Friday, April 27, 2012

Curriculum Resource: Art Appreciation through Smarthistory

I wanted to share a website I discovered recently and now love.  It is an art appreciation/art history website called Smarthistory.

The backbone of Smarthistory is (at this point) over 400 videos on different pieces of art, artists, or art period or concepts.  The home page basically organized these by timeline, so they fit in well as an art history resource, or as a way to quickly add art content to a history lesson.  However, inside the website you can search for videos not only by time, but by style, artist, or theme--which makes it a very flexible resources for incorporating art content in other kinds of lessons as well.

One way this website really stands out, however, is that there is an entire section on how users can make their own similar videos.  It covers the technological tools to work with images and video, advice on approaching presenting art, tips on interviewing art experts, and even philosophical discussions on the difficulties of combining text and educational resources with the experience of appreciating a piece of art. This helps both students and teachers be not only a consumer of Smarthistory's videos, but a potential creator of their own reflections and mediations on art.

Smarthistory also has some suggested curricula:  a 15 week Art History Survey (Western Culture) and a 15 week Art Appreciation Survey (again, Western Culture).  These were developed for the college level, but I think they could be very helpful, perhaps not for middle schoolers, but definitely for high school, especially those preparing for AP exams in related history or art areas.  For teachers, Smarthistory has been developed under a Creative Commons license, and they encourage teachers to embed their videos in their courses and online syllabi (with proper attribution, of course--but they give you the proper citation on their website.)

Smarthistory was developed by some experienced teachers of art history/art appreciation, and it shows.  However, they have recently merged with Khan Academy, which I think is a win/win for both groups.  Khan Academy gives Smarthistory more technological and institutional support, plus access to a much larger user base, while Smarthistory expands Khan's more math/science/technology focus into a strong curriculum in the humanities, and gives a softer, artistic edge to their rather geeky presence on the web.

All in all, I think it is a very well done project that adds a lot to our online resources on Western art.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Craft Coral Reef

I haven't been blogging as much recently because I've been so involved with the Healing Oceans Together (H2O) environmental education and awareness group that my son is helping to organize.  (Regular readers of this blog may remember the Great Sea Slug Beauty Contest that H2O ran earlier this year.) 

Now the group has moved on from raising awareness about sea slugs to encouraging people to help save the rapidly-disappearing coral reefs.  The first step in the process is that H2O is creating a community-based Craft Coral Reef to exhibit at ChambersArts, an art gallery in downtown Cary.  This artistic version of a coral reef, which will incorporate crochet and knitting, origami, beading, and other crafts, is supposed to remind people of the precious beauty of the coral reefs, educate them about the important role they play in our ocean ecology, and inspire them to take actions to help protect and preserve them.

We've been holding a series of FREE public workshops to get other people crocheting and crafting along with our group and contributing to the growing reef.  So far we've held three public workshops, and the results have been great.

Before launching the project, H2O crocheted some sample creations to show people:

But a few weeks later, after the second public workshop, the Craft Coral Reef had grown to this:

Beautiful--and exciting to see the progress!

For more information on this project, including some photos from the workshops we've held, check out the complete write-up on the Healing Oceans Together blog.  

You can follow that blog if you are really interested.  I'll also post some more photo updates to show you how our community Coral Reef grows.

Finally, next week we are launching another exciting initiative related to our "Save the Corals" campaign.  So stay tuned for that announcement!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Book Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

I've been promising this for a long time, but I finally found a few minutes to write a review of the book Divergent by Veronica Roth.   This is the first in a trilogy of books that some people are calling the new Hunger Games series.  My quick take?  I enjoyed the book fairly well, but to me, it's no Hunger Games. (You can read my review of the Hunger Game series here.)

There are parallels between the two series, of course.  Like the Hunger Games, Divergent describes a dystopic society of the future, but this time it is set in a specific place--Chicago, no longer the "toddling town" that Frank Sinatra was so enthusiastic about in his songs. "  The main protagonist is a strong, courageous young woman who is capable of battling, and even killing, for her beliefs and for those she loves.  And there is the possiblility of a romance with a mysterious boy who may or may not be her ally.  There is a lot of action, but there are political undertones throughout the whole thing.

What I liked best about Divergent was the concept around which this version of our dystopic future society was organized.  I believe (it has been months since I read it) that there was a nuclear war, and this society were the survivors trying to build a better system to avoid such distruction in the future.  However, in the debate about how best to prevent future wars, the population broke down into five different viewpoints.  Each felt the cultivation of a particular human quality was the best solution to avoiding war, but each group focused on a different quality.  Thus, the society broke itself up into five self-contained units, each of which dedicated itself to the pursuit of its preferred characteristic and approach to life.  Each  faction operated on its own, but they shared the ruined remains of the city and worked together in a somewhat uneasy coalition.

The issue facing Beatrice Prior, the 16 year old protagonist of the book, is the fact that the time is approaching where she must choose which of the factions she will pledge herself to for the rest of her life.   Not only will this choice determine her future, it may severe her relationship with her family; if she chooses a different faction than the one in which her parents live and raised her, she won't ever be allowed to return to visit them.

