Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Kevin Arnold and Arnold Spirit Junior

Here is why Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is the Native American Wonder Years.

  1. Arnold Spirit Junior is the indigenous counterpart to Kevin Arnold; even their names are similar.
  2. They both tell the stories of their childhood as adults, which brings a kind of sober clarity to the events of the narrative: a clarity we largely lack during formative events in our childhood.
  3. Both Kevin and Arnold fall in love with the beautiful and unreachable girl (Penelope for Arnold and Winnie Cooper for Kevin).
  4. Despite the challenge and burden of loving a beautiful and popular girl, both Arnold and Kevin persevere to win pieces of their respective love interests’ hearts.    
  5. Roger, a prominent character in Part Time Indian, is a total jock. Roger, a prominent character in The Wonder Years, is also a total jock.
  6. In both series, the Rogers work as a kind of romantic counterpart/rival to the narrator.
  7. Paul (Kevin’s friend) from The Wonder Years is a genius, and so is Gordy (Arnold’s friend) from Part Time  Indian.
  8. They both deal with love, grief, and adolescence with poignancy.
  9. Kevin’s sister Karen is a kindred free spirit to Arnold’s sister Mary Runs Away. They both run away.  
  10. They are both extraordinarily well-written and incredibly entertaining. If you’ve forgotten just how well TV can be written, check out the clip of Kevin and Winnie’s first kiss.

Obviously there are problems with this comparison. Kevin is white and lives in an American suburb; his best friend Paul grows up to attend Harvard. Arnold lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation; his best friend Rowdy has serious anger management issues and is raised by an abusive alcoholic. The Wonder Years is about wonder. Part Time Indian is about hope. These are, of course, vital differences, but both stories are told in the same narrative style and with similar wit and courage. Alexie scholars would probably be content to string me up for making the comparison, but I think it’s a good one. I also think those of you that use The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, especially with a mostly white demographic, might do well to bring in The Wonder Years.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Amateur Essay

Here is a new version of this essay (newest proofread 9.18.17), originally posted in April of 2015. It has been a tough essay to finish, and I'm still not sure it's done, but I'm using it in my composition classes as an example of an "Amateur Essay."
Here's the prompt I have used: the primary definition of “amateur” according to the OED is “one who loves or is fond of; one who has a taste for anything.” So, tell us how you came to have your tastes, maybe how your tastes lead you to do something you love, and how that something has shaped your life.  
This post is doomed to be a mixture of black and white font, it seems.

