Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween Costumes and the Drug War

Feeling proud of myself because I made a snake costume for Kenzo today--I went to the store and bought fabric and everything. He was going to be a shadow until day before yesterday and then changed his mind. I kind of liked the shadow idea better because it's abstract and cool and original, plus he was going to use Tai's old Grim Reaper costume (I made that one too, because I'm just that good, natch). 

Tai is going to be a gangster. Sigh. We spray painted one of his Nerf guns black, and he's going to sag his pants, wear a wallet chain and a big hoodie and push his hat sideways. It's actually pretty funny. He's even going to wear striped boxer briefs because he figures if you can see his underwear over his pants, it should be interesting to look at. His hoodie covers his butt, though, so it doesn't really matter--it's just for authenticity's sake. I got him a big chain to wear around his neck, but he said no thanks.

He's also going to wear a bandana around his face--Old West bank robber style--that has the bottom of a skull on the outside. So much for authenticity. 

Why does the idea of a gangster costume bug me so much? More than, say, a cowboy with a gun or a Marine with a gun or a 1920's gangster with a gun? Because it's racist? Because it's violent and contemporary? I don't think he even understands what it means to be a real gangster.

The irony is that it's Red Ribbon Week (Say No to Drugs!) at his school this week. It's so awful. Each day has a theme: 
  • Do the Macarena during lunch on Monday because Heey, Macarena! (Ay!)
  • Wear boots to school on Tuesday to Give Drugs the Boot! or was it Stomp Out Drugs! or Kick the Cocaine Habit! or maybe it was Who Cares! 
  • Wear you clothes backwards on Wednesday to show that Drugs Eff You Up So Much You Can't Put Your Clothes On Right! 
  • Scare Away Drugs! on Halloween and wrap a teacher up in toilet paper at recess to make her into a mummy because Drugs Are Afraid of Mummies! Also, Dead People Don't Do Drugs!
  • Wear Red on Friday because Bloods not Crips!

 Or whatever. Who knows. How this is supposed to help kids not do drugs is totally beyond me. Tai's sweatshirt was on backwards after school today and I asked him if he knew why everyone was supposed to wear their clothes backwards. He said no. I don't think anyone knew, actually. 

School has its benefits, but this ridiculosity is one thing I could do without.

In case you're wondering, they were supposed to Dance Away Drugs! by doing the Macarena. Seriously. And they were supposed to Turn Their Backs On Drugs! by wearing their clothes backwards. Ugh. It makes me want to tear my hair out. Now I'm glad that Tai is going as a gangsta. I should have found him a hoodie with a big marijuana leaf on the back.

Addendum (11/3): Come to think of it, if I were drugs, I'd definitely run away from a crowd of people doing the Macarena on a Monday afternoon. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Playing with Art, Writing, and Thinking: See-Think-Wonder

You can do this with details in a picture, or with the picture as a whole. It works for “stand-alone” individual pieces of art, or for art as a way into a larger concept such as perspectives on a historical event or social issue (see below)...lots of possibilities.

1. Describe what you see--and only what you see--not what you think is happening: The girl is on the ground with her feet in the air. Her mouth and eyes are wide open. = Seeing; The boy tripped the girl. She’s surprised. = Thinking
2. Based on your descriptions, describe what you think: I think that the girl is surprised. I think the boy tripped her because her feet are still in the air, his foot is extended near her feet, and he’s pointing and laughing at her.
3. Start wondering: I wonder why he tripped her? I wonder if they’re friends or enemies? 

This is a great way to get kids to separate observation from opinion. Asking, “What do you see that makes you think that?” during the “Think” stage helps them practice backing up their claims with evidence.

If possible, the “Wonder” stage should really push beyond what’s already in front of them. “I wonder if he tripped her?” is really  more of a “think” question, especially if there’s evidence in the picture to support an answer. “I wonder why he tripped her?” pushes beyond.

Play See-Think-Wonder with photos of the civil rights movement:

While we’re on the subject, here are links to more photos:
 and a fascinating site about the visual coverage of the civil rights movement:

If you're on the un-schooling side of the spectrum, this could be a great way to find a path to follow. You don't have to know much as the parent--just google images of whatever subject you want to learn about, play the game, and wander with the wonder (forgive the silly wordplay).

