What I love/don’t love about Sci-Fi

Yesterday, I took my older kids to see Avatar, the movie. We had to keep reminding my nine year old that it would not be a movie version of the cartoon/comic series also called “Avatar.” I wonder if there was some legal transactions around that name recognition, since the first time I heard of the movie in progress, I too thought of the comic series. (And to make it more confusing, I see now that the series is coming out as its own movie called The Last Airbender, or did I miss it already?)

This was the first full-length 3D movie that I have watched, wearing the funky glasses and all that. Three hours later, I had a bit of a headache but it sure was an interesting experience.

But the movie reminded me of what I have always loved about science fiction and what still rankles me.

I love how James Cameron really creates an entire world on the screen. It was beautiful and rich and stunning in its vision. I was particularly swept away by the little floating seeds. I won’t go into all the accolades that other reviewers will say about the beauty of the film, but it was magical to see. I’m not sure the 3D experience did a whole lot,however, and I would probably have been just as happy to see it in 2D (and save a few bucks in the process).

I was expecting to be knocked out with the 3D effects after all the press Cameron got. Some of it was cool, but I guess 3D still has a long way to go to become a fully immersible movie experience (Don’t tell Cameron that — every interview indicates that he has revolutionized filmmaking with Avatar — don’t believe the hype).

But Avatar also contains the weakness that drives me — a sci-fi nut, really — crazy. The story was another rehash (it was an updated Pocahantas, as done by Disney) and the dialogue was mostly terrible or barely passable. Character development, which was really the heart of the story, was just OK. The acting was pretty wooden for the main character (interestingly, I thought he did a better job when he was the computer-generated avatar than when he was a live person on the screen.)

Why can’t movie producers pull these these strands (effects, new worlds, dialogue, story arc and character development) to make a film that will blow away all audiences? I don’t get it. Last summer’s Star Trek took a good step in that direction (and now I see it popping up on a lot of Best of … lists) and the old TV series-turned-movie Firefly (the movie was Serenity) had some elements and updated Battlestar Galactica (against all odds, considering its history) kept storytelling and character development at its center.

But the movie world is littered with sci-fi crap. How can I expose my sons to the wonderful element of Science Fiction if so much of what falls under that umbrella is worthless junk?

Give them the books, of course. Give them the books and let them imagine the worlds and go deep into the stories.

Peace (in the worlds),

Why I write songs …

Coming on the heels of my posts of Why I Blog and Why I Read, I thought I would look at why I write songs. I began writing songs decades ago when I first moved from the saxophone (my main instrument) to the guitar and began to use some of my poetry as lyrics. I wrote for myself, and played for myself, and it was only after doing some experimental recording with a friend that I realized just how much I loved the experience of creating something original and moving it beyond my own field of vision.

Songwriting allows me to push in different directions than other forms of writing, and I lose myself in the process. Literally. Time passes without me knowing it when I am full in the moment of birthing a song. Writing a song is so unlike writing a story or a poem to me. The music does something to the angle of the words, and sometimes, I write with one meaning that others may hear as a song, but they don’t fully understand because they don’t have my lens to hear through. I love how undercurrents of meaning can float through a song.

I am not suggesting that I create hidden masterpieces when I write. I don’t. I write a lot of junk. But I often find a keeper here and there among that musical flotsam and jetsam and when I do, it’s as if I hit a home run and won the game.

How I write is by letting myself go and I stumble more than fly when I am songwriting, but it is the mistakes that lead to something interesting, I find, and so I let myself make those mistakes. I wait for that note, that chord, that progression that speaks to me.

I am often asked if I write the words or the music first, and the answer is: I don’t have a set method. Sometimes, I come to the guitar with a phrase of words or some direction; Other times, I find a chord I like and build a song around that. When I was in a band, one of the most amazing things was when I would bring in a song and watch it become something else in the hands of others. It didn’t always work — I canned more songs than I kept — but it was always a fascinating experience. You have to learn to let go of your creation if you expect it to be transformed.

A few years ago, I was right at the start of writing a song and I turned on my Flip video to capture the experience. It’s a bit long (about 18 minutes) so feel free to scan through. I did it more to capture the experience for me (and my kids, perhaps?). But it does give you a glimpse into my process.

