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 is the main villain was and the colour of their skin. The kids noted Uma, and that she is black.

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 to be a future princess ) and then 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 animalistic 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.

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 a 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 meaning. This is not to take away from the joy of being entertained but to make them critical viewers with the hope that they mature into respectful, inclusive, empathic 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 !

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

Logan & why I take my students to the movies

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Let me begin by stating that although I’m a huge fan of comic book movies, I do feel that the preoccupation of creating a global box-office and merchandising behemoth, glossed over by hyper special effects and characters who passively exist to push action and consequence, has come to a critical mass. Evidence of this can be found in the excessively loud trailer for Justice League (I’m only guessing Zak Synder didn’t learn anything from the reaction to Batman v Superman) or Spider-Man Homecoming, which seems to be a post-modern rendering of all the the Spider-Man films that came before it. It’s within this landscape of spectacle, that I’m taking my students to a screening of Logan next week. A comic-book movie that, like The Dark Knight, is so much more. Following Nolan’s landmark entry into the comic book world, James Mangold has created a genre study that just happens to feature characters who exist within the comic book universe and goes further with the inclusion of meta-text about movies and comics themselves.

Many critics have noted that Logan “transcends” the comic book film text; the anti-comic book film where the main protagonist, who epitomizes the “antihero”, is torn, isolated, and against his own mythology, is dying. This alone is not overly unique as Logan (aka. Wolverine), has always be torn. The opening frames of Bryan Singers’ X-Men , introduces a bitterly violent and animalistic Logan fighting in a cage; a man or “thing” who is forced to live on the outskirts of society ( both wanting and distrusting the promise of inclusion). With Logan, the Wolverine has become mythical and unlike the cage fighter in Singer’s X-Men, his body is no longer impenetrable.

Logan is a different film than the original X-Men but at the same time similar. Its a film that yearns to be taken seriously and it deserves to be. As such, in taking my students to the see it (along with Get Out – a fun double header leading into the Easter weekend), the goal is to provoke their understanding of genre, meaning and the meta-history and text that James Mangold paints his Western canvas with. Coming together in a shared space and time is important; films in shaping culture rises out of the political and thus it is urgent for students to see current titles with meaning. 

Excitingly, the learning will be enriched with the inclusion of the guys behind the podcast 24panelspersecond. Comprised of  Dr. Dru Jefferies and teacher David Babbitt, I had the pleasure to pre-record a conversation that will guide the student post-screening experience. You can check it out here and make sure to visit 24panelspersecond. Its a great resource for any media classroom or fan of movies and pop-culture. 

I’m looking forward to the rich conversation that promises to come out of Logan and can only imagine what the student reaction will be to Get Out

Special thanks are extended to Dru and David of 24panelspersecond. Its always inspiring to share time with enthused educators and film buffs.

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

Be Adventurous and Brave

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It’s Sunday morning, Oscar day (my Super Bowl ), and I’m writing this post mid-flight on my way to Timmins to give a presentation tomorrow to Northeastern Catholic District School Board elementary and secondary teachers.  This is a bit of an adventure; my first time flying in nearly 10 years without my wife and missing my two little ones. I’m sure their day will be adventurous and mom will be exhausted by dinner time.

With all of this, I can’t help think of “adventure” and what it means as a classroom teacher.

As teachers we should, no, we must be adventurous! 

The scale and scope of the adventure is individualized but needs to exist. In my nearly 12 years in the profession, I’ve worked at three schools, two boards  (moves by choice ), at the system level and venture to over stretch my time and calendar in a number of initiatives and projects. Friends, family and colleagues will ask why I do all the “extras.” It’s simple : adventure.

It’s the adventure that forces me to change, meet new people, reflect on practice, adapt, modify teaching materials and ultimately recognize that without adventure, I’m failing the students in my classroom and the parents who put their trust in those of educate their kids.

As a parent of a 6 year old grade 1 daughter and a 3 year old son starting JK in September, I have an intimate appreciation, that what happens in the classroom matters. My wife and I send our little darlings off in the morning with the trust that they are not only warmly cared for but they are being provoked and challenged to be their best. With this reality, I attempt to teach as if my children were in the room. To do this, I need to be constantly growing with the adventurous spirit that allows my practice to grow.
It’s with the “adventure” as a constant that I’m sitting in a sardine of a plane with propellers radiating my ear drum, as I write the first draft of this post on my phone. It’s not for me to be away from my family for an overnight stay; I love the chaos of dinner and bedtime after a full day of school. However, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to grow with a group of teachers outside of my typical GTA driving zone. I can’t wait to hear about their realities and their stories of successes and next steps.

Tomorrow’s take away:

From technology integration to backward design, be adventurous for you and the students you serve as they need to grow into global citizens. What we do matters.

Posted in Educational Leadership

Trump and the classroom lesson.

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We’re living history.

With the morally dysfunctional Donald Trump igniting a reform in societal political awareness, there is something great coming out from the ashes of his contempt. Rebellion.

People are rebelling.

From the Women’s March to the universal decrying of his travel ban on several Muslim nations, I truly can’t remember a time in my life where the everyday citizen has responded in shared voice. It’s been slowly building for a year or so now. From Black Lives Matters to shared response to misogyny put on display during Hillary Clinton’s campaign, goodness has begun to speak out and the conversation needs a response.

Not only are we living history but it’s the “present” that we in the classroom must talk about. I often write and share on this site my thinking on learning in the classroom, how we use technology and as it pertains to media, how thinking must be priority. The lessons of today are paramount in teaching our students, regardless of subject or grade, the importance of values that cross all religious, racial, gender, ethnic or class boundaries. RESPECT. EMPATHY. LOVE. Not just words that shape slogans, but the foundation needed for a decent society to take root. Who are we, if not able to find goodness? What do we teach our children when we stay quiet and do not provoke?

