The book is always better than the movie. What would you expect an English teacher to write? Yet, some adaptations can become something wonderful in their own right: The Lord of the Rings, The Wonder Boys, Out of Sight, The Princess Bride, Shawshank Redemption….I better stop because those last three disprove my rule. I prefer the movies to the books.
This past week a colleague and I watched Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby with about thirty students (and one Bruins player I would never-ever recognize but who sent the kids into a minor flutter). I did not expect to see the novel perfectly transposed on the screen, so I was not surprised to find that I like Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby and his green light.
First, let’s celebrate the fact that the glittering, bass-bumping film puts teenagers in the seats (without the promise of extra credit). The critics panning the film have probably never worked with teenagers. I have taught this novel 20+ times and am excited to teach it again with this film as a resource. It will certainly help me hook more of my students on one of the greatest American novels.
Baz Luhrmann’s style works well with many of Fitzgerald’s major themes. The director’s kinetic cuts, thumping scores, and lush-and-purposefully-cartoonish color palettes perfectly articulate the grandeur and absurdity of Gatsby’s vision. I spend considerable time in the classroom helping students see the over-the-top nature of Gatsby’s choices. The kids, however, end up imagining party scenes where stiffs in suits sip martinis and swoon stylishly over droll, blue-blooded humor.
A few seconds of the movie’s pool party, however, smashes this misconception and replaces it with a visceral portrayal of the excess Fitzgerald splashes throughout the novel. Inflatable zebras might not have existed in the Roaring Twenties (or maybe they did?), but we should overlook such anachronisms and bathe in the hypnotic extravagance. Very few teenagers would want to be invited to the parties described in the book. (Their loss, of course, as Fitzgerald knew what a good time looks like.) But, almost every person under the age of 35–and plenty of us over that benchmark–would jump at the chance to rage at one of Luhrmann’s blowouts.
For the third time in my life, I am in the process of selling most of my worldly possessions. My wife and I live “lightly” to begin with, so it isn’t as if we have much to let go that didn’t originally come from Craig’s List. The process of divesting, however, is always cathartic: it acts as a physical reminder to focus on accumulating experiences and relationships rather than things. They’re much easier and cheaper to take with you.
We have accepted jobs at Frankfurt International School, a wonderful international school in post-card perfect Oberursel. In July we will arrive in Germany with an obscene amount of clothes, a few favorite books, kitchen gadgets Julia Child would envy, and one loving-but-psychotic Australian Shepherd mixed breed.
It is a homecoming. We worked at this school before moving to Boston, and many of our good friends are still around. We own an apartment there, and our German language skills are spotty but passable. Here’s my one joke in German: Ich spreche Deutsch gleich ein blautig Juenger. Not everyone thinks it’s funny, so I’ve got to get some new ones.
Luckily, I will miss my students and colleagues at Beaver Country Day School. I’ve been fortunate. Every time I have left one school for another, it has been on positive terms, and I have always loved each new place. I know I am fortunate.
In this post, then, I want to share some of my advice for why you might want a job at an international school and how you might go about looking for one. My experience comes from an American point-of-view, but I think it could easily work for teachers from other countries as well:
The very first website I ever visited was for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. I instantly fell in love with the movie and the power of the Internet. Needless to say, I am hoping for similar magic from his adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Of course, I’ve seen Australia, so I’m not getting too hopeful.
My colleague and I will take an eager group of students to see the film, so I thought I would share a quick post on some of my favorite Gatsby resources:
Daisy’s Lullaby (my favorite Gatsby YouTube video)
A Series of Links I use to generate discussions on wealth distribution in the U.S. Today:
How Is Wealth Divided in the U.S.?
