Tuesday, March 21, 2017

5 Great Things About Sesame Street's New Character Julia

If you've read my book Play Like a PIRATE: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics, you know that I'm a big fan of Sesame Street. I like how the creators of the series were able to combine education and fun, and took a lot of those lessons into my own classroom. Another thing that I didn't touch on in Play Like a PIRATE is that Sesame Street was my first introduction to a lot of people that were different from me. That included skin color, different languages, and different abilities. I "met" Linda Bove's deaf character before I ever met a deaf person in real life. I saw both Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles perform before I had ever met a blind person. I saw Itzhak Perlman using crutches before I met anyone else who needed them.

Sesame Street hasn't ever shied away from challenges, and they've just introduced a new Muppet character, Julia. Julia has autism, and as an educator and father, I don't think there's a better time to introduce someone new to our students and children. While there's a media blitz this week about Julia (she was on CBS' 60 Minutes last Sunday)(and you've probably seen multiple news stories about her), the need for a character with autism and the way to handle her has been a process that's taken years to develop. She was introduced in books and animated media about a year ago, but is making her formal debut on an episode of Sesame Street on April 10 on HBO.

You can already see several different sketches featuring Julia on YouTube:

Here are five great things about Julia:
1. They've made Julia "one of the gang." She's most often seen with Abby Cadabby, and it seems like they're becoming fast friends...but we also see her with Elmo and Big Bird and Alan and other characters. She's not in isolation, but one of many different friends on the Street. She may be "on the spectrum," but she's also one of us. She's only in two episodes this season, but will be in more next season.

2. They're not sugar coating it. Autism disorders are in a spectrum from mild to severe. As a teacher, I've had many students with autism, generally at the more mild end of the spectrum, but still needing some intervention, some patience, some understanding. The show creators and performers have given Julia several traits that are common with many children with autism, including repeating phrases, some sensitivity to loud noises, sometimes flapping her arms or hands. Some of the other characters are confused or worried about Julia's behavior, feeling like Julia doesn't like them, or doesn't want to be friends. Other characters who know her (Elmo in an animated segment, Abby Cadabby in live action) act as a bridge, helping explain some of her actions to her other new friends. Introducing a character with autism isn't just to benefit the viewer with autism, but to help kids who aren't autistic recognize ways that they can be friends to those who are.

3. Julia is "Amazing." Sometimes children (and adults) with autism will hone in on one particular idea or talent, and focus on it to the exclusion of other things. I've had students who have been focused on numbers, on books, on history, on animals...for Julia, she has a particular talent for art. She likes art, but also has an extraordinary talent for it. As with the Itzhak Perlman episodes I remember from the 1980s, where Julia may have a disability in one area, she has a lot to offer in others. She also has an ear for music and for words -- but her art is where she really shines. They do use the word "autism" and "autistic" with Julia, but they also call her "amazing," with the idea that all kids can do amazing things, and they're using that adjective to highlight their work for children.

4. Behind the scenes with Julia. Every character and every storyline on Sesame Street is backed up by hundreds of hours of research and development, but I can't think of many who have gone through such a thorough process as Julia's character has. The puppeteer performing Julia (and present through the creation of the character) is Stacey Gordon, whose son also has autism. Having that first-hand insight into how the character will be portrayed goes beyond the research that led them to this point, and bring new life to Julia with a sensitivity that's key to the character's success.

5. Beyond Julia. Besides all of the great things that will be happening with Julia on television, in books, and online, there are resources that Sesame Street has been developing for years at http://autism.sesamestreet.org/  . They include videos for kids with Sesame Street characters, storybooks, routine cards, but also extensive resources for parents (and teachers) who are looking for support or strategies to help them teach and love these kids. Julia is in these resources...but they go way beyond what they can do on the show itself. Sesame Street often has "offscreen" initiatives that you don't know about unless...you do. Work for military families, for grieving families, for communities in need. I'm glad that they've taken their autism initiative from these back pages and onto the mainstream Sesame Street...but they do more good off the Street than most people realize.

In our classrooms, we need to do more to understand and try do serve the needs of all students. With students with autism, the barriers may be harder to overcome than others. It may not be me (the teacher) who struggles to understand that student, it may be their peers. My hope is that with initiatives like introducing Julia onto Sesame Street, kids will become less frightened of students who are different from them, and more eager to reach out, to help, to love them. It will be interesting to see what comes of this new character.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

LEGO Set of the Month: Fun in the Park

Starting this month, I'll be reviewing a LEGO set each month, and you (yes YOU) get a chance to win it. More on how to enter towards the bottom of this blog post. This month's set is LEGO City: Fun in the Park - City People Pack. It retails for $39.99*, but is well worth the price because of a few extras that are new to the world of LEGO, and some others that are just downright fun.

