Movie Review: The Watsons Go to Birmingham

I finally got the time to watch The Watsons Go to Birmingham movie last week with the two classes who read the book earlier in the school year. The DVD had been sitting on my desk but finding the time was difficult. Still, I wanted to see what the folks at the Hallmark Movie Channel did with a book that I love reading and teaching, and students were eager to see the movie version, too. So, we did.

I could quibble with some of the changes made to the Christopher Paul Curtis story and some of the casting choices and other things, and we did quibble in our post-movie class discussions, but I understand a bit about the need to make changes to a novel to fit the screen. The one thing I was disappointed in but wasn’t surprised by was the removal of the vision the kids have of each other in times of danger, of each becoming the savior of the other in times of trouble. We talked a lot about that missing element in class. Oh well.

Overall, I enjoyed what they did with the story. Most of all, I was very much pleased with how the producers brought in archival footage from the news of the day (1964) in Alabama, as it really sets the tone and stage for the unfolding of the story as the Watsons visit the south. The scene of the famous church bombing is chaotic and emotional, and I found it hit the right notes for my students to feel compassion and fury, and to understand Kenny (the narrator) a bit more as he searches for his younger sister.

Also, I give high praise to the movie folks for making the Children’s March a secondary storyline, with the Watsons’ cousins telling how they are marching with other children in protest. The book never mentions the Children’s March. The movie uses that event in a way that gives the story a different emotional feel, particularly when Byron (the oldest brother, a troublemaker) sees it as an opportunity for him to make a difference and make his parents proud of his actions.

Overall, the movie fits in nicely with the teaching of this powerful story of growing up in the era of civil rights and racism, and how our families are the center that holds us together. The movie gets that right, time and again.

Peace (in the past),
Kevin
PS — an interview with Christopher Paul Curtis about the adaptation of the book:

#Nerdlution Update: And the word is …

H
I haven’t been writing and blogging about it much but I continue to invent and publish a new word for my #Nerdlution effort to create a fake dictionary of made-up words. I’ve been using an app called Notegraphy for publishing because of its design elements, and I find my mind wandering in quiet times to new words. So far, so good. Today word — H — is named after my own name. The tricky part has been finding a balance between humor and insight.

This video collects the words from A through today’s letter of H so far ….

Peace (in invention),
Kevin

Invented Words: Student Sampler

Invented Words 2014
(I love this word cloud)
Although I continue to invent and publish a new word every day for the #Nerdlution (round 2), that initiative was inspired by my students’ work around invented language (as part of our study of the origins of the English Language). The other day, they used our wiki site to begin adding a word of their own (and a podcast of their word) to a 9-year project to create an online dictionary of invented words. I’ll share that out some other day. For now, check out this prezi with a few words and I have embedded the podcasts of their voices right into the prezi (just click the play button).

 

Book Review: Lincoln’s Grave Robbers

My co-teacher wandered in and saw Lincoln’s Grave Robbers on my desk. He picked it up, “Is this fiction?” and when I replied, “It’s all true,” he looked closer at it. Such is the tale that writer Steve Sheinken digs up and tells in this book, and it is a crime story of stealing the bones of Abe Lincoln that is almost too strange to be true.

The story, from the late 1800s, is of counterfeit operations and jail time, and a noted crime boss who wants his best engraver freed from jail so that he can keep making fake money. The plan is to steal Lincoln’s bones and ransom them back to the government in return for the jailed companion to be set free. Needless to say, things go awry, and Sheinken gives a nice sense of place and history, including old photographs and drawings to bring the reader into the time and place.

I admit: I don’t always like Sheinken’s writing style, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. It doesn’t flow for me. But he certainly has an eye for historical stories (Bomb was fascinating, too, although the writing didn’t always work for me there, either) and storytelling presence. I really love how he uses primary documents to help tell his stories, and I suspect lots of teachers could turn to Sheinken’s books as examples of non-fiction writing that packs a literary punch while still remaining fairly true to the historical record.

The crook never did get Lincoln’s body but they certainly tried. In a time when news moved slow, a core group of supporters of Lincoln’s memory remained vigilant and ensured that the physical legacy of Lincoln would be free of a robbery attempt that still baffles the imagination.

Peace (in the bones of history),
Kevin

You is Us: A Digital Zooming Poem

As Digital Learning Day approaches, the folks at Educator Innovator have a suggestion that we and/or our students use Prezi to tell a digital story. I decided to give it a try, particularly since I have not yet used the audio upload option at Prezi before. It seemed ripe for a poem of some sort, and then I was watching a #walkmyworld video by Molly called I is We about her identity and digital spaces, and so I composed a response called You is Us.

See what you think. The “play” button on the lower left (once you start the prezi) will lead you through the poem, with audio loading automatically and the poem advancing automatically.

