Let’s Not Waste Any More Time

diff-fishI teach English and Film, mostly. Up until now, I’d taught Middle School English – but this year, began to teach High School English as well. And having taught two semesters to plenty of reluctant or disengaged readers, I’ve had a brainstorm.

In High School we have (usually) 4 opportunities to teach students that it is worthwhile to read books. We use that time, mostly, to force them to read 4 novels we choose for them, and then 4 or maybe 8 other books that they can choose to read (on their own).

The self-chosen books are often chosen from a prescribed list – to ensure that they read Worthwhile Things. If they’re lucky, they find something that charms them; if unlucky, they read one more involuntary book – this time with less guidance.

Next year, I think I may abandon the teacher-led, in-depth novel study. Just thinking – but what if I used that time – which is a lot of class time – to introduce kids to TEN novels? If I prepared introductions to ten interesting novels, with gripping excerpts from each, explanations of their contexts, biographies of the authors, etc, that’d increase the chance that a student might find their passion. It might help them to discover a book they WANT to study independently. They’d be exposed to more styles, approaches, cultures, tones – more everything.

I ran this idea by my principal (a clever cat) and he asked two good questions: one, how do you teach them the value of reading a long work? Two, how do you teach the structures and arcs of a long work? My answers were easy:

One, they already read long works, when they want to. My students – even the ones I  usually couldn’t convince to read – read the Hunger Games books last year. Most of them read Harry Potter before that. I don’t think kids hate reading. I think they act like they hate reading because we provide them with very limited options in what we make them read.

Two, the longer works’ arcs, character development, and structure can all be taught with a good, well written film study, which is more engaging for many students, and takes less of the semester.

Considering this idea, I found an interesting new phenomena which could be harnessed: the book trailer. (The Inside a Dog site is excellent, by the way – I think I’ll incorporate it, too.)

Opinions welcome.


Mind Control Helmets Doom Boring Schools

diff-fishI’ve said it plenty of times, but once again: I find it really hard to write about teaching while I’m doing it. Doing it (thoughtfully) pretty much takes up all the time and energy I’ve got. Some time must be left over for making hilarious comics and writing mean songs. And watching TV. But this week, I’m full of ideas.

One: We’re fucking doomed. I saw a TED talk this week that has the end of school as we know it in it: Mind Control helmets. Watch this:

Why are we doomed? Because we’ve barely kept up with the rise of the cell phone! Once the kids have these devices – which will be implantable and invisible shortly after they arrive – they’ll be immune to our boring-ass schooling. “Sure, fine, yeah, I’m listening to you ruin History,” they’ll say; on their retinas they’ll be watching old episodes of Breaking Bad.

I’ll be happy for them, to be honest, although I don’t know how well it’ll play out in the long run. I’ll be happy for them because we educators are seemingly unable to ramp up what we do; we drag our feet like churches do, because caution and obedience and unimagination are planted deep within us. And the next generation is moving fast, and behaving differently, and we’re trying to force them to slow down, accept outdated ideas, and obey. They’re not going to.

I’m not writing this in despair. I’m very excited for the kids, who will (as every generation ever has done) survive and create their own culture. But I do get really angry because I see educators and education systems squandering the zillion opportunities we have to impress, interest, teach, guide, coach and understand the kids we work with. As a system, we’re deluding ourselves that we’re able to coerce students into old categories (when we think we’ve “made” a kid do what we want, we’ve only really either made them pretend to submit or broken the kid).

We’ve got to stop imagining we can force people to fit into roles and systems; we have to get into our heads that if we have a year or a semester to work with a kid, that that’s a privilege and an opportunity we don’t want to squander.

I don’t believe we will adopt this attitude on any broad scale in time – because teachers don’t learn how to be teachers in university; they learn how to be teachers by going to school as kids. We were treated (generally) in adversarial and controlling ways, and so most of us still think this way – even while we accept conflicting ideas about helping kids understand how they learn, who they are, etc. This conflict means that educational changes happen glacially (gradually, over generations), while the rest of the world is changing SO rapidly.

In short: we took ten too many years to start thinking about cell phones (we spent that whole time trying to ban them, control them, discourage them – swimming against the tide, and not in the useful Salmon way). And within ten years, students will be wearing Mind Control Hats and Google Glasses in our classes.

Even if we can still force them to come to school between 8 and 3, they will leave us in the dust. The smartest ones will be watching TED talks in their minds, or learning programming secretly while we bore them with the War of 1812. The rest will be watching whatever the hell crap is on TV by then – Kardashian Baby Gladiators or something. And we’ll be ranting about their lack of interest in us, and their directionlessness, and then 10 years later we’ll realize we missed the opportunities we had to guide them, and it’ll be too late. We’ll be obsolete.

Unless we get our shit together.

Which we won’t.

That Film Course?

I completely forgot about my e-pledge (waaay less real than an actual pledge) to write about the film course as we went along. As always, I find it superdifficult to write about teaching while I’m doing it. If I ever do get to come back and write this stuff down, I’d want to elaborate on these aspects of it:

– this class is more impressed by the making of film than the viewing

– it might be right to focus strongly on recent films. I’m less classical than some others, I think – I don’t bother teenagers with Battleship Potemkin – but I do try and show a wide range of eras. But their interest is SO high when they’re watching things from, say, the last 40 years, and we know that interested people learn best. I think we do teach history backwards – why would any kid care much about 200 years ago? Maybe there’s a good idea in there for film too.

– I’ve found some good ideas for lessons/projects in the 3 years teaching it so far. I’ll share them.

– Always show Jaws.

More someday.

