Category Archives: fun

New Class Idea: The Ambiguous Hero

I’ve been captivated, almost forever, with the ambiguous hero; the good guy who does bad things (and, conversely, the bad guy who does good things) and what role he plays in our psyche and, in a larger sense, in our culture.

A friend of mine wants to teach a summer class with film, and we were talking about this idea over dinner the other day.  I haven’t been able to let it go, and here’s what I’ve come up with.  I’m going to need some help zeroing in on the specifics – the assignments, the competencies and objectives, that kind of thing –  but here’s what I’ve got for materials so far:

The Dark Knight: the second of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – this is the one with Heath Ledger as the Joker.  Christian Bale’s Batman is the perfect example, I think, of the ambiguous hero.

A Dry White Season:  This is based on a novel written by a white South African who gets involved in the anti-apartheid movement after someone he knows personally dies in police custody.

Gandhi:  You know this story, and I keep coming back to it as a conversation about civil disobedience and the question of how resistance is characterized on the different “sides” of the debate in question

Gone Baby Gone:  PLEASE tell me you’ve seen this movie!  It’s about a kidnapping, and centers around HUGE issues of “right” and “wrong” and where the law clashes with morality

Harry Potter:  I want to investigate Snape.  The idea of the double agent is always an interesting one.  I’m not sure which film I’d use, though; likely the last one.

Iron Jawed Angels: Another civil disobedience film – this one focuses on women’s suffrage and the outrages that some women suffered at the hands of law enforcement.

Milk:  About Harvey Milk and the early struggle for GLBTQ rights and recognition

Mississippi Burning:  This remains one of my MOST favorite films, mostly because of Gene Hackman’s REALLY complex character.  This scene alone is worth the film:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlzaBi_QxPw

The Negotiator:  This is the story of a cop who takes hostages in order to reveal corruption in his department – a good guy doing a bad thing for a good reason.

Leon, the Professional:  A hit man who adopts his 12 year old neighbor after her family is killed by a corrupt cop (played terrifyingly by Gary Oldman).  He’s a good guy who does bad things, and we have to reconcile his work with his personality.

Schindler’s List:  You know this one, too, I’m sure.  I think that Schindler started out as a bad guy doing a good thing (though for selfish reasons) and evolved into a good guy.

Shawshank Redemption:  Andy as a wrongly convicted man who becomes a criminal in prison, but who never gives up his humanity.

Tsotsi:  I haven’t seen this one in a LONG time, so I’m not sure if I’m remembering it correctly, but I think it’s about a boy who steals a car and discovers that he’s also stolen a baby.  The film tells the story of what he does after he realizes he’s got a tough choice to make.

Unforgiven:  This is a Clint Eastwood western.  Eastwood is a retired gunslinger who gets called back into the life of crime for reasons that he thinks are honorable.  His character is a tough one to suss out, and the film really makes the viewer work for the payoff (plus, it stars Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, which makes it that much better).

I was also thinking that I would have the kids read Bel Canto (which asks the “terrorist or freedom fighter” question) and, if they’re given permission from their parents, to look at a couple of episodes of Dexter (a serial killer in a Showtime series who only murders murderers who get away from the legal system).

I think there’s a lot of richness to be mined in this “good guy doing bad things / bad guy doing good things” question, I just need to think about it a bit more before it takes on any kind of substance that resembles a for-credit class.

What do you think?

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Filed under colleagues, critical thinking, doing my own homework, Dream Course, film as literature, fun, GLBTQ issues, Holocaust, lesson planning, Literature, Mrs. Chili as Student, politics, Teaching, winging it, writing

Quick Hit: Vignette

I gave my juniors a bunch of short story prompts inspired by a compilation of “either/or” choices in a book one of the students brought to class this morning.  The one I chose was “would you rather always lose or never play?”

I’m giving it to you just as I wrote it; it hasn’t gone through any revision or workshopping.  I’ll take whatever feedback anyone feels compelled to give.

Stacey sat in the bleachers, watching her little brother’s baseball team lose… again.  They were oh-and-19 going into this game, and the future didn’t look good.  At least this time they managed to get on the scoreboard; the run the Ducks brought in on a laughable error by the other team’s outfielder brought the number of runs scored by the team for the entire season to exactly two.

