Monday, November 4, 2019

Joker Through the Lens of Education

Keaton as Batman confronting Nicholson's Joker (1989)
Image courtesy of 
Ever since I was a little kid, I have always loved Batman.  I was 8 years old when Michael Keaton graced the big screen as Batman, with Jack Nicholson as an amazing Joker.  And who could forget the stellar soundtrack by Danny Elfman and multiple masterpieces from Prince (to this day, Batdance and Trust are two of my favorite Prince tracks)?  And while the origin story for Batman is relatively common knowledge, with a young Bruce Wayne growing up to avenge the murder of his parents as the Dark Knight, the story behind the Joker isn't as well known.  So to say that I was excited when a Joker origin story movie was going to be released is an understatement.  What I didn't realize though was how watching Joaquin Phoenix play this iconic character would make so many connections to my career as an educator.  

Disclaimer: A recent episode of The Soundtrack Show covered Danny Elfman and his roots before becoming the acclaimed film score composer that he is today before another episode that covered his music in Batman.  Check them out wherever you get your podcasts.  And while I will do my best not to provide any spoilers of Joker, I will be making references to events in the film, so if you have not seen it yet, this is your warning!  

Arthur helping his sick mother, Penny
Image courtesy of
Arthur Fleck, Phoenix's character that eventually morphs into and becomes the Joker, conjured up multiple potential images of students that we see every day.  As the story about Arthur unfolds, many factors that explain his eccentric behavior, odd mannerisms, and melancholic demeanor are revealed.  And we would be remiss to dismiss the physical and verbal abuse that Arthur suffers as a result of his perceived "freak" or "weirdo" existence.  On top of all of this, Arthur, as a nearly middle-aged man, still lives with his mother, who he as a loving and devoted son, takes care of, as she is in poor health. 

Trying to make a living as a clown advertising a going out of