I had one of those moments yesterday, as I brought my son to the library and stumbled, just as I was thinking of creative non-fiction that would make sense in my classroom, on Book: My Autobiography by John Agard (illustrations by Neil Packer). There the book was, just sitting on a bookcase, with the word “Book” facing me. I picked it up and was immediately lost in the story. Took it home. Kept on reading. Kept on thinking.
Book tells the story of the book, in a very creative narrative style, bringing us Book as the narrator of the book through the ages. It begins with:
My name is BOOK and I’ll tell you the story of my life.”
And from there, it moves briskly through ancient times of writing across cultures, through the refinement of paper, to moveable type to the Age of eBooks. The voice is poetic, and funny, with enough research behind the story of Book to provide multiple in-roads for discussions about various cultural advancements (Egypt, China, India, Sumar, etc.). The text is also complimented with rich illustrations and a handful of poems about reading and writing and books as physical objective manifested with imagination.
Book is my kind of book.
As I was reading, I was remembering an old unit I used to do around the printing press and newspapers (it was a Student Teacher project). I had this activity where students created their own moveable press device for printing text. And as I read further, I could see timeline constructions, argumentative writing, and mapping activities and more as I read this story. Mapping the changes of how we write and how we read … that’s a perfect text for the kinds of discussions we have in our classroom on a regular basis, to be honest.
As it happens, this year’s class parents are asking about how they can give a “gift” to our grade from fundraising money they have, and they wondered if a book set might be possible … so I see this as one possibility. (Cost might be prohibitive, though, as it is only in hardcover right now).
It also has been reminding of me this cute video from a few years ago (which is a version of the picture book). The video is a trailer for It’s a Book by Lane Smith:
I’ve been thinking of Tall Tales with the #Western106 open course, and have even pitched the idea to everyone to collaboratively write and record a Tall Tale radio program. We’ll see how that goes. (Hey, of course YOU are invited, too. Invent a persona. Add to the script. Venture out West with us. It is loosely labeled Smoke Signals.)
I went into Storybird, a picture book story-making site with an interesting art/writing twist, thinking I was going to start writing an original Tall Tale. Instead, I came away with this story that is definitely not a Tall Tale. I went with the Muse. This one is informed by my reading, listening and watching of Western narratives — of the incursion of White Settlers on traditional American Indian lands, and the great and devastating Changes that would happen. That did happen. That are still happening.
I suspect my story has stereotypes and pillars of the Western genre, but I hope it comes across as a heartfelt ode to remembering the power of Stories to heal and to help the Earth. I know Stories are not enough. But they are something.
Storybird is a site that allows you to write stories, by using professional illustrators’ work. It’s an interesting process because you call up art based on keywords or artists, and then build a story around the images you have available (not the other way around … traditionally, you would write a story and then make images to go with the narrative). So, I took time to absorb the artwork before beginning the story after searching “West” as my keyword. I like how it came out, so much so that I paid a few bucks to get a download of the picture book to save (and share).
I later moved the PDF over to a Flipbook creator for better sharing but you really have to use full-screen mode to get the flavor. Or you can read it over at Storybird.
(Note: I wrote this review a few months ago and then it sat in my draft bin, so some of the time references are past now.)
I’m not sure how Jeff Kinney taps into the experience of my kids, but every Wimpy Kid book seems to have done it. With his latest, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School, Kinney touches on a push to pull back on technology in our lives in order to reconnect with family and community (which Greg Hefley, our protagonist, has qualms about, in a funny way) and a school trip to a week-long outdoor camp adventure (with very funny results and a new connect with dad).
So, we just had a discussion about lessening our technology in our home AND my youngest son — still a fan of Wimpy Kid books and Jeff Kinney — just came back from a week-long school trip … to an outdoor camp adventure facility.