Bottom of the 9th; two outs.  Jameson was at bat.  At 13, he was still an awkward kid, and despite his 6 years in Little League, he never quite got the hitting stance right.  He held the bat like a weapon, Stacey could see Jamie’s fingers turning white in the death-grip on the thing, and he bent his knees so much that his ass stuck out at an impossible angle.  He stared at the pitcher with what looked to Stacey like a mixture of wide-eyed fear and blazing fury, and she was sure that, at any moment, the kid might storm the mound and beat the pitcher to death.

The ball came screaming toward her little brother, and he did what he always did.  The bat came flying around his body, wielded more like a broadsword than a baseball bat, and missed the ball entirely.  Stacey heard the ball thump securely in the catcher’s mitt, watched the umpire signal strike three, and watched as her brother and his fellows came to the infield to line up to congratulate yet another vanquishing team.  Stacey gathered up her bag and her jacket and thought to herself that the kids didn’t even look all that dejected.  Losing, it seems, is something that they’ve gotten comfortable with.

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Filed under about writing, composition, doing my own homework, fun, Learning, Mrs. Chili as Student, writing

Avatar

I decided to start my Aliens and Vampires in Literature class with the Aliens contingent (though, now that I think about it again, I probably should have started with vampires, since Hallowe’en is coming up… Oh, well…) and, while I’m waiting for them to score copies of Carl Sagan’s Contact, I am showing and discussing films.

We started with Avatar.

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I love this movie.  Is it formulaic and predictable?  Yes.  Does it tell a new story?  Not really; in fact, it’s nearly one-to-one with Dances with Wolves (which I also love, so there!).  Despite the panning that it received in some circles for its lack of originality, I think it is an important movie, and I was excited to show it to my students.

One of my goals in this course is to get kids to think about the functions that entertainment serves beyond simple entertainment.  We spent three classes watching the film (I got a M/W/F short-day class instead of the long-day T/TH class I wanted, so we’re making do; it’s going to mean covering less material, but I’ll make sure we do more with what we do see), and I patently refused to let the kids talk about the films in class before we’d gotten to the last scene.  (That made them CRAZY, especially since it turned out that I had to stop the film for the end of classes in some really compelling spots; the kids nearly lost their minds when I had to stop the movie when Jake drops onto the creature to become Toruk Makto on Wednesday.)

We had our culminating discussion yesterday, and it was amazing.  All but two of the kids had seen the film before – several of them more than once – but every single one of them said that, despite being very familiar with the movie, there were a number of things they saw when they were “watching it for a class” that they never noticed before.

My absolute favorite moment in the whole discussion came at the very beginning of the class and from my “school son” (whom I’m probably going to talk a lot about this year, so let’s call him Bart, okay?)  We were all talking about the idea that, in typical alien movies, the aliens are always the bad guys* when Bart pointed out that, in this movie, the aliens are still the bad guys.  I pointed at him with my eyebrows-up, “you-just-nailed-it” look on my face and waited for what he said to sink in with the rest of the kids.  One by one, the light dawned; we’re so used to thinking of the “aliens” as ‘whoever isn’t us’ that shifting our thinking to recognize that, in this film, we’re the aliens is a surprise.

The conversation took off from there.  We talked about the ways in which we create an “other,” and how that process of making a pariah allows us to behave in ways we likely wouldn’t otherwise.  We talked about where each character made his or her realizations (and about the characters who never got to the point of change) and about how some of the “good” guys in the film – up to and including the hero – were still complicated and flawed.  We talked about the film as modern social commentary in the context of the Iraq invasion after the 9/11 attacks, and about how some people – particularly Americans and those in positions of political power – don’t seem to understand that “our way” isn’t the pinnacle of human experience; that not everyone wants democracy or McDonald’s or jeans and sneakers.  We talked about the different perspective of this film – the human as alien – and about how the film asks us to think about things we do in ways that we might not have been able to if the Na’vi had come to Earth; that the position of the different ‘races’ impacted the way we think about them (and us).  We talked about power and economics; we talked about religion and belief, about what we value (and how we value what others value), and about the environment.  We talked about what it means to be connected – to our environment and to each other – and we talked about colonialism and its effects on both occupier and occupied (though they didn’t use the term, they still nailed some of the high points of the concept).

It was a wonderful, dynamic, interesting, and exciting conversation.  We’re off to a good start.

*I recognize that not ALL alien movies are about violent invasions and forced occupation – I’m also planning on showing the kids Cocoon and maybe E.T. – but I think it’s fair to agree that most of our alien genre is stacked with stories about invasion and occupation.  Those films bring up ideas I want to get the kids thinking about; I’m trying to train them to see beyond the explosions and action to get at what some of these stories have to say about us and how we treat each other.

