#insta_repeat : an instagram account that duplicates and connects

instagram-photos-look-the-same-insta-repeat-designboom-3-818x615.jpg

#Outsidemagazine recently published #insta_repeat, an instagram account dedicated to to portraying the replication of art and creativity.

IMG_E9C8BA4BA9D2-1.jpeg

I was instantly drawn to this sentiment. Recently, wife and I have been discussing the pros and cons of entering a social media break for this very reason, to see exactly where our creativity would go if we had no input or influence from others. What images and creativity and thoughts would we have, in what direction would they wander?

We talked well into the night.

But then, as it often happens, I went to bed and she stayed up. She ended up heading back to the post to read the comments.

She found this one:

IMG_6AEBAD4A7A2B-1.jpeg

“So what?” What a great question.

So what if we duplicate, if we find inspiration and innovation from those around us? So what if we imitate them, model them, and join them in their creative pursuits? So what?

It's easy to mock or scoff at all the perceived wanna-be's out there. "Be original!" we might say, because nobody likes a poser and everyone wants to be uniquely different. Just not too different. Because we also don't want to be alone, misunderstood, or an outcast. We want community and relationships and to be included. We want to be known.

"Being original," Adam Grant writes, "doesn't mean being first. It just means being different and better" (via). It means learning and absorbing from those around us while using our individuality and identity to progress an idea or truth beyond its current state. 

And that is exactly what is happening in so many areas of life and art and #insta_repeat, people are finding connection and community by embracing and participating in a movement, an idea, or a trend because it makes them feel part of something bigger than themselves, in their own unique way. Just like everybody else.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On Living  : Outside Magazine

Parkour: “Respect your environment. Respect people.”

“There’s no written code for Parkour, but pretty much every where you find the same principals . . . At some point, even the strongest person freezes on a jump. It teaches you humility and reminds you where you came from.” That’s why no one ever finishes a challenge alone . . . “Parkour was always about community” (pg. 154)

In his book, Natural Born Heroes, Chris McDougall is arguing that mankind can do much more than what we’ve come to believe. Heroes and acts of heroism were once normal, common, and expected. Now, they’re the exception. Largely because we’ve forgotten what our bodies can do. What they were made to do. And why they were made to do them: to live, and to serve.

Parkour, according to McDougall, is a modern day example of what we’ve lost. The real obstacle to Parkour isn’t strength, it’s trust. “I never knew what my body could do,” Shirley Darlington, a Parkour participant and leader of the movement, explains, “so it took a long time to build the confidence to throw my full weight into a movement” . . . “Once I did, it changed everything.”

Her body, her mind, and her sense of belonging.

She now runs a Parkour movement where on any given night, she will email her Parkour group telling them when and where to meet. From there, the city is their gym, their playground, their sanctuary. “You’re always on the edge of fear,” Shirley explained, “because your body senses it can do more than your mind will let it.”

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Humanity :  Documentaries 

Get Out There : Normalize Greatness

51l+G4Yrv2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

I recently listened to a discussion with Kim Chambers on REI’s podcast, Wild Ideas Worth Living, and it kinda charged my life.

Kim Chambers was 30 years old, an athlete and a powerful executive, when she slipped and fell down a set of stairs. The injuries she sustained changed the course of her life. Not only did she prove doctors wrong about being able to be an athlete again, but she became one of the most accomplished marathon swimmers in the world, after never swimming competitively in her life before the injury (via)

She attributes her success, largely, to the company she kept. By inserting herself into a world of adventurers who were, at their core, just ordinary people who were doing amazing things, she found herself surrounded by a society who had normalized great achievements. Suddenly, doing great things wasn’t so impossible. It was ordinary, if not expected. “If you want to do something that changes your life,” she says in the interview, surround “yourself with people who believe in you.”

This idea, of normalizing great achievements, has inspired me. Encouraged me. And challenged me to get out and surround myself with people and stories of people who do amazing things. To get comfortable with living a bit more wild, and free, and different. To make thinking different the norm, rather than the exception.

To help get my mind and body kickstarted, I bought a few books (and a bike), and I’ve just recently finished the first, Out There: The Wildest Stories from Outside Magazine. Here are few of my favorite stories, in order of appearance:

  • They Call Me Groover Boy, by Kevin Fedarko, “What’s it like to be captain of the ‘poop boat’ and steering three weeks of human waste through some of America’s gnarliest whitewater? Read and find out.”
    (no video for this one:)

  • The Hell on Earth Fitness Plan, by Nick Heil, “In 2008, {Nick} heard about Gym Jones, a back-to-basics workout center with a (very) tough love ethos run by former climbing star Mark Twight. We’re still somewhat surprised Nick lived to tell the story.”

  • Open Your Mouth and You’re Dead, by James Nestor, “The freediving world championships occur at the outer limits of competitive risk. During the 2011 event, held off the coast of Greece, more than 130 athletes assembled to swim hundreds of fee straight down on a single breath - without (they hoped) passing out, freaking out, or drowning.”