*as of March 7, it's on sale at Amazon for $30.97, which is totally a good price and worth buying just in case you don't win the drawing, even though, knowing you, you probably will. 

In my book Play Like a PIRATE, I mention that I don't usually use minifigures for classroom use. Minifigures and specialty pieces like wheels and wings are the things that students are most likely to fight over. Probably not a knock-down, drag out fight. Probably the kind of fight that happens in the back seat of my car on road trips AND I SWEAR I WILL TURN THIS CAR AROUND IF YOU D-- where was I? Oh yeah. LEGO. Where I usually am, to be honest.

So I don't usually use minifigures, but they do come in handy for certain projects. Fun in the Park gives you fourteen minifigures. Seven male, seven female. Plus, for the first time ever, a minifigure baby of indeterminate gender. And it's the cutest thing you've ever seen, you guys. Plus, a little disturbing. Oversized head, tiny arms, huge eyes. ...like a regular human baby, I suppose. So you get fifteen little plastic souls in this set. Plus a dog. Dogs have souls. So we're up to sixteen.

The baby is cool. The baby is legit. But the other brand new piece that makes me even happier is a wheelchair. How LEGO, a pretty progressive company, has made it until 2016 without producing a special wheelchair piece is beyond me. Yes, you could build your own, if  you have the right pieces and skills. But I've played with my share of LEGO, and I'm guessing I have around 300,000 pieces and no I'm not kidding I have a problem please send help. But I've tried to make a wheelchair on several occasions. For DC Comics' Oracle, for Marvel Comics Professor Charles Xavier, for freaking FDR. But every attempt has fallen short of some reason or another. And if I struggle to make a good wheelchair, so would a lot of kids. Adding a wheelchair to the world of LEGO is a huge step forward (roll forward?) and it's going to let thousands of kids see themselves or their family members in the world that they spend a lot of time in. The wheelchair is also included in a Ciy set coming later in 2017, which features a wheelchair accessible bus.

Among the fourteen minifigures are four kids (with shorter leg pieces than the usual minifigures), an elderly couple (the grandmother looks a lot like my mom)(go Mom!), a businesswoman, and a hot dog vendor. Besides the minifigures, there are several small builds: a bus stop, a merry-go-round-of-the-sort-that-is-no-longer-considered-safe, the hot dog cart, soccer goal, and a picnic table. And then accessories like trees, a bike, lawn mower, and stroller for the Baby Of Indeterminate Gender.

This is a great set. For home, for school, for adding to the population of my LEGO Room. I like the 1:1 ratio of male to female, I like that women are shown in occupations, I like that the kid in the wheelchair looks happy and cool and his hoodie looks like the one I'm wearing RIGHT NOW.

In the Classroom

There are a lot of ways to use minifigures in the classroom beyond their obvious use of populating LEGO builds and dioramas. Here are three:

1. Use minifigures to study statistics. If you have a critical mass of say, thirty minifigures, use them as a census. Have students each select a minifigure and write down certain characteristics for their character. Gender, age, political affiliation, religion, occupation, race (if you want to go there), household income. After they have that information down, have the students compile the data and find ways to represent it in tables and graphs, and make predictions about the needs of that community. What are their needs today? What would their needs be twenty years from now?

2. Who's missing? Looking at the Fun in the Park set, we see that there are certain groups represented for the first time: infants and disabled. Although he may not be "disabled." He could be differently-abled, or just in the wheelchair for an injury, like when I broke my foot in summer of 2015 THE DAY BEFORE GOING TO LEGOLAND. In any case, he's got wheels for now. The elderly couple is also relatively new to the LEGO world, just appearing in the last ten years of sets -- and the short legs on the kids have only been around since 2002. Which is about how long my own kids have had short legs. So considering those characters -- who's missing? Have students assess the minifigures in the classroom, and come up with one recommendation for a character that should be made in minifigure form to more accurately reflect their community. Would it be a different gender? Race? Ability? Age? Occupation? Students could come up with an evidence-supported argument for why that minifigure should be included in a future LEGO set, and how it would represent that community. They could use the simple minifigure template to design what that minifigure would look like, and make a presentation about their character.

3. Story starters. Have students draw two minifigures blind out of a bag (hat, boot, boa constrictor) and come up with a story about the two characters meeting for the first time. Or going on an epic quest. Or opening a new business together. Or founding a cult. Or coming up with a new two-person sport. Or founding a cult. I know I said that one twice, but I really want to see some fourth graders starting a cult. You know you do too. In any case, having just two minifigures is enough to get kids thinking about a story that would bring those two characters together.


