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 , ,

Reading Media: How are Students Watching?

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In teaching media and communications in high school for nearly 12 years now, the meaning generated by popular media such as film and television always seems to be a barrier for students. Unlike English studies, which students embrace as legitimate, the conversation of television programming, mainstream film or popular music, continues to be viewed as entertainment. It’s undeniable that we are entertained when watching Luke Cage dismantle thugs on Netflix or when a squad of cowboys bring justice in The Magnificent 7, but within all of this, its urgent to ensure that meaning is extracted.

Recently in conducting an interview for a teacher resource that I developed titled “The Catholic Film Reader” for the Catholic Curriculum Corporation, I had an opportunity to conduct an on-camera interview with Anne Lancashire, professor emeritus of English and Cinema Studies at University of Toronto. In chatting with Dr. Lancashire (who single handedly developed contemporary cinema studies at the UoT in the early 80s), we exchanged similar stories of students’ refusal to look at popular media beyond entertainment and within the realm of the political. However, as Dr. Lancashire notes, popular film lives out of the political conversation.

Here’s a video below of Dr. Anne Lancashire addressing this very notion.

When it comes to our students, are we teaching them to read when they’re watching or listening for that matter?

Recently I took Grade 11 and Gr. 12 Communications Technology students to a screening of Antoine Fuqua’s re-make of The Magnificent 7. The opening film of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, its premiere and consequentially marketing was grounded in the conversation of diversity. The goal of the screening was to challenge the students’ respective and understanding of genre filmmaking and whether or not the film was as progressive as the folks at TIFF proclaimed.

The students read the film as forward thinking for these main reasons:

1. The leader/hero was a black man; whereas the typical western has a white hero.

2. There was a strong heroine who was not afraid to fight like a man.

3. There was an indigenous person who was a hero.
From the student lens, deeper reading can take place.

1. Yes, although Denzel is the leader he becomes entrapped within the “black man as mentor ” role that’s typical of action cinema. Because of his life experience he’s both father and teacher. This is evident in films such as the Lethal Weapon series, Rocky series and Denzel’s most recent Antoine Fuqua collaboration The Equalizer. Furthermore, it’s really Chris Pratt’s white hero who sacrifices himself (literally) to protect his friends and the innocent townspeople. In this, the idea of black heroism is not as deep as marketed.

2. Yes, the female heroine holds a gun and uses it with proficiency. However, she in dress and camera framing is a continuous subject of attraction. As such, although she uses a rifle she is very much sexualized and positioned within the male gaze of both camera and cultural context.

3. Significantly, much has been said about the progressive narrative of indigenous representation in the film. However , at deeper reading, the narrative is still trapped in stereotype. From being a pun of ‘savage’ jokes at dinner and comedic references to “scalping” at a card game to being predominantly voiceless, the character is still trapped within a characterization of action. Not much is known about him, other than his loyalty and warrior ability. This character really represents a lost opportunity for the filmmakers to place the frame of the narrative in a unique voice. Rather than merely being a support to the team, this character could have retold the story in flashback and spoke about how the the narrative impacted him. Instead, his sole purpose was to jump rooftops like a comic book character and shoot bow and arrows with the proficiency of an Avenger or Justice League member. Like Tonto of The Lone Ranger, the character is nothing less than a “trusty sidekick.”

As noted on the Media Smarts website under Common Portrayals of Aboriginal People,
“For over a hundred years, Westerns and documentaries have shaped the public’s perception of Native people. The wise elder (Little Big Man); the drunk (Tom Sawyer); the Indian princess (Pocahontas); the loyal sidekick (Tonto)—these images have become engrained in the consciousness of every North American.”

Post – Screening:

With the aboriginal voices as the focus of the screening conversation, a Skype call was held with Elizabeth Edgar Webkamigad (Baawaating Family Health Team Manager) with the goal to ground the indigenous representation of the film to colonial history and the impacts of discrimination in Canada. As an indigenous woman, mother, educator and mental health professional, Elizabeth’s Skype call, which took place directly in the movie theatre, challenged students to be empathic and also aware of the stereotypes that exist both within the Canadian cultural landscape and importantly within popular culture. The conversation forced students to recognize that the representation of the indigenous character in the film is layered and rooted in real history.

Here is an excerpt from the Skype call.

 

In the end, its urgent to ensure that real conversations are taking place and that students within media-based courses are not just watching; that they’re reading and making viable connections. These connections shape who we are and how we see the world.

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

Coming Soon: The Catholic Film Reader

The Catholic Film Reader  Proposal

With sincere thanks to the Catholic Curriculum Corporation for their forward vision to fund a project that speaks to critical literacy through the mediated lens, The Catholic Film Reader will be released later this fall/early winter. The resource looks at popular Hollywood cinema through a societal and political lens, while making connections to the core Gospel values of: Faith, Service, Courage, Justice, Reconciliation, Hope, Love and Community.  Considering that students are readily and excessively interacting with media and visual texts through mobile technology, it really is the perfect time to create a teacher and student centric resource that allows for movies to be screened in class for meaning.

As I am currently adding the finishing touches on the resource, before final submission, and I’m thrilled at the idea that teachers can leverage The Catholic Film Reader to engage students in deep conversations about narrative, culture, faith and identity. Geared towards Gr. 9 – 12 Religion classes (but suitable for Gr. 7 and Gr. 8 as well), the films explored are both entertaining but deeply provocative as well.  From Gravity to E.T. and The Hunger Games, the resource, will provide novice teachers with a framework to teach film as it needs to be taught: as a  medium for popular conversation around shared and lived ideas. We need critical citizens and this resource promises to be the “why and how” of  reading film through a academic framework.

Speaking through a production lens which I also specialize, the technology is meaningless without story. Recently, I took my 5yr old daughter and 3yr old son to see Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot. Embedded within the Hollywood spectacle of hyper – CGI graphics and defying musical score,  was a story of female empowerment , rebellion and a revisionist approach to science. Women, as the film tells us, can “do” science too. That “doing” is at the heart of the story. Within the world of science, where the female busters are framed as “frauds,” by their male counterparts, a critical reading of the film is urgent . As we walked out of the theatre , my children and I talked about meaning. We talked about what women do today and the “glass ceilings” they continue to break and how the film is connected. Although, they are young, at a very basic level, they understand that “girls can be Ghostbusters too.” Now, as a Catholic educator, it is important to take that conversation and embed our faith.

Excitingly, embedded within The Catholic Film Reader, which will be available to schools across the province as a Desire 2 Learn import and in PDF form, are expert voices in both faith studies and film criticism. As such, the resource has been produced in great collaboration and promises to be a viable educational entity. Film is more than a classroom “filler.”

I’ll be presenting The Catholic Film Reader for the first time at When Faith Meets Pedagogy on Friday October 28. Please join me for a conversation about film and faith.

Here’s an example of some of the excerpt voices included in the resource. Along with these videos, the resource provided interactive lessons and learning activities.

Stay tuned for the official release . I’ll share once it’s available on the CCC website later this fall / early winter.

Warm and special thanks are extended to Linda Vandeven (London District Catholic School Board),Melinda Ferrara (York Catholic District School Board), Susan Nigro – Perrotta (Toronto Catholic District School Board), Stefania Lista, Dr. Dru Jeffries and Dr. Anne Lancashire, who made incredible and valued contributions to the project.

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