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).
Today, my science teaching colleague, Lisa Rice, and I will head to a local technology in education conference to present our collaborative science-based video game design project. I’ve written a lot about what we do over the years in various spaces, and I have presented about it before, but this is her first time presenting, and so I am excited to give her an opportunity to share her knowledge as a teacher and collaborator. (Our principal, technology director and our school superintendent will be at the conference, too, and we hear they will be in our session.)
The keynote speaker will be my National Writing Project colleague, Antero Garcia, and the overall theme of the conference is all about Connected Learning. Antero will no doubt be talking about youth action projects, as he has done a lot of work and writing and research in that area of Connected Learning and Participatory Culture.
We only have an hour in our game workshop session, but I still hope I have time to pull out Uno cards and dice, and get the participants hacking a collaborative game, if only to experience the act of game design. I also see it as another venue to showcase work of students and to validate how video game design can find a place in the ELA classroom (particularly with a science connection).
My review of Building School 2.0 by Chris Lehmann and Zac Chase is live over at Middleweb, and I highly recommend this book for its smarts, and its philosophy of education and learning, and for the lively writing and musings of these two talented educators.
That was interesting. Last night, I followed an invitation of my friends, Terry and Joe, and took part in an online annotation Flash Mob experience, where a bunch of folks mostly used the tool Hypothesis (a browser add-on) to close read and annotate a New York Times article … about annotation.
But the act of annotating an online article together, as a crowd, is always an interesting experience. There are a lot of tools out there to do this, from the comment feature in Google Docs to Genius to Diigo and more. Hypothesis is a nice tool, clean to view, and if the tool is activated, when you come to a page that someone else has annotated, it allows you to view and comment and add to other people’s annotations. You can also add images, video and animated GIFs. It saves your annotation into your own “home” stream.
The way the Annotation Flash Mob worked was a bunch of us hung out in a Google Hangout, talked about annotation, and then got to work — all the while talking through the annotation process and screen-sharing what we were doing. Well, I found I could not really talk and listen closely, while also reading closely and annotating, so I sort of found myself in my own little cloud of thoughts for a big chunk of time. There was a bit too much “noise” for my brain to handle, but I did the best I could to listen, read and write.
For me, the best part was the end, when we stopped annotating and starting talking reflectively about the implications of this kind of online annotations for learning in the classroom.
Ian talked about having students in his college courses annotate the syllabus with suggestions and comments.
Joe talked about the power of the crowd, coming together on a single document (apparently, that is going on tonight with the State of the Union speech) as an example of social networking.
Jeremy (of Hypothesis) talked about (or wrote about) how teachers can keep track of student work, and the article references how this might fold into student learning portfolios.
Terry noticed Karen working all through the hour, and talked about how one might video-capture with reflection the act of annotation as a way to show your learning and thinking.
Remi noted how this kind of active annotation might have more value than Twitter chats and other social gathering activities, where too much affirmation and cordiality might soften some deeper learning and sharing of insights.
Many of us, including me, wondered, as voiced by Terry, So now that you have all this “noise” of annotation, how do you find the signal? How do you curate your annotations, and your crowd’s annotations, into something useful that moves beyond that single moment of time?
We did not have a solid answer, except to note that teaching the art of curation is getting relatively short-thrift in a lot of our classrooms. Ian noted that by not teaching curating, we are missing an opportunity and important skills in the information-rich Digital Age.
I agree. This blog post is one way that I am doing for myself. I am trying to make sense of our Flash Mob activity, but to be frank, the idea of now going back through more than 50 annotations on the page from last night seems rather daunting …