The Last Jedi & Media Literacy as a Moral Imperative

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I write readily about the value of popular culture and media literacy to shape critical discourse amongst students. As students are entrenched within the mediated space, it’s a moral imperative for educators to leverage their sanctum to construct, like media itself, an opportunity to explore the realities of today.  Just as I walked into the school today on a busy Monday leading into the final week of classes before the Christmas break, students were entrenched in deep conversations relevant to consumption. From Netflix to sports (which in an all-boys school where I teach invites rich conversation about the codification of masculinity), students (like all of us) are entrenched within the great experiment of popular culture – a mirror into our shared values.

At the top of the conversation was the opening weekend of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. From students who didn’t like the humour or to those who didn’t understand the connection to the original trilogy (spoiler free here – but particular imagery that speaks to Luke), its safe to say that students, generally, read less and consume visual and audio more. Excitingly, I’ll have the pleasure to watch the film with one hundred students or so, at a private screening this Friday – a great way to share in some pre-Christmas movie cheer and casual conversation about why the force remains so topical and relevant – breaking away from mere consumption.

Looking at the growing popularity of Star Wars and of the bridge between the original trilogy and prequels now connect with the young audience of today, there’s a great opportunity to leverage the story of Rey to facilitate meaningful learning as it pertains to religion and violence. As I wrote in the Catholic Film Reader available from The Catholic Curriculum Corporation, the original Star Wars was culturally responsive (nothing new within the critical realm when looking at the film through the cultural lens of the 1970s), but importantly the search for “hope,” within the guiding nature of the “force” overtly speaks to the need for faith and spirituality to provide guidance at times of chaos. It is with the chaotic in the forefront, that the new series is grounded in an urgency that was lacking with the prequels – a cultural need to explore the potential relationship between violence and religion within a relevant socio-political milieu. 

Just look at the opening scene from The Force Awakens below. As Kylo Ren is introduced as a Dark Vader wannabe, co-writer and director J.J. Abrams plants the narrative within real world conflict – particular the realm of the child solider. These soldiers, faceless, act based not on their own beliefs but by those in which they were bred. They’re shaped by the evil appropriation of a religion – distorted and exploited. Importantly, as the opening conflict takes place on dessert terrain, the landscape evokes the realities of conflict in parts of the Middle East and Africa. As such, whereas the prequels lacked a cultural urgency (other than revisiting the brand), the new series (although commercially driven, as well), is grounded within a rich cultural study of violence today.

By no means do I want to give away any spoilers as it pertains to Rian Johnson’s epic and ambitious entry into the series with The Last Jedi, however, the conflict between  good and evil grows as Luke is in battle with his Jedi religion (discerning) and struggles to understand it’s purpose and his role within it. As Luke’s story takes shape and the connection between him, Rey and Kylo Ren are bridged, the connection between religion and violence grows, echoing to the major conflicts of today. The canvas is not simply painted with the good and the bad but rather the complex narrative between all characters – forcing the viewer to explore religion beyond their respective institution and importantly how they live with their faith in their day-to-day (looking through a lens of purity and connection, rather than distortion or difference).

It is with the need to intentionally provide students with an opportunity to be active citizens, knowing and critical responsive to the realities of today, that a film like The Last Jedi provides for  an authentic opportunity to teach to and from popular culture and media literacy.


May The Force Be With You.

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Posted in Media Literacy and Pop Culture, Movies and Television, Star Wars | Tagged , , , , ,

JUSTICE LEAGUE & WHAT THE CRITICS GOT WRONG

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With yesterday’s release of Marvel’s culminating epic, Avenger’s: Infinity War trailer, it may not be best timing to release a blog into the Twitterverse that celebrates both the success and shortcomings of Justice League; what has been hailed online as a “Frankenstein” of a movie and that through the “critical” lens of movie writers has been savaged; deemed lesser in comparison to this past summer’s Wonder Woman  and more pressingly the most recent Marvel release, Thor Ragnorak. As social media conversations and Rotten Tomatoes certification seem to readily dictate box-office success, the release of Justice League brings forward a pressing concern of film criticism itself, one that is deeply embedded in quick reading rather than a cinephile approach to analysis; providing a discourse to examine a popular artifact like Justice League (regardless of its shallow character development or its poorly cloned stamped upper lip of Superman) as a cultural artifact. Through this lens, the film is amply fresh for its attempt to shape a rich conversation about the age of heroes and the legitimacy of violence.

