Here We Go — The Start of School

In just a few hours, I will get to meet and hang out with my new crop of sixth graders for the school year. I’m excited about that, and nervous about the first day. Even though I have a plan in place for beginning our community-building, and even though I have been doing this for a few years now, I still get nervous.

But I slept mostly OK. So, there’s that.

I spent part of the weekend working on student learning and professional practice goals for the year, but those are still “under development” for now. We have some class schedule changes this year, so the timing of the day is a bit disjointed than in the past; and I have some students with specific needs that I need to be cognizant of on a regular basis, and we have a new lunch count system; and add to all that, I have reading assessments already hanging over my head; and ….

Still, this is where we start … at the beginning.

As we begin this new school year, I wanted to share out my latest post over at Middleweb, in which I write back to a former student, as writer to writer more than teacher to student. (I write a monthly column there called Working Draft.)

Read My Letter to a Former Student

Badge for Mr H

Peace (today and everyday),
Kevin

Straight Outta Somewhere

We walked out of the movie theater last night — three white suburban teenage boys and one white suburban middle-aged male — and I asked them whether they enjoyed the movie. One of the boys has been tracking all of the movies has seen all year, filing away ratings in his own system on his phone. He gave Straight Outta Compton a 93 on his 100 scale, he told me, and the other two boys — one of whom is my son — agreed that the movie was “great.”

When I said some of the scenes of the movie reminded me of what was happening in Baltimore, Ferguson and other cities where blacks were near or beyond the boiling point of frustration with police brutality and systematic problems, the three boys went silent, thinking (I hope) and connecting the news headlines to the story. The movie is a fictionalized biopic of the emergence of rap music in LA, told through the story of NWA members.

I thought it was a strong movie, too, with a typical but powerful narrative arc of a “band movie,” although the story and images and music also brought back memories for me.

When NWA first broke on the scene in the late 1980s (along with Public Enemy and others from New York City), I was an infantry soldier in the Army National Guard. My home armory was inner city New Haven, Connecticut, and for much of the six years there, I was the only white soldier in a platoon of black soldiers.

For much of the time, I was an outsider — a white suburban, lower-middle-class college boy working alongside young men and Vietnam veterans from the inner city, where life — I learned by listening and talking — was a very different experience for them than it was for me. In a strange twist, the Armory (now closed) was situated right next to a New Haven prison, so as we did work outside the Armory, soldiers in my platoon would sometimes be calling up to people behind barred windows. College was not on anyone’s radar screen, and living was a day-to-day experience for many.

Here, I heard stories of police beatings, or gang strife in neighborhoods, of who got robbed, of who got away, of whom was fooling with whom, and of the lack of jobs and opportunity. AIDS and HIV were soon topics of conversation, too, as were stories of powerful drugs ravaging the streets. For many, the National Guard income, as a little as it was, was the only reason they were in the military. There was no love of country, or trust of government. Quite the opposite. It was a job, of sorts, that could pay some bills (one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer).

Rap music and what we now call Hip Hop was everywhere, all the time, in our platoon. Boom boxes were standard military equipment in our unit, much to the chagrin of the officers (whom, I should note, were all white men who mostly kept themselves separate from our unit).

I was raised on rock. Led Zeppelin. Aerosmith. The Rolling Stones. Bad Company. Kiss. What they were playing was nothing I ever heard on the radio in the late 198os (how times have changed) and they amused themselves by trying to get me to appreciate “the music of the street”, as they called it. Just as in the movie, when Ice Cube articulates how NWA’s rap music captured the reality of living in the Daryl Gates’ years of Los Angeles (sparking the LA riots that were to come later, following the Rodney King verdict), so too did my fellow soldiers explain how the beats and lyrics of rap spoke to their own experiences with street truth in New Haven.

I’ve never forgotten those years in New Haven. By the end of my time, I was part of the unit, but I know I was still and always separate. My skin color and my upbringing, and the fact that I could drive home to suburbia, was a wall between us that never came down.

In many ways, we spoke different languages and lived in different countries. But I’d like to think and remember that they did let me in to their lives over time, and I let them into mine. I know I learned more from them than they learned from me. I will always deeply appreciate an unofficial mentor that I had, Sergeant Calvin Nelson, who took me under his wing during my first scary days and taught me lessons about life. He was the first person I knew who was a member of the Nation of Islam and the first Vietnam vet I knew up close and personal. He was a calm, patient man worried about supporting his family with his manufacturing job and my relationship with him went a long way with the others.

Being a cultural outsider, as I was for those years, teaches you hard lessons about acceptance (or not), and about listening and compassion, and if you let it, about the world much larger than your own. You realize rather quickly the bubble we all live within as we grow up. Slowly, I made my way in to a community that would have otherwise been forever outside my field of vision. I am wiser for the experience.