  • Quoosiers, by Eric Hansen, “The Quidditch World Cup sounds dorky, and make no mistake: it is. But these sorcery-loving Harry Potter fans play pretty tough, as Eric Hansen found out when we sent him to captain a bad-news team of ex-athletes, ultimate Frisbee studs, slobs, drunks, and some people he knows from Iceland.”

  • The World’s Toughest Bike Race is not in France, by Jon Billman, “The rules are simple: Start pedaling at the Canadian border, and the first fat tire to hit Mexico wins.”

  • Reversal of Fortune (Lucky Chance), by Elizabeth Weil, “Maybe you’ve never heard of Lucky Chance - born Toby Benham - but the Australian climber, circus act, and all-around stunt monkey was testing the limits of BASE jumping in 2011 when he survived a horrible mountainside crash in France. What happens when a highflier falls to earth? He starts over.”

The book is broken into three parts: To Hell and Back, Let the Games Begin, and Consumed. The last section appropriately spends time reminding us that there are indeed lines to our extremes, and when we cross them, bad things happen. Sometimes really bad things.

I absolutely loved this book, especially the middle story, “The Hell on Earth Fitness Plan,” from which my (I think) a better title for the book comes: Prove you’re alive (pg 166). A few pages later, Heil writes, “Changing your body is just mechanics; it changing your mind that presents the real challenge. If the mind is not first trained to enjoy hard work, to relish suffering, to address the unknown, then no program, no amount of training can be effective . . . the muscle we are interested in training is inside the skull” (pg 171).

Damn. That’s good.

To find a group of people with a similar mindset, who believe hard work and simple sufferings are normal, then suddenly, great things are happening. Because that too is normal.

And if one cannot find a group, be the group.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Books : Reading Log : Inspiration

Cambodia : A home uprooted, a land displaced

photo by goprojectfilms.com

photo by goprojectfilms.com

“Never before have I witnessed the uprooting and displacement of land itself,” Mam said. She wanted to understand where all this sand was going, and how a country—considered one of the most affluent in the world—could destroy someone else's home to build its own. “It is already enough to be removed from one’s land,” Mam said. “It is another thing entirely to have one’s land removed as well” (via).

Decades following the dissolution of the regime, thousands of Cambodian families are experiencing a new wave of displacement. By talking with locals on the island of Koh Sralau, Mam found out that since 2007, the government of Cambodia has granted several private companies concessions to mine the country’s coastal mangrove forests. Each year, millions of metric tons of Cambodian sand are shipped to Singapore to expand that island nation’s landmass; Singapore has imported more than 80 million tons of sand so far. According to Mam, “The people and all the living creatures that depend on these forests for their livelihood are forced to cope with this massive loss.” In addition to displacing those who live and work on that land, Cambodia is also destroying its only natural barrier against erosion, rising sea levels, tsunamis, and hurricanes.

You can read the entire interview here.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Humanity :  Documentaries  :

Entertained to Death

In Disconnected: How to Reconnect our Digitally Distracted Kids, Thomas Kersting states that, “More kids than ever before, are struggling to communicate, socialize, or cope effectively with real-life matters because they are not living in the real world” (pg 9). Kersting goes on to say that the solution to this growing epidemic is less time spent on and with technology. No more than two hours a day, he pleads, no technology in the bedroom or at the dinner table, he argues, and only limited, if any, time should be allowed while at school because the average American teen spends more than 63 hours per week, “immersed in electronic media, not including school-related technology” (pg 18). The statistic is staggering, but its implication is terrifying. Young teens (and many adults) have forgotten what it means to think, to build sincere relationships, and to prove that they are something much more than mindless machines. The have forgotten what it means to be human, to think and feel and live. They’ve forgotten what it means to be alive.

Kersting and others have clearly articulated the legitimate need for less technology in the home and classroom.  They have proven that kids, teens, and adults need to put away their devices and spend quality time with each other, truly experiencing the world.

The question we need to ask now is,  what about those moments when the devices are on. When they and we are binge watching HBO shows, listening to our favorite songs, or flipping through our favorite feeds, what then?  As Derrick Jensen, author of Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution argues, “It is the {movies, videos, Instagram posts} that we {watch} for amusement or purely for pleasure that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us” (via). And he’s absolutely right. How we entertain ourselves is just as important, if not more so, than how often.

“Technology by itself, Jim Collins argues in his New York Times bestseller Good to Great, “is never a primary, root cause of either greatness or decline”, it simply is. Unchecked and free to roam, however, it has become a predator of our minds and lives. It has consumed us. And for that, we are responsible. Just like John Hammond was for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

HAMMOND’S HUMILITY

“The world's just changed so radically and we're all trying to catch up.” Alan Grant says while sitting at a table, surrounded by other doctors. He and the other scientists have just discovered life’s new reality, that dinosaurs exist, and he is struggling to make sense of it all. “I don't want to jump to any conclusions,” he continues, slowly, deliberately, “but look: Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by sixty-five million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?”