Let me assert that I’ve now watched Justice League twice and I find it to be unapologetically fun. Yes, the tone of the film is fragmented, the narrative feels rushed, the story succumbs to aggressive spectacle and the CGI looks oddly cheap for such an expensive production. However, within the mosaic of such cinematic mishaps, rests a film yearning to say something about our deeply darkened contemporary socio-political space that lacks a shared will for change. As with the rise of Superman in the Action Comics of the 1930s, the character’s resurrection in Justice League is entrenched in and speaks to a time where humanity lacks genuine leadership.

As shared by Bruce Wayne in the scene above “the world needs Superman.” It is within this framework that Bruce Wayne reminds us that Superman, both now and in the past, speaks directly to the political. Not only was he born out of the Great Depression but his most recent screen incarnation frames him directly within the lens of a fragmented cultural milieu. From him being an “immigrant threat,” in Batman V. Superman to the newly recognized emblem of hope in Justice League, he along with Women Woman as God-like characters, speak to a need our need to be saved; both physically and morally. At a time where politicians disingenuous runs rampant and wars continue to brew within the structure of post-colonial realities, characters like Superman and Wonder Woman not only save, but as Bruce Wayne, asserts “inspire.”

Importantly, as Bruce asserts that Superman was a symbol of hope, Diana (Wonder Woman) speaks openly about the nature of war and violence. In speaking to her love Steve Trevor, she reminds Bruce that leadership must be active and in service. As such, Diana’s cautioning to Bruce about placing soldiers in harm’s way unnecessarily out of a personal sense of righteousness, reminds us of the horrors of colonialism and more recent wars and realities. As such, Diana speaks to a need for accountability and for leadership to be sacrificial.

It is with this reflection that just today, I brought my students to a double screening of Justice League and Thor Rangorak. Two films completely different in form and style but aligned in their deep rooted colonial concerns. Although Thor Ragnorak is much more successful in framing a rich narrative between colonial and postcolonial realities, Justice League does attempt to deepen the superhero context beyond the CGI and action set pieces. With this, it most definitely deserves a second chance. 

With Christmas just around the corner, give the League a chance even it is because The Last Jedi is sold out. You just may be surprised. 

 

Posted in Media Literacy and Pop Culture, Movies and Television | Tagged , , , ,

More than Nostalgia: Stranger Things and Our Upside Down

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Much has been written about Stranger Things as a nostalgic throwback to the glory of 80’s pop culture where all things now retro, felt new. As an 80’s baby, admittedly, the show pulls at my heart strings. From allusions to E.T in Season 1 to the obsession of arcade game play in Season 2, the pulse of the series is grounded not just in a “simpler time” but rather a decade where all what we now know was at it’s point of genesis (Nintendo Switch wouldn’t be possible without Atari and the arcade). Although the series is celebrated for its nostalgic factor, I argue that it’s greatest success rests not just in narrative and reference but it’s understanding of genre. Like the works of Spielberg, King and Cameron that the show pays homage to, the Duffer Brothers and executive producer and director Shawn Levy, recognize that genre is about the shared cultural experience – about time and place. Fittingly, the horror and anxiety brewing in the small town of Hawkins may take place story wise in the 1980’s but urgently reminds us of the lurking reality today; a socio-political time where it seems like we’re all living in the Upside Down.