TMNT and Me
As an adopted child, my mother brought a common painted turtle in a bucket into my kindergarten classroom. It was 1984 and no one had ever heard of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Eastman and Laird were just unveiling their black and white indy comic at a comic book convention in New Hampshire. Despite this fact, we were enthralled by the turtle.  Time Warp roughly thirty years later: as a parent myself, I decide to drive to my son’s school. It is his last day as a kindergartner at Marshallville Elementary School, and it is Marshallville Elementary School’s last day as a school. They are all set to tear it down during the summer. There’s something inherently sad about the demolition of an elementary school: all of those little amateurs will lose forever the opportunity to one day wander nostalgically through the halls of the building that helped nurture them. On the school’s last day, I am home early from teaching at my own school and in a rush to make it to Marshallville Elementary before they close their doors for good. I notice a turtle stopped in the middle of the hot summer highway. The year is 2013, and everyone knows what a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle is. He is a painted box turtle, and because of red markings on his face, the kindergartners will name him Raphael.
Time warp back to 1988: the year Playmates released the first wave of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures. My family moved during the summer before I was to enter the fifth grade. Rather than moving twenty miles south that summer it seemed as if I had also entered a legitimate time-warp that matured children at astonishing speed. In short, it seemed that all of my classmates had outgrown playing with toys! My new classmates were listening to bands like Great White and Young MC on their Walkman cassette players. Songs about hanging with chicks. The only chick I wanted to hang with was April O’Neil, which wasn’t saying much. That yellow jumpsuit? That hair?C'mon, she was the most difficult action figure to find. Besides, she liked Casey Jones. Judging by his long hair and sleeveless shirts, he was probably listening to Great White too.
The turtles, despite their apparent lack of popularity with the fifth grade class of Northwest Elementary School, were my solace during that transitional year. I played with the action figures, drew pictures of them, and watched the cartoon after school. They represented everything I wanted to be: tough, resilient, and despite the fact that they were total outsiders, they had a great sense of humor. Everything just bounced off their shells. I was on the cusp of adolescence, and I didn’t just want to be a "teenager," I wanted to be a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle." They all hand jived, man, and said stuff like “Awesome!” and “Bodacious!” in their nearly identical surfer-dude voices. In those early iterations the turtles were still relatively one-dimensional, but they seemed to me, the epitome of cool. Besides, the only dimension I was familiar with was Dimension X: home of Krang, the malevolent master brain.  
The only folks that shared my opinion about the turtles were my next-door neighbors, Robert and Ryan. Robert was a grade behind me and drew turtles too. Even then he was an entrepreneur, keeping his originals and tracing copies for a dollar each. He is now partner in a design company called Commuter Industries in Sacramento, California. Back then Ryan seemed to appreciate the toughness of the turtles the way I did. He was a Mikey kind of guy, so we made nunchucks from the cardboard tubes on wire clothes hangers and practiced our ninja moves at dawn and dusk. At the time I couldn’t understand how such “Awesome!” and “Bodacious!” behavior could add to my status as the weird new kid, but it did, and if playing with the Cheapskate during class didn’t seal the deal, constantly doodling turtles and turtle related pictures certainly did: I found myself in a new grade with no friends. My new teacher seemed to understand all of this somehow and began wearing a brightly colored Ninja Turtle wristwatch inherently awesome and bodacious because it sent me a straightforward message. "You are not alone."  
Don’t get me wrong, she was still capable of acts of great cruelty.
As an avid, egocentric artist I decided one day to carve my name into my own desk.... an act of exquisite boldness and stupidity. My teacher made me walk down to the janitor’s closet, borrow a piece of sandpaper, and, in tears, rub it out in front of the whole class. I thought this lapse in judgement might disqualify me from further artistic opportunities. Not so. When the contest to see who could decorate the class door came around, I was chosen to draw the design.
I chose Ninja Turtles, of course.
I drew a large, turtle-themed mural complete with all four heroes and the Party Wagon, which proclaimed, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Want To Be Your Friend!”
It should have said, “I Want To Be Your Friend!"   
Ironically, my unabashed love and fondness for the turtles led to my first real friend. Paul was the kid that could speed read, spoke Elvish, and got A’s on everything. This boy was Krang, the master brain. He was into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I aspired to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Or, as my classmates might have said, Paul was the D&D Dork, and I was the Turtle Freak. I taught him how to draw and he taught me how to roleplay. We became great allies. It seemed that the people I bonded with most deeply during childhood were those with whom I was able to share a passion. Perhaps not such a brilliant insight, but one that still defines the terms of my relationships, as I’ve found it is only through this kind of interaction that you glimpse the real amateur. To borrow from Michael Chabon’s essay “The Amateur Family,” being an amateur is all about not being afraid to disclose that which holds you in a vulnerable state of wonderment.
Time warp back to 2013. Twenty-five years passed since I first learned and then forgot how to be an amateur. One day, on the ride home from his after-school program, my son Wyatt told me about his friend in kindergarten with whom he played Ninja Turtles at recess. “Do you play with anyone else?” I wondered. “No one else believes in them,” was his response, and in an instant I remembered being the original Ninja Turtle at my school.
“They’re real, aren’t they dad?”
I answered the way I do all of my son’s questions that deal with wonder.
"Of course they’re real."

Each turtle played an important role in my upbringing. Raphael was my favorite turtle in those days when I was grappling with the relentless bully known as puberty. I was playing Raphael in armwrestling tournaments at lunch and lifting weights in my basement. I was Donatello studying with the Master Brain for straight As. I was painfully shy and, even worse, just as quiet. I struggled with the outward expression necessary for leadership roles. Unfortunately, I took everything way too seriously to be a carefree jokester like Mikey. As the years unfold these are still aspects of my personality I'm working on bringing to life. It seems any well-rounded guy needs to embody the tetrad of turtles.
As a kid most of my turtle lore came from the cartoon, the toy line, and the original movie. I got around to reading the original graphic novels, had checked them out from the library in fact, but I got caught up in petty grievances like, “but their bandanas are all red!” and “why are there so many Krang?” I absorbed the dodgy origin story. A random canister of mutagen bounces out of a random truck after the random truck hits a random pothole and the random canister of mutagen hits a random pedestrian holding a random glass bowl of turtles… see what I mean? You might ask, "Doesn’t the story eventually coalesce into a streamlined narrative the more you read?" Well, if by streamlined you mean they eat pizza and fight dinosaurs from outer space, then, yes, I suppose it does. It was the art that drew me in. All puns aside, I came to hunger for the full page explosions of action. The turtles were grittier than they were on TV, which had to do with the style of Kevin Eastman’s illustrations: thick, black lines and heavy cross-hatching. Lately I have truly enjoyed watching the Nickelodeon series with my sons, have begun obsessing over the excellent IDW comic line, and still aspire to emulate the tetrad.