John Hammond, the mastermind behind Jurassic Park, can’t believe the skepticism, “You're meant to come down here and defend me,” he says, “and the only one I've got on my side is the blood-sucking lawyer!”

Hours later, the dinosaurs will be loosed, lives will be lost, and John Hammond will have come to realize the full weight of his “lack of humility before nature” (via) and abandon the island.

I remember the first time I watched Jurassic Park. I was ten and visiting my grandparents for the weekend. They had already seen the movie and felt it absolutely necessary that before anything else, before we went fishing, caught up on life, or even ate dinner, we had to watch the movie. So we did, and I can remember nothing else from that weekend visit.

The movie was terrifying and more real than anything I had ever seen, and when my parents bought the VHS a few months later, I watched it again and again and again because the dinosaurs looked so real, the music was epic, and the storyline riveting. From start to finish, I was hooked. If my English teacher had asked to me fill out a plot map of the story, including major and minor characters, I could have done it instantly. But if I was required to write a short essay on what it meant, I would have tilted my head, much like the Dilophosaurus does when Newman tries to entice him into a game of fetch. “What does it mean?” I would have asked, “I don’t have a clue - it’s just a really good movie!”

And it was. But it was also a warning.

Technology is the way of the future-- always has been, and always will be. Technology has transformed and improved our world in fantastical ways, but “If we are to remain globally competitive in today’s world,” Tony Wagner writes in Creating Innovators, “we need to produce more than just a few entrepreneurs and innovators. We need to develop the creative and enterprising capacities of all our students” (4). In other words, our children, our students, and we ourselves need to gain control of technology, not be controlled by it. We need to embrace it, holistically, because it is the way of the future, but also separate ourselves from it. In many ways, technology has become necessary to sustain life, but it is not life. Nor is it the source of life. But for many, that is exactly what is has become.

For an educator, this is a terrifying contradiction to bare. On the one hand, in order to remain globally competitive, schools and educators must embrace technology and aggressively implement it into the classroom so their students (and school) can achieve global relevance and local prominence. On the other hand, Dr. Ian Malcolm’s warning, “You’re scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

In hopes of providing students the greatest opportunity for future success, we (educators, parents, and humanity at large) have lost control of our own technological creation. We believed we could create and control our simple devices, but rather quickly and right beneath our noses, we have lost control. We have failed. “Technology and all of these devices have made their way into our lives at such a lightning-fast pace” Kersting writes, that “we simply didn’t see it coming” (pg 59). Now, it runs free and rampant, for hours upon hours each day, with little to no supervision. Even when we know that it shouldn’t because, let’s face it, no adult or parent or teacher wants to admit that we’ve have succumbed to peer pressure and allowed our kids more than we thought we should, but we all have. And now, people are dying. Emotionally, relationally, psychologically, even physically. All because we still believe in the illusion of our own control.

Just like John Hammond.

“With this place,” Hammond says while the ice cream melts and dinosaurs roam the park. “I wanted to give {the world} something that wasn't an illusion. Something that was real. Something they could see, and touch. An aim not devoid of merit.”

John Hammond’s heart, like parents and teachers, was in the right place when he set out to change the world, so too was his mind. But in his quest for achievement and innovation, in his pursuit of godliness, he became blind. Blind to the living and breathing dangers of his creation, and blind to the truth that just because he created the dinosaurs, that did not mean he controlled them.

“When we have control—” Hammond begins to argue.

“You never had control!” Dr. Sattler shouts, “That's the illusion!” and then, “Now, I was overwhelmed by the power of this place, but I made a mistake, too. I didn't have enough respect for that power. And it's out now. The only thing that matters now,” she continues, “are the people we love. Alan, Lex and Tim… John, they're out there where people are dying.”

And she’s absolutely right.

In our current time, we do not fear dinosaurs, but we are still in danger of the perception of control. Perhaps even more so because the danger that lurks now doesn’t roar in the wilderness or ripple the surface of a puddle, warning of its approach. Instead, it rests quietly on our coffee tables, sits comfortably in our pockets, and innocently promises a better, more connected and simplified life. So we trust it, us it, and increasingly come to depend on it. For work, knowledge, social interaction, entertainment, or whatever, we allow our own creation to dictate or moods, our ideas, and our lives; we allow it to consume us, just like the ancient dinosaurs of Hammond’s creation.

Getting rid of our electronics or limiting them to just a few hours a day won’t protect us or our children from these real and present dangers because the problem we have created and the solution it requires is much more complex than simply hiding our head in the sand. It was our minds that created this problem, so too must it be that our minds get us out it.