Listen, Kinney’s writing is fun and engaging, but won’t be pushing any deep literature thinking. However, his use of visuals to help tell the story continue to be a mentor text on how simple illustrations can impact a story. You want to know who is carrying around Kinney’s books in my classrooms? Mostly the boys. Mostly the boys who don’t like to read. They sit and read quietly with Kinney’s books, though. (Some girls, too. But mostly, the boys.)
So, yes, it would be nice to see them choosing deeper stories with larger themes. But to see them reading? That’s a deep “thank you” to Jeff Kinney. One step at a time. My job is to keep moving them forward from that book to this book to that book to this book. And if we can laugh along the way, I’m all for that.
Here, in the #Western106 open course, we are tackling into the idea of the Western narrative and genre. I am an East Coaster, so as the saying goes in the hashtag, Everything is West of Here. But I have traveled a little bit in my life, and been in some areas on the other side of the Mississippi, and I have been stunned by the majestic beauty of the Western areas of my country.
I was mulling about these memories the other day as we were working on a Daily Create related to remixing the words to Home on the Range. I was also thinking of the references that some participants have made to Country Music as touchstones of the West. For me, though, the Country reference just doesn’t work. I am drawn to Nashville more than Montana when I think of Country music. Nashville and Country feel South, not West.
When I think of Western music, all I can hear is Chris Whitley in my head, and the way his steel guitar, falsetto voice, stories, and production created an aural landscape of open skies and landscapes when he came bursting into the music scene in the 1980s, and how for me, his music became the West when I listened to it.
Listen to Big Sky Country and pay attention to the space in the song, the way Whitley is purposely leaving aural gaps for us as listeners. It’s guitar as mood and setting. You can see forever in those spaces. We’re taking in a view of the modern West with the music in our ears.
Chris Whitley died young, of lung cancer. He went West of somewhere, and still is there.
Also looking west for aural inspiration was U2, with their Joshua Tree album. As Wikipedia (so it must be true ) notes:
“Throughout the sessions, U2 sought a “cinematic” quality for the record, one that would evoke a sense of location, in particular, the open spaces of America. They represented this in the sleeve photography depicting them in American desert landscapes.”
I happened to be listening to Joshua Tree (one of the earlier titles of the album was Desert Songs) the other day in my car, not long after revisiting Chris Whitley in my headphones, and again, I could hear the wide open spaces in the production.
The East coast is crowded; the West is wide open. Music has a chance to bring us there.
Yesterday morning, I had the good fortune to hang with out with friends from Egypt and Scotland. At 6 a.m. my time — but later in the day for them, of course — Maha B., Sarah H., Maha A. and I held a discussion on Blab (a new platform to me but reminds me a bit of The Brady Bunch opening sequence .. it’s still in Beta, and there were some minor technical difficulties) about Digital Writing Month reflections. Maha B. and Sarah are presenting to a TESOL conference soon, and they hope to use parts of the video chat in their presentation. The video eventually will be live on Youtube, I believe.
For me, the conversation brought home yet again the concepts of connections. Yes, we were reflecting on the experiences of facilitating Digital Writing Month back in November and yes, it was recorded for a presentation to other educators, but here I was, at the break of day, chatting it up with some friends from other parts of the world on issues important to me, and all from the dining room table as my kids were getting up and getting ready for school.
Pretty amazing — this small world.
I am fortunate to have connected friends like these three, and many others, and I am fortunate to be living in a time when connections can be made and nurtured and extended time and time again. Now, how to help my students see those kinds of connections and extend their own views of the world ….
(This is for Slice of Life, a weekly writing adventure hosted by Two Writing Teachers.)
This past weekend, my son finished filming the third of a trilogy of home movies that began about four years ago. I have been on board as videographer and advisor, but the script was written by him (with help of friends now and then) and the acting direction is mostly his, and all I can say is: I am proud of him for making three movies but also glad to be done with the third movie, too.
He is now working on the editing in iMovie. I’ll give him some technical advice, but mostly, I let him do it. I want him to have as much ownership as possible.