Wow!  It kind of puts our worries about what schools to send our children to, or even which college they should attend, into perspective, doesn't it?

So I thought that was a really interesting idea to explore.  However, the book doesn't really explain much about how this structure came about, or why children are forced to cut off any contact with their parents if they choose a different faction.  Perhaps there will be more about that in the subsequent books.

Therefore, the book was less political philosophy that I had hoped, and more action oriented.  Of course, it is a Young Adult novel, so that's probably more appropriate for the intended audience.  However, even for young adults, I prefer my violent dystopic novels to use their violence and dystopia to teach some underlying moral or political truths, and Divergent doesn't do nearly as good a job with that as does the Hunger Games.  BUT, to be fair, I'm only comparing the first book of the series with the entire Hunger Games triology, which also got more political as the books went on.  So I may get more of that in the next two books.

The other way in which Divergent falls short, however, is in character development.  Even in just the first book, Katness (and the other characters) were pretty fully-fledged, complex, and interesting characters.  You cared about the "good" characters, and at least wondered about the "bad"ones.  That's not so much the case in Divergent.  Perhaps it is a downside of a book that is all about people trying to maximize a single characteristic...perhaps that tends to make characters one dimensional.  Whatever, I found the characters to be less interesting, which then makes the story less gripping.  The romantic aspects were also less intriguing, while the family parts were more noble.  All in all, it is just a less nuanced, less skillfully written book than the Hunger Games, in my opinion.  However, I believe the author was only 22 when she wrote the first book.  So for the first published novel by a writer that young, characters who are a bit on the "black and white" side is pretty forgivable.  Actually, for having been written by someone who is just out of college, the book is pretty phenomenal.

All in all, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it.  However, as with the Hunger Games, it is violent enough and political enough that I would save it for the teen years, rather than at least the younger end of the middle school years.   I am looking forward to reading the next in the series, Insurgent, which is supposed to be coming out in May.  I'm number 74 on the waiting list at the library for the book, so it shouldn't be too long before I get to read it.  I'll try to get my review up in a more timely manner with that book.

Here is the book trailer for Divergent.  It doesn't add much information, but gives you a feel for the "vibe" of the book:

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Happy Earth Day!

Tomorrow is Earth Day 2012, which is supposed to be the largest civil observances in the world, as approximately one billion people across the planet celebrate it.

There are so many things I could say about honoring the Earth, but this is the nature video that currently is most inspiring me:

The video is by Norwegian photographer Ole C. Salomonsen, with music by Norwegian composer Kai-Anders Ryan.  It captures on film the aurora borealis--a topic that has always fascinated me and that is one of those things I want to be able to experience for myself someday.   Salomonsen used stop motion video to film the Northern Lights in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland from fall 2011 - spring 2012.  He would film with two or three cameras at a time, and shot about 150,000 frames, although only 6,000 frames made it into this video.

It is such a stunning testimony to the beauty of the natural world, albeit a very different world from the green and temperate climates of North Carolina.   I hope you will enjoy it and also be moved to take some small step yourself to help keep our planet clean and healthy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Art Exhibit and Poetry Reading: ForWord

The art studio where my son takes art classes, Egg in Nest Studio, always celebrates National Poetry Month with an art exhibition and live poetry reading/performance event that celebrates the intersection between words and arts.  The students write poems, create art pieces based on those poems, exhibit their art in the Halle Cultural Arts Center in downtown Apex, then read their poems to an audience, appearing onstage with professionals in various art forms who also discuss and display their talents.  It is always a creative and inspiring event, and brings greater depth and understanding to the students' art studies.

This year, my son had two pieces in the show.

I really liked both of the them, especially because they were a departure from his typical techniques and demonstrated some of the ways that his wonderful teacher, Miss Jenny, is encouraging him to grow and stretch as an artist.  On the other hand, they also contain elements of his inimitable style.

This was his first piece, which was based on the poem he wrote that was entitled, "The Saga of the Sproing-Boing," where he was experimenting with the sounds of invented vocabulary:

The second one had a two word poem written into the picture.  The poem is "Extinction Distinction"... or maybe "Distinction Extinction"--he never would tell me.

Of course, my photos don't do the artwork justice.  If you are in the vecinity of downtown Apex before the exhibit closes on May 5, go check them out in person at the Halle Cultural Arts Center (at the intersection of 10-10/Center Street and Salem Street).