I knew you were wondering. There are three ways to enter:

1. Comment on this post. You do that below at the very end of this post. Lower...lower...there.

2. Subscribe to the monthly Play Like a PIRATE newsletter. It started this month, and will come out once a month, with ideas for the classroom, a graphic novel review, and a review and chance to win the new LEGO Set of the Month. No spamming (beyond once a month), no selling your emails to anyone. I don't even know who I would sell them to. It may be worth investigating.

3. Follow @jedikermit on Twitter, and retweet this tweet. If you're not on The Twitter, you really should be. Sign up just for this entry. And follow me. So worth it. You can follow the #PlayLAP hashtag to see what other people are doing with Play Like a PIRATE. A book you should totally buy.

So you can enter up to three times. Don't try and cheat. Teachers always know.

Some fine print: the LEGO Set of the Month will only be available to U.S. residents. Even though I love everyone on the planet, international shipping is beyond my reach right now. The drawing for the March LEGO Set of the Month will be at 10 AM MST on Friday, March 17. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.


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Friday, March 3, 2017

Graphic Novel Review: Filmish

Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film. Edward Ross Graphic Novel, 200 pp softcover. Self Made Hero, 2015. (10 out of 10)
Like many of you reading this, I'm a fan of pop culture, and of movies in particular...but I'm not a "film historian." I like movies from various eras and genres, but when it comes down to it, I'm probably more popcorn than avant garde. Too often card-carrying film historians treat the rest of us like so much rabble, that we don't have anything to offer beyond lining up like sheep for the newest superhero movie. They don't bother to interact with the masses, because we don't deserve their splendor. So when I find someone who's able to introduce some of the big ideas of film history in an easy to digest, even pleasant format, I take it. 

A Man in the Moon illustration

Cartoonist Edward Ross achieves that with his 2015 graphic novel-format collection of essays, Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film. Using more than three hundred films ranging from the artsiest to the popcorniest, Ross presents the history of cinema in a way that doesn't talk down to readers, but packs each page with information ranging from the tenchical to the philosophical. 
The seven chapters present the range of ideas you'll encounterThe Eye, The Body, Sets and Architecture, Time, Voice and Language, Power and Ideology, Technology and Technophobia. Using the chapter Sets and Architecture as an example, Ross uses the urban settings of Taxi Driver, Breathless, and City of God to introduce the idea that a setting is loaded with meaning, before moving on to the worlds of the Star Wars movies, and the over-the-top sets of 1916's Intolerance and 1997's Titanic, with 1914's Cabiria as a note. In two pages, he uses examples from seven different movies (twice that, if you split Star Wars into multiple films). I'm embarrassed to say that even though I know the cinematic significance of Taxi Driver, I've never actually seen it. So of the movies used in those pages, I'd only seen Star Wars and Titanic. I looked up the Babylonian scenes of "Intolerance" on YouTube (and you should, right now) and they're staggering. Following pages develop the idea of sets and settings further, departing from the realistic to the symbolic, with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Black Narcissus. He takes us to haunted houses, to science fiction settings, to "real world" locales even more real than the real world. In this single chapter he either specifically cites or takes inspiration from more than thirty movies. Some of these are direct quotes, others are visual cues that he includes in his drawn artwork. For those of us (me) who miss those cues, he includes endnotes for almost every panel at the end of the book. 

Star Wars Planets

His artwork is clean and cartoony, with the black and white line drawings a good fit for the many different cinematic styles he's going to be visiting throughout the book. One of the things I liked best was how Ross inserts himself (bespectacled film nerd) into many iconic movie scenes. He's the "chestburster" exploding onto the table in Alien. He's piloting H.G. Wells' Time Machine. He's Danny, riding up and down the hallways of the Overlook Hotel. Ross addresses the reader directly, with an omniscience that never comes across as a lecture, and a wit that makes you feel like it's your friend telling you the story of cinema.  
The biggest problem with "Filmish" is simply that it's good enough that it makes me want to watch (and in many cases rewatch) about three hundred movies. If you're looking to get a broad view of the history of the movies, and get a closer look at some of the themes that are repeated in those movies, you should check this book out. If you already know everything about the movies, you'll still get something out of it. It's a charming read, no matter what your expertise level is, but it doesn't focus on any one film or director long enough to get the depth you may be craving. For me and my nerdy needs, this was pretty much perfect. 
In the Classroom, if you're teaching a unit on filmmaking or film history, this is a no-brainer. Use this book. But even if you're not -- if you're teaching a history or ELA class that's about a specific time period (especially twentieth century history), use Filmish to find movies that connect to the time and curriculum you're teaching. And then don't show the whole movie. A five minute video clip of Buster Keaton will do more to engage kids than showing them the entire movie. They'll get it, and get enough of it, to make them want to see more--but it will hook them into your lesson. And that's what you want. 

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