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, no including school-related technology” (pg 18). That number 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 alive.

Kersting’s argument for less technology in the home and in the classroom is not a new one. Nor is it flawed. And because he and others articulate so well the dangers of heavy technology use, I won’t spend time arguing what they have already proven, that kids, teens, and adults need to put away their devices, spend quality time with each other, and truly experiencing the world.

What I’m interested in are 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? Because, as Derrick Jensen, author of Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution, argues, “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). 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 use. And for that, we have 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 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 loose, lives will be lost, and John Hammond will have come to realize the full weight of his “lack of humility before nature” (via) and abandons 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 - its 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” (pg 4). In other words, our children, our students, and 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 a necessity 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 bear. 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, 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 our own creation. We played god, believing we could create and control our own creation. But we failed. And now, at the hands of our own creation, people are dying. Because we believe we are in 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 belief that he was in control.

“{Y}ou can't think through this one, John,” Dr. Sattler says, leaning over the table, “You have to feel it.”

“You're right, you're absolutely right,” Hammond responds, “We're over-dependent on automation, I can see that now. Now, the next time everything's correctable . . .”

“It's still the flea circus,” she argues, “It's all an illusion.”

“When we have control—”

“You never had control!” she 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, perhaps even more so because the danger that lurks now doesn’t roar in the wilderness or ripples puddle which warns of it’s approach. Instead, our danger hunts us in silence, through locked doors, in the privacy of our beds, and in the simple every-day-moments where we feel most safe. Getting rid of our electronics or limiting them to just a few hours a day won’t protect us from these dangers. Such strategies are mere illusions of control.

"If the mind is not first trained to enjoy hard work,” Nick Heil writes, “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 in the skull"

Our Responsibility

The fictional dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were created out of a wild abandonment for discovery, what many educators and parents and #wonderlusts might call “reaching one’s potential,” Dr. Malcolm called it, “a rape of the natural world” because it disrupted what was and how Life had been. Hammond was playing God, but with the limitations of mankind’s perspective. The introduction and evolution of technology has a similar genesis and storyline.

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 aw 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 are 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. If the brain learns from such a young age 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 capture the thoughts that enter their brains, to analyze and critique their value, and to measure them up against what they know to be good and write and true, they will not have control of their lives or opportunities to impact the lives the others. Instead, they will mindlessly conform, follow, and die.

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, our actions, and our 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, even easy, because it does not fully address the problem: like Hammond’s dinosaurs, technology is out there, roaming, hunting, and hoping for simple prey. Not talking about the influences of technology or analyzing and dissecting the messages and impacts of social media does not solve the problem. It ignores it. Or at least, assumes it is controlled. Just like Ray Arnold believed he could get walk to the other end of the compound could bring power back to the entire park. Shutting down the system worked, but it also let loose the raptors.

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. 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 our devices regains control of who we are, what we are, and who we want to be. It provides us an opportunity to prove we are in fact alive, not merely entertained.

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 rid 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. They 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 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. By taking my CD’s and removing the bad influence from my room, what lesson did I learn? What skills did I gain? And what were the unintended consequences of such an action?

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.


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.

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.

“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.

“How is this art?” my students challenge.

“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 answers, and considering another’s perspective. We’re discovering what it means to think, to regain control, just as the god’s 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 its 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.

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 our ourselves. We will begin to understand humanity and the purpose for living.

Just as the god’s of education, of the living, 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 generations 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 what they want to be different and better from. They must know how to think, how to create, and how to step out and away from the crowed. They must continually prove they are alive.

“Can you imagine,” 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 a 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. 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. Which I didn’t of course because it was against the rules. But also, because 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. Which is why 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.

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.

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

Boys with Grandma

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.

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 in to 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 I 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, open 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 we 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 of art 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 where the ones that happened sporadically yet timely. Like the day after Childish Gambino dropped, “This is America”, and we spent the day pouring 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 listen to it. Several teachers were a bit 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 if that isn’t true, if one’s classroom is not safe enough to discuss such controversial issues openly and honestly, then I would argue that that classroom and teacher that 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 recently staff meeting, as a team-building exercise, we watched Second Hand Lovers, dissected it’s content, asked probing questions, and attempted to answer Roddenberry’s essential question. I was a bit 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. They’re 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 I 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 forth 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 control of technology, we allow for the rebuilding of relationships, the breaking down of barriers, and the exciting opportunities to feed our curiosities. Technology, social media, and whatever else comes next can be tools that remind us all that we are not alone, that we are indeed members of the human race, and that we’ve got a lot more of living to do.


On Movies:

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.

Now he is.

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

Connect Museums

Great artists steal, invoking images or truths of prior works for a purpose or message greater than their own. Teaching students to look for these nods to other artists

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 the students are required to take a piece of literature and connect the themes, ideas, motifs, tools, tricks - whatever - and relate them. Do they agree or disagree in their answers? What possible connections, big and small, can they make between the two mediums of expression?

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

The Village and Lord of the Flies

Jurassic Park and Frankenstein

The Notebook and The Great Gatsby

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

Counting Coup with Free Solo

Catcher in the Rye with Into the Wild

Provide no Answers