Thursday, May 30, 2013

You Too Can Look Like Effie Trinket

Do you want to look like the mindless, frivolous, oppressive upper class of the fictional franchise The Hunger Games? Good news for you, Covergirl has recently announced their plans to enable young girls to look the part! If you have read the books or even seen the movie you should understand to a certain degree the deep irony of this. Imagine a new makeup kit fashioned after Romulans or how about a Nazi package? Yikes - and I am not even talking about Halloween costumes.

It isn't just live action films directed towards teenagers like The Hunger Games or Twilight that use marketing strategies that make me uneasy, but Disney also knows the leverage that comes to their sales department by helping young children identify with glitzy glamour and begin a lifetime of brand loyalty.

There is something wrong with marketing to children. Even more than just marketing, it is unethical to shape the values and self image of young people and can cause serious harm. Unfortunately the classroom is not exempt from all this.

Canada's Centre for Digital and Media Literacy stated in one report: "School used to be a place where children were protected from the advertising and consumer messages that permeated their world—but not any more . . . A school setting delivers a captive youth audience and implies the endorsement of teachers and the educational system." I don't think this applies to all Canadian and American schools, but examples such as supplying schools with technology in exchange for high company visibility and companies sponsoring school events does happen, and I think it is wrong.

What can a teacher do then, if their school or local corporations condone such targeting of kids?

The answer applies regardless of school environment. Due to the enormous impact of the Internet and mind-blowing rates of time children are exposed to media on a daily basis, we can't hide all the garbage from our children. However, we can teach our children how to critically consume the information that inundates their world. Said middle school teacher Caitlin Barry:

"We encourage them (students) to use Google Images and search YouTube to find compelling videos, but we haven't given them any tools to analyze all this media. In many cases, students have no idea how to be critical about what they consume.

Barry goes on to reference the foundational questions of media literacy (listed below): key elements we can push and discuss both in our classrooms and at home.

Who created this message? What creative techniques are used to attract my attention? How might different people understand this message differently? What values, lifestyles, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message? Why is this message being sent?

After pondering the new Hunger Games makeup kit from Covergirl, imagine what a great educational opportunity a teacher or parent could have by running through these questions! 

We should also expand this process to teaching kids to be more critical about food consumption. In her TED talk, Anne Lappe explains important and frightening research about the food industry marketing to you children. Apparently, food marketers spend about 2 billion dollars per year just on marketing to minors. The little video below shares some of the same sentiment as Lappe's talk, including some dramatic music.

There are many things good people are trying to do to stop bizarre marketing schemes like the ones I have mentioned, but something every responsible adult can begin today is to learn and teach the basic questions of media literacy. We need our children to become thoughtful, responsible, and conscious adults - and that possibility looks quite bleak if the waves of marketing and information are consumed without thought or challenge.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Movies this year

I've kept track of the films I have watched this year and will try and write a short follow up post about how some of these films would be excellent for the classroom. Which ones of these have you enjoyed? Disliked?


Father of the Bride (Spencer Tracy version)

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan

The Thin Blue Line

Fantastic Mr. Fox

It Happened One Night

2001: A Space Odyssey 

Les Miserables (2012)

The Hobbit

The Man in the White Suit

The Inspector General

Midnight in Paris

The Dark Knight Rises

Key Largo

Wyatt Earp

The Pelican Brief

Cars 2


Star Trek 1,2,3,4,5,6 

To Catch a Thief

Life is Beautiful


Wreck it Ralph



The Evolution of Dad

A Separation

The Queen

The Naked Jungle

Thirteen Days


Dr. Suess' Horton Hears a Who!

Some Like it Hot

North By Northwest


The New World

Modern Times

Pink Ribbons, Inc.



The Cove

Inherit the Wind 

To Kill A Mockingbird

Akeelah the Bee

Iron Man 3

The Iron Lady

A Man Called Peter

The Grapes of Wrath

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Black Narcissus

The Class (French)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

The Treasure of Sierra Madre

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Iron Man 3: Polarized Portrayals of Women, Escaping Fear and Abandoning Digital Distractors

Kas and I went and saw Iron Man 3 a few days after it came out and we had a great time. It was a fun movie and an exhilarating experience -- all that an action-packed Hollywood comic book hero film should be. Interesting themes and ideas both implicit and explicit grabbed my attention. For example, the oddly similar comparison between the zombie-like henchmen and the objectified ping pong playing women. Or what about when the President of the United States is hanging in the unmistakably same pose as Jesus on the cross? Also, the fascinating paradox of Tony Stark's morality (Refusing to partner up with "bad guys"and killing enemies means you're a hero and an American idol; living unchaste and sleeping around has zero consequence and harms nobody).