Graphic Information on America’s Distribution of Wealth
How the Rich Get Richer
How the Poor Get Poorer
NYT Interactive Class Calculator
Was Gatsby Great? Asks John Green at Crash Course Literature:
In my second year of teaching, I made a grievous, but memorable, error. I was always the type of student who was motivated by tough love. My favorite teachers were the ones with the highest expectations, and a scribbled, gruff marginal note like, “You’re a better writer than this. Try again” was often enough to send me under the hood of the text. Of course, I am not every student. Wanting to motivate a student I knew could do much better, I returned her essay with this brief message scrawled across the top, “This is the worst essay I have ever read. Try again.”
Looking back, I don’t recognize the young teacher who would be so callous with a not-much-younger student. Of course, my comment only did harm. It gave my student no hope, no information about what to do next. The only saving grace about this regrettable action? I was allowing her to revise. That, and I learned to never do something like this again.
Thankfully, this student and I worked past this incident. I apologized; she forgave. A year later, she moved to another school, but during a return visit, she visited me and shared the 6plus1 Writing Traits rubric her new English teacher was using. Not surprisingly, it was helping her, and I instantly adopted the practice in my own classes.
Over the years, for whatever reason, I have drifted away from the 6plus1 terminology, but this trimester I decided to bring it back. The shift only required slight alterations to the scoring guides I already used:
The Six Plus One traits have existed since the mid-80s, and these descriptors of good writing are an attempt to quantify what makes writing work. Using them—especially when they are used across grade levels and disciplines—can demystify writing feedback for students and help them recognize what they do well and target what they need to improve.
Through the filtered lens of my classroom, I have lived through terror before. Fourteen years ago to the day, as a beginning teacher in suburban St. Louis, I watched the dark horror of Columbine snake through the classroom T.V. I can still easily conjure the slithering shock we all felt when the Towers fell. My father, a commercial airline pilot, was flying that day and the dread I felt during the few hours it took to learn that he was O.K. will always be with me in some way. Without any real effort, I can play, on a mental loop, my colleagues’ dumbfounded reactions when their former neighborhoods in London and Mumbai were attacked.
This week has been different. The bombs at the Boston Marathon exploded only two miles from my doorstep. My neighbors and I spent yesterday “sheltering in place” as authorities searched for one of the suspects. Thankfully, nobody in my immediate community was injured in the attacks, but, of course, all Bostonians are affected.
This morning I woke up thinking about those who died: Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, Martin Richard, and Sean Collier. I prayed for all those who have lost limbs, for those who must carry the mental and physical trauma of these events. I mourn for those families who must bear the tragedy of these surreal days in more immediate and lasting ways. I suppose my reactions are not any different than millions of others.
As a teacher, however, I cannot help but process this senselessness by considering how it will shape my interactions with my students. Inevitably, when people meet me and learn that I teach, I get some sort of comic empathy…something along the lines of, “Oh, man! I could never do what you do. You must be so worn down.” I always politely respond with something like, “Actually, I really love my job. Being around optimistic young people every day fills me up. I’m really thankful that my life’s work is not about making money. It’s hard work but it’s rewarding.” Yet, that reaction is sometimes a lie. I do get worn down.
Is it just me? Every time I hear WIKIS I think about wookies.
Let’s be honest. Wikis are ugly. At least the wikis I make are not sleek and arresting in a visual sense. Yet, I use wikis in a variety of ways that I find elegant and interesting. Think of them as a ten-year-old Toyota Corolla. They usually won’t turn heads, but they run beautifully and always do what they should.
Wikis as Textbooks
This past fall, I taught a brand spankin’ new public speaking course based on TED talks. I had never taught public speaking, so in preparation, I searched for the perfect textbook. I have never used a textbook in any class, but my own insecurities where sending me looking for some solid backup. Well, I didn’t find the perfect textbook (because they don’t exist). Instead, I decided to have the students create their own textbook using a class wiki:
The experience reinforced my belief in constructivism. While far from perfect, our self-constructed textbook served our purposes perfectly. After giving their first speeches, I asked the students, “O.K. Now that you’ve given one speech, what do you think you need to learn?” Their answers became our chapters.