OUR RESPONSIBILITY

The fictional dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were created out of a wild abandonment for discovery. Hammond was playing God, but with the limitations of mankind’s perspective. The introduction and evolution of technology has a similar genesis and storyline. In hopes of making the world a better place, we’ve pushed the envelope of what could be, advanced our technology and our lives into what was once considered only fantasy fiction, and placed upon our shoulders and minds the role and duties of god. All with a limited perspective of what could and can happen.

Fortunately for us, technology is a bit different than roaming dinosaurs and our minds more capable than electric fences. We have the power to contain and even control technology, but in order to do so, we need to step back from the valley, disconnect ourselves from the awe and wonder of what we’ve created, and think. “The more we become used to just sound bites and tweets,” Kersting writes, “the less patient we will become with more complex, more meaningful information. . . . we will “lose the ability to analyze things with any depth and nuance” (pg 4). In short, we will lose the ability to prove we not mere machines, but humans, filled with passion and fear and hope and love. We lose the ability to prove that we are indeed alive.


FOR AMUSEMENT’S SAKE:

“Look around at all the empty seats,” I said, two days after the Douglas High School shooting, “Now imagine that instead of those students being out for basketball, they were never coming back again because someone shot up our school.” My students looked around the room. “What if the sub you have today in history class," I continued, “wasn’t temporary but permanent. Because instead of taking a personal day, Mr. Boyle gave his life so that others could live.” They looked back at me, at each other, in complete silence. Nobody moved, checked their phones, or worked on late homework. The ceiling lights hummed.

“I never quite know how to handle these types of moments,” I said, struggling to find words of comfort or explanation, “I just know we need to address it, talk about it, and make it personal.” So we did, spending the next twenty minutes discussing school shootings, why they happen, how to prevent them, and what their prevalence might be saying about our society at large. We didn’t solve the problem, we merely addressed it. Then we wrote letters to the students at Douglas High School.

During lunch, I read them. All of them. Then I threw a few of them away. Partly because they were a bit shallow, but mostly because they could easily come across as insensitive, even those written with the purest of intentions. One letter in particular stood out the most. It was from a junior who was a starter on the boys basketball team and an overall good student and great kid. For his letter, he quoted his favorite song “God’s Plan” by Drake. I don’t remember which lyrics he specifically chose, but it doesn’t really matter because none of them work. Not even a little.

“Why would he write this,” I remember thinking, “How is this even remotely comforting or appropriate?” The only answer I’ve been able to come up with is that he didn’t know what he was writing because he didn’t understand the song. Not fully, anyway. Just like John Hammond didn’t fully understand the ecosystem of Jurassic Park.

After discovering the splendid grandeur of  the park, the visitors are taken to the laboratory. Rather quickly, the terrifying reality of the park begins to set in “You have plants in this building that are poisonous,” Dr. Sattler says to Hammond, “you picked them because they look good”, not because they were best for the dinosaurs.

In many ways, that is what this student was doing. He knew the song was popular, that it said overtly positive things like, “God’s plan” and that it was a song that dealt with pain and struggles -  “And still, bad things. It’s a lot of bad things.” So he wrote them down, believing and hoping the lyrics could help, even though he didn’t fully understand what he was saying nor the true meaning behind the lyrics he was invoking. His heart was in the right place, but his mind was not. Much like John Hammond.

For me, this moment exemplifies one of the more dangerous ways we have lost control of technology’s power.  With little to no consideration, we pick and choose, like and post, quote and mimic based on little more than what looks or sounds good, unconsciously allowing another’s moral compass to dictate and guide our own.

Especially our children.

“Younger people, particularly teens,” writes Michelle C. Pautz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, “are much more likely to be impacted {by movies} than older adults because they are still developing and shaping their world-views” and are therefore “more likely to absorb all sorts of influences, including influences from film.” An influence that “may be quite substantial” because, without thinking, they mimic what they see and hear.

As children, this is cute. As adults, it’s terrifying. At such a young age, if the brain is allowed or encouraged to mimic and repeat what is seen and heard without considering why, if young learners are not taught, guided, and reminded, over and over again, to take captive the thoughts that enter their brains, to analyze and critique their implied value, and to measure that value against what they know to be good and right and true, then they will lose that which is most precious to them: their ability to think and reason and make unique decisions. They will lose their humanity.

According to the Washington Post, “Teens are spending more than one-third of their days using media such as online video or music — nearly nine hours on average . . . For tweens, those between the ages of 8 and 12, the average is nearly six hours per day.”

That is terrifying. And not just because it seems to be an exorbitant amount of time wasted, but because of the transformative impact that 6-9 hours is having on their minds, actions, and lives. As Steve Turner states, “It is the {movies, videos, Instragram posts} that we {watch} for amusement or purely for pleasure that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us” (via).

In response, many schools and parents are banning phones or setting heavy restrictions on time allowed. This although noble and held with great intentions is sufficiently incomplete because it does not fully address the problem. Not talking about the influences of technology or analyzing and dissecting the messages and impacts of social media does not solve the problem. It magnifies it.