Though similar themes are explored in my post about the newest installment of the James Bond series, I feel that discussing the portrayal of women, escapism, and digital distractors in Iron Man 3 can yield some good insights within my own head, and with students of these United States.

Polarized Portrayals of Women

Pepper Potts is the secretary turned official partner (not in the sidekick sort of way) of Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man. In the previous film, Iron Man 2, Pepper takes the helm of Stark Industries which gives here apparent power and notoriety. However, in this film all such power and strength disappears. Pepper assumes two extreme roles that most supporting women characters play in Hollywood these days: the damsel in distress (Think M.J. from Spiderman), or the unhinged sexual feline (Think Black Widow from Avengers).

This is an issue way more complex and deeply rooted in a variety of other issues, but I wanted to bring it up. Why is it that Pepper is either clinging to Tony's chest or rampaging in uncontrolled bloodlust? Neither of these portrayals come close to portraying the caring, thoughtful, nourishing, strong, courageous, and humble ideals I have come to appreciate in the women in my life. Obviously this is Hollywood, but we should care because all media teaches and all media has a message. Lets at least think about it. If your students are watching this film, do they pick up on any of these themes? Maybe you might ask them something like: How is power distributed between genders in super hero movies like Iron Man 3? Is that accurate to your real world experience? Why or why doesn't that matter?

Escaping Fear

or ?

This article makes some excellent points about the change of American cinema (and especially of super hero movies) post 9/11. In this review, Mr. Dargis of the NY Times has some strong words for the filmmakers of Iron Man 3 when it comes to escapism and our current society's interest and willingness to face our fears.
“Iron Man 3” is conspicuously meant to be escapist entertainment (a pathetic conceit, given what it says movie people think about real life — or rather the real lives of their customers). But Mr. Black and his colleagues, like other filmmakers who use the iconography of Sept. 11 and its aftershocks, want to have it both ways. They want to tap into the powerful reactions those events induced, while dodging the complex issues and especially the political arguments that might turn off ticket buyers. The result is that in some movies Sept. 11 — along with Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism, the war on terror and torture — registers as just a device, at once inherently political and empty, in a filmmaker’s tool kit.
To be honest, when I was watching the film and Ben Kingsley's character was revealed (SPOILER!) to be just a pawn actor with no bad intention, it was a large and happy surprise. I felt it was a clever way to play with my expectations of the narrative structure of the film and I also appreciated the lighter tone it brought to the seemingly dark movie. So, is my happiness with the surprise all because I was going to escape, and not to engage? I don't know, maybe. Either way, Dargis' thoughts have caused me to reflect quite a bit. Large budget hero films seem to be getting darker as time goes on (e.g. The Dark Knight, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and the upcoming Thor: The Dark World) and perhaps that has to do with our society's unhappy flirtation with the reality of our complex global community which isn't all happy.

Abandoning Digital Distractions 

Something I love about this film is it makes for a great analogy of recognizing the imperfections and distractions of digital/non-human technologies (obviously, this has been on my mind recently)

Tony Stark sits in contemplation next
to his technologyenhanced self. 

In an early scene in the film, Pepper comes home and is met by what appears to be Tony in his Iron suit. However it is just a robot and Tony is down in his man-cave working on things, leaving the technology to handle his relationship with Pepper. This small storyline (or maybe it is big?) is concluded when he destroys all of his suits and ultimately gives up being Iron Man. This was the strongest theme of the film for me: spend real time with real people and in doing so you will find your true identity.

It isn't just students who struggle to put away their phone or focus on their work for long periods of time without Facebook, this is something we all face. Iron Man blew up his distractions - how do you deal with yours?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Native American Cinema - An Interview With Colten Ashley

Colten Ashley: The Anonymous Director
Photo Credit Eric Pasternak
Recently, I sat down with my friend and fellow BYU film student Colten Ashley and asked him about some things concerning Native Americans and film. He has done quite a bit of thinking, writing, and producing on the subject. He is heading up a really neat project you must check out on Kickstarter. And you can also learn more about Colten at his YouTube channel.