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Filed under analysis, critical thinking, ethics, film as literature, fun, I love my job, I've got this kid...., Literature, politics, popular culture, success!, Teaching, the good ones

Why I Love My Job

Seriously.

Did you ever start thinking about something, and then discover, five minutes later, that that thinking led you to someplace COMPLETELY different but entirely connectible?  The other day, for example, I started thinking about Mr. Chili’s impending month-long trip to New Mexico for another instrument launch.  That started me thinking about what we can and cannot bring on airplanes.  THAT thinking led me to thinking about water bottles, which got me to these (which my sister hooked me on to and which I love, despite their hefty price tag.  Honest to Goddess, People; black flask in a black car in a parking lot in August for two hours while I watched a movie.  I came out and the tea inside was still refrigerator cold).  I went from Mr. Chili’s trip to my favorite beverage in three steps.  Kinda like six degrees of Kevin Bacon

So, here’s the scene, okay?  I’m on a lunch date this afternoon with my boss, whom I call Carrie here.  She’s awesome; smart, funny, and fiercely passionate and committed about what we’re doing.  She’s a truly amazing boss – the best I’ve ever worked with – and she’s also a dear and trusted friend; we know, almost instinctively, how to balance the friend relationship with the work relationship in a way that makes both relationships better.  We have a blast every time we’re together, and I’d been looking forward to this lunch for a couple of weeks.

ANYWAY, we’re having lunch and talking alternately about home things and work things.  At one point, we started talking about the fact that I’ve got Mac now, which means that I can teach electives this year.  We’re trying to decide which elective I should teach when, and we got around to the fact that my colleague is teaching his film appreciation class this term, so I’ll teach my Film and Lit class in second semester.  What, then, to teach starting in September?

Somehow, the conversation came around to the fact that Carrie and her daughter sat down to watch Interview with the Vampire the other day.  It seems that her kid was quite ticked off at Claudia’s fate, and Carrie spent a good bit of time explaining that her daughter felt that Claudia’s death was completely unfair.  That somehow led to a conversation about who the villains really are, which led me to observe that our villains change over time; when we were kids, all the bad guys were Russians.  Now, they’re all Arabs.  We go through phases in our entertainment; we get a bumper crop of football movies, then a run of mobster movies, then we get the alien invasion flicks, then we get the supernatural, ghost-and-vampire films, and so on and so on.  What is it, I asked, that makes a certain genre of film so accessible at a certain period of time?

As I was making my case for the cyclical nature of our entertainment choices, Carrie’s eyes got big.  “I KNOW!” she said, “YOU need to teach a seminar on aliens and vampires!

I swear to God, that’s really what she said.

Do you see now why I love working for/with this woman?

We spent the rest of the meal discussing what that course would look like.  I rattled off a bunch of stories that could be the foundations for the course – Dracula, of course, and War of the Worlds – and things like Contact, Alien, Men in Black, and Star Trek set up alongside Dracula, The Lost Boys, Buffy, Blade, and I am Legend.  The objectives would include an investigation of the stories’ history in popular culture and possibly some investigation of some of the earlier treatments of the genres, some critical analysis of the parallels (if any can be found) between the number of pieces in a genre during a particular time and the sociopolitical climate during that time, and some sort of creative component in which the students fashion a story (or a play or a skit or a mini-series) that uses one of the genres to interpret a current issue, like immigration, civil rights, or international diplomacy.

You should have seen us, geeking out over dessert, imagining how much pure FUN this class will be.  I’m off to write a course description; I’ll post it here when it’s ready.  Any thoughts, suggestions, or advice you can offer are, as always, gratefully accepted.

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Filed under admiration, book geek, colleagues, critical thinking, Dream Course, film as literature, fun, I can't make this shit up..., I love my boss, I love my job, lesson planning, Mrs. Chili as Student, popular culture, success!, Teaching, winging it

Interview With the Vampire

Actually, it’s “Interview with the Writer of Interview with the Vampire!”

You want to know how much I love technology?  Let me tell you how much I love technology, People!  A girlfriend clued me in a little while ago that Anne Rice had announced that she is willing to come to classrooms via Skype to talk about her books and the craft of writing.

She didn’t have to tell me twice!

I got right on the computer and emailed Ms. Rice to tell her that, yes, please, my seniors and I would like very much to have her “visit” our class and talk about writing.  Her assistant and I have been emailing for a while now, and we’re circling in on a date in March.