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From the opening frames of Episode 1 Season 1 where Dustin, Lucas and Will ride their bikes home in the dark after a epic day long game of D&D at Mike’s house, the image of the bike (with lights flashing) harkens semiotic imagery; images of Elliott running from the “bad men” in E.T where the promise of adolescent innocence (and quest for the paternal) confronts the secrecy of government or The Goonies where a squad of kids get on their bikes in search of treasure to save their families from economic greed and a local government not willing to help those on the outskirts from over development. As such, to appreciate the nostalgia of Stranger Things is to understand genre, recognize that popular culture is rooted in the political and understand that it’s nostalgic connection is not merely grounded in fandom but meaning; the films the series pays homage too aligns with the politics of not only the 1980s but the realities of today.

The looming fear then and now: Government

From James Cameron Sci-Fi and War hybrid Aliens where Ripley has a deep distrust of the “corporation ” the notion of the government and its secrets not only creates the narrative’s upside down (the gate that’s been opened) but reflects and mirrors the upside down that exists in our everyday; a post Edward Snowdon political space fragmented by a lack of trust and where the notion of government seems self-serving rather than in service of the people. As in Season 1 where Mike’s dad naively asserts this his wife that Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) and his goos should be trusted because their government, or as in the opening frames of Season 2 where he quips that “we’re all patriots here,” his lack of active voice, protectionism of his family and critical view of the political institution heightens a shared need to be skeptical; government must be held to account and reminds us that all is not what it seems.

What is truth?

The 1980s was consumer obsessed decade born out of harrowing times; the death of JFK, the horrors of Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, the questioning outcomes and achievements of the Civil Rights movement and other political truths that propelled the 80’s into the “me” decade. As the Cold War carried on, the narrative timing of the series is fitting – many unknowns and new realities emerging. This is very much connected to our today; making the show a relevant genre study of popular culture as a mirror and reflector of time and space.

Are we in the Upside Down?

In my teaching of film and new media, I challenge students to recognize that popular culture rises out of the political; a testing ground to see what a shared cultural experience looks like. In the show’s immense popularity and response across a diverse demographic base, it can be argued that the anxiety brewing in Hawkins provides not escape from our everyday but a mode to process our own uncertainty. The nature of horror lives out the political. As such, to watch the show as a simple throwback to the 1980’s limits it’s deep relevance of today. At a time where secrets and lies are shared readily on the web to investigations into democratic sabotage , our now like the Cold War anxieties of the 1980s reminds us of how upside down our world really is.

As with the characters in the show – be skeptical. Be critical.

 

Posted in Media Literacy and Pop Culture, Movies and Television, Netflix | Tagged , , , , , ,

What my Students taught me about Learning Skills

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To understand and deeply appreciate the reality of the teacher in the classroom is to live deep inside the trench. Working along students with the hope to meet not only your respective goals as a classroom teacher but importantly provide students with the support and framework to meet their expectations and individual definitions of success. From their academic aims to their social pursuits in the school community, the hope is that all students grow into active, mature and responsible citizens. Often within this discourse, teachers are driven by the time constraints in meeting the curriculum expectations and working within a realm where initiatives are abundance. It’s with this that some of the best teaching and learning happens outside of the curriculum (those small moments) but can very much guide students in becoming the very best version of themselves (and teach, teachers at the same time about what learning is).

As educators in the classroom, how often do we intentionally address the learning skills noted on the Ontario report card?

Do we allow students an opportunity to reflect on the skills they will need today and tomorrow to achieve excellence?

In doing so, we have the great opportunity to learn a great deal about our students – who they are now and who they want to become tomorrow.

Last week, I facilitated the second annual Portfolio Camp at my school. In working with Gr. 9 STEM BTT students, that goal is to provide learners with an authentic understanding of why digital citizenship matters within the context of online social profiles as a new resume. Through the lens of Creating Pathways to Success and the IPP and importantly the Catholic Graduate Expectations, the conversation was shaped to allow students to direct the thinking and share in reflection about the skills needed to succeed in their today and tomorrow.

