When Trolls Come Calling for Kids: Is This The Path Forward?

Silent Sunday Climate Rally

… the rise of a new climate movement means there’s now a much more visible — and especially vulnerable — target: kids. — Zahra Hirji, Buzzfeed

In my classroom, one of the things I hope I am encouraging is not just dialogue among young students with different views but also support if their passions are moving them towards action, small or large. At age 11, they’re just starting to view the world from beyond their fairly supportive, and mostly protective, sphere of the small suburban town where they live.

Look to the global stage, and you will see that it is mostly the kids, and mostly led by girls — Greta Thunberg and others — who are leading the efforts around Climate Change. At a Climate Change gathering in our small city last week, the crowd listening and protesting and rallying was decidedly young, and some middle school students were featured speakers on the stage set up on the steps of City Hall.

And yet, news of the president, and his Fox friends, tweeting out disparaging, sarcastic remarks about Thunberg following her speech at the UN was soon followed by articles like this one in Buzzfeed with the headline Teenage Girls are Leading the Climate Movement — And Getting Attacked for it that have me concerned about any future activists in my classroom.

Whether following passions from the Right (and we do have students and families who are strong supporters of this president) or the Left (many students are passionate about the environment and Climate Change), what I hope for is a safe place for this to unfold for them. None of my students are remotely on the same level as Thunberg, but who knows? Maybe someday they may be.

… it’s not just Greta. Other young girls in the movement are facing a flood of online abuse. It’s less clear where those attacks are coming from, but they involve a mix of regular accounts, trolls, and bots. While the youngest activists are often shielded from this, due to constant monitoring of their social media by their parents, there’s no filter for many of the teens. — Zahra Hirji, Buzzfeed

Does my teaching to advocate for yourself and for your positions in the world make them vulnerable to the terrible side of the online world? Does helping them have a voice in the world expose them to the terrible tactics of trolls?

These are the questions that give me pause.

It also reminds me that the explicit teaching of the other side of this equation — here is how you protect yourself in online spaces — is as important as the support to find and follow your passions. We can give them places to work out their ideas — like collaborations with other schools and online spaces like Youth Voices and Young Writers Project in Vermont, for example. It just makes me sad and frustrated to think that an entire generation has to keep an eye on the shadows, to triple-think every online move, to worry over the nuance of parsed words or past posts, to fear the attack by trolls.

And, just as important, whose voice will never be heard because that possibility of what might happen if they do so has already silenced them before they even began to talk, to lead, to engage? (This could be said for all of us, I suppose)

We don’t live in a perfect world. Of course, I know that. Maybe technology has made it both better and worse. It sure seems that way at times. Still, things sure could be better. And when kids are in the crosshairs, it’s something we all need to be concerned about, and vigilant against.

But you knew that already, didn’t you?

Peace (across platforms),
Kevin

Two Books. Two Gimmicks. One Worked. One Didn’t.

From Mead Art Museum: The Bookcase

I’m not one to complain about experimental fiction. While I love a traditional text as much as anyone, I am also eager to discover the ways an inventive writer can pull me along into stories and characters from some new way — either from the writing approach or from a format approach.

I finished two books, both of which are fairly non-traditional. Each has a gimmick (I don’t use that pejoratively here) involving photographs, but only one of the books really worked for me as a reader.

First, there was feast your eyes by Myla Goldberg. In this novel, the story unfolds as the text of a photographer exhibit, but you never see the photographs the texts are referring to. Only the exhibit information, and various journal entries and interview transcripts as a daughter tries to understand her mother. The absence of the images might seem odd, given the structure of this book, but it actually works because the reader has to imagine the photos, and how the photos work with the story. It’s as if we readers are in the darkroom with the main character, slowly developing the images as we dive into the story itself. This worked for me.

Second, there was Guest Book (Ghost Stories) by Leanne Shapton. This experimental text is built on a quilt of sightings of ghosts, with each small section centered on the semblance of a story. Shapton uses images, captions, architectural layouts, and other assorted media to hint at the spirits wandering the world. I wanted to like it. I really did. But I found the use of different media here distracting. I don’t mind odd, but a non-traditional book has to have a story running through it, and I never really found that here, which was disappointing to me. Here, the gimmick overtook the story.

