Reflected and Refracted: 90 Years of New Yorker Cartoons

Nothing brings “context” more into focus than sitting down and reading (or maybe standing up and reading .. that works, too … don’t drive and read, though .. that’s just dangerous) a set of cartoons from the 1920s. While some of the cartoons might have resonance over time, finding that universal funny bone gag that stands above the time in which it is written, most will have you scratching your head, wondering about what was going on in the world that made this particular sketch and caption funny.

Or am I putting my confusion on you?

That was what came to my mind, anyway, as I was reading The New Yorker’s 90th Anniversary Book of Cartoons last night (with some funny subtitles, such as “Sequentially Paginated for Easy Access” and “A Special Section of Radio-Friendly Cartoons” as the editors play up and make fun of the book format in a digital age). I was on a bench, at a sports field, as my son played ball, laughing and giggling, with some adults nearby, glancing over at me. A few kids wandered by, curious.

I kept giggling.

The book is really a magazine and not a book, anyway, and it covers a lot of ground — moving through each decade of cartooning from the 1920s to the present in the esteemed magazine, with a funny introduction by New Yorker Cartoon Editor Robert Mankoff.

Mankoff writes, of the collection, that it “nicely represents the evolving comic imagination of our cartoonists during those decades, as it reflected and refracted the desires, conventions, and modes of thought of the times.” (Mankoff, page 3)

I like that phrase of “reflected and refracted” as a reason why cartoons work as commentary, and also, his phrasing explains why some cartoons don’t necessarily resonate outside of their times. Sometimes, it takes a collection like this to remind us of how things have changed, even if it often feels as if the world remains static. Of course, there are always those cartoons, too, that just don’t work for a certain reader, no matter what. I blame the cartoonist.

 

:)

Even so, I enjoyed the art and the writing, and the wit of play, in this New Yorker collection of cartoons, and decided (as a research reader of one) that Charles Adams’ cartoons hold up the best over time, hands down.

Maybe that’s just me.

Peace (in the ‘toon),
Kevin

When Analog Trumps Digital (And a book is more than a book)

For all my writing and teaching and wondering about the ways in which the digital world is changing the way we write and compose, there are still many moments when the digital can’t hold a candle to the non-digital.

This week, I got a reminder of that. In the mail. Snailmail.

Brian Selznick’s new book, The Wonders, arrived in a box and wonder is right. I haven’t even read the book yet (it’s next on my pile, though) but already, I am entranced by it in ways that no Kindle or ebook format could ever do. It’s the tangible qualities of The Wonders that has me eager to dive in. My eyes pick up its presence every time I walk by the counter where I have it sitting.

It’s begging to be read.

Like his two other books that I loved — The Invention of Hugo Cabret and WonderstruckThe Marvels is clearly a work of art as much as a work of storytelling, with Selznick’s distinct drawing style moving one story along while the text moves a second story along, and I suspect they will converge together. But it is the physical book itself that has me fascinated right now.

From the cover itself, with its golden fonts, to the page bindings that are dipped into some golden gloss that reflects movement in the room, to the feel of the book (it’s heavy, as if indicating some story worth its weight in gold), and the way you can flip through the book and feel as if if you are submerging into the story. You physically hold The Marvels and there is no doubt that you are holding a book! You might need a literary sherpa to help carry it, but dang it, it’s a book you’ve got, not an app or a file.

A book.

And there is something wonderfully powerful about this realization that a physical book itself, one you hold in your hands — paper and words and ink — can still stir that kind of excitement in a reader.

Yes, the ability to embed media, and add links to other content, and bookmark with notes, and all of the other whizbang options of digital books is fascinating and interesting. But …. I still yearn for this kind of experience, too, and it feels like a dying ember of publishing — exciting readers with the design of a book. This publisher figured it out, and I (at least) am willing to pay a bit more to own a book that is art in and of itself. Now, I can’t wait to dive into the story and immerse myself into the entire experience.

(And part of me wonders, will Selznick and his publishers turn this story into a digital book? I don’t believe he did that with his other two (unless you count the movie version of Hugo, and the audio version where he worked to use soundscapes to tell the silent story of the images in his book), and yet, how much pressure there must be to do that, right? I’m not even saying that would be a bad thing, if done right. See The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore for how this can be done with style.)