Specific to the media classroom and conversation, a lesson on voice needs to be had. President Trump has already begun his quest in fragmenting the value of journalism and has used social media with a troll mindset. As a teacher, he is the great example and manifestation of McLuhan’s foreshadowing discourse that the medium is the message.

Often, in media courses and I remember this from my high school days,  McLuhan’s theory is incorrectly digested. It’s not the artifact that truly matters (the television program, movie, radio broadcast etc.), but rather the medium itself. The fact that any given medium can incite a societal reaction or shape our thinking is of deepest importance. This is evident in the use of Twitter by President Trump. Twitter, in this case, is the message. We must recognize that in 140 characters, the value of thought is limited. Although the medium can be powerful, his use is not about conversation or sharing but explosive proclamation. It’s a platform that shields him.

As such, if you’re like me and in the classroom, now, is an incredible time for rich discourse grounded in thinking and meaning. I revisited McLuhan last night and took in old university notes with the acute awareness that I was waiting for the politics of today to truly see McLuhan’s thinking take shape.

Now, I better get to class. Time to have a conversation.

 

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

A Conversation with Vincenzo Natali

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Today in my Gr. 11 Communications Technology course, we had the distinct pleasure to welcome, celebrated director Vincenzo Natali, who join and enriched the learning via Skype. With genuine warmth, he reflected on a variety of topics. From the rise of Hollywood “tentpoles” to his career path into television, the conversation was incredibly rich and provided the students with an an authentic opportunity to understand their media landscape.  

Vincenzo’s body of work is nothing less than exceptional. From features Cube and Splice to his television work including Hannibal, The Strain, Luke Cage and West World, my students have been provoked and entertained by his work, perhaps without knowing. Although his name may not be in the glowing marquee of Hollywood blockbuster films, his credits live on shows that help define today’s “Golden Age” of television and that speaks to his talent and diversity.  The shows I mentioned are incredibly successful and although Vincenzo called himself a “gun for hire,” the same visceral visual style that painted the canvases of his feature film work is unmistakably recognizable on the home television, computer and mobile screen. You can’t get better than Vincenzo Natali directing an episode of Hemlock Grove or West World. It’s a perfect marriage of genre, style and narrative.

I can reflect on so many great talking points from today’s conversation. From the rise of new technology in shaping today’s television and streaming programming to Hollywood’s preoccupation with global blockbusters,  the chat provided a real education on how the film and television industry has evolved since the release of Vincenzo’s Cube back in 1997 (two years before I entered Humber College’s film and TV production program and a major influence in my engagement with Canadian film). Theatrical and home video release was definitive as a new filmmaker,  but now the model has completely changed. Reimagined by tech companies like Netflix and Amazon and to the same extent You Tube. The boundaries, compared to film in the late nineties and pre Web.20 have been completely rewritten. As a teacher, this is incredibly exciting as student work can be readily broadcasted; film festivals use to be the place to have work screened but this is no longer the case when you have YouTube or Vimeo at your disposal.

In regards to my own academic obsession with genre as the foundation for students to grow in their critical understanding of media and importantly produce viable and challenging video works of their own, Vincenzo reflected on his film Splice (a real must see), that was intentionally grounded in the “meaning” of science fiction and influenced by the “man as monster” themes inspired by Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and echoed in movies such as The Bride of Frankenstein. In speaking to the film, Vincenzo reflects on his affinity for science fiction and horror along with his “intentional” discourse within this genre. This is of such importance as it reinforces his auteur flavour  – understanding genre and working within a structural author lens where genre is recognized and convention is reshaped for new meaning.

Here is an extract from the Skype conversation regarding Splice.


Let me say, it was a true privilege to have Vincenzo share his time with the class. His generosity was incredible and I extend my warm thanks for enriching the learning.

Thanks Vincenzo!

Posted in Uncategorized

Digital Skills in Action.

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Since becoming a Communications Technology teacher nearly 12 years ago, I never believed that the curriculum was about ‘making’ animators, designers, filmmakers, broadcasters etc. Before 21st century learning became the rage, I facilitated my subject area through the framework of “transferable skills.” These transferable skills speak to and support multi-modal design and effective communication across all subject areas. As such, the goal with the program has always been grounded in broad-based integration . If a student was passionate about film and entered post-secondary with that focus – great! If not, my hope would be that their learning can be applied within a broad spectrum with professional flare.

Over the course of the past several years, I written curriculum, worked with teachers, developed AQ courses and presented at conferences all while preaching the mighty word that transferable digital skills matter and speaks to the need for students to be skilled and effective communicators.  Across all subject areas, I know that incredible work is happening but this past week such urgency came knocking on my classroom door.

Knocking on the door of my Gr. 12 4th period Communications Technology class, were a group of former and current Comm-Tech students looking to use cameras and computers to produce short videos for their Gr. 11 English class project. Whereas, some may have refused them entry because their efforts were not tech course specific, I embraced their enthusiasm with an eagerness to see transferable skills in action. Here they were-  excited to collaborate with their peers and show their learning in a dynamic and shareable way.  This wasn’t about Comm-Tech, but harnessing developed technical skills to show critical literacy and create a learning artifact the is rich and polished.

What I saw flourish over the course of four days, was inspiring. I was inspired by the students and by their English teacher who gave her learners the autonomy to create; to go beyond the classroom Power Point presentation and allow students to leverage their skills in a way that forced deep collaboration, problem solving and creativity.

Don’t take it from me. Here’s Lucas; a student currently enrolled in my Gr. 11 Communications Technology class and the director of his group’s English video project.

 

 

Posted in 21st Century Learning, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,