Writing these kinds of texts — and reading these kinds of texts — is difficult, and worthy of experimentation. Sometimes, a writer pulls it off (Goldberg). Sometimes, they don’t (Shapton). I should note that Guest Book seems to have garnered a lot of positive reviews on Goodreads and other places (I think I first read about it in New York Times Books), so it may be that the book just didn’t work for me.

Peace (reading it),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Play(ing) it Loud(er)

(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.)

My wife and I were enjoying a day on the bike trail, heading to downtown for some lunch and wandering. As we were coming off the trail to connect with the road, I could just hear the faint stands of music.

“Someone must be cranking their radio,” I thought, and then as we got closer, I added, “and it’s pretty loud.”

We rounded a turn and there, on the lawn of a house that was kitty-corner to two busy roads, was a man in his 60’s — donning a fedora hat on his head and wearing a bright tie-dye t-shirt — with an electric guitar and an amplifier. He was strumming power chords and singing at the top of his lungs, but the guitar was so loud, there was no way you could make out what he was singing. He didn’t care.

No one was watching, and he was not playing for anyone other than himself. The look on his face was perfect – eyes half-closed, mouth in a near smile, and his posture in the classic rock and roll pose, bent slightly forward over the body of the guitar. He hit another power chord, and the distortion blew out over the neighborhood.

I slowed down a little, gave a little wave, but he hardly noticed, and continued on my way, a fellow rock and roller giving silent thanks to some loud music on the lawn.

Peace (in the city),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: They Called Us Enemy

For the past few years, I’ve been involved in a growing partnership between the National Writing Project and the National Park Service (I work closely with the Springfield Armory National Historic Site). One of the regional partnerships in California involves the Tula Lake National Monument, but I didn’t quite realize — until I read George Takei’s  graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy — just how big a role the Tula Lake site in California played in the terrible ordeal of internment of Japanese-American citizens in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

It’s not that I haven’t been educated about the historic site from various projects and sharing out by NWP colleagues from the Tula Lake partnership. Their work to surface stories of those who were segregated from society in one of the most awful legislative actions in modern times (and something I know I never learned about in any of my history classes) has been powerful and eye-opening.

(See more about the partnership between Tula Lake and the Bay Area Writing Project)

In fact, the focus on stories dovetails nicely with the upcoming free, connected Write Out project in October, which seeks to connect place to stories, particularly those stories that have been suppressed or hidden by time and historians, or just by our own ignorance or denial. Write Out is hosted by the NWP/NPS partnership.

Takei’s graphic memoir brings all of that past to the present, and the use of the graphic novel format is a powerful narrative tool. Takei, who is best know for his role of Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek and as an activist on social media, recounts his own childhood experiences of being rounded up, unexpectedly, and sent off to three different internment camps with his family, including the first stop where they lived in a horse barn stall.

The last camp they end up in is Tula Lake, where bitterness and rebellion, and in-fighting among those held captive against their will, is the most tense and violent of the scenes here, particularly as Takei’s father emerges as a leader of groups, seeking calm and peace in order to protect families.

Takei’s father is the real hero here, and Takei’s flashbacks to arguments they had and Takei’s own later understanding of what his father was going through becomes the emotional center of They Called Us Enemy. Stalwart, smart and compassionate, his father is forever trying to keep his family together in hopes that confinement will not last, and that they will be able to rebuild a life after the war is over.

Early scenes on the train where Takei and his family are shipped to the next internment camp linger with me, too — of the armed guards and of the forced closing of shades when the train goes through towns, so that the United States citizens won’t know who is passing through in their midst on the way to confinement camps.

And the book’s storylines such pledges to renounce US citizenship (which would later lead to deportation), of persecution of immigrants seeking and building a new life in America, of government overreach and reaction, of camps where families are held behind barbed wire for unknown periods of time, and more echo with today’s times, too, unfortunately.

Will we never learn?

George Takei visits NWP teachers during a summer institute — from The Current

 

Peace (in stories),
Kevin

Eyeing Our Way Across the News Spectrum

News Spectrum ExperimentOne of the news apps on my Android phone that I use every now and then — called SmartNews — presented me the other day with a view of a feature they are developing (maybe? it wasn’t clear) that shows news stories as seen across the politically-slanted media spectrum. There was a toggle at the bottom of the screen, and as you moved it, the news filters changed. The screenshot is a collage of me, moving the toggle from left to right, blue to red.