To my shock and horror, my students claimed to have never seen a PopUp Video. They were vaguely aware of VH1 and suspected that some old people still watch it? If it even exists?
We were brainstorming uses of Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker, and I was sharing that a colleague had a great idea of using the free online tool to make a PopUp video of a presidential debate. As candidates make their claims, viewers could fact-check or point out rhetorical techniques, completely changing the viewer’s experience. A quick search and fifteen seconds of the Ghostbusters’ Theme Popup had them back on track. (They actually knew what I was talking about after all.)
Recently, I have been exploring how to make online videos more interactive for the viewer. In Interactive Video (Part One), I reviewed TED-ed’s Flipped Video Interface. In this post I will examine Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker, an easy way to take most anything that exists on the Internet and “lay it” over a video or audio track.
For my first experiment, I took the same video I flipped at TED-ed and used it to explore Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker. I have about two hours invested in this current version, and after a colleague gave me some time saving tips, I found the interface to be simple and intuitive. I suggested the tool to some students, as well, and they picked it up without any instruction on my part. In addition, some of my colleagues and I brainstormed uses for Popcorn Maker during a recent in-house professional development session. Feel free to add your own ideas to this list! As I collect examples of the various ways we use the tool, I will share them.
I have always liked the way Hobbits celebrate their birthdays. Instead of receiving gifts, they give a small gift to their friends and loved ones. In this way, nearly every single day of the year, a hobbit receives a small present. What a wonderful way to go through life.
Today is my birthday, so let me give you this small gift: subscribe to the Crash Course channel on YouTube. One of my star students (and the guy’s last name actually is Starr!) recently showed me John Green‘s analysis of The Great Gatsby, and I just had to pass it along:
(Also, there are a few more gifts in the other links I provided.)
You, like me, have spent a fair amount of time watching on-line videos. Who can blame us? When we need a break from grading, routines, or vacuuming, lovely owls, talking dogs, or five people playing one guitar are irresistible draws. Of course, video can be a powerful teaching tool, too. You surely are amazed by my obvious commentary. No? Well, let me try to impress you, then.
Two free online tools—Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker and TED-ed’s Flipped Interface–can make online videos more interactive. I am still in the early stages of experimentation with both, and my students are using the tools, so my opinions are still very much developing. Yet, at this nascent stage, I am intrigued (and harbor some reservations). In this post I will focus on the TED-ed channel’s “flip” interface.
You have probably already been to TED-ed. If not, stop reading this. Go there now. I’ll see you in a few hours.
TED-ed is a valuable resource for classroom teachers, a nicely edited platform with many visually arresting videos on a variety of topics. The “flipped” videos already have comprehension questions and supplemental resources built in.
I love mutts. I love all dogs, regardless of pedigree, but I have always favored the scrappy, intelligent mash-up that is a pound puppy. Every dog with which I have shared my life has been a rescue, and until my wife and I adopted Finn, an Australian Cattle Dog/Poodle mix so intelligent she could probably crack a safe, every dog I have welcomed into my life has been relatively easy work. Finn, however, is another story.
A cute but neurotic pup with a skull-rattling bark, Finn has required more training, patience, and “accommodations” in order to adjust to our lifestyle. And, more than any other dog for which I’ve cared, she has forced me to adjust my lifestyle to her. In just one year we were her third family, and I do not think many people would have the time or resources to help her in the way that we can. Of course, she helps me, too.
In both the classroom and my personal life, I expect things to work. I believe with enough thought and hard work, I can solve any problem. Yet, I have come to accept I will ever really “fix” Finn. I can help her become a calmer, more predictable, more relaxed dog, but I don’t know if she’ll ever be the “perfect” dog that I’ve had in the past. Accepting this fact is an ongoing process but one that teaches me quite a bit about myself.
I know she has made me a better teacher. As I change my mindset to better work with my dog, I realize I am bringing these positive attributes into my classroom as well.
A good teacher (of dogs or humans) must…