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

A Consideration of Themes: WMWP Brainstorming

WMWP Theme ConsiderationOne of the best things about being a leader with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project (beside learning about writing and the teaching of writing) is connecting with colleagues in other schools and other levels of teaching. Yesterday, our WMWP board met for the first time this school year, and we began discussion of “themes” to guide our activity, work and conferences this coming year.

We didn’t agree on an overarching theme yet, but you can see from this brainstorming list that we have a lot of possibilities to chew on and we will try to make connections across ideas. This list captures only the main ones that emerged from an enriching writing and sharing activity during our meeting. But the ideas here cover a lot of ground worth exploring.

Peace (in the think),
Kevin

Wired Magazine: The New Professors

I enjoy Wired Magazine, most of the time, and every now and then, they come out with a special issue that really gets my attention. The latest (Sept. 2015) is an interesting take on how people learn, with Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine on the cover.

Sure, the cynic in me thinks, it’s an advertising place for their Beats headphones and for the new Apple Music (and Dre’s story in Straight Outta Compton), but the article itself about Iovine and Dre is about how the two are investing in a media program in a California university to give students experience in media making and creating a pipeline of talent for entertainment production for the future. I wish I could go there. (Dogtrax Scholarship Fund?)

:)

The magazine then moves into its “Cultural Literacy” section, with focus on Culture, Design, Business, Science and Security, with the lens on people making a difference in the world and ways that people can get engaged in learning on their own terms in these various emerging fields and subfields.

It reminds me, yet again, of how I am teaching to my sixth graders literacy practices that have to be applicable to a world that may not yet exist. As I read through the magazine, it seems as if many of the topics were barely if even on the radar screen five or ten years ago. Flexibility around writing, reading, creating media is a key element, and finding that ground is a challenge for any teacher.

Peace (on the pages),
Kevin

Slice of Life: On A Day When Nothing Happened

(This is part of Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers.)

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Nothing happened yesterday. Nothing of note. I am sitting here, early morning with a cup of coffee, mulling over what I might write about for my Slice of Life. There’s always something. But, I can’t find a little nugget to grasp and build a single story around.

So, on the day when nothing happened, here are some small bits of a day that might fold into something:

  • I wrote a blog post in the morning. No one commented.
  • We began an overview of narrative story writing in class, examining and charting out some plot ideas as a way for my students to envision the structure of a story;
  • We did character sketches — short pieces of writing about a character that goes beyond name and description, focusing in on motivation and the strengths/flaws that enrich a character in a story. We used my oddly weird Storyteller Cards for this. The kids loved the cards.
  • It was Picture Day. The weather cooperated, so we were able to do it outside. It disrupted the day’s schedule but we rolled with it.
  • I kept moving forward with Benchmark Reading Assessments in every free moment of the day, and the prospect of weeks of testing this way has me tired every time I think of it.
  • A union meeting after school about stalled contract talks made me weary. I know contract talks are always negotiations, but it seems like we are pretty far apart right now.
  • I was met at home by my son, who asked if I had remembered to bring home the last book in the Maze Runner series. I had. Also, the prequel. He dashed to the car, and came in, book open, already reading the first pages.
  • Restaurant Week is this week in our small city, known for its arts and restaurants. My wife and I slipped out and away from the kids to enjoy a nice meal together at an upscale restaurant we normally could not afford. It was yummy.
  • Confirmed meeting with the owner of a music practice space. Our band is reforming and on the roam for new space to practice in. It’s stressful to be a homeless band.
  • My son decided to go for a bike ride at dusk. “A quick ride,” I said, before heading off to get another son from baseball practice. I came back, and the bike rider is still gone, and the streets are getting dark. Grabbed the dog and started looking, slightly worried (he is known not to always look at street crossings). No signs. I come home, and then see the note from him that he is with a friend and family at the neighborhood school. I go there, and they are just coming home. It’s dark now. I say, meet me at the top of the street. He cruises right home. We have a “discussion” about “listening skills.”
  • Read Aloud to my son and then reading quietly to myself, and then … sleep.

Peace (in the daze),
Kevin

Six Word Webcomic Memoirs

I’ve written about this project before at Middleweb, and yet, every year that I put this Six Word Memoir out to sixth graders as an extension activity, I am always amazed at what they create.