Flop City: Singin’ in the Rain fails to hypnotize.

I followed up The Kid and The Cutting Edge with Singin’ in the Rain – added this year after reading Ebert’s review in Great Movies. It seemed like it’d be a hit – it’s an interesting look at early Hollywood, the studios’ manipulation of the “relationships” of their stars, and the transition to talkies/sound movies. PLUS all that great dancing. I don’t show a ton of very old films in the course – I think you need to encourage the love of the art before challenging the kids with films that require effort – and I feel mildly guilty about that, so I thought this would be a fix.

It wasn’t the movie, entirely. Another group of students may well have dug it, and it might work well later in the course. But a confluence of disruptions interrupted the viewing – a constant hazard in a school. Announcements, Photo Day, Rosh Hashanah and illness took a third of the class out – and a different third the next day – so nobody saw the whole thing. They were put off by the pace in certain parts – the romantic bits and the non-plot-related songs. And to be honest, I suppose my own lack of love for musicals may have influenced them, although I’m not sure about that. I was certainly pretending to be keen on it.

In the end, I had to call the lesson a fail. The assignment I intended to base on the film was impossible as they hadn’t all seen all of it; I decided to follow it up with something always engaging – The Breakfast Club, with a related topic of the importance of seeing oneself represented in the movies and the question of whether teens are represented thoughtfully/accurately.  That’s today and I’m counting on a win.

Film 11, first week.

As mentioned in the last post, I’m teaching two film courses in High School – grade 11 and 12. I work at a private alternative school in Toronto, Ontario, Canada – a small school with less than 200 kids. The film course is my creation, based on the curriculum of the Visual Arts course, so of course I wrote and continue to rewrite it over time. My intention is to keep a regular journal specifically about this course, with the understanding that other aspects of teaching will become intertwined with this narrative. So I’ll just quickly catch up with this last week and a half.

Kids are deeply literate in their watching of film and video; they’re beyond older people in their ability to handle crazily-quick cutting. But they don’t have depth to their understanding, and they’re generally quite surprised at what goes into a movie. It’s an interesting position to be in, and one that they are very well-primed for. So we start off almost immediately with an overview – I use one about editing (The Cutting Edge), but could easily switch to another about cinematography (Visions of Light). The overview gives them a fast idea of the length of time involved in Film History, and a quick look at the big changes and events over the 100 years. Both are excellent films.

On the very first day, however, we watch The Kid by Charlie Chaplin. I’ve yet to have a group of students not fall in love with it, despite its being in black and white, unfamiliar, and silent. I encourage them to talk during the movie (and try to steer them towards discussing the film, not the weekend), and they do – collectively interpreting the action and the feelings, and questioning what they don’t understand (ie. the bizarre dream sequence in heaven). They boo the orphanage owner, the cruel doctor, and the bully; they cheer the rooftop chase scene and adore the little boy breaking windows. It’s a great bonding experience, and ties them quickly to the idea that the unfamiliar can be rewarding.

Hmm. An idea about how to write about teaching.

I struggle with finding the combination of time and inclination to write at all about my main thing in life: teaching. I started A Different Fish (now part of this site rather than being a separate blog) because I think about teaching a lot, and like to write about it, but generally don’t. I started A Different Fish when I was on a break from teaching, of course: when I went back I was too tired to talk about teaching, let alone write about it. But I have an idea: Maybe I could try and write about teaching one course.

I have been teaching (and creating) a course in Film for three years, and it’s been very interesting. I’ve had to learn a ton – about film history, about film editing and using Premiere (still very noob), and about how to teach what I’m learning. So writing about it would be fun. I can use the day to day course as a frame – an actual web log.

You know why I thought of this? Because of the video below, which I thought needed to be shared: it’s one of the early survivors of the first days of film – and its a cat video. If this Internet really is made of cats, this is the germ.

I’m Falling in Love with Roger Ebert

I’ve been teaching a high school film course for two years this week; this second year, I actually taught two courses – 11 and 12. It’s been really interesting – building the courses, trying things out. It’s forced me to investigate film history in the same way I explored music history in my thirties, and the story of film is a great story. Learning how this language we all can read but were never really taught, how it was invented, is crazily interesting. Learning about the contexts for movies that I grew up with and took for granted is interesting. The newly accessible means of production – digital film and computer editing suites – only adds to the thrill.

It’s a popular class, as you can imagine: kids sign up thinking they’re going to just watch movies all the time. And they do, with the bonus of the interesting story of the art form. It’s a great, great class to teach. I live in some dread of copyright police, but that’s the only downside. More on that another time.

ANYWAY: Roger Ebert. My lady Marjan has been reading him for a long time, and had told me about his compelling story. But I knew him only in a casual way and had never made any effort to read his reviews. But I recently picked up one of the Great Movies books – the 3rd – on a whim, and now I am hooked bad.

His essays on important movies, originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times as a column of the same name, are brilliant. He’s a hell of a writer – I can see why he’s the only film critic to win a Pulitzer prize – and I’m regularly moved by the closing lines of the essays, like wonderfully crafted little bows tying it up. He’s a fantastic mixture of super-informed (he was at the first screening of everything, sitting next to and talking to the creators), educated (the guy goes to a lot of frame-by-frame screenings) and insightful. His review of just about every film inspires me to watch it again.

I think I’m going to use one of the series as a textbook next year.I think his essays – so good and quite short – will actually be attractive to them, rather than a chore, which reading often is with my kids. They’ll make great food for conversations and as ways into the broader history of film we can’t cover during the class. I’m (and right here, with this flimsy fucking closing line, I declare my lack of craft) glad I found him.

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