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I assigned Interview With the Vampire today – the kids have to have their books by this time next week and we’ll start reading then.  I’m up against a couple of students who have pre-conceived notions of Rice and the novel, so I’m having to get them to start thinking like scholars about this novel instead of looking at it as consumers of entertainment.  I’m probably not going to hook a few of them, but I know for sure that I’ve piqued a LOT of interest in this class; my boss is tickled that this could actually happen (she wants to call the local paper), and a number of my former students are begging to come back to school so they can partake in this class, too.

Technology rocks.

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Filed under composition, film as literature, fun, great writing, I love my boss, I love my job, lesson planning, Literature, out in the real world, popular culture, success!, Teaching, writing

SCORE!

This seems to be the year for kids coming back to tell me that they get why I jump up and down on them about stuff they don’t want to do. It’s awesome.

A while ago, CHS instituted a community-wide, weekly vocabulary word contest. Someone (usually me) chooses a word (I often choose from the SAT website) that the entire community has to define and use in a CHS-related sentence. Elaina, the Goddess of the Front Desk, chooses a winner each week (which inspires the kids to write funny sentences, because we all know how much Elaina loves to laugh), and I announce that winner in morning announcements on Friday. It used to be a voluntary thing, but then a couple of us started issuing it as a for-credit assignment. As everyone has at least ONE of the teachers who requires it for a class, every kid in the school should be doing this.

Nearly every kid in the school blows it off. In fact, I just chased down a couple of students on Friday because they hadn’t done the damned CHS word in weeks, and those zeros were starting to stack up. I mean, really?! It’s ONE sentence, once a week! Gah!

Anyway, this was in my inbox this afternoon. It’s from Collette, who’s a junior in my English classes:

Hi Ms Chili!

I took my SATs this morning and I just wanted to say thank you SO MUCH for having us do the CHS word every week. It pretty much saved my butt in the reading/writing parts of the test. There were at least 10 from this year and last year in one section alone, and if I hadn’t known how to properly use them in a sentence I would have been completely screwed.
I always wondered what the point of it was other than to just be fun, and now I know. :)

Warn the Juniors!

Hope you’re having a pleasant weekend :)

Best wishes,
Collette

Isn’t that FANTASTIC?! I’ve sent her an email back asking if I can read this in morning announcements on Monday; SO many kids aren’t doing the weekly vocabulary word, and I wonder if this might inspire some of them to do it.

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Filed under colleagues, fun, I love my job, success!, the good ones

Love Him…

I’ve got this kid. I love this kid. This kid has been, since our first class together, one of my favorites.

Last year, this kid did a poetry analysis on Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. He loved boats, he told me, and decided that the song qualified as poetry (it absolutely does). We talked a little about what kind of poem we’d call it, and he wrote the paper.

While it wasn’t an objectively great paper, it represented, for this kid who’s all about the literal and plain-spoken, a vast leap into the emotional and figurative, and it geeked me right out. Since then, I’ve thought of this kid whenever I hear the song.

The Edmund Fitzgerald sank 35 years ago today. My kid isn’t going to be in school today, so I knew he’d miss the “today in history” in our announcements, so I sent him a message of the remembrance. He sent me this message back:

“with a load of iron ore 26,000 tons more than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.”

LOVE that kid.

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The Alice Light Bulb Moment

Yesterday, I posted an entry on the Blue Door in which I said that I was too busy to blog about some things, and one of the things I was too busy to blog about was the fact that in every single class I ran on Thursday, I was able to pull off  what I call “Helen Keller” or “light bulb” moments; that glorious few seconds when a kid leaps from “I don’t get it” to “OH!  NOW I see!!”  I live for these moments, and the fact that I was able to execute the same one in all three of my core English classes was kind of a record for me.  I needed to share.

The entirety of CHS is reading Alice in Wonderland.  Several of the kids have read it before (and a number of them are familiar with bits of the story through various film interpretations), but none of them has analyzed it yet; they’ve read it for the surface stuff, but really haven’t taken the time to really think about all the weird shit that happens in the novel.  I had suspected that the kids were blowing through the book without really getting what they were reading, and I suspected that they were missing some of the funny stuff, so I decided to point something out to them to see if I was correct.