My only parting advice to him as we finished three hours of shooting video for a movie that will be under 10 minutes long — next time, go for comedy and leave the action/adventure genre behind. (It felt as if each movie’s story was the same story, told over and over. Or maybe that was me.)
This is a version of the presentation that my colleague and I gave at a recent technology conference about our science-based Video Game Design unit. Obviously, you are missing our context and explanations, but it might give you some insights into the way in which our sharing unfolded before a packed audience.
(This is a post for Western106, an open online digital storytelling course, that will focus around the Western genre. I’m dipping in with my own experiences with the Wild West narratives.)
When each of our three boys were young, my wife and I made a conscious effort to avoid any kinds of toy guns in the house. It didn’t matter. They would pick up a stick, point it at a squirrel, or each other, or at us even, and go “bang bang bang.” The more we talked to our friends, the ones with boys, the more we came to realize that the stereotypes of boys and guns (and trucks) seemed to be something true, despite all that we did to avoid it.
Strange, right? But true, at least in my circles. We could not shake their obsession with guns.
One time, we were visiting a friend of my wife’s from work and her husband was a retired police officer. Before we even knew what was happening, he had pulled out an unloaded handgun from his gun safe to show our youngest son (he must have been about six years old). I was furious at this man and frustrated by the look of reverence on my son’s face as he was so close to a real gun. One that shoots real bullets. One that kills in a second.
We never went back to that house, needless to say.
It had me thinking of my own childhood as a boy, though, and my own obsession with the same. I distinctly remember watching The Lone Rangerre-runs on television with friends, as soon as it was over, we would run outside and playact out the episode we just watched. We’d use sticks as guns, and bikes as horses, and string as lassos. Cats sometimes would be our cattle, if we needed. (They were never very cooperative. We didn’t have dogs in our apartment complex. Only cats. Yeehaw. Kittyup.)
As I got older, I still gravitated to the idea of the Western, which I see now through my adults eyes as having many flaws — from gender issues to animal treatment issues to violence issues to … well, there are a lot of issues — and yet the theme of Good vs. Bad (another complicated issue) and of Hero vs. Villain (same) and Cowboy vs. Indian (more of the same) are timeless storytelling devices, made so visible it’s as if a mallet is pounding you on the head.
As kids, we liked that. Mallets made the story clear. There were no ambiguities. Cowboys were good,. Indians were bad. (But thanks to Alan Levine’s gathering of Western stories and narratives, I see now that even the stories I thought had a clear divide maybe never really did … look at the peaceful Tonto, who saved The Lone Ranger’s life more times than a viewer can count … and I am probably over-stereotyping the genre completely anyway .. writers do that to make a point, right?)
What began to change my mind and alter my perceptions of that narrative as a kid was the reading of a book. This book.
The Indian in the Cupboardby Lynn Reid Banks brought a whole new perspective to the Cowboy/Indian narrative that Hollywood had created to sell stories, showing me instead how proud the American Indians were of their place on Earth and how mistreated they had been, and continue to be in so many places (It is a travesty that the Pine Ridge Reservation has some of the deepest pockets of poverty in the United States and that casino operations are what keeps some tribes afloat here on the East Coast).
The novel, telling the tale of a boy who brings his plastic toys to life and then realizing the consequences of his actions, humanized American Indians for the first time for me, in a very powerful way that never left my head or heart. It later resonated with other books about the American Indians that I would read, too, such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and The Heart of Everything There is. This was the real history of our country, the kind that I was not being taught in history classes.
Move ahead a few years, and, as a young adult, I got hooked on the Western-themed television show, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. What an odd one. It was a mashup of cowboy and science fiction, told with humor. It didn’t last very long, but I loved that show, and watched it religiously. It skewered the conventions of the Western in so many ways while also maintaining the elements that attracted me to Westerns as a kid. That later led me to Firefly, the short-lived series that is a natural successor to Brisco, with its Western-in-Outer-Space theme. Add in Deadwood and others that I have forgotten over time.
