 1

(This is part of a weekly feature called Slice of Life Project)

I had not meant to write. I was going to wait a week and get back into Slice of Life, in its weekly incarnation, in round two. But something in the newspaper caught my eye and I felt the need to reflect.

The news article was about the death of a local activist, Herb G., whom I remember clearly and dearly from my years as a newspaper reporter. I first met Herb and his wife, Charlotte, as a school reporter for the regional newspaper, and I could count on either one or both of them calling me or stopping in to the newspaper office on a regular basis. Charlotte-and-Herb or Herb-and-Charlotte — they were always referred to as one name, it seemed — were transplanted New Yorkers who came to our city to work in the social service sector.

But their heart and soul were in the areas of social justice and education. Everything they did was done through that lens. Local politicians used to roll their eyes when Herb and Charlotte came into a meeting. They knew they were in for a grilling. As a newspaper reporter covering the city school system, I was a main contact for them to get their message out. Our city was not quite as progressive as it is now. (And that, too, may just be a projection of hope of the present). The community was in the midst of an ideological struggle between the conservative old guard and the newcomers with families seeking to cast a broader net for all people. This does not mean the conservatives were heartless, but they often resisted any change. And they resented the influx of Hispanics and Asians who were arriving on a steady basis. The progressives eventually won out.

In those days, Herb and Charlotte were fearless in their discussions and debates. They demanded equal access to education for all children. They decried any implications of racial imbalance. They sought to nurture and cherish the various cultures of city residents. They were the first to call for action when racial epitaphs were written on public property and the last to end the discussions for learning. Their own children were long grown up, but they saw themselves as advocates for those could not speak, or were scared to speak, for themselves.

It would not be unusual for me to be caught in a conversation with Herb and Charlotte that might last a good hour or two. They knew they had me and they bent my ear as much as they could. And boy, they could talk. Charlotte often greeted me with a warm hug, even after I had left the school beat and was reporting in another city. She was about human connections.

Their message of social justice did come through for me. Now, as a teacher, I still think of Herb and Charlotte often as I try to show my students the bigger world beyond their insular community. Their message resonates today.

So I was saddened to learn that Herb passed away. Charlotte, too, died last year. Their legacy remains, I hope, in the ways in which the people they touched — including me — see the world.

Peace (in social justice),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 31 (the final call)

(This is the last segment of the Slice of Life Project)

Today ends the Slice of Life Challenge that began way back on March 1 and it seems an opportune time to reflect on what I have been doing.

I am both saddened and a bit relieved, too, as once I started writing about some aspect of my day, I felt some internal motivation to keep it up and not miss a day. In that vein of daily writing, I was successful, although the quality of the composition ebbed and flowed. I have loved the concept of slicing into a day and then bringing the focus from a singular event into something more global, more wide in view.

I think, at times, I may have brought that focus too close into my family life and I worried about it at times. I do try to protect the privacy of my family. This is the Internet, after all, and the audience is not just the participants of Slice of Life. My wife was a little uncomfortable with some things and she had some valid points. I guess I felt, as a writer, my family is the most important thing to me and the biggest part of my life, and so my Slice of Life had to reflect on those things. I did notice that I was paying attention to the small events going on around me. But I may have been writing, and not talking, about those things in my quest to write for reflection. That creates imbalance in life.

One thing I did enjoy was connecting with other writers and teachers who were outside of my normal network. It was intriguing to read and react to the slices of the other handful of writers. There were many truths about life being written on their posts — so many insights that were valuable. Some slicers were going through the death of a family member. Some were planning weddings. Some were dealing with sick and sad, or healthy and energetic children. Some examined friendships. Some were struggling or celebrating the communities of their classrooms. I felt honored to be part of their conversations. It did feel a bit strange that I was the only man writing in Slice of Life. I tried to get others involved, but I had no luck. In the end, it was not a big deal, just sort of odd. It makes me wonder about gender and writing, and what it all means.

I discovered the Slice of Life through my RSS feed (from A Year in Reading blog) and then, as I began to take part, some of the readers of my blog began writing their own slices. Some (like Bonnie and Nancy) added their links to the Two Writing Teachers blog. Others (like Karen) did not, but still kept writing.

I hope to use some aspects of Slice of Life for the Day in the Sentence (for example, I liked the Mr. Linky widget that was used so that people wrote on their own blogs but were all linked together at a single point). I hope that some of the Slice of Life writers will continue to join us in Day in a Sentence. Stacey and Ruth, at Two Writing Teachers, are going to continue to offer a weekly version of Slice of Life, so if you are interested, you should check it out. (I will pass for tomorrow, just for a breather).

Peace to all of you who followed me here and keep on writing and reflecting!

Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 30

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

Today, my slice focuses in on my writing.

Since November, when I was inspired while traveling home on a train from the annual meeting of the National Writing Project with a laptop open on my lap, I have been periodically writing some quickfiction stories (also known as flashfiction in some circles). I love the genre because it all about what you don’t write and what you don’t tell, and there is the challenge of developing a character in as little of time and space as can possibly be. I’m sure there are rules to the genre that I am dutifully and openly ignoring.