And here is the song in a sort-of final version (the song never went anywhere, but I like the melody):

Man of Contemplation

I wish music and songwriting were part of more writing classes because I think the act of learning about rhythm and rhyme, and texture of words in relation to the theme, and repetition and development of ideas, all have great value to young writers.

For me, songwriting was always a way to release emotions and feelings in ways that I could not express otherwise. I found my voice as a writer when I found my voice as a writer of songs, and that has spilled out into my stories and my poetry and more.

I write songs because they give me a path to inner exploration. I write songs because I am a writer (this is my refrain for the three posts so far, so I figure, keep it up, right?)

Peace (in the melody),

Why I blog ….

I am reading a collection of articles from the book The Best Technology Writing of 2009 . I’m not very far in yet (the first piece is about Griefers, people in online worlds who try to make the games a miserable experience for others, which was unsettling to read) but last night,  I was very deep into an essay by Andrew Sullivan about why he blogs.  The piece is called “Why I blog.” In it, Sullivan goes deep into the value and pitfalls of the blogging world and it made me think about the same question: Why do I blog?

It seems to me that people blog for different reasons, at least in the circles that I wander. Some just post links to resources. Others write about their experiences as teachers, or as parents. Some share actual writing (short stories, images, etc.). Some use their space as a journal. Others, for a platform for videos and/or audio.

So, what I am doing here at this blog?

First, some background. I created this space about 1,250 blog posts ago (in years, that is about 3 1/2 years ago). I was spurred on to do it by a friend from the National Writing Project, who was blogging herself as a special education teacher in DC (see her blog) and she could not believe that I was not doing it, too. I was using blogs with my students at that time, so I knew about what blogging was and how to use it. But I was not blogging myself. Not as a writer. Not as a teacher. This was during my wonderful summer of technology known as Tech Matters, out in Chico, California, and Maria’s excitement and encouragement was all that I needed to check out this Edublog platform. I signed up and was off. I named it Kevin’s Meandering Mind because I knew I would be moving in different directions, writing about teaching but also music, writing, family and more. It’s a wide path I follow, which may frustrate the reader (sorry) but that freedom keeps me thoroughly engaged. I started out with some reflections on Tech Matters (see my very first post here at this blog), and then later, I began doing some podcasting of my history as a songwriter.

Many, many posts later, I am still here in this space I created in 2006 in Chico. So, why do I blog?

I blog because the act of writing gives me a chance to reflect on what I am doing. I am one of those who learns by doing and who understands by writing, and although I could do that writing in a paper journal, I admit that I like the stage of the world. The act of reflection in this space collects my thoughts as a portfolio (God forbid, the whole thing crashes, right?) and I often go back to see what I wrote about certain projects or ideas.

Like Andrew Sullivan, I see the blog as a different kind of space than writing for publication, which requires more in-depth thought and work to sustain an idea over a stretch of time. A post on the blog is what is on my mind right now — right this minute (although sometimes, an idea peculates for a spell before it spills out of my fingers). The immediacy of the action of blogging has always attracted me. I write fast, and when I write, I let my mind take over and just let it go (see reference to Meandering Mind above). Sometimes, I am surprised by what comes out on the screen. It has always been this way with me as a writer. I let myself surprise myself. A pencil slows me down. A keyboard is the perfect companion to my thoughts. And a blog to me is a perfect platform from which to write.

I blog to explore. There are so many cool tools out there, and so many more just bubbling up, that it becomes difficult to gauge the value for the classroom and for learning. We could rely on others to test things out and evaluate, but why not do that ourselves? I am one of those fools who jumps in, tries it out and then comes out the other side, ready to write about what I see as possibilities and drawbacks. I blog to share that with the world, and hopefully, here and there, I spark some interest in others. I would never have had that possibility before the world of blogs.

I blog to bring ideas into my own classroom — from webcomics, to stop-motion movie making, to creating publishing platforms for them as writers. I blog to see possibilities.

I blog because it has brought me into a rich world of collaboration and friendship. I have people all around the world with whom I have joined together with to create videos (the Collaborative ABC Project), photos (Photofridays), writing about our lives (Slice of Life), reflecting within the confines of a sentence (Day in a Sentence) and many others too numerous to name. This blog is the heart of much of that activity and I love how it expands my world exponentially.

Why do I blog? I blog because I am a writer.