And then came the discovery (or rather, the rediscovery with new eyes) of the Spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood in college, with a friend who wanted to go to Hollywood to work on movies (he did do that, eventually) and listening to him dissect the movies over and over again through a filmmaker’s eyes was interesting, as was the experience of watching Eastwood later in Unforgiven, where he tries to dismantle the whole notions of the Hero as Avenger and Violence as a Way of Life.
Just last week, I was watching The Hateful Eight with one of my sons, now in high school, and thinking of how the myth of the Western permeates so much our media lives, in ways that are often unseen. I didn’t care much for The Hateful Eight (we had it on disc, as our neighbor is a filmmaker who votes for Oscar movies so she gets discs to sway her decision) and gave up on it, but my older sons (the eldest one had already seen it in the theater) enjoyed it, and it brought me back around to the opening of this post.
Neither of my older children are still obsessed with guns. Maybe they have grown out of it or been horrified by the front pages of our newspapers. The younger one still seems to gravitate towards toy guns whenever he can. It still rattles me.
And it raises some questions for me, a father.
At what point does media influence us, and at what point do we influence media? Do Westerns glorify violence or reflect our society’s interest in Outlaws and Justice? Is this notion of boys’ interest in guns innate? And if so, does the interest in guns lead to the potential of violence? Researchers are no doubt trying to figure that out.
Of course, I sure hope not, and I know that our struggle as parents to explain our violent culture to our kids over the years, expressed through exasperation with the proliferation of guns has been an ongoing process. I’ve even used my own experience in the military as an infantry soldier to talk about guns, and the powerful danger they possess in the world.
Here at home, we promote peace in this world of violence. That’s just how it is, I guess. It’s not that we never had Nerf guns in the house. It’s not that we took every stick out of their hands. But it’s also not that we have bowed to the overwhelming wave of pop culture, either. Our family conversations about guns and violence, though .. those continue. They have to. They always will.
My latest blog post for Middleweb is a reflection on the various kinds of writing activities we do in our video game design unit. I know this kind of sharing is important for teachers wondering about the potential for video game design but still juggling how to meet their curriculum goals.
I co-presented on our science-based video game project and attended a technology in education conference yesterday. This morning, I was looking over my notes, and I decided to pull out some of the quotes that I heard.
Antero Garcia kicked off the conference with an intriguing youth-centered Keynote Address that reminded us to pay attention to cultural values, students as writers in the larger world outside our classrooms, and the role that educators have in broadening the views of our students.
Eric Braun, a college professor, talked about a digital storytelling app that he and others developed for the Apple Store. I can’t say I was all that ‘wow’-ed by the app itself — it didn’t do anything that free apps can’t do — but the centering of discussion around stories always pulls me in. I had hoped to have a deeper discussion about how digital stories are different media experiences from both the viewer and composer standpoint than print stories (brought to recognition by a question from a participant about printing out the stories made on the app.)
Gaby Richard-Harrington‘s session on reading and writing in the digital age could have used another hour. It’s a huge topic, as readers of my blog know. And Richard-Harrington’s focus on how we can use technology to improve opportunities for literacy growth for students with learning needs, in particular, was important, and needs much more work done in PD sessions. I loved that she cited the work on Connected Reading ideas of two of my good friends — Troy Hicks and Franki Sibberson — in her presentation. She had to rush through some of the apps that she uses in her teaching life at the end, and I wish we had had more time to play.
And Peter Billman-Golemme got my attention with a session around leaving audio comments on student work right in Google Docs. He showed us the app Kaizena, which seems to have potential but I worry about the complicated set-up (I had issues in setting it up and that sets off red flags for me when thinking of my students … but then, when we had it working, and commenting on writing from others in the session, I could see the idea in action). He shared some research around the power of teacher voice to help students make revisions on text, but admitted that he is still figuring out its impact. I am going to be tinkering more with this app, too, and looking for others that provide the same audio commenting experience (I can see students reflecting on their own writing this way, right?), but with lower entry hurdles (leave comment if you have suggestion, please).