At the very outset of the story, Alice impulsively follows a waistcoated white rabbit down his hole and finds herself falling for what feels like forever; she has time to observe the walls around her and to investigate an empty jar of orange marmalade, and then she starts thinking about how she’s going to apply this experience to her life when she returns to it (though she doesn’t really give a thought as to how she’s going to get out of her predicament; her impulsivity is something which serves as a constant through the novel).  She thinks to herself:

“After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down-stairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!” (which was very likely true.)

I read that passage aloud and asked the kids to really think about what was being said here, both by Alice and by our narrator (who, it turns out, has a flair for snark).  They read it, and read it again, and really didn’t see anything much to it.   Just when they started thinking that I was seeing something that wasn’t really there (“because English teachers do that all the time, you know; they try to find something deep and meaningful in everything!”), one girl gasped and her eyes got HUGE and I pointed at her and said “SHHHHH!  Let them work it out for a little longer!”

Of course, this got them all riled up; they HATE it when one of them is in on a joke that they don’t get, so they went back to the passage and tried to will themselves to figure it out.  One by one, a few more kids got the joke, and when about five of them were bouncing in their seats wanting to explain it to all the other kids, I pointed back to the first girl and said “GO!”

“YOU GUYS!” she said, “The narrator is telling us that she wouldn’t say anything if she fell off the top of the house because she’d be, like, DEAD!  She LITERALLY wouldn’t say anything about it because she’s be a smear on the sidewalk!”

Yes, my lovely; that’s it exactly.

That scene played out, in almost exactly that way, in all three of my classes.  It was awesome.  My hope is that this little exercise will inspire my babies to read more carefully, and with an eye toward the snarky and ironic.  We shall see if my hope is well-founded.

I love my job.

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Today in History

At CHS, we do what we call “morning circle.” Every morning before classes, the entire community gets together in the common area and goes through whatever announcements are on the board before we begin our day.

I listen to NPR on my way in to work.  Every morning just before 7:00, the local announcer gives one little tidbit of history when he announces the date: “Today is Tuesday, September 21. Today marks the birthday of author H.G. Wells, born on this day in 1866. The news is next.” That sort of thing. I really like that – I find it compelling – so this year, I began a daily habit of presenting a “today in history” segment at the end of announcements.

When I get to school in the morning, I scan through several websites for information about historical events, birthdays, and deaths that happened on that day. The kids seem to look forward to it; other day, we acknowledged both John Coltrain’s and Ray Charles’s birthdays, and earlier this month, I mentioned that the battle of Thermopylae had occurred on that date (much to the delight of the two or three kids who were familiar with that event). One student has even started listing events along with me; I try to go for things that the students would recognize and she finds the more unfamiliar, less famous events.  She told me the other day that she does that because she wants the community to “learn something.”  How awesome is that?

I discovered, on this Saturday morning, that the “today in history” is becoming a habit.  I don’t have to report on today’s events, yet I found myself looking them up, nevertheless.  Today, it turns out, was a pretty big day for civil rights in the U.S.; on September 25, nine black high school students entered Little Rock High School under the very real threat of a very angry mob.

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I also found out that today is the day, in 1789, that the U.S. Congress passed the ten amendments to the Constitution that became our Bill of Rights.

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If I didn’t teach English, I would likely have become a history teacher.

Happy Saturday, Everyone!

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Filed under Civics and Citizenship, crossover, doing my own homework, fun, history, I love my job, I've got this kid...., Mrs. Chili as Student, out in the real world

The Curse of Technology

Alternately titled: Muahahahahaha!

Mrs. Chili is enjoying a little bit of an evil teacher moment.

On Monday, I discovered that Elaina has a toy on her desk that can turn paper copies into PDF attachments.  I asked her to please work that magic for a handout that I had given my freshman class that morning.  She did, and I promptly attached that sucker to the homework assignment on the class’s website.

This evening, I received this email from one of the students in the class:

Seeing how I was absent on Monday, I have no idea what the homework is, and I was sidetracked today to ask you about it. So I hope you would understand I don’t get the homework.

Um, no.  Sorry, Kiddo; you lose.  Here was my reply:

In fact, Megan, it’s not okay that you didn’t do the homework.  As soon as the class was over on Monday, I uploaded a PDF of the reading, along with a pretty clear description of the assignment, to the class’s web page.  You have everything available to you that you need; there’s no reason you can’t get it done.

Let’s see if the homework gets handed in tomorrow.  Any bets?

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Filed under colleagues, dumbassery, failure, fun, I can't make this shit up..., I love my job, I've got this kid...., really?!, student chutzpah, success!, That's your EXCUSE?!, You're kidding...right?