I spend a fair amount of time and money buying turtle toys and comics. Some are for my kids but, let’s be clear, a lot of them are for me. In the novel Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon writes that nostalgia is just a way to try and reclaim some part of your youth. Tragically, my neighbor and close friend Ryan committed suicide in his early twenties. I know that part of my affection for the turtles has to do with the fact that we can no longer swing nunchucks, and every time I re-buy an old toy we shared, I remind myself it won’t bring him back. Those hallways may be just a memory, but it still feels good to walk down them.
Now that I am an amateur father with two sons, the message of the turtles that speaks to me most clearly is that of the importance of family. I am in awe of the love, respect and obedience the turtles have for their “dad,” (a giant sewer rat that teaches them Ninjitsu) and how loyal they are to one another. In my most sentimental moments, the relationship the turtles have with Splinter reminds me of my own adopted parents, their unconditional love, the fact that me and my dad look nothing alike, and the fact that they taught me how to survive in an imperfect world.  Now as a father, it is all I hope for my own sons: for them to see their father as a person worth obeying, to have the courage to stand up against evil, and to look out for one another no matter what uncertainties may lie ahead. Some believe that cartoons and comics are at best a waste of time, or at worst, trash that rots your brain. Just the other day, my oldest son Wyatt wore a policeman’s hat and a Ninja Turtle shirt out to dinner with the family. On the way home I overheard him telling his younger brother Jonas that he would run down any bad guys that ever tried to hurt him, and that he would always be there for him. Always. He made sure to emphasize the word “always.” It makes my heart swell with pride to hear my little turtles profess such loyalty to one another, and if that’s trash, then I guess this amateur belongs in the sewer.

Time warp back to my son’s kindergarten classroom. The kids have named the painted turtle Raphael with minimal prompting from me. They are taken with the way it rears up and attempts, unsuccessfully, to climb out of the white plastic bucket serving as his temporary home. Despite the thoughtful touches (a smooth grey rock, a bit of grass and a twig), he seems to really dislike his new digs. My sons want to keep him as a pet.
“He needs to be free,” I explain.  “He’d be unhappy as our pet.”
“But you took him away from his family,” my sons point out as we tip the bucket on its side and, sure enough, Raph moves with all of his touted agility and speed out of the mouth of the bucket and into the water. If you’d have blinked, you’d have missed it.  
“Maybe he’ll find a new family,” my wife says. It's all we can hope as we watch the still water, wondering.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Online Security

Last winter I posted a response to Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and I mentioned Bruce Schneirer's contribution to the afterword. Here's a list of the top 20 Online Security blogs of 2017 where you can find access to the ideas of other security experts.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Shape and Resonance in the Narrative Essay

Sherman Alexie's "Superman and Me" is a perfect example of a crafted essay that uses both techniques I call "the rule of three" and "full circle." Both can give shape to a narrative essay and both are done extremely well in this particular essay. Alexie uses repetition in the "rule of three" For instance: 1. "I was trying to save my life." 2. "They were trying to save their lives." 3. "I was trying to save our lives." The "full circle technique" is achieved through Alexie's description of Superman breaking down the literal door to save lives, and in the end, Alexie trying to break down figurative doors to save lives in reservation classrooms. Both techniques are used effectively to achieve thematic resonance. In my experience students have been able to imitate this effect to achieve power in their own narrative essays.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"...anything that fairly excites our admiration expands us." - Thoreau

Though it's not packaged as "data," here's more evidence to support an inquiry-based classroom. The more a teacher is able to facilitate learning that stems from an area of, call it what you will- interest, admiration, curiosity- the more invested students will be in their learning, the more meaning you will construct in the classroom... the more you are ultimately equipping students to be interesting people that will expand society. Throw away your worksheets, people. No, wait, recycle.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Poetry and Protein

For National Poetry Month, here are my thoughts on poetry’s role in the classroom, featuring way too many food metaphors. For starters, can we agree that poetry is worthwhile? Novalis said, “poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.” A school with no poetry would be all method with no madness, right? Poetry offers poignant truth, beauty, and insight into what we all like to call “the human condition.” At some point, life’s cruel, absurd torchbearer has carelessly set us all ablaze, and the degree of our burns are as wicked and varied as any wildfire. Poetry can offer one of life’s kindest balms.

