Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Dear Rian Johnson,

I go to the movies to escape, and The Last Jedi certainly provided that for 150+ minutes this weekend. A few of those minutes, though, jarred me right back into my body, looking wide-eyed from the darkened theater out into the sometimes darker world. (This is the part where, if you're reading this letter and you're not Rian Johnson, I should warn you, "There will be spoilers.")

I work with young people -- a vantage that renders social media both fraught and fruitful. So, when Rey and Kylo start chatting across distance (Forcebook?), I can't help wondering: Where are the mentors and role models to coach these kids through using their new powers?

Supreme Leader Snoke, loafing around in his creepy lounge-wear, definitely should not be permitted this role. Maybe because I just completed Team USA's SafeSport training as part of youth coaching responsibilities or because the US gymnastics team and its former team doctor have been in the news, I can't help seeing Snoke as a prototypical predator. He exploits his power to finagle alone time with Kylo and Ren, then grooms them with false promises. (Rather than being red-clad enablers, what if Snoke's' Praetorian Guard had mandatory-reporting responsibilities?)

And what about when Benicio del Toro's DJ pulls back the veil from the military-industrial complex that's been profiting from all these Star Wars? When our legislators propose tax cuts favoring the wealthiest citizens alongside 12-figure defense budgets, I now picture DJ smirking in the shadows.

One of the movie's most visually arresting moments occurs when Vice Admiral Holdo jumps a rebel transport to light speed through the First Order's command ship. I heard the theater audience gasp in the initial beat of silence when Holdo's maneuver draws a slice of light across her target. On one hand, a noble sacrifice that helps her compatriots to safety; on the other hand, what distinguishes her from present-day aggressors using vehicles as weapons? (Another kind of doubled-edged dizziness fills me when thinking about Chewbacca, Porgs, sustainable food supplies, vegetarianism, and my own eating habits.)

For this viewer, moments like these in a fictional galaxy far, far away probe tensions in our own time -- escapism sparking reflection. Not all moments of connection need to carry such weight, though. I'll close with an allusion from the movie in a different register: Finn scrambling out of his wrecked speeder, just after his rebel co-conspirator careened into him to stop his kamikaze run at the First Order's latest weapon of mass destruction. "Why'd you do that, Rose?" Finn asks, holding his injured friend in his arms. Suddenly, he's Jack, and the two of them may as well be in Titanic.

Thanks for sharing your creativity and for getting me thinking.

A fan

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Warning: Graphic Contents

My reading life veered 10 days ago after seeing this Nerdy Book Club post by Amy Estersohn. She shared a list of "graphic novels for readers who don't like graphic novels," and I dove right in even though I like graphic novels. It's just been overlong since I've picked up one, which made now -- in my informal estimation -- a perfect time for a binge.

The friendly neighborhood public library set me up with five titles out of the gate. I polished off Here by Richard McGuire and America is Under Attack by Don Brown before leaving the library's confines. The former is a time-bending, largely wordless study of place; the latter reports on the September 11 attacks in sharply intimate, middle-grade-appropriate detail for a generation born after those events.

In my backpack, I carried away Ms. Marvel, Threads: From the Refugee Crisis, and Sea Change. I started with Frank Viva's Sea Change about a boy named Eliot banished to spend the summer with crusty relatives in Nova Scotia. Quirky character notes and funky illustrations enliven this coming-of-age tale. Next was Kate Evans' Threads, a beautifully drawn, wrenching memoir of times she spent serving at a refugee camp in Calais, France. After that, Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson presented a change of pace. In some respects, I was back to the medium's superhero roots, except those roots had been grafted onto a nuanced story of cultural identity thanks to the title character being a Muslim teen.

Momentum from those reads has carried me right into Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel, a behind-the-scenes view of how and why so much current radio journalism proves so gripping.

Two weeks' reading has refreshed my love for graphic novels, renewed my appreciation for the format's limitless range, and reminded me about the power of defining literacy generously. Don't take my word for it: Listen to Jarret Kroscozka, whose timely words just came my way via Twitter.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Eavesdropper, door propper

I've been dialing down direct instruction as one of my classroom modes for about 18 months now. In some (many?) cases, that frustrates my students. The ones who feel this way say, "You're not teaching us" -- or comparable crushing accusations.

Today, though, as I circulate after a mini lesson and observe students working, I overhear one talking to himself or maybe to his neighbor, sotto voce. "I really need to stop procrastinating," he says. "I should probably look at Mr. Rozinsky's sample writing to figure out what to do."

Words like his kindle my flickering hope: What if "not teaching" props side and back doors that students' themselves eventually push open to learning?

My doubts fade, for a moment.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Open letter

Dear student who wrote in an email Sunday, "I was just wondering if there was anything I could do to raise my grade as the semester starts to come to a close,"

Thank you for checking in. I have fielded countless requests like yours over the years, online and in person, from students as well as their families. Few, though, have come from a learner who's earning an A as you are.

Part of me wants to pat you on the back while I marvel at your ceaseless drive to improve. Another part of me seeks a more consoling gesture as I fret whether your fragile learning motor might wear under apparent strain. (Time for my own wondering: How accurate is your perception of how you're doing in our class, anyway?)

Let's celebrate the forest you've cultivated before we get lost in the trees that debatably delineate, say, 92 from 94 percent. While I am confident more remains for you to learn, I am less sure these steps will elevate your grade in noticeable, calculable ways. For instance, you tend towards the taciturn, so what if you took a more active role contributing in class? Or, since you embrace your comfort zone by usually working with the same partners or reading similar genres of books, what if you took controlled risks to try new things? Would stretches like those lead to new experiences and capacities? I believe so. Would they boost your grade? No guarantee there. Then again, imperfect grades have never been able to circumscribe all the learning that we do.

So, stay motivated and curious. Even as you aim your critical eye at how to improve your game more than your grade, make sure those eyes recognize successes and growth, too, which merit celebrating.

Your teacher