Some stories in my series have been stronger than others, and I mostly write them during freewriting moments in my classroom. An idea sparks the writing, and as my students write, so do I. I have not shared these with my students, however. Someday, I intend to go back and do some editing and revision and then see what remains. For the most part, these are rough quickfiction stories. But I like them a lot. (You can view the rest of the quickfiction here) I also realized that quickfiction lends itself to podcasting and so I have included the reading of my stories, too.

Here, then, are the four latest stories:

Winner
It seemed an odd place to leave an egg. Out here, in the middle of nowhere. How many people had come this way, I could not tell. There was not path, not even the wayward trails left behind by animals. The river was far enough away that it would attract more people than this little alcove of pine trees. The sunlight was filtered out almost completely. I had expected nothing but solitude and yet, there, hidden among the stones at the base of the largest pine tree, was a colored plastic egg. Purple with pink stripes. The discovery had stopped me dead in my tracks. Now, I inched forward, my eyes scanning the world for some signs of something. A voyeur with a video camera. perhaps? A child at play? Nope. Nothing. I kicked at the plastic item gingerly with my boot, as if expecting the egg to explode. It moved, shifted and then did a wiggling roll off the rocks and stopped near my foot. I reached down and picked it up. The egg was not empty. I shook it. Something was inside. Again, I looked around to see if I were being played for the fool. No. I was alone. The egg twisted slowly in my hands, and the halves released their grip. Inside was a plastic baggie. My first thought was that I had uncovered a drug run of some sort. A cache of cocaine or pot. Walking away would be the wisest thing to do. Yet, I had come this far and could not resist my curiosity. The bag opened up and a note dropped to the ground. I bent down and saw the thin outline of faded handwriting. I unfolded the paper and read: “Congratulations! You are a winner!” and that was it. Nothing about what I won or why I was winning or what to do to claim my prize. I carefully put the paper into the bag, and then the bag into the egg, and then twisted the egg closed. Holding the object in my fist, I scrambled east for about a quarter of a mile, deeper in the woods than ever before, and there, I found a hollow tree. I left the egg there and made my way home, a winner.

Headless
The head came off as soon as the body slammed down the bottom of the stairs. The head rolled against the wall, careened across the floor and settled into the dust beneath the couch. Sam came barreling down the stairs, unaware that the head was gone. He picked up the GI Joe that was sprawled in an unhuman-like position near the last step — one leg this way and the other leg, that way, and the arms behind the back — and he ran his fingers along the neck. No head. Sam glanced around, making sure his grandmother was nowhere near. GI Joe had been a gift, just 15 minutes ago, and now, the head was gone. He didn’t want to deal with her anger. Again, he rolled his fingers over the nub where the head had been. Then Sam got down on his hands and knees to look for the missing appendage. He found other lost treasures — a moldy jelly bean, a paper clip, an old credit card. But no head. He could feel tears starting to well up inside him, and it made him embarrassed that he would be so sad over a doll. He heard a sound. Sam looked around. The sound seemed to be coming from underneath the couch. It sounded like a head, rolling. Sam got a bit scared. Ghosts and spirits scared him. He knew they were real. Maybe the ghost of GI Joe was mad at him. Maybe the head was coming back to life. He heard his grandmother in the kitchen. He had to move fast. Sam slowly approached the couch. The sound got louder. He got more frightened. Footsteps. His grandmother. Sam lifted up the fabric covering of the couch and the head of GI Joe came rolling out at him. He jumped back. His grandmother called his name, spurring him to reach out and take the head in his hands. In an instant, he had popped the head of GI Joe back onto the nub of the neck. His grandmother came into the room but ignored Sam completely. Instead, she was scolding her cat, Scout, who had emerged from the other end of the couch in a catnip-inspired panic and was tearing his claws into the side of the cushion. Sam looked at GI Joe right in the eye and smiled.

Blood
Blood on your hands is an odd sensation. The color strikes you first — the coating of red drippings. Your first instinct is to avoid the splatter but it is unavoidable. Ask any police detective with a DNA kit. Blood goes where blood wants to go. Kimball stared at his hands with these thoughts in his head, frozen by the sight. It occurred to him that this had happened before, in some freeze-frame memory from the past — his brother, perhaps, and the hunting knife accident. The bone coming up through the finger. Then, as now, things unfolded quick even as time slowed to a crawl. The blood kept dripping. Now, too, he could smell it. Iron or some metals. Something in the blood that seemed not quite right. Kimball felt the blade drop to the ground. His mind was turning black but he heard her voice cutting through the fog. “My god, Kimball, what ….” before everything faded to dark.

Performance
If they had asked her, she would have declined. She would not have willingly accepted this mantle nor this well-lit space on the stage — doused in floodlights and a thousand eyes on her every move — if she had had a choice. She opened her mouth to speak. Nothing emerged but her silence, and this silence glued her to her spot. The conductor raised his arms, baton dancing in his fingers. All around her, instruments moved, shifted, ready for the moment of life. She, however, remained still. If they had asked her, she would not be here. She could see the outline of her father and aunt, seated a few rows back. She felt caught in a net. The conductor moved and a musical explosion erupted around her. She noticed the violin now on her shoulder. The bow was balanced perfectly in her fingers. The conductor’s eyes now shifted to her. If they had asked her, she would not be at this place at this time. He nodded. So she played, imagining all of her notes like broken bones scattered on the stage. The violence of her sound was the only sweet revenge she could think of. For, of course, they had not ever asked her, nor would they ever.

Peace (in shorter stories),
Kevin