Now, how they determine which is which (which media leans blue and which leans red) wasn’t clear to me (it’s no doubt some algorithm, which brings up all sorts of thorny issues about bias and data mining), but I did find it interesting to view the headlines from news organizations in this manner. This particular day, we were in the mist of the dumb hurricane in Alabama story.

The New York Times used to do a feature that analyzed news from the Left and the Right, too, bringing in different voices through excerpts, but I don’t see it anymore, and that’s too bad. I enjoyed reading what my own political leanings normally would have had me avoid.

If we are ever to break out of these increasingly smaller bubbles, we’re going to need to see the larger world of political views.

I haven’t seen this feature in this news app return, so I don’t know if it is just a beta that I stumbled on or what.

Peace (in blue and red and in-between),
Kevin

 

Poems of/from the Classroom

new school bike racks

Yesterday, during an extended freewriting time in my four classes of sixth graders, I wrote these small poems, trying to capture the energy and essence of each class period.

Period One

Murmurs in the room
captured voices – planning —
talking slowly — each
demanding attention — sharing
thoughts — go wander in among them;
insights fueling discovery –
they teach each other
ways into the world

Period Two

Almost like:
marbles on a wooden floor
a hornet’s nest, disturbed
glitter in a spring wind
confetti from a skyscraper
voices at a riot
eraser marks on paper

This is how the mind works
the longest day of the year
so far

Period Three

This machine
writes stories —a 20 headed monster
of ideas

We walk in
on forty feet, pencils
gripped against the void

We voice dissent, but not discontent,
sowing chaos — long thin threads
pulled against the quilt of conflict

Only gathered up together like this
do the strands become woven
into something newer, stronger, better
than before

Our stories bound
shared, and beautiful

Period Four

What if
we were all just characters
in a comic strip? one asks
and we wonder — what if
everything we said was in bubbles
above our heads? another pondered —
and we wondered — and what if
we could reach our hands
beyond the wall itself to grab hold
of our future self? another added

and at that, the room went quiet,
an empty frame of thought

Peace (noticing it),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Guts

Guts continues the talented Raina Telgemeier’s storytelling into the minds, hearts and lives of middle school students, using her own experiences as anchor. Telgemeier is a favorite of many of my girl students, and some boys (but not many), and I am already seeing Guts being carried around.

And the topic of this latest graphic novel is apt. It’s all about the hidden troubles of anxiety in young people, and how debilitating it can be, and how mysterious anxiety is for young people and the adults who care for and love them. In Guts, Raina (the main character, built on Telgemeier’s own struggles with anxiety) comes across as a normal, quiet, creative young girl, but inside, she grapples with fears of the world around her, particularly being anxious over certain foods and a fear of sickness.

The result is stomach troubles, loss of school, family confusion and an inability to express what’s going on. Eventually, therapy and friendships help Raina begin to deal with her anxiety, as she soon realizes that many people have secrets about the things they fear or worry about. Some can deal with those worries easier than others. Some, like Raina, bottle it up until they any longer can.

As with her other wonderful graphic novels — Smile, and Sisters, and Drama, and Ghosts — Telgemeier’s graphic art style is engaging and her writing is spot on, capturing the humor and stress of adolescence in a meaningful way that gets to the heart of the characters. Storylines of friendships, of family change, of puberty all feed into the confusion that Raina is having with understanding her world.

As a teacher, I have witnessed the impact that high anxiety can have on my students, and I’ve worked with guidance counselors and families on strategies. I’m working right now on this issue, as a matter of fact. I’ve read up to better understand some of the root causes, although every case is different, and how I, as a caring adult in the classroom, can be sympathetic and helpful when an anxiety attack comes on. I’m still learning. This book helps.

A helpful author’s note at the end of the book relates Telgemeier’s own struggles with anxiety, and her path to finding some balance in dealing with it. She notes that this is only her own story, but that she hopes readers might find understanding or parts of their own story in hers, and that this might help forge a path towards healing. What more can you can ask of a book like Guts?