I used to use this technique when I taught Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (historical context: Harlem Renaissance), as well as Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (historical context: Vietnam War). Two of my favorite books, by the way. But because I used these resources each year, I could get elaborate: kids listened to music, examined photographs, read poetry, looked at lists of period slang/jargon, saw clips of movies and newsreels. Such a great way to make deductions, use evidence, learn about a time period, and enrich your experience of a book.

The name of this "game" (See-Think-Wonder) comes from a terrific book called Making Thinking Visible (Ritchart, Church, and Morrison) which is full of ways to, well, make thinking visible--to really help kids understand how they think, and how to think. It's for classroom teachers, but it takes a close look at what thinking is, and how it happens and I highly, highly recommend it.

Well, this post ended up being kind of a rabbit hole for me. But a good one.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Quote of the Week: Mark Twain

Even the best writers don't always trust their talents:

"I like it only tolerably well, as far as I have gone, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn the manuscript when I am done."
- Mark Twain, to his editor, while writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Pictures and words

There’s a reason why they say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I’ve found that using visual art is a great way to launch a conversation, inspire writing, and teach analytical thinking. 

Find a photograph or painting with a lot going on in the way of action and/or facial expressions. National Geographic has tons of great photos to download and print, or just to look at. Art books are nice (you can get them at the library) if you want something bigger.

Here are some pieces that I like:
Bruegel the Elder: The Dutch Proverbs

I ended up sticking with Western art simply because that’s what I’ve been able to find the most of. There are plenty of very cool Asian, Native American, South American and African art pieces with lots of detail and action, but it seems that expressive crowd scenes with high pixelation are the domain of European artists. Haven’t given up, though. Also, here's where art books from the library come in handy. Yay, libraries.

Veronese's Wedding at Cana. Thanks, Wikipedia.

There’s so much you can do. Here are a few ideas to start with:
  • Take turns describing what you see: observe details like colors, textures, light and shade, in addition to what is actually happening. 
  • Make up a title (best if you don’t show your student the title first). Make up titles for different parts of the scene if there is a lot going on. 
  • If you want, you can play a grammar game: list the verbs you see happening. List the nouns, and then the adjectives that describe them. List the adverbs. 
  • Describe imagined details: sounds, smells, sensations, tastes.
  • Make up a story about one person, about the whole scene...pick one interaction and tell what has happened just before the moment in the painting, and what will happen in the next moment(s). 

More on what to do with art coming soon.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Audience does make a difference: Wired magazine says so.

Actually it's not Wired per se, but Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think, excerpted in this month's issue of Wired. Titled "Thinking Out Loud", it's about how the Internet as a public forum has contributed to social, civic, and academic advances. More people than ever are writing because it's easier to reach--or even just to imagine--an audience. The built-in audience of the Internet is causing people to publish, and once published, enabling them to find each other. Even if most of what's out there is drivel, he argues, there's more good stuff, too. And the smart people and good ideas are connecting with each other in a way that they never have before.

In the middle of the article, he mentions a number of studies that prove that having an authentic audience makes thinkers and writers jump up. From pre-schoolers to college students and presumably beyond, people tend to think and express themselves with greater care and clarity when they present their ideas to an audience that matters to them, as opposed to an audience that doesn't matter, or no audience at all. So glad he agrees with me. Definitely worth a read.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Spelling, creativity, audience, purpose, and laughter for extra credit

Here's a thought: If you're going to have your writer make up sentences for their spelling or vocab words, go for who can be the funniest or the weirdest and still convey the meaning of the word.

I guess that's obvious. But especially in regular school, it's often just about writing the easiest, shortest, most obvious sentence so you can get the darn thing turned in and get credit for it. It can get so boring and awful for everyone. If kids are trying to be funny, they're writing for an audience besides the teacher, and they're writing with a purpose beyond showing that they know how to use a word correctly. They're writing to entertain. The results have to be better than the alternative.