We walked to the car last night and I wondered to myself if these three boys came away with a new wrinkle of reality after viewing the movie. Maybe not. It may have been nothing more than a big screen movie, set years in the past. For many people, in many places, the hardships shown in the movie are still a daily reality, and I hope the prospects of art and music transforming the reality is also still a possibility. That, and education.

One can hope …

Peace (in the think),
Kevin

Knowing Someone from Afar

for Bonnie

It’s an interesting twist of the digital age — many of us are more connected with more people than ever before, but many of those connections are fragile, held together by words and media and posts and comments. A string of ideas becomes the centerpiece of connections, and our notions of whom we call a “friend” becomes a bit convoluted as a result, doesn’t it?

This morning, I was met with a headline that 1 billion people used Facebook yesterday. People connect. But how deep are the connections? A piece on Medium yesterday took an interesting stance on how people represent themselves in online spaces. We put our best foot forward, the author surmises.

I have been thinking of this concept of identity and connections and friendship the past few days as a very good friend, one I know beyond the wires of social media spaces and one whom I have worked with closely for many years on a variety of projects through the National Writing Project, has been in a difficult transition period, of losing her loved one and cherished life partner.

She has been powerfully articulate on her blog in capturing their lives together, documenting and archiving the love of the years. Many people, myself included, have been leaving her comments of support. No doubt the writing has been an avenue for her in dealing with loss, which moved in slow motion over the past few weeks.

This is what writers do. We write, in good times and in times of struggle. We write to understand the world.

And in her writing of the moments, she has brought us into her world with compassion and voice, and she has made us feel connected to her experiences in a very personal way.

The pieces she has been sharing also had me thinking is how much I feel as if I have known her partner, who just passed away, over the years from the many blog posts and videos and images and more that we have shared over time. I met her partner once in person, I think, and yet, his presence has been felt strongly over the years because my friend was always in the present with him. She represented her life as a partnership with him regularly, and I feel as if I knew him as well as her over the years of our friendship.

I realize there is a certain fallacy to this insight. I don’t really know the full person — who no doubt was much more complicated than I will ever know, as we all are to those outside our emotional circles —  and I am sad now that I never will. I think I knew of the person who loved my friend, and I think I saw a powerful love and partnership between them that made her happy and content. His constant presence in that picture in my mind — of them on beaches, in Israel every year, in concerts, at the breakfast table, reading books and the newspaper, traveling into the city … my mind has many moments of them together — is formed mostly by our digital connections.

And here’s the thing: in her sharing of her life with me, a friend, over the years, he will remain an active presence in the world, even in passing. In that, I will miss him, too, even if our connections were echoes in a digital world of connections. In my mind, at least, his presence will always remain a part of her, and I am thankful for the friendship and partnership that she and I have, and I am sad for her loss.

Here, though, the digital connections fall short. I can’t drive down the street to comfort her and sit with her. I can’t make her coffee, and play guitar with her. I can only send words. Writing is the way I am trying to help her through it. It’s what writers do. We write. I write this, then, for her, and for me.

Peace (for my friend),
Kevin

August Hibernation/Low-Tech Pause Mode

Blogging vacation comic

It’s August and that means laying low, turning down the tech for a few weeks, and coming back in September with the start of school rejuvenated and reconnected ….. Normally, this would have happened a week or so earlier, but the CLMOOC was still running …  I won’t be completely utterly off-the-grid but I won’t be very active even when I am checking up on some things … so, see you in a few weeks!

Peace (in summer siesta),
Kevin

Mini-Movie Premiere: Escape of the Furious Three

Making Robbers on Loose 2 collage

My youngest son, age 10, wrote and directed and edited this short movie. We shot it during winter (I was cameraman) and then hemmed and hawed on the editing (we needed to shoot one last scene and never did) until recently, when I turned my computer and iMovie over to him and he did the editing. I only helped here and there and mostly, I just let him alone to edit the movie as he saw it (working around the missing scene).


The only thing I changed from the original edit is the soundtrack. He had some copyright music from his iTunes collection that I would not allow to be included in public sharing, so we composed some original music in the Garageband iPad app and used that. We’ve had lots of conversations about fair use and copyright and he is tired now of m mantra of “make your own stuff as much possible.” We kept his original edit for home use and DVD burning.

This is actually the second movie in a series that began with Robbers on the Loose. He writes the scripts on Google Docs, asking for input from neighborhood friends. Most involve chase scenes and nerf guns. He’s a ten year old boy who loves Mission Impossible.

Can you tell?

Peace (with popcorn),
Kevin

PS — here is the original movie from 2012: Robbers on the Loose.

 

Which Modality? Making Music

Interesting question … and it feels like the 140 character limit on Twitter just won’t cut it. Or, it will cut it too short to respond with depth. Yin-Wah, if I think of which modality I most like to create in, it has to be songwriting. I do love the other kinds of creating — making comics, writing stories, remixing media. But there’s something about working on a song and music that pulls me in deeper than all of the others that I dabble in.