Peace (breathe deep),
Kevin

Stories as Circles and Circles as Dots and Dots as Stories

dot day circle stories 2019

Once again, we celebrated International Dot Day (inspired by the book, The Dot) in the classroom this week by having students write very short stories, with a circular theme (object, motion, etc) and then use the Visual Poetry site to “paint” the objects with the words of their stories. And once again, the creativity of some students just amazed me. We shared them out at our Padlet wall of circle stories.

night dots

clock dots

Peace (in dots as marks of creativity),
Kevin

 

Invasion of the Memes: The Rise of the VSCO Girl

What to make of this? Since the first day of school, I’ve been hearing references and seeing references to being a ‘VSCO Girl’ in some of my students’ work and discussions. I did a quick search, and found that VSCO is a photo filtering app, and when I asked one of my students if calling themselves a VSCO Girl was related to photography and app filters, they gave me a look of confusion.

So, eh, no, maybe not?

Yet, sort of.

Their own explanation of what VSCO Girls meant was confusing to me, something about scrunchies and hydro-bottles and clothes, and so I decided I needed to do a little more research.  Doing so uncovered this summer-long viral meme of the VSCO Girl that had been completely under my radar. (To be fair, I am a middle age white man with three boys)

Centered mostly on Tik Tok, but now moving over to Instagram and YouTube and SnapChat, being a VSCO Girl is related to how a girl perceives themselves, and apparently, certain products and clothing are key elements.

Another element of this is the saying and typing of “sksksksk” (which seems to stem from slamming fingers on the keyboard or keypad) and “And I oop.”  (A meme reaction people use to show surprise on social media.) VSCO stands for Visual Supply Co. – the business which invented the app that sparked the meme that fed the movement.

One site, StayHipp, described it this way:

A VSCO girl is someone who is active on the VSCO app and/or whose style matches the aesthetics of VSCO. This trend has grown to the extent that “VSCO” is used as an adjective to characterize something or someone who embodies a VSCO girl lifestyle.

The VSCO girl trend is largely based on owning a specific set of items including Birkenstocks, scrunchies, hydro flasks, metal straws, and anything from Brandy Mellville. Many of the items associated with the trend are brand-specific and may be pricy, but things like homemade friendship bracelets and oversized T-shirts are just as important to the trend as AirPods and Instax cameras are. Each individual has the power to put their own spin on this trend, whether it’s through their attitude, style, social media presence, or just the good vibes they radiate.

Most importantly, being a VSCO girl, or even just dabbling in the trend is about keeping a positive outlook and having fun! — via StayHipp

It then goes on to list all of the objects that a VSCO Girl might have, and the cost, and how to buy them.

  • Birkenstock shoes
  • Scrunchie hair ties
  • Hydroflask water bottles
  • Brandy Melville clothing
  • Instagram-able meals
  • Metal straws
  • Slip on Vans shoes
  • Choker necklaces
  • Multiple rings worn at once
  • Friendship bracelets
  • Polaroid cameras
  • Pastel nail polish
  • Mario Badescu skincare products
  • Fjällräven backpacks
  • Stickers on laptops and water bottles
  • Carmex lip balm

Which makes me think this is all part of some larger Product Influencer Campaign, to sell stuff to young girls by targeting their Girl Identity through social media. Which makes me wary of the trend, yet I’m amazed at how much the concept has filtered through my entire sixth grade classes in just a few weeks of summer. In a small activity yesterday, many tried to add sksksksks and I Oop into what they were writing. That includes boys as well as girls, which makes me wonder if the meme is turning into something else altogether.

A piece at Slate, in which the writer interviews some high school teenage girls, indicates that the whole VSCO Girl concept can be seen in two lenses — one way is that some girls view it as a connector point through social media, a way to “fit in” through style and choice, and another way is some girls see it as a way to mock the whole consumer-driven marketplace, making fun of the idea of products defining a girl. (And did you know there are not just VSCO Girls, but also Soft Girls and e-Girls?)

For the teens I talked to, most said being called a VSCO girl was a bad thing, something to be avoided. They were mixed on whether anyone would own up to being one or proudly proclaim her VSCO girl status, or any strong connection with it, to the world. — from Slate

Why do I have a sense that these two competing concepts of empowering girls and mocking girls, making its way over social media, are going to collide and the girls who just want to fit in are going to be the very ones who are going to get the most hurt?

How do I have a meaningful discussion about trends like this to give my students the ability to make decisions about social media and memes and empower them to question the viral nature of their world?

I suppose I can do that best by empowering them to be critical of the world, and to think on the power of real friendships, real connections, real people. I want the wonderful girls who spend their days in my classroom with me as writers and readers and members of our community to be true to themselves, and not just become some product of influence from the technology they use.

Peace (confused but trying),
Kevin