Here are some of this year’s memoirs. I put them into a digital flipbook this year for easier sharing and embedding in our classroom blog site:

Peace (in six),
Kevin

Robots As Publishers: Curation Conundrums in the Digital Age

NWP Daily NewsIt’s been some time since I shared out my curated NWP Daily News via Paper.li, and I use that word “curate” very lightly here, as the robotic overlords who feed on algorithms are the ones who gather up news and sharing from a Twitter list of National Writing Project folks (670 peeps, listed as of this morning … wait .. make that 669 … see below), and somehow, it comes together in what I think is a moderately interesting daily collection of media, tidbits and more.

But I received a direct message on Twitter from a person in my NWP network about their inclusion into the “newspaper”  this week and the notice of their Twitter handle in an auto-tweet that comes out every day. They clearly were not happy with it, and they wondered how their Twitter account got so entwined with mine. They suggested that it was a misrepresentation of both of our Twitter accounts. I think they thought I have been intentionally scraping their content and representing it as my own.

Have I, inadvertently, doing that? Not in my mind.

I messaged back to them, politely, and then removed from them from my NWP List, so as to avoid putting them in the same situation in the future. The last thing I want to do is make anyone uncomfortable when the robots take over. To be honest, I’m not sure bringing other NWP folks to their Twitter account or bringing a small spotlight to something interesting that they shared out or wrote about is such a bad thing, but that’s not for me to decide.

Or is it?

Here I am, making a “newspaper” of Twitter folks who self-associate with the National Writing Project, and that message reminded me that I never do ask permission of anyone to become part of my NWP Twitter List. I just add them in. I also assume that the tweets from public accounts are public and that if you tweet something out into the open, then you are signaling your approval in having it viewed and collected  — or, in this case, curated under an unofficial NWP umbrella (“unofficial” because NWP bigwigs did not sanction me doing this, nor did I ask permission.)

I realize now that it is a bit of a can of worms, indicative of the Information Age.

On one hand, I hate the lack of agency I have in actually curating the darn Paper.li thing. I don’t think I can manually add content, just people’s streams of information (or at least, I can’t do that with the free version I use. I’m not sure about the paid version.) On the other hand, I am grateful that the algorithms do all that work on my behalf, so that I don’t have to spend the time each day. Because, you know, it wouldn’t get done, otherwise. I’m a realist.

It’s the typical Digital Age Cunundrum, right? How much agency do I give up to technology in order to achieve what I hope to achieve with the smallest amount of effort? And if I give up too much, am I really achieving what I wanted to achieve?

I don’t have the answer to that. (Do you?)

Instead, I just read my NWP News most mornings, and think, these NWP folks are doing some amazing things, and I enjoy reading about it. I get inspired by them. I learn from them. I guess you could say, I made this “newspaper” for me. But I am happy if others enjoy it, too. I even get a kick when someone who get mentioned shouts out some thanks to me, via Twitter, and all I can do is say, “You’re welcome. I had little to do with it. The robots are in charge!”

What I hadn’t realized, until this morning, is that not everyone would be so open about it and grateful to be part of my NWP experience. I guess that part of curation — the view of the skeptical curatee (is that a word? The one who is being curated?) — never crossed my mind until this morning. Maybe it should have.

Peace (on the page),

Kevin

Getting Sticky with It: Reflection and Revision Practice

rikki tikki exemplar sticky notes

It may be early in the school year, but we’re moving right into the craft of writing. While we will shift into some narrative, creative writing next week, these first two weeks have had a focus on the start of “response to literature” writing pieces. This is a big focus of sixth grade — responding to reading, using evidence from the text, adding insights to understanding.

Yesterday, I shared four “not-really-random” student samples of some open responses that they wrote a few days ago (after listening to Rikki Tikki Tavi, they wrote about protagonist and antagonist), and we went through an activity in which students read the sample responses, identified strengths in the pieces before them, put observations on sticky notes, and then stuck the notes up on the wall where the student exemplars were located.

I like the visual here (who doesn’t love sticky notes?), and I like making the notes about the positive public to the students. But most of all, I loved the conversations we had about “noticing” and “reflecting” on the pieces, particularly as they made connections to their own writing. This reflective stance and being able to see the strategies of others is the first step in a year-long push for reflective practice.

Reflection will move into revision, if all goes according to plan. But you can’t revise if you don’t see what needs revising, right?

Peace (in the reflect),
Kevin

Reading about Writing about Writing about Reading

Reader writer writer reader

I remember the first book I encountered about a writer writing about writing. It was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and then I read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which led me to Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek by Annie Dillard, and then onward into the world of authors unveiling the art of writing. (Stephen King’s On Writing is a more recent one in the mix.) It was a magical experience for me to find those kinds of books as a young writer, and I continue to devour these “let’s pull back the covers and show the inside” stories even today.