To begin the day, students participated in a small group brainstorm activity.  

In small groups, the class of twenty-six students shared their working goals for tomorrow (potential jobs, post-secondary education goals etc.) and the skills they believed are required for a particular profession or to “succeed” in a global economy.

As I walked the room, it was amazing to see students actually sharing – being open about their fears, ambitions and questions about what the future holds (all incredibly viable reflections). As the students shared their group reflections, some of the big ideas (and somewhat typical references) came to forefront, including:

  • Leadership
  • Collaborator
  • Problem Solver

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As the conversation progressed and we dove into such terms, other ideas began to grow. Students began speaking about the need to be inclusive, respectful, empathic, compassionate, politically aware, humble, selfless etc. The human skills that are needed regardless of education or socio-economic stature. 

It was in this change in conversation that the framework for the Ontario learning skills provided context for a deep reading and practical application of the  Catholic Graduate Expectations – the importance of not only being a Collaborative Contributor and Effective Communicator but to be a leader through the lens of A Reflective, Creative and Holistic Thinker.  It was in addressing the big idea of leadership that the term was defined through the footsteps of Christ. The students shared (and learned) that being a leader is much more than organization, sharing workable ideas or being the most intelligent person in the room, but rather, the ability to help people grow, stand up for what is morally right, to admit fault, to treat people with dignity and to share in the common good.

It was with this opening camp day activity that the students became aware that designing their online brand, curating their portfolio and understanding the urgency of digital literacy and citizenship was very much about ensuring that who they are online matters. Their ability to shape the world through their digital footprint (their attitudes and values shared online) was and is much more urgent that the work curated from a respective class.

It was in listening to the students share and dive deep in this  opening conversation that the “intentionality” of the learning skills became so clearly important and a great reminder to me as a classroom teacher to pause and support students in this discussion.

Moving forward, my practice will now most definitely change. At the start of each new semester, the learning begins with this similar conversation and sharing.

Pause. Curriculum can wait.

Posted in 21st Century Learning | Tagged , ,

What teachers & students can learn from Stranger Things

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If you’re a classroom teacher then you can appreciate the value in a shared discourse as it pertains to the learning skills – those skills that speak to not only the culture of learning but importantly (and exhaustively to the point that it is now a cliche ) that are transferable to life outside of a respective classroom . When it comes to assessing learning skills the urgency, one can argue , differs greatly between the elementary and secondary panels. Whereas in elementary the learning skills are front and centre and in depth on the report card , in secondary , the importance is devalued with a visual and format preoccupation with individual student average and class median. Yet, we proclaim readily to our students that being responsible,  showing the ability to self-regulate, organize , effectively collaborate, show initiative , and to work independently with the hope to be autonomous) are the transferable skills needed for success in  a milieu of “Achieving Excellence.”

Now,  

  • Do our students listen?
  • Are we, as teachers, speaking loud enough?

“Strangely,” this is where Stranger Things comes into play – a potential tool in providing a popular discourse for students to see and appreciate the value of the learning skills within the frames of teamwork and friendship. 

Much has been written about Stranger Things, Netflix’s pop- culture phenomenon, that has excited audiences with genuine thrills, pastiche and nostalgia. Beyond the meta references to 80s allure (any show that makes reference to Corey Harts “Sunglasses at Night ” is a must watch), at the core is a multi-layered program about the politics of teamwork and friendship.

Look closely at what we (and our students) can learn from the unwavering bond between Mike , Lucas, Dustin  Eleven and Will. As the mystery of Will’s disappearance deepens and the tensions elevated by Eleven’s back story heighten, the characters of Mike, Lucas and Dustin, speak to an incredibly mature framework for both teamwork and friendship.  The trio speak their minds and share emotions openly; they’ve created a culture of collaboration with expectations for behaviour and have established consequences; they have humility and extend apologies when needed and give forgiveness; they’re fiercely independent; they innovate, share responsibility , admit fault and most importantly, are, selfless. All are leaders who have created a culture or collaboration (not perfect by any means or ideal ) but one that evolves and encourages all of them to grow.  