Peace (in reflection),

Writing Prompts for Techno Kids

I came across this post by Sharon at TeacherlyTech in my RSS and it had me thinking. She explains how she tries to develop writing prompts that speak to the interests of her students, with slants towards technology. I love that idea. Here is what she shared as a few possibilities:

(1) What’s in your iPod? What do your playlists say about you as a person?
(2) What are the rights and wrongs of text messaging during class?
(3) Should you friend your teachers, employers, or other authority figures on social networking sites?
(4) What are the worst Facebook/MySpace faux pas your friends should be warned against?
(5) What was the most significant TV show (or video game or pop star or other media presence) of your childhood? How did it influence your life?

I wonder what I might add? Here are a few off the top of my head.

  • What would the html source code look like if you were a webpage?
  • Design and label a personal computing device that will be on the market in 10 years.
  • Explain in steps something (a concept or a piece of equipment) about technology that you understand but which your parents do not.
  • If you were the teacher, what technology would you allow students to use for learning and why?
  • Write a persuasive paragraph that argues for me (your teacher) showing you a certain tool of technology that we don’t already use (but which you use outside of the school).
  • Write a short story in which the main character is a minor character from one of the video games that you play (or know about).
  • Imagine you are going to produce a video for Youtube and you can earn $1 for every view it gets. What will your video be about and what would you need to make it happen?

Thanks, Sharon, for the inspiration. I wonder if other folks have suggestions, too?

Peace (in the prompts),

Meep This!

I just ran across an interesting article in the Boston Globe (should have this motto: We’re still alive!). Erin McKean, a writer for The Word column about language and use, tackles a news story in which a principal banned the word “meep” from school because too many kids were saying it too often.

For those muppet fanatics, this is cool. “Meep” is what Beaker says most of the time and so for young kids to be appropriating invented Muppet language for their own world … wow, cool. I guess the principal had some other ideas about it (“We wouldn’t ban a word just to ban a word,” he explains), but as we all know, banning a word only makes it stronger and more valuable as language currency so I am guessing there is more “meeping” going on in that school than ever before.

My older son, looking over my shoulder as I was reading the column, said, “We meep at our school, too. Well, some kids do.”

Honestly, I have not heard one of my own students doing a “meep”  but maybe I haven’t been listening close enough. And maybe there are connotations that I am not privvy to knowing (quite likely, as I am an adult).

McKean closes the column out with this:

All words mean only what we all collectively agree they should mean, no more and no less.

I leave you with a video of Beaker singing a meep-filled “Ode to Joy.”

Peace (meep),

My roster of Edublog Award Nominations

It’s time for nominating some folks for the Edublog Awards of 2009. Here are some sites and folks that I consider worthwhile:

Best individual blog: Moving at the Speed of Creativity
Best Educational Use of Audio: Teachers Teaching Teachers
Best teacher blog:
Larry Ferlazzo
Best Classroom Blog: Watch out!
Best individual tweeter: Bud the Teacher
Best educational wiki: Teaching with Thinking and Technology
Best Resource Sharing Blog: Free Tech for Teachers
Best Group Blog: In Practice
Best Educational Use of Video: Longfellow Ten

That’s all I could think of.

Peace (in the nominations),


More thoughts on Literacy for All Conference

This morning’s keynote speaker for the Literacy for All Conference was dynamic. Lester Laminak is a tour de force storytelling and he wasted no time in bringing us on a journey into the Wizard of Oz, playing all the parts, singing (repetition is key to learning, he reminded us) and dancing. While it was enjoyable (he was without notes), Lester slipped into teaching mode — reminding us that, like the journey to the unknown Oz, we must remember that our students must also be centered on a message of Home, the Mind, Courage and the Heart. And us, too. The teachers.
He asked us, provocatively, “What is your Oz?” and ventured to ask: “Is what you do in your classroom tempered by the heart that beats in your chest? Do you care?
It sounds schmaltzy on the screen, but it hit a nerve with us in the audience. At least, it did in the seat where I was sitting.
Lester then read through his own Declaration of A Dream for Schools and urged us as educators to become a more forceful voice in setting the agenda for school in our country and not let politicians and government officials set the agenda for the next ten years. “Use your literacy. Don’t just teach it. Use it,” he half-whispered, half-shouted from the stage.
At one point, Lester said teachers must also stop talking so much in the classroom and listen. “Let the babies speak,” is how he phrased it, and I held on to this phrase for much of the day, finally letting it form the opening of a poem.