With that said - enjoy the show!

Below are some supplemental clips that are related to the audio recording above.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Testing and the Complexities of Education

Photo by timlewisnm via Flickr
 Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference in San Francisco.  There I presented a paper related to creative Problem-based Learning, ate some amazing food, walked peacefully in the Redwood Forest, and watched with mixed feelings as protestors and scholars alike voiced their thoughts about the complex and sometimes controversial issues of our contemporary education system. I heard some fascinating paper presentations on representations of charter schools in the media, the image and reality of Tinker Bell across the decades, as well as the importance of social justice and needed attention to students who are stuck in perpetual cycles of poverty. What took the cake, though, was my experience watching United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan address the packed ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in downtown. Here is a little video of what it looked like, thanks to my new and somewhat nifty iTouch.

Not only was it packed, but apparently before I arrived in the line (in which I felt like I was in a huge line for a ride at Disney Land or something) there were some protests organized in preparation for Secretary Duncan. Indeed, as I entered the ballroom I received this paper which, as you can see, some folks felt they should raise often throughout the Secretary's speech.

Can you see them holding the signs? There were moments I thought
there might be a hangin' . . . or a public stoning at least.

The Secretary spoke about the importance of testing, but how the current way of doing things is not working. He talked about improving tests rather than abolishing them, and actually mentioned Paul Tough's book (which I reviewed last week) as an indicator that character education is also an important part of what we should be interested. While I don't doubt the integrity of Secretary Duncan's intentions, I am wary of his agenda of testing on the national level with such intensity and focus. I grew up in a time where these kinds of tests were limited, and I will be forever grateful.

Three professors were allowed to ask the Secretary some questions after his speech, and they did so in a pointed, loaded, and--in some regards--disrespectful in tone and nature. However, I can understand to some degree the argument of these individuals and others who want to see this old failed system out of the way. Currently I am reading Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire, by Rafe Esquith, and his insights on testing resonate with me: maybe because he takes a moderate course between where Secretary Duncan stands and where his opponents seem to be.
"Standardized testing has become a nightmare in our schools. Teachers have become so overwhelmed by testing demands that they no longer have enough time to teach their students the subject they are supposed to master . . . I am not opposed to tests. We need to assess how the kids are doing. Accurate, fair, and reasonable examinations can help parents, teachers, and students see what skills are being mastered and what ares need strengthening. Having accurate data is a gift to all parties concerned. But the current system of testing is broken" (p. 73-74). 
I don't have the experience, the context, or the wits to express or argue a coherent perspective on this issue, but Rafe's words seem pretty good to me. The problem is, just like most big and important issues, we can't solve it in one quick swoop of the hand! We all want change, but we just can't seem to agree how, why, and when we need it.

One thing I do know is that booing, blasting Snoop Dog songs on your iPhone, or cat-calling at the Secretary of Education during his speech at a conference is not only unprofessional (especially for an academic conference), but clearly an immature and foolish way to model appropriate methods of protest. It wasn't hard for me to see which party left the conference seeming more the fool and uncontrollable miscreant with major issues. While I disagree with some of the tones and directions of Secretary Duncan, he took the higher road in San Francisco and I hope I will always do the same when engaging in passionate and important discussions about the future of education and our children.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

How Children Succeed: Book Review

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of CharacterHow Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book caught my attention after hearing an interview with Tough of This American Life and NPR Weekends. His work with Heckman and other scholars he references such as Dweck echos many similar trendy philosophies of today's educational literature such as the almost legendary study of the cupcakes and the important concepts of character education.

I thought Tough did a great job at sharing a variety of sources and perspectives on large and complex issues today's children face while in both poverty and educational settings. I really connected with what he shared concerning stress and the high impact that has on a child, particularly one who has little nurturing or comforting figure in the first few years of life. Also the idea of learning how to fail and come away with renewed zeal to succeed is so important.

If you only have an hour or so, look up his interviews on NPR and TAL or just read the final chapter in the book. However, this topic deserves much more of all of our time, and with that in mind I encourage you to read this whole thing and share it with your friends.

View all my reviews