I am most intrigued about the relationship between writer and reader, and the narrative gaps between them. And I am conscious of this, as best as I can, when I am using technology and digital media to create a piece of writing. The role of the reader, I think, is changing, becoming more assertive, more part of the “story of the story.” Mulling over how an image replaces text, or how a video disrupts the narrative flow, or the well-place/misplaced hyperlink, or the use of an audio to add a layer of sound … these are all part of our emerging world of writers in the digital spaces, right?

The question of how far does the writer go and how much space does the reader need/want is one of those running rails that always seems to hover over my keyboard when I am trying to create something that I hope will find an audience. When I am working on short-form writing, in particular, I am keenly aware of the reader and work to find a balance between the gaps. Of course, there is a lot of unknowns in the writer’s perceptions, too.

This week, I came across an insightful piece about writing in The New Yorker by writer John McPhee, who shares stories about his life as a staff writer and teacher of non-fiction writing but he also helpfully narrows his piece to the art of “omission.” What to leave out. The dictate of the Green # (see article for reference). Not just for publishing reasons (we need more space so get cutting) but also, for the sake of the reader engagement and involvement. Parse your story down and let the reader build it up.

McPhee cites Hemingway, of course, and others, and he says that consideration of the reader does a writer well.

“The creative writer leaves white space between chapters and segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Let judgment be in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author.” (John McPhee, New Yorker, Sept. 14, 2015)

Taking his advice, then, I bid you leave.

Peace (_______in the gap________),
Kevin

Mad Circles of Possibilities: Mapping the Unknown

Where I'm At Tube Map

I’ve long been fascinated by maps. When I was a kid, it was the maps in our textbooks that always got my attention. When I read comics (most of the time), I was stare at the maps for long stretches, imagining the world of heroes and villains. When I read a book that comes with a map, I am almost always invariably sidetracked, running my finger along the lines and trying to decipher the information of the narrative along the visual latitude and longitudes of someone’s imagination.

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So, coming across Aaron King‘s Tumblr blog this past summer was like a present all wrapped up each day in my RSS feed. At Comic Cartography, King finds maps from all sorts of comic books and then posts them at his site.

That was good, but then he self-published his own little chap book about maps called Comic Cartography: Maps from Comic Books and Essays Thereon that I just love (only five bucks!).  I mean, the maps he includes are cool. But it is King’s written insights about why we love maps and how they fit into our literary terrain that captured my attention. He connects them to the theories around comics, too, showing how inferential thinking and the use of art to inform story is a key component to the comic world.

King notes how some writers use maps to begin a story:

“With this softer invitation for reader closure in prose, introductory maps are used as a form of paratext, informing the reader without being part of the story’s prose.” (King)

He also notes, in a nod to the intricate maps that are part Lord of the Rings and other epic stories:

“The power in these maps lies in the amount of drama and story implicit in each of them. They jumpstart your imagination while teaching you about the world …. the mind trips in mad circles of possibility, of what comes next.” (King)

King explains some unknown terms, for me, about understanding maps. Some are heterodiegetic (the maps exist outside of the story narrative — we see these at the start of a book or inked into the cover design of a book) as opposed to homodiegetic (the maps are part of the plot of the book and play a role in the narrative).

This idea of a map laying outside the terrain of the story is what fascinates me, because it comes like an invitation to the reader to take a journey beyond the story itself. It also lays down the possibility, made clear by the map, that worlds might fold into worlds, and that the writer has a larger vision than the story you are currently reading. The story, in other words, is beyond this story.

You are invited to imagine.

my map

I’ve done some mapping with my sixth grade students as part of writing activities, and we have explored map making in the Making Learning Connected MOOC, showing connections within a learning network, and allowing participants to pin themselves onto a collective map.

I even did a paper circuitry activity with fellow teachers, asking them to make a map with important nodes. Some chose professional circles. Others chose more personal journeys.

What maps shape your world? And I wonder, is our reliance on various Map Geolocation Apps changing the way we view maps as representative of the world, and what lies beyond the edges of the known? Is our world becoming a bit too well known? What mysteries unfold off the map?

There be dragons there …

Map of Childhood - #walkmyworld totem

Peace (amid the terrain),
Kevin