If they were my students, what letter level assessment would these young kids receive when it comes to Ontario Learning Skills? Without hesitation an E across the board. In their success , it’s important to note that they’re not theoretically saving their friend – they’re in the practice of saving their friend. With this, where is the #lesson for us teachers and our students beyond understanding that these Goonie-esque boys are gifted in a number of ways? 

Although our classroom stakes would not be so dramatically high, the “doing” of the boys reminds us that activating learning is so critically important. The trio continuously seek  “theoretical” reasoning from their science teacher but build on his textbook knowledge by “doing.” It is in the doing that the learning skills are activated, mature and evolve.   In doing (not just copying off a over head or working in class from a textbook) we provoke our students to strive and grow in the skills needed to be successful in today’s competitive , complicated and diverse socio-economic milieu. As Ontario education thrives to scaffold students to have “entrepreneurial spirit”, we have to ensure that the stakes are high in our classroom. 

Now, I can appreciate that making a connection between education and Stranger Things is not faculty bound, however, because in reading and watching critically, we can all learning a little something about teamwork and friendship from from three boys and a girl who are trying to save their friend. 

Posted in Netflix | Tagged , , ,

Wicked World: A Parents Guide to Watching Descendants 2

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If you’re like me and have children under the age of 13 , then I’m certain you know the lyrics of Wicked World or Chill’in like a Villian , songs from Disney’s Descendants and Descendants 2 that may vibrate from the speakers of your television or mobile device. The gimmick is catchy; the teenage descendants of Disney’s most vile cartoon villains are outcasts who attempt to destroy and then are integrated into the community of United States of Auradon; a kingdom where Belle is princess, the Beast is king and their son Ben is bolstered as the all good conscious of the people.

With the release of the sequel last week across disney platforms including the Disney Chanel and ABC, the popularity of the characters are deeply entrenched in kid culture (my six year old and four year old at obsessed) with the Disney machine in full force. From behind the scene videos on YouTube kids to the Disney Store showcasing the movie on full display (my daughter already has her Descendants 2 Halloween costume), the characters and the songs seem to provide innocent entertainment. However, its a film that truly deserves equal watching from parents as it has the potential (if you’re ready and willing) to shape some meaningful conversation.

It’s in listening to the sequel play in the back seat of the family SUV on a recent cottage excursion that it became evident that for all of their progressive steps with theatrical productions, the Disney machine seemed out of touch with the at home audience; one surely composed of rich diversity. From race to class, Descendants 2 falls the diversity test and falls trapped within colonial rhetoric where “blackness” is vilified and projected with stereotype.

As we drove two plus hours, it was a optimal time to provide my kids with a critical media reading; shaping a conversation they can understand will not destroying  their fondness of the production’s songs and dance routines.

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Here’s the step by step guide:

1) I began by asking the kids what racism means. We talked about this before when my daughter came home from school two years ago upset that her friend from preschool was being ridiculed for having “chocolate” skin. She was taught not to be a passive bystander and to voice her disposition, which she did.

2) I asked the kids to reflect on who the heroes were in Descendants and Descendants 2; the main characters. I asked them what colour skin was missing from the respective group. They came to the conclusion that neither of the main characters were black. 

3) I asked them to reflect on the first movie and the characterization of Cruella De Vil. What colour was her skin and what colour is the skin of her son Carlos. They responded that the mom was black and Carlos was white. Arguably, Carlos could be bi-racial, however, reference to his father is never mentioned. Problematically, within the conversation of race representation, Carlos turns good , amplifying his generic race narrative within popular film. Black = Bad and White = Good.

4) Now looking at Descendants 2, I asked my kids who the main villain was and the color of their skin. The kids noted Uma, and that she had brown skin.