Poetry, in my opinion, is used most effectively in the classroom as seasoning, a garnish, or maybe even a dessert. When it is used as a main course, the waiter could become agitated at the diners’ complaints when the meal is not filling enough, or when they’re not sure how to ingest the course, or... maybe, after one bite, they discretely spit the poem into a napkin having wished they’d been able to order something else. Without some degree of variety and spontaneity your lesson is going to ultimately be as pointless as trying to explain how coffee, or asparagus, or organ meat is delightful to someone who reviles it. They won’t get it; heck they may even come to disdain you for it. Why not give students the freedom to explore poetry the way a novice chef might spin a spice rack, trying out different flavors and combinations? This, of course, necessitates an anthology. For American Literature, here is one of my favorites, loaded with wonderful poems, that isn’t going to break the budget at $2.70.

Now, you can also purchase a teaching unit to go with this book, however, in my opinion, worksheets should rarely be used with poems. While the intention of the worksheet may be wonderful, it always feels a bit too much like a survey card after a great meal: I’d much rather talk with someone about the food while I’m tasting it. I did once purchase a unit in correlation with this book, but usually we get through only a question or two before we’re stirring in other sources, personally relating, or gnawing on the poem’s inferred philosophical questions.

So some of you might be wondering- where’s the protein in this metaphor?!- and like so many armchair nutritionists you may become agitated at the notion of a meal with no obvious source of protein. Let me assuage your anxiety…. the protein is a classroom environment that encourages open-ended questions, speculation, personal connections, gravitas, and maybe a little bit of silliness. The amino acid of your enthusiasm will nourish novice poets and philosophers to speak up. This environment, of course, is in many ways much harder to pull off than simply buying a poetry anthology for $2.70… because, obviously, you must be sensitive enough love poetry for this to work, but thick-skinned enough to keep trying, even when it doesn’t.

Happy National Poetry Month, friends!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Interest Journals

Started in 2005, these interest journals have evolved from a few notebooks with titles in Sharpie, to a shelf full of vibrant (I hope) topics. They are fun to get students writing on a Monday. I have written at least a page in all of them, so it's also a way for students to get to know me better, and vice versa. One of the challenges is to stay up on the reading. I used to read every journal, every time. Now, not so much. I award participation points and plan to have students write their name and the title of the journal they wrote in to help create accountability. As it is, I have two rules for interest journaling: 1) sign your name and date your entry 2) keep it school appropriate. Occasionally I have to deal with "graffiti"... essentially someone trolling someone else's entry, but this is much rarer than I would have thought. Often students enjoy hearing the voices of the past.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Current State of Illiteracy...

So, normally I don't let things like this bother me, but this time it's personal...they've brought books into it. Can you believe there are enough people in the world (mostly American, I'm sure) that are so eager to buy a book full of blank pages that said book has catapulted to the #1 bestseller in books on Amazon, and is currently out of stock? I understood when 1984 sold out on Amazon, but this baffles me.  According to the US Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, there are 32 million illiterate adults in the US, and, I'm guessing, most of them have ordered this book. But seriously, 21% of the adults in the US read below a 5th grade level. The US Department of Justice states that "The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure." Obviously, I think reading is important... I've dedicated my life to reading and writing. I guess that's why the success of a book filled with blank pages irks me so much. We are a country that touts its ignorance. I know it's supposed to be a joke, and a dig at Democrats, but it's scary to me how a book that has no words in it has better reviews than any of Hemingway's books. I feel the need to quote Isaac Asimov... he said, "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way though our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'" The cult is taking over, it seems. Well, at least they're currently taking over book sales on Amazon. There's so much that divides us in this country... the distribution of wealth, religious beliefs, race, opinions on healthcare... but there is perhaps no gap more concerning to me than the literacy gap. There seems to be very little a person can do to convince someone who his hell-bent on never opening a book to do so. A great America is an America that reads.

*Update: as of 8.29.17 there are 2,647 reviews and the book is up to a five-star rating.