We as educators and parents - more than ever - cannot hide from the power and influence of technology. Nor can we believe that simply restricting its use or throwing it away will completely save those we love from it’s unintended consequences. We need to be spending the time and energy teaching our children (and ourselves) how to regain control of the technology we’ve created. “Our devices have become such a part of who we are,” Thomas Kersting writes, “ that we may be losing sight of who we are.”

Regaining control of the content our technology produces allows us to regain control of who we are, what we are, and who we want to be. It provides us an opportunity to prove that we are not mindless and aimless and satisfied with mere entertained. Taking control of our devices means taking control of our lives. It means proving we’re alive, not mindless machines.

PROVE WE’RE ALIVE:

“The block walls featured just two decorations,” Nick Heil, editor for Outside Magazine writes, “an American flag and a sign, cribbed from Fight Club, that read,

Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second off your life. Don’t you have other things to do? Get out of your apartment. Meet a member of the opposite sex. Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation. Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you’re alive.

When considering the effect technology has had on our lives, the same could be applied. Eerily so. But because we cannot eliminate it entirely from our lives (if we wish to stay relevant, anyway), then we must learn to control it. And in order to do that, we must first gain control of ourselves, our thoughts, our minds.

When in middle school, I was into punk and hardcore music - a far cry from my mother’s taste, soft contemporary Christian music. One day, after months of attempted tolerance, she asked me to bring my music down to the living room so she could read the lyrics. “These aren’t even complete sentences,” I remember her saying. The CD’s were soon stashed under her bed and out of sight. She didn’t want my mind “rotting” from listening to such junk.

Looking back, I believe my mother’s intentions were in the right place, that she was concerned for her youngest boy and wanted to care for his mind. So she did the best she knew how. Or at least, she did something other than passively allowing me to sit and listen to something she thought was suspect.

“Indifference and neglect often does more damage than outright dislike” Dumbledore states in Order of the Phoenix, and my mother was not indifferent. She was, however, lazy - at least in this moment. Taking my CDs and removing the bad influence from my room was easy action because it was immediate. It didn’t require a discussion and took very little time, but the outcome with clear: I no longer had access to the influential music. But what lesson did I learn? What skills did I gain? And what were the unintended consequences of such her actions?

The simple answer is that I learned to keep my music and my thoughts to myself. The more complicated answer is that my mother lost an opportunity to learn something about her son, to teach him the more valuable lesson of what it means to be curious, and why it is more important to wrestle with the meaning of something rather than toss it out just because we don’t like the way it looks or sounds. By throwing out the music, she lost the chance of teaching her son what it means to be a man of discernment and what it means to be alive. She lost the chance to talk about urinals.

i-8Le397-h2ZTgLM1iMegw%2FMarcel_Duchamp.jpg

When Urinals Speak:

At the beginning of every year, I show my students this photograph and ask, “What is this?”

It doesn’t take long for someone, most often a boy, to shout out, “A urinal!”

When I ask them, “What does it mean,” the room typically goes silent.

“All art,” according to Gene Roddenberry, the writer of the hit TV series Star Trek, “is an attempt to answer the question, 'What is it all about?'" Which means every time a child or teen or adult opens Instagram or Youtube; whenever they watch a movie or HBO show; whenever they listen to music, they are absorbing answers to someone else’s world view. And if they are doing so with indifference and neglect, they are relinquishing control of their thoughts, actions, and lives and living according to someone else’s set of rules. And they don’t even know it.

According to legend, on April 9, 1917 Marcel Duchamp submitted this piece to the “‘unjuried Society of Independent Artists’ salon in New York—which claimed that they would accept any work of art, so long as the artist paid the application fee.” He titled it, Fountain. My students challenge its validity, “How is this art!” they often exclaim, which is exactly where they need to be! But all too often often, their question ends there, perhaps with a scoff and a laugh, neglecting the very purpose and joy of art: to answer life’s most essential questions.

“How is this art?” my students challenge, after staring at the used and useless urinal.

“Because it answers the essential question,” I tell them, “but the more important question,” I say, “is this: what is his answer?” As you can imagine, the discussion that follows is full of toilet humor, and they love it. So do I, because we’re learning and laughing, because we’re analyzing and critiquing, and because we’re doing it together, refining each other’s answers, and considering another’s perspective. We’re discovering what it means to think, to regain control, just as the gods of education intended.

Then, after they’ve bought in, we watch a trailer from the original Star Trek TV series and one from the newer blockbuster hit movie. I ask them, "What do you think these films are about?" and they say things like, "good vs evil," "don’t be afraid to fail," or "the struggle of living for others vs living for self,” all of which are great and good answers. Then I show them Roddenberry’s quote, that he created Star Trek as “an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms" (via), and my students are stunned. “He meant all that,” they say.

“Yes,” I respond, “he meant all that.”