Peace (in the poem),
Kevin

Close Viewing of a Video


This is a video shared at the Deeper Learning MOOC about how to engage students in constructive critique. Here, Ron Berger talks with second graders about an art project. I popped the video into Vialogues so that I could do a close viewing of the work and add some thoughts. You can add your notes, too, at Vialogues.
Peace (in the butterfly),
Kevin

Book Review: Floors

I’ve read some of Patrick Carman’s older YA fiction and found it intriguing, particularly in ways that he (more than many others) is tapping into the transmedia aspects of publishing. Books like Skeleton Creek are creepy and visceral and oddly entertaining, particularly when part of the story unfolds as videos. So, I was anticipating a good story when my son and I picked up Floors, for slightly younger readers, but wow … I really loved the book, and its sequel (Three Below) and the third book is sitting on our book pile as the next one in the read-aloud queue. (I also met Carman at the Dublin Literacy Conference years ago and he seemed like a nice guy happy to be writing stories for a living and thinking even then of ways to push the boundaries of book publishing).

Floors is about a New York City hotel that is unlike any other hotel you have ever imagined, and about about a boy named Leo who comes to own the Whippet Hotel in the first book after being given it by the eccentric owner and Leo (and later with his friend/brother, Remi) explore the strange subterranean elements in the second book and … not yet sure what happens in the third book (The Field of Wacky Inventions) but I am sure it will be just as entertaining. If you are catching some resemblances to another boy and a chocolate factory, that is intentional as Carman riffs off the Dahl idea of a building with lots of secrets and magic and inventions.

You never know what will happen when a door opens in the Whippet Hotel. And just to know, ducks are more important than one would think. My wife thought too much was happening in these stories but my son and I disagreed (although some of the characters could use more depth), and as a read aloud, the Floors books are perfect — with lots of action, humor, villains and the unexpected. My son and I also agreed on this: Floors would make an excellent movie.

Peace (in the book)
Kevin

 

Imagination: No Batteries Required

Yesterday, my son pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and started to make a phone call. I was intrigued, and then I watched as he folded the paper up and then unfolded it, and sent a text. Finally, after yet another fold and unfold, he watched a little television. All this from a piece of paper.

I asked if he wouldn’t mind re-enacting the use of his paper device for me for a video collage. (The image at the bottom is a closeup of some of the “screens”)

I admit: I have some conflicting emotions about what he had created. On one hand, I love when his imagination comes into play. I realized that I had been watching him make the paper device while I was cooking dinner but didn’t know what he was up to. He took it on himself to work it out and to play with it. I love that kind of independent play, and he was also eager to share with me.

On the other hand … it’s an indication of how infused electronics are on our world. We limit television and screen time (although we admittedly struggle mightily with that with our older boys) but when you see the heart of “play” revolving around the replication of a screen that he can’t use, it makes me feel odd, as if it were imagination wasted. I know that this is not the case — that imaginative time is what it is, and should be treasured. And we take steps forward. Today, he replicates what he knows. Maybe tomorrow, he creates the unknown.

One can hope.

Peace (on the paper),
Kevin

Teaching in the Age of Uncertainty

Frindle: Words from Mr. Hodgson on Vimeo.

It’s interesting that the theme of “uncertainty” has come up for the Rhizomatic Learning (#rhizo14) course this week. The other day, as part of a nine year project with sixth graders to construct an online dictionary of imaginary words, I read out parts of the book Frindle to my sixth graders. If you don’t know the story, in a nutshell, a student (Nick Allen) decides that replacing the word “pen” with the word “frindle” would be a nice way to upend authority.

It does shake up the school, particularly with his teacher (Mrs. Granger) who loves her dictionary and finds solace in its authority. The novel revolves around their battles over words and who has the authority to create language. The story ends 10 years in the future, when Nick’s word frindle ends up in the dictionary and Nick receives a note from Mrs. Granger, informing him of why she relies on words to carry her through the changing times. She cites her teaching career before the age of the Moonshot, and before the age of the VCR, and before the age of Personal Computers. (She also slyly lets him know that she used reverse psychology on him, fighting him every step of the way with frindle in hopes that he would continue his effort. “That sly fox,” he whispers to himself.)

“Words are still important,” she reminds Nick, even as she acknowledges the dictionary can change to meet the needs of the day.

Reading the passages reminds me yet again, as does the #rhizo14 discussion around uncertainty, that I really have no idea what the world will look like for my sixth graders or for my own children, or for me. Ten years? That’s more than a lifetime of change ahead of them and us. Given the pace of the “new,” that’s nearly unknowable. Such thinking reinforces my thinking, as it did the fictional Mrs. Granger, that core skills in writing and language will likely remain central to their lives, even if technology and digital media change they way they interact and communicate and compose language.

In this time of uncertainty, I try to hang my ideas on that hook: that writing remains and will remain an anchor in their lives, and in ours, too.

Peace (I think),
Kevin