It was the final days of the school year, late June, when one of my sixth grade students asked in the middle of class: Do you think President Trump will respond to what we wrote? Even now, I bite my tongue. Do you really want him to, I asked in my head.
Out loud, in my neutral teacher voice, I responded to his question: “Not yet but he might.”
My students took part in the Letters to the Next President project, even though they were too young (under 13 years old) to be part of Educator Innovator’s online initiative. We did it on our own, using the Educator Innovator’s framework for choosing topics, doing research on a topic, writing to the next president (at a time when we did not know who would win the election).
We mailed off a package of the student Letters to the Next President in late January, following the Inauguration, and then heard nothing. (We didn’t check his Twitter account, but we suspected he might be busy with other things.)
Then, I went to my classroom this week to bring in some books and do a little organizing before the start of our new school year coming up a bit too fast, and there on my desk was an envelope from the White House, postmarked mid-July.
Trump responded, or rather, his staff responded in an upbeat tone.
I don’t get the sense that this was written by the president. I could be wrong. Now, to share it with my former students …
This collection of short essays by writer Peter Orner had me thinking a million thoughts about how we read and how we write. Wow. I picked up Orner’s Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by chance — it was on the library shelf next to something else I was looking at. I picked up Orner, and didn’t want to put it down. So I didn’t.
Orner, a novelist (but one I have not read or even heard of before), writes from a very different slant of reader. First of all, his eclectic tastes in authors and books gave me little center of gravity, but that wasn’t a problem. I wanted to know who these writers were that I didn’t know. I reveled in his stories of finding books in corners of used book stores. I wanted to know the stories of the stories, and the stories themselves.
Orner’s brilliant approach to these essays is to use various novels and writers and stories as a “way in” to think about his life, and life in general. Literature as a lens on our life. It’s hard to explain his technique in this book but Orner’s perceptions and voice are so strong here, it’s as if you pulled up a milk crate in his garage studio, plucked a book from his stacks and stacks, and started to talk over coffee about literature and life.
Even as you read about Orner’s connection to texts, you will begin to ponder your own. Or, at least, I did. That makes for a powerful and personal reading experience.
Thanks to Richard Byrne, over at Free Tech for Teachers, I began exploring Google Cardboard again, but this time, I used the Google Cardboard Camera app to make my own virtual reality. The free app allows you to create a 360 degree panorama, and you can even add audio narration, and then share it out with people. (I did it with my Droid phone but I believe you can do the same with any iOS device.)
I did a trial run in my backyard and then used it when I did a hike up to a fire tower known as Goat’s Peak, which gives you a nice view of the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts from top Mount Tom.
If you have Google Cardboard (or some VR goggles .. I bought my set from Amazon for about 10 bucks) and the Google Cardboard viewer app, the links should open up for you in that app. You can see what I saw and hear me explaining it a bit.
Middle school seems to make most students feel like wandering aliens on a strange and unforgiving planet full of odd customs and interactions. Novelist Michael Merschel uses that concept to full effect in his first book, Revenge of the Star Survivors. Our protagonist, Clark Sherman, moves into a new community when his father gets a new job and then immerses himself in Festus Middle School.
The narrative voice of Clark is that of an alien space explorer, as if he were not some middle school boy but rather an astronaut on a mission. Someone who has landed on some unknown world, gathering information about life forms and culture idiosyncrasies for his commanders (ie, his parents). His favorite television show — Star Survivors — gives his first-person narrative a frame.
This storytelling technique could easily get old, quick, but Merschel wisely moves us into emotional territory, creating a landscape of quirky characters set up against the concept of middle school bullying and confusion. As Clark navigates the unfolding middle school drama, he is both a target and ultimately, a protector. The story gets deeper and richer as it unfolds, and comes to a satisfying conclusion with heart and wisdom.
“I like to think that with real friends, hailing frequencies are always open.” — Clark
This novel would be a nice fit for middle school classrooms, but also for upper elementary readers looking ahead to what awaits them in that strange galaxy of the unknown.
Peace (here and beyond),
PS — Michael Merschel sent me a copy of Revenge of the Star Survivors to review after I responded to something he wrote over at Nerdy Book Club. I made no promises about the kind of review I would write, nor did he ask.
In the final Make Cycle newsletter of Connected Learning MOOC this week, we provided a list of ways members of CLMOOC can stay connected throughout the year. That includes you (CLMOOC is always an open experience and is now facilitated by participants).
I’m tinkering around with a visual typography app that Terry and Wendy shared out called TypiVideo. I like the effects of the moving text but I am having trouble with finding the ways that I can set animation and text (I know the controls are there, and I saw a tutorial that indicated where and how I can do more, but I can’t seem to have get to them to work on mine. Might need to reload the app.)
Anyway, the poem above is for another poetry venture elsewhere.
So, I believe this book by Timothy Snyder — On Tyranny — should be required reading for everyone in America. Sure, that statement shows my political bias against the Trump Administration and its visible objective to slowly dismantle all institutions in order to build more power into the president’s hands … so what? I’m biased.
Snyder’s small book (in size and in length) is a powerhouse of ideas, drawing both on the history of the rise of Fascists, Nazis and Communists to remind us that American institutions, and Democracy itself, is always more fragile that at first appears. The “twenty lessons” in On Tyranny are pivot points for individuals to make small decisions that have larger ramifications of the world.
What I pulled from this book, which I will be re-reading again and then sending off with my son to college with a “read this book!” message, is a reminder that people are what allow institutions to crumble and fall, through small actions that don’t seem consequential in the moment. Tyrants take advantage of those moments (or invent moments, such as “terrorist” emergencies that allow a usurping of the rule of law to change the nature of the state.)
Those of us who would think that the American institutions are strong enough to withstand the moment we are in still need to remain vigilant and active. Change happens suddenly. Elections have consequences.
But the people, and the community you are part of, have a voice, and power, too. Make sure we use it for the greater good of all. Read On Tyranny and think.
There’s a cool, strange project going on with some musical collaborators (Wendy, Karon, Sarah, etc.) that uses the concept of “fractals” as a way to build a musical “round” with a common melody that comes from some data points within the Connected Learning MOOC (CLMOOC) community.
Fractal refers to the mathematical concept of patterns, often mirrored and expanding patterns, emerging from a set of data points, but can be mapped visually. Fractals often emerge in nature, which is pretty intriguing. Or, that’s my understanding of it.
The CLMOOC musical compositional activity — being done in Soundtrap so we can collaborate online — stemmed from some sharing of fractal animations last week. We were chatting about how animation might be used for learning, and better understanding of complex subjects.
Someone suggested the link between the mathematical underpinning of fractals and the weaving melodic possibilities of music … and we were off on another collaboration …
I realized that my website resource for making Stopmotion Movies had a bunch of dead links and dead videos, so I spent some time this week making sure links worked and that old resources were replaced with new ones, etc.