This is not exactly the same thing, but when I taught high school, I sometimes gave partial credit for wrong answers if they made me laugh. I hated giving short answer quizzes and getting them back completely empty, which wasn't unusual since so many kids didn't do their reading homework. It got so depressing. So I started telling kids to write something no matter what, and if it was funny or creative, they'd get a point or two for trying. And then we'd all get to laugh when I read the best answers to the class. It was better than crying.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Poem: "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes

I came across this poem in a Langston Hughes collection that I bought for a friend the other day. I can't remember how long it's been since I've thought of it--ten years, at the very least. I used to teach it as part of a poetry unit to 10th graders. Or maybe it was a one-time thing to 8th graders in summer school.

Anyway, I like this poem because it's simple and straightforward. I like its tone, and I like to imagine the speaker, a bent old black woman. And when I say old, I mean wizened and ancient, though I don't know why, exactly--Hughes could have envisioned someone my age, for all I know. It's also a great teaching poem--metaphor/extended metaphor, voice, part of a unit on parent-child relationships, "life lessons"...endless possibilities.

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Here's something weird (maybe). This poem also makes me uncomfortable. The language reminds me of Uncle Tom, and it makes me see racist and/or stereotyped portrayals of uneducated, simple-minded black people dispensing hard-won, folksy wisdom: Mammy, Uncle Remus, Uncle Tom...but of course that's not what Hughes intended. Right?

I bought the collection for a friend because he's a black man who grew up in Oakland, and he writes poetry, and Langston Hughes was a black urban poet. Which is completely ridiculous, because that's really all they have in common that I know about. On the other hand, isn't it true that ethnicity in this country often correlates with a shared experience? If someone bought me a book of poetry by an Asian American woman, would I be intrigued or insulted? I suppose it depends on the spirit of the gift.

I had forgotten the immediacy of Hughes' poetry, how rooted it is in place and time. My friend tends to like poetry that Makes Sense of Life--the huge picture--more than snapshots that evoke a feeling or an experience and then just leave you with it. He likes poetry that has closure. Hughes' poetry does, and does not. So I ended up keeping the book for myself.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Elements of Story II: Plot Structure and Lab Reports

How’s this for a serendipitous connection? Yesterday afternoon I posted about the importance and ubiquity of story structure, and last night, Tai and I found it in a lab report.

Backing up a step or two
Tai is actually back in school, mostly because of family stuff. But I’m keeping up with this blog because I still have ideas, and in fact, I got to apply one to his homework yesterday, which was “Write a 5-6 sentence conclusion for the science experiment”. Remember those? 

Tai’s teacher is actually doing a pretty thorough job with the scientific process, having conversations about variables and recording data and using the data to support a conclusion. The hard part is that the experiments seem to be about things the kids already know intuitively, so it’s hard for them--well, it’s hard for Tai--to separate what he thinks he knows from what his data shows him, because it often matches on the surface.

For example, what is the relationship between rate of evaporation and surface area? If equivalent volumes of water are poured into different shaped containers such that the surface area of the water varies with each container, from which container will the water evaporate the fastest? 

Kids worked with a beaker, a bowl, a dish, and a graduated cylinder, whatever that is. Having several years of life experience, Tai and his friends predicted correctly that more water would evaporate from the dish than from the other containers because duh. And lo and behold, their “hypothesis came true”--language that makes me cringe (though Tai insists that this is what his teacher has told him to say). A hypothesis is not a wish. Also, a hypothesis is not a prediction--something I didn’t catch until now, I have to admit.

The writing part
Tai’s homework was to write a conclusion to a lab report about this very experiment--minimum of 5 or 6 sentences, please. Tai complained about this for 30 minutes, during which he went through about eight variations of the following tortured conversation with Tad:  

“Use the data to show that you’re right.”
“But the data is already there in the chart. Anyone can see that I’m right.”
“Pretend they can’t see the data.”
“But that’s stupid. What’s the report for if they can’t see the chart?”
“Pretend you’re telling Jiji (my dad, Tai’s grandfather) about it on the phone.”
“He already knows the answer. Plus why would he even care about evaporation?”

Which is totally beside the point. But that is one problem with school, isn’t it? No authenticity. On the other hand, sometimes you have to practice on stuff that seems meaningless so that you can use those skills effectively for more meaningful stuff:

I just love that clip. Such a life lesson.

Finally Tai managed to scrawl furiously:
“My hypothesis came true because the water in the dish evaporated the fastest. It had the least water in it.” 

At which point Tad gave up and asked me to come and help.