And I am not ever claiming that I am some professional songwriter, or ever will be, nor do I think that the songs I write will become the soundtrack of the world. It’s a personal thing, this songwriting that I do, although some songs do become used in the band I am in, Duke Rushmore. As I was writing this, I remembered once writing a post (I see, from 2009) entitled Why I Write Songs.

Just this week, I was working on a new song, perhaps for the band, and in a break in the writing (and even in breaks, my brain keeps working on lyrics and rhythm and parts …. when writing songs, I can’t turn it off), I found myself writing a second song. It emerged from an old scrap of a guitar riff, and then the first line came, and I found myself writing very quickly, this song of losing a friend, and in little time at all, I had the structure and the first verse and the chorus.

It’s odd how sometimes the writing flows like that, something coming out of nothing and utterly unexpected, Yin-Wah. So, for a few days, I found myself toggling between two new songs. For me, if I don’t play the song over and over, and over and over, I lose the nuance of it. I have to practice it into the ground (my poor family) to understand what the song is, and what the song is about. My fingers ache, Yin-Wah, from playing guitar so much this week.

But I can look at what I wrote, and hear it as I play it, and know: this is something worth keeping. That might mean just stuffing it away into my guitar case, or it might mean sharing it with my bandmates. I’m still unsure. Last month, I dug out a song that I write five years ago and never shared, and showed it to the band, and now we are working on it. You just never know. Songs are like messages in a bottle. The bobble on the surf of the mind.

Maybe you want to hear the demo of the song I have been writing about?

First, here is my lyric sheet. You probably can’t read much of it, Yin-Wah. I’m a word scratcher. But you can see the general ideas I was developing, the ways I identified rhyming and verses and choruses, and how one word gets changed, erased, changed again, returned to the original, changed again. I revise more with songs than I do with other writing. I admit it: I am terrible reviser. But with songwriting, every word is a rhythm, and every beat is important.

Come in close lyric sheet

Here is a demo I recorded quickly yesterday. I hear the flubs. You may not.

Thank you for asking me about my writing. This is probably more than you expected, but in answering your Tweet, you gave me an excuse to be reflective. That’s a gift in and of itself.

Peace (in the muse you find),
Kevin

Why I support Good Guy with a Gun

I only periodically contribute to Kickstarter campaigns but I was happy to become a small supporter for a documentary film, Good Guy with a Gun, that will explore the tension of arming teachers in schools with guns. If that sentence has you thinking — What? — then you and I are thinking the same thing. What?

My reasons for backing this documentary film are:

  • what the heck is wrong with our country that we are even thinking about bringing guns into schools on purpose?
  • my neighbor and friend, a documentary filmmaker who has done wonderful work, is one of the producers of this independent film.

I’m actually a little uncomfortable even thinking of what they are going to discover in their inquiry about the move to arm teachers with guns — just the shots of teachers at firing ranges as part of some professional development makes me squirm — and in some locations, those guns can be hidden away by school staff as part of policy. Maybe it is some East Coast, liberal bias kicking in, but this all seems like a reaction too far. I think we must be going crazy.

So, yeah, I am supporting Good Guy with a Gun, and I was happy to see they just received enough funding support from crowdsourcing on Kickstarter to get the production of the documentary up and running, with a possible release this coming fall. I’ll let you all know.

Good luck, Kate and Julie.

Peace (please),
Kevin

Transformed into a Robot

My youngest son has a sketchbook where he is creating a whole menagerie of robot designs. He showed he this one recently: The Daddy-o-Tron. I feel honored to have been made robotic. Notice how he gave me a side-kick robot — the Book-o-Tron.

Daddy-o-Tron Robot

Peace (with them ears),
Kevin

Zeega Music Demo: I Fall Apart

This demo song is one I wrote quite a long time ago, and only recently pulled it back onto my guitar. It was first written in the aftermath of the devastating Haiti Earthquake. I tinkered a bit more with it in the last few days, adding a new section, and then recorded this as a spare song. Don’t worry — it’s thankfully not about me. I am happy. I am fine. The narrator of the song is not. (I always feel the need to write that for these kinds of songs.)

I am still making with Zeega until the doors close …

Peace (in the fall and recovery),
Kevin

Hey Terry, It’s Your Birthday

Nothing like some collaborative energy to celebrate a friend, and that’s what Maha, Simon and Susan and I have been up behind the scenes for our friend, Terry, whose birthday is today. We recorded a song, and then some thoughts — all via on online collaborative audio tool called Soundtrap (I’ll share out more about it later).

For now … Hey Terry, It’s Your Birthday!

And here is a bonus that I made for him, too. A comic series about our journey into the rabbit holes of technology.

Peace (in friendship),
Kevin