5) I then asked why Uma is upset? The kids responded that Uma is upset in the film because she is jealous of Mal (who is going to be a future princess ) and that she hates working in her mom’s (Ursula’s) restaurant.  Their response was correct and as such, this characterization of Uma as a working class black woman cursed with jealously and contempt for the “privilege” that Mal holds, reinforces traditional cultural narratives of “blackness” as the “other,” and  morally corrupt. These ideas were presented by Ava DuVernay in her masterpiece 13th where the black male body is deemed as monstrous in popular Hollywood cinema and the notion of American blackness is vilified. The only representation of blackness in either The Descendants 2 or the original film is connected to villainy. 

Along with Uma’s internal motivation, her physical characterization is painted with an equally stereotypical brush; dreadlocks and hip-hop define her existence and as such trap her within an a corporate – colonial appropriation of culture. 

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Although the child’s experience of watching is innocent, its important that as parents we are indeed watching with our children and providing them with a framework to understand that media texts have and carry meaning. This is not to take away from the joy of being entertained but to make them critical viewers  (at their level) with the hope that they mature into respectful, inclusive, emphatic and active citizens.

After all, we as parents are responsible for raising our children. Not, Disney.

Posted in Media Literacy and Pop Culture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , ,

Love Transcends: Gender, Equality and Teaching Wonder Woman as an Anti-War Film

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Much has been written about the phenomenon of the Wonder Woman film. From the onset of its June 2 release, the film became the most “tweeted” about movie of the summer season thus far. I found myself tweeting my fondness and sharing a critical reflection from my daughter who’s note was even mentioned by the Hollywood Reporter.

Not just as a parent to both a girl and boy is the film important about gender characterization but as a teacher of media studies, the film is a crucial reminder as to why popular cinema is so urgent and critical to understand. Wonder Woman is so much more than a film about a female superhero, but rather a mirror to the thinking of a particular time; shaping conversation but also born out of a world in desperate need of women and men who see and value each other  for their shared strengths, weaknesses and personal histories .

Recently I interviewed academic Susan Jeffords (celebrated academic and author of such incredible texts including: “The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War” and “Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era“) for a teacher / student resource I’m developing titled The Catholic Filmmaker (my follow up to The Catholic Film Reader published by the Catholic Curriculum Corporation). In our conversation she notes not only why equality is so critical as a global need but also what popular culture means as a form of literacy about who we are and how we see people.  You can see a segment of the interview below.

Wonder Woman provides us as teachers with an incredible opportunity to dialogue about why we all must be advocates for equality; the film is not just about Wonder Woman fighting to restore order in a world of chaos created by “man”, but also the displacement of characters who create a mosaic of our times; an actor with the “wrong” skin colour, an Indigenous man with a  colonial history, a solider suffering with PTSD and a military hero burdened with the notion of masculinity itself.

Whereas films such as Batman V. Superman and Captain America: Civil War invite conflict to varying degrees both in terms of narrative and the spectacular cinema that audiences expect, Wonder Woman gives that  spectacle, but through a journey of a character looking for war and who then recognizes that love is more powerful than the most militarized weapon. Where Batman V. Superman and Captain America: Civil War  build towards the promised spectacle of battle showcased in their trailers, Wonder Woman reminds us that “real” war impacts all involved; regardless of sides, colour, race etc. In regards to the politics of today, Wonder Woman echoes the urgency of  the powerful female voices needed at a time where the mechanism of global conflict has been escalated by definitions of masculinity (yes, Trump is an easy parallel to this). As such, Wonder Woman  is very much an anti-war film as the character of Wonder Woman herself recognizes that love is truly transcendent.

Over the course of the summer, I’ll be working on the Catholic Filmmaker which will include more of Dr. Jeffords, along with filmmakers and classroom ready resources that support the authentic  integration of  short film, documentary and music video production, through the gospel lens,

Stay tuned for more !

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