Here is the artist showing the pictures to his father:

This past Sunday was the live event called ForWord.  There, each participating got to read his or her poem with comments and encouragement from Miss Jenny:

But the student readings were interspersed with live performances and commentary on the connection between words and other art forms by a local music group, Jack the Radio:

a local grafitti artist, Blake Burnette:

poet and NC State writing professor, Chris Tonell:

and dancer Marie Garlock:

All in all, it's quite a big event, which Miss Jenny and her hard-working assistant, Miss Amanda, put on AT NO CHARGE for the benefit of the students--just one of the perks of taking class at  Egg in Nest Studio:

Of course, the greatest perk of taking classes there is that each week the kids get to work with Miss Jenny, who is not only a wonderful and creative artist in her own right, but an intuitive and inspiring teacher who loves all her students--just like they love her (although some demonstrate it more than others):

What more could you want from the person teaching your children?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Should The Hunger Game Be Banned--And If So, Why?

Right now my son is taking a class that is discussing arguments for and against banning books.  So it was with more than my usual interest that I read the list released this week by the American Library Association of the 10 books that have received the most requests during 2011 to ban them from schools or public libraries.  Because it is the young teen obsession of the moment, most of the headlines will highlight the inclusion of The Hunger Games series, which came in as #3 among the 326 reported challenges last year.  However, what is more interesting to me is the way The Hunger Games differ from the other books on the list, and what that tells us about our attitudes to young people and literature.

Here is the list of the top 10 books and my abbreviations for the reasons they were challenged.  I will admit up front that I haven't read any of them except The Hunger Games series and the two "oldies but goodies" that have been complained about for years:

1) ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle  
Language; Religion; Sex 

2) The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa 

3) The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins 
(see below for reasons) 

4) My Mom's Having A Baby! A Kid's Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler Sex  

5) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie 
Language; Racism; Religion; Sex 

6) Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor 
Sex; Language; Religion

7) Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley 
Insensitivity; Sex; Racism; Religion 

8) What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones 
Sex; Language 

9) Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar 
Drugs; Language; Sex 

10) To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee 
Language; Racism

That is, to summarize:
#1 reason for challenge:  Sex (8/10 books)
#2 reason for challenge:  Language--presumably profanity and/or racial/sexual slurs (7/10 books)
#3 reason for challenge:  Religion (4/10 books)
...and then there are a few additional reasons that apply to only one or two books.  This is not to say that they are not important issues (Drugs, Racism, etc.), but they apply to the minority in terms of why the books are sought to be banned.

Now let's look at the reasons why The Hunger Games was banned.  The first reason on the list, which is presumably the most frequently-given cause for concern, was:
Anti-ethnic?  I don't remember ethnicity being an issue at all in the books.  The ALA seems to attribute this to the filming of the movie, since apparently the complaints tended to complain about African Americans being cast in "lighter skinned" roles or vice versa.

The next reason given is Anti-family.  Again, I don't get that at all.  Certainly Katniss' main motivation, at least in the first book, and really throughout the series, is her love for and desire to protect her family.  There are some less idyllic family relationships, but it seems to me that most of the families that we do see are pretty close and good role models.  Perhaps they just don't like that the government is taking these young people from their families?  I don't know what the concern is here.

Reason number three is Insensitivity.  They don't explain exactly what that means.  But I guess a bunch of teenagers killing each other could be classified as Insensitive.  Certainly, sensitivity is not a virtue that is lauded in the books--but, then, it rarely is when one is fighting for one's survival.

Reason number four is Language.  I don't remember much use of profanity or slurs in the books.  I think what offensive language there is would certainly, in my mind, be overshadowed by other concerns.

Reason number five is Occult/Satanic.  Once again, I don't recall anything that would fall into that category.  In fact, the book is almost relentless practical and material; I don't believe there is any discussion of spiritual elements at all (for example, there don't seem to be any priests/minister/religious authorities or churches/temples, etc. in the land of Panem).

Only number six can I really fathom, which is a complaint about Violence.  As I have written here and here, I am concerned about particularly young adolescents being wrapped up in all the violence and missing the political and morale message of the series, which is what I think makes this an excellent triology of books.  I wouldn't ban it, but the excessive violence and mature political themes is why I tend to encourage parents of middle schoolers to delay having their children read the books until they are in high school and are a bit more mature.  

So it amazes me that is the last reason given, and that The Hunger Games is the only one of the top 10 would-be banned books of the year that raises the issue of violence.  Rather, it is the issue of Sex, and then Offensive Language, that seems to be causing the more ire among those who want to censor the books in schools and libraries.

Of course, our values in these areas differ from family to family.  For example, I don't use profanity, and my son doesn't use it, and that would be way down on my list of reasons to restrict him from reading a particular book.  I am also personally of the opinion that it is good for students to read about some of these controversial issues, like sex and drugs, as they are coming to grips with making those kinds of decisions in their own lives.  Certainly, I would rather have my son learn by reading about them then experimenting with them in real life!  But that is my philosophy.

However, I will say that for this Banned Book class, each child had to choose a book to read from the comprehensive list of banned books (in agreement with his or her family, of course).  My son wanted to read the most frequently banned book, which was Catcher in the Rye.  That book, of course, was one of the first and still one of the most frequently banned because of...Sex and Language.  But he read it, and his reaction was much the same as my was when I read, long, long ago in high school--it's OK, but I don't know what the big deal is.