For the rest of the year, the prompt, “What is it all about?” is the essential question that every student must answer for every piece of work. And by the end of the first quarter, I don’t even have to ask it. They do it themselves. Which is exactly where I want them to be, because it’s exactly where they need to be. No longer indifferent; their minds no longer neglected.

Instead of taking away my CDs, my mother could have asked, “How is this art?”, “What does it mean?”, or “Why do you like it?”, allowing for an opportunity to not only teach me how to think, but to learn a little something about me, as well as herself. Instead of widening the gap between us, she could have entered my world, understood my angst, built a small connection of trust, and opened the door for more and deeper future conversations.

Instead, she widened the gap of understanding and lost an opportunity to teach her son how to think about the world, and perhaps learn a little about how he already did.

We’re not going to get rid of cell phones and computers. Shutting them down, although helpful and an exercise worth pursuing at times, will not only aggravate the problem, it will strengthen the illusion of control. Instead, we, the adults, need to embrace the music, movies, and social media outlets because they are the museum of our time, of our children’s time, and if want to help them, teach them, and to love them, we must learn to love what they love. If we do, not only will we begin understand our children and students, we will begin to understand ourselves. We will begin to understand humanity and the purpose for living.

Just as the gods of education intended.

What Museums Say:

Like Roddenberry, Neil Postman believed museums were an answer to the fundamental question, “What does it mean to be human?” He also believed they had no choice but to provide an incomplete answer. “Every museum,” he argued, “gives only a partial answer. Each one makes an assertion about the nature of humanity - sometimes supporting and enriching one another’s claims but just as often contradicting one another” (pg 163).

The role of the observer, then, was not to merely walk the halls of any museum, absorbing the various displays of humanity’s answers, and then continue on, that would be careless, indifferent, and downright foolish. Yet, that is exactly what is happening today with our modern expressions and assertions of what it means to be human.

Social media is our modern world's Museum. It is an instrument of survival and sanity where mankind has a chance to tell their story and to share of their struggles and hopes and fears and dreams. It shares what we know, what we don’t, where we’re going, and where we’ve been, both good and bad, because it is the story of humanity. It is this generation’s outlet, their search for purpose, and their attempt at answers.

Why is it not part of our curriculum?

Our students, to paraphrase Postman, have continuous and instant access to all forms of artistic expression, be it music, film, design, literature, or photography. “As a consequence,” Postman argues, “their receptivity to popular forms is well developed and appropriate. But their capacity to respond with educated imaginations . . . is severely limited” (pg. 167). They are aware of and fully capable of navigating the terrain of social media but are equally incapable of understanding what it means. Instead of analyzing, thinking, and purposefully choosing for themselves, they mindlessly follow, clogging our modern museums with superficial and unoriginal answers to life’s most essential question.

“What does it mean to be alive?” You tell me.

In his New York Times Bestseller, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Tony Wagner writes, The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve new problems is the single most important skill that all students must master today” (pg 142). One must be able to think, to sift through the ideas and opinions of those around them, gathering bits and pieces of information, and then create a new and unique thought, solution, or expression. They must think, not merely swipe through images or gather information. And we as teachers and parents must be the ones to teach them how to think about that information, even if it isn’t always met with grand applause.

Consider this, an email from a former student.

Hey Miller,

Over the past few months I’ve come across a few songs, passages, movies, and even university classes that reminded me of you. They possess some quality that you appreciate... like those enigmatic storylines that you always desire to surround yourself with - whether through literature or self-created. This is just a note to say that I think of you often and, although some of my peers had well..mixed feelings toward your method of teaching an AP class, you have fostered in me a love of poetry and story and a desire to study both beyond the surface level. It’s quite a gift and it brings me daily joy. I doubt it will leave me and I hope you know how you’ve impacted my love of the these arts.

As a teacher, a father, a human, this email means more to me than any test score ever could because this is “life-long learning” and what Adam Grant calls “being original.”

“Being original doesn’t require being first,” Adam Grant writes in Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant, “It just means being different and better.” But in order to be different and better, one must know from what they want to be different and better. They must know how to think, how to create, and how to step out and away from the crowd. They must continually prove they are alive.

“Can you imagine,” Neil Postman writes, “‘museums’ as a specific subject in high school or college?” Or of a class or project that asks students to create a museum that depicts their worldview? A museum that employs a full range of expressions (visual art, music, technology, film, etc.) that collectively provides partial answers to the world’s most essential questions?

Can you imagine what our students and children would learn, what we would learn, and the relationships we could build?

Why Stories Matter:

Several years ago, before I was a teacher, my wife and I ran a group home for “troubled teens” from in and around the Philadelphia area. Six teenage boys lived in our home, all of whom brought their own unique struggles, but one kid in particular was a problem. His name was J.C., and he was scary. He was a fighter, had been in and out of the system for years, and was not a fan of authority. Especially white authority. So from the start, he and I clashed. He would curse in my face, refuse to follow rules or expectations, and constantly begged me to fight. I didn’t of course, because it was against the rules. But also, he would have kicked my ass.