** As of 10.20.17 there is another, identical product on Amazon. The gem I discuss above costs $8.86. The new copy, by Donald Walker, is $7.95. Nothing like a little free market competition to drive down the prices of the things that truly matter in life.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Argumentation: Rogerian Theory using Immigration

The documentary series 30 Days, specifically the episode on "Immigration," shows the controvertial issue in a way that appeals to modern teen audiences. This episode, which you can stream for free on Vimeo here, shows two sides of the argument; Frank George is a "Minuteman" that travels to the border on a fairly regular basis with his 9mm pistol and .223 rifle to report illegals crossing over to US border patrol; George is a legal US immigrant from Cuba. Armida "Gonzalez" (the family asked that their real name not be used) is an illegal, immigrant teenager whose aspirations include going to Princeton and making it to States on her high school golf team. The documentary strives to show the issue from both sides in 2006-2007 US.

Here's where Rogerian theory comes in; after students have finished the documentary, ask them to write to either Armida or Frank.  The difficult part, at least initially, is that if they personally agree with Frank, they must write to Armida and vice versa. Good excuse to teach business letter format, also. The most challenging aspect is arriving at common ground.

Here's the assignment prompt:

Your letter should both articulate the opposing side's view in a way that is unbiased, objective and complete in its ability to match the holder's intensity, use of vocabulary, and give a nod to current controversy. It should strive to establish common ground. If necessary, do research to present an educated, realistic common ground.

Transcendentalist Theme: Simplicity

See the Lonely Island in the Classroom blogpost on how to introduce the theme of simplicity to teenagers.

Also, see the post and video on tiny home builder Austin Hay.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Impromptu Stories

I want to break up these Transcendentalist posts with a little activity that has helped keep me afloat during many a lesson that ended prematurely, or with many a group that was hard to keep focused. It's simple and fun... if you're a storyteller, that is. Choose three students to each contribute a word (maybe these are the students that are hardest to keep focused). Write those words on the board. Encourage zaniness or "randomness." Example:

1. Squirrels
2. Wheelbarrow
3. Guitar

Now, narrate a story, out loud, that connects these three elements. It might go something like this:

I was out back playing my guitar one morning, really enjoying the new spring sunshine, lazily picking notes and putting off spreading the mulch that sat in a pile on a tarp, off to one side. My wife hollered out, "I'm going grocery shopping; I'd like the mulch spread by the time I get back." I looked over at the locked shed where I kept my wheelbarrow and shovel. I had no idea where the key to that old rusty lock was, but I said, "Of course, dear." I kept picking the notes. Now, one benefit of playing the guitar out back is that for some reason, when I play the blues, the squirrels in the neighborhood all come into the big chestnut tree in the back yard. They sit like trained seals and listen. I swear. Today I was feeling good from the spring sunshine, so I picked out a particularly inspired blues tune. Sure enough, the squirrels came. There were gray ones, red ones, even a few black ones. My wife doesn't like the squirrels; "they they eat all the chestnuts, and then we don't get any," (she loves chestnuts), so it's almost as if they knew she was gone, because there had to be a hundred up in that tree. So I picked and picked. More came. So I sang, "my wife she don't know me / today's the day / she wants me to work / and I'd much rather play / the mulch is high / my voice is low / she wants me to shovel / but I say no / that mulch can sit there / that mulch can wait / the sunshine won't last / that's all our fate / so while we're alive / let's sit and play / the work can wait / for another day..." and on and on like that. And do you know what? Those squirrels, bit by bit started spreading that mulch while I played and played. Like a street musician pulling pocket change from passer-bys these squirrels bit by bit took the strips of mulch in their tiny hands and jaws and spread it like a well-oiled, albeit furry, machine. By the time I had run out of lyrics they had spread all of the mulch into the flower beds. "You guys did a great job," I said, beaming. "Wait here." I went inside and pulled down the large bowl of chestnuts we'd managed to harvest late last summer into the fall. There were quite a few. I'd daresay enough for each squirrel to have one. So, I took it out back and like a clown in a parade, threw handfuls of chestnuts to my helpers. They took their prize and went just as I heard the car pull into the driveway. I went out front to help my wife bring in the groceries. She said, " you don't look very sweaty." I said, "it's all done." She looked skeptical, but she loved the mulch! She hugged me and we went back inside to put away the groceries. "Hand me down that bowl of chestnuts," she said. "I think it's time we should roast some to enjoy." 

"About that..." I started, giving my most winning smile.    

So if you're full of hot air, like me, and like telling stories, try mesmerizing your class with this activity by coming up with something off the top of your head, like the above example. Or better yet, let them give it a try for themselves. Finally, you could adapt it to class writing and then have them read what they came up with.