Let the babies speak, Lester
says in that accent of his — eyes afire —
and voice clothed in such urgency that I sit
on the edge of my seat.

Today, I open my eyes
to their voices again and feel them
pushing in through the cracks of the window pane
like spring airm rustling after a closed-up winter —
fresh and strange and full of something wonderful.

The only other session that I attended (before hitting the road for the airport) was on Guided Writing, led by Lori Oczkus. She is a literacy coach and works with many schools around writing. I found her engaging and fun, if a bit too fast with her overhead sheets (yep, most presenters at this conference were still shuffling around folders of laminated sheets). Here are a few things I took from her session:

1. Use what she calles “cool tools” — which are just motivational concepts beyond writing on a piece of paper. She talked about using hand gestures to signal the kind of “start” a writer uses (such as the pantemime of a paint brush for using a description). Cool tools engages the interest of young writers, she said.
2. Use drama and acting during the writing process. Have students act out scenes as others read their stories. Give life to the words on the page. I like that and used to do it more than I do now. I don’t know why. Thanks Lori.
3.Integrate poetry throughout the entire year. Don’t wait for Spring! She showed how students use short poems to show knowledge of non-fiction text and how to move a piece of fiction in new directions with poetry. She put the emphasis on free-form poetry, and if you read my poems, you know she was talking my language.
4. Center specific lessons on how to start and end stories by looking at many sample texts.
5. Use what she calls a “Live Rubric.” This is a set of colored papers with words like Dialogue, Description, Action and other ideas that the audience holds up as a reader reads their work, giving visual clues to strengths and weaknesses of a piece. I love this idea.

All in all, the Literacy for All Conference was decent, not great. One of the organizers slipped me a note after we had been talking, asking if I might submit a proposal for next year. I guess we’ll see. I don’t have too many laminated files (ha).

Peace (in RI),

Literacy for All Conference

I’m just back from a long day at the Literacy for All Conference here in Providence Rhode Island. The day has been somewhat mixed. The keynote addresses were fair, although I cut some slack for the first presenter — Linda Alston, author of the book Why We Teach — who got stuck in the Denver airport in a snow storm and was speaking on 24 hours of no sleep. Given that, her views on early literacy and the photographic tour of her classroom were magical. The afternoon speaker was Linda Gambrell, who used research in the field of literacy to really talk about the power of reading in the lives of our students.

I went to two break-out  sessions today.

The first was by Carl Anderson, who talked about establishing effective writing conferences for students. He showed us a few videos of him conferencing with students of a variety of ages, but I wish we had been engaged in some activity.

Here are my notes:

Predictable structure to conferences (not aimless conversation)
●                 Ask assessment questions
●                 Read student writing
●                 Make a decision on what to teach
●                 Give critical feedback
●                 Teach the mini-lesson
●                 Show sample of writing
●                 Have student talk through example
●                 Move towards independent writing

Ideas – advice

●                 Don’t be afraid of silent thinking by students before responding
●                 Take student responses and re-frame/re-state with writing discourse language
●                 Ultimately, the teacher can shift focus of conference
●                 Use your own writing experience in the questions that you ask
●                 Trust yourself with your questions and direction you take the conference
●                 Not necessary to read the whole piece by the student  — pieces of it are fine
●                 Use cues from students to know where to focus on a piece

And then I attended a session by Donalyn Miller, the Book Whisperer, about moving away from Whole Class Novel Reading. She had a great personality that led to some interesting discussions. Many of us in the room were upper elementary/middle school teachers.

Here are my notes:

Why do we use the class novel?
●     Common text
●     Exposes students to variety of genres/cultural texts
●     Teacher can invest a lot in teaching of the one book

What are concerns about using Whole Class Novels:
●     Varied reading levels and interests of students
●     Novels take too long
●     Extension activities reduce reading time

How to streamline approach to Whole Class Novel:
●     Shorten time on novels
●     Strip units of many activities and vocabulary work
●     More read aloud books and shared reading
●     Provide more for independent time for reading
●     Alternate Whole Class Novels with independent reading units
●     Provide instructional support for reading of novels

How to re-position reading instruction around Independent Reading:
●     Design instruction around genre studies, literary elements or comprehension strategies, not specific books
●     Create guiding questions and common assessment to be used for any book
●     Use common texts like short stories, articles, first chapters, etc.

More sessions on tap tomorrow.

Peace (in Rhode Island),