So when my grandmother came to visit, I was terrified. Highly religious and extremely conservative, my grandmother stood just above five feet tall, said words like, “my lanta,” and laughed like child. She was precious and sweet, and I knew J.C. would eat her up. And he did.

About two days into her stay, me and most of the boys were outside raking and cleaning up the backyard. J.C. was inside. So was my grandmother. As time went by, I became more and more nervous, so I went to check on how things were going and found my grandmother sitting at the table with J.C.. He was reading her his raps and she was holding his hand, crying. They wrote letters for months after she left and he went on to prison. Because my grandmother loved what he loved, and he loved her for it.

My grandmother hated any music that wasn’t worship music. But even more than she hated, she loved. And she loved J.C. and his personal journey and story.

A few days later, before heading back home, they took this picture:

Boys with Grandma

Instead of her personal preference, my grandmother chose J.C.. She chose his music, his experiences, and all his differences over herself. In exchange, he trusted her, he embraced her and accepted her, and he let her into his world and life through months of letters that they exchanged back and forth. They built a bond that acknowledged the difference but chose, instead, to focus on their similarities. That they both struggled, that they loved family and life, and that, try as they might, it did not work out exactly as they had hoped, but neither was willing to give up.

All because she chose to sit and listen to his raps.

From that day forward, I learned from my grandmother and started investing in J.C., his life, his interests, and his person. Not because I wanted compliance, but because my grandmother was right: he was more important than my personal preferences or pride.

Parents and teachers must do the same.

We must never shy away from controversy. Whether it be confrontational discussions, problematic perspectives, or difficult world events, we must be willing to wrestle with the content, openly and honestly, without dogmatic criticism or pious perspectives. Whatever the kids are listening to or watching, if they’re engaged, it must quickly became part of our class and living room discussion, if only because it’s what they love. And if we want to know them, if we truly want to have a voice or make any difference in their lives, we must choose them over our own personal taste.

Over the years, I’ve attempted various ways of implementing this idea into my class. There was Art Starts, where every class began with a relevant piece that the students had to analyze, dissect, and interpret before the class began. There was Music Video Friday which, as you can probably guess, had us watching and wrestling with various music videos. But the best moments, the ones that seemed to matter most with my students were the ones that were organic. Like the day after Childish Gambino dropped “This is America”, and we spent the day poring over it, wrestling with the images, the lyrics, and the question, “What is it all about?” Or the class when, while teaching at a Christian school, we wrestled with Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” because it was making international headway and all my students were talking about and listening to it. Several teachers were shocked, even outright angry, that we would cover such material in class, but the students loved it, I loved it, and we all learned a great deal that day. About the world, about each other, and about ourselves. “What better, safer place is there than a classroom?” I told my questioning boss. Because it’s true. If one’s classroom is not safe enough to discuss such controversial issues openly and honestly, if students are unable to bring in their material, their influences and talk freely and openly about them, then I would argue that that teacher and their classroom are the problem, not the content. Just ask my grandmother. Or my fellow student, Rylie, who, in an end-of-the-year-letter, wrote,

"I learned not to judge people and to consider everyone's perspective because no one is completely right, it's all how you see the situation. You made us discuss deep topics & because of that Jesilyn and I are closer than we've ever been."

At a more recent staff meeting, as a team-building exercise, we watched Second Hand Lovers, dissected its content, asked probing questions, and attempted to answer Roddenberry’s essential question. I was nervous how the film and activity would be received, but as often happens, a room full of great teachers blew the activity out of the water, picking apart the details, asking insightful questions, and listening to one another’s potential answers. “I had my thoughts on the film pretty early on,” one teacher told me later in the day, “but then I started really listening to those at my table. Their interpretations were radically different than mine and it forced me to think outside myself and consider their position, their perspective. We didn’t agree,” he said, “but by the end, I understood a bit more about where it was they were coming from. Which was the point of it all, I think.”

Yes it was.

Tell me again why a museum of stories are not part of our curriculum and monthly staff meetings?

Where to Start : Some Personal Favorites:

What I love most about this list is that many of them have come from my students. “Thought you’d like this,” or, “Thought of you,” messages that randomly pop up in my messenger, Instagram, or email are some of the highlights of my teaching career, and I hope they never stop.

In no particular order:

  • 2+2=5 Another beginning of the year video that can help set the stage of why we learn. But also, why the imaginary guns? “Because they’re killing the imagination,” a student once said. Brilliant.

  • Second Hand Lovers by Oren Lavie “Why does she smile?” I ask, after the third or fourth watch. The discussion that follows is pure gold. Love this one.

  • We are Witnesses : Documentaries of crime, punishment, and humanity Chimamanda Adichie says that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but incomplete. These short documentaries share both sides of our stories.

  • I Promise by Radiohead. Wait till the end. Then, after a round or two of watching and analyzing, check out what Thom Yorke had to say about it.

  • Caroline: A tough watch, but when compared to Patrick Lencioni’s  Fundamental Attribution Error, it becomes a powerful example. "The Fundamental Attribution Error” Lencioni explains, “is the tendency of human beings to attribute the negative or frustrating behaviors of {others} to their intentions and personalities, while attributing {our} own negative or frustrating behaviors to environmental factors” (via).

  • Happiest Person in the World: Love this video. Students do too. And the lessons they glean from it are immeasurable.

  • Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes: I’ll say no more.

  • Poilus: Love this film about infantry soldiers in the French army who are waiting to leave for the battlefield. I love that humans have been replaced with rabbits.

  • Double King: one of the greatest short films . . . ever.

  • Bus 44: This one is a bit tough and should only be watched with a warning. The discussions that follow can be pretty amazing, though, especially when the question is asked, “Why does he smile?” Like Secondhand Lovers, there are multiple viable answers, which only adds to some powerful and rich discussions.

WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?

I don’t know. Neither does my staff, my students, nor anyone in my family, but that’s what makes it fun, unremarkably unique, and deeply beneficial. Because when we gain the skills and experiences to use technology in purposeful ways, to express and evaluate who we are, to analyze and critique what we are, and consciously wrestle with ideas and truths of what we want to be. Suddenly technology no longer has control over our lives. It enriches it.

Just as the gods of technology intended.


On Movies in the Classroom: Some Extra Thoughts

In schools, movies have gained a bad reputation. Ask any student or parent why teachers watch movies and they will answer with one if not more of the following:

  • It is what teachers do the week before Christmas and/or summer break

  • It is how English teachers end a book unit (think Of Mice and Men, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Crucible)

  • It is how teachers teach history

Ask my father, and he would tell you movies have no place in the classroom - ever - because in his experience, raising up four kids through the public school system, they were abused and misused, “Kids watch too much T.V. already,” he would say, “Why do you have to do it at school?” To him, movies in the classroom was a waste of time. And he wasn’t wrong, then.

Now he is.

Movies and short films should never be deleted from a teacher’s syllabus and classroom repertoire. Nor should they be relegated to mere prompts. Rather, in many cases, and often, they should be the content, just as long as we follow some basic guidelines.

Connect Museums

All great artists steal from other artists. Invoking images or ideas of prior works allows them to not only enhance and clarify their purpose, it allows them to connect with others from around the world and throughout time. It allows them to be part of something bigger and greater than their own thoughts. Teaching students to look for these nods to other artists is not only high-level thinking, its a reminder that there is something bigger than them, that their struggles and wants and needs are universal, and that there is indeed a deep and real purpose to art and movies and social media. They are not here to merely entertain the world, but to explain it.

Do this as teachers. Don’t merely watch a movie based on the book you already read (they will probably do this on their own anyway). Instead, create your own Film Meets Literature unit where students are required to take a piece of literature and connect the themes, ideas, motifs, tools, tricks - whatever - and relate them to other mediums of possible inspiration.

Here are a few of my favorites from the past few years:

Lord of the Flies with The Village

Frankenstein with Jurassic Park

The Great Gatsby with The Notebook

Ender’s Game with The Power of One

Counting Coup with Free Solo

Catcher in the Rye with Into the Wild

My Papa's Waltz by Theodore Roethke with Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s, “Someday Never Comes” . . . a tear jerker. For students and teachers alike.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Education  :  Chapters to my book

GOT : Season 8 Preview

Yeah. I’m pretty stoked. But also radically worried.

Since moving beyond the books in season 6, there has been a subtle yet decisive change in the story. Namely, we finally get what we want.

Lord Boltin, the son, gets an all-so-deserving death, Lord Snow gets the girl, and somehow in the midst of being overrun by thousands of The Dead, none of our favorite characters are killed. The bad guys seem a bit more reachable, the good guys a bit more invincible. Just like the movies we’re used to, which is both satisfying and frustrating.

One of GOT strengths is its unpredictability. Good guys don’t always win. Bad guys don’t always loose. But without the mind of George RR Martin to screw with us, the storyline is becoming a bit more predictable and possibly very, very cheesy.

Two Dragons will be ridden by two Targaryens (Snow and Khaleesi) for one is pretty cheesy, but so too is Greyworm’s goodbye kiss to Missandei from the island of Naath. Jami will “fight for the living”, meaning the North, and will probably be confronted with his sister near the end of the season with possibly the weight of the entire world resting on his shoulders while Jon Snow faces off against the Night King (aka, his brother, Bran). All of which is great fun, but also a bit disappointing. Because it is far from the days of Lord Eddard Stark being beheaded at the whim of a mad king.

But I could be wrong. Either way . . . to the king of the North! . . . and the queen of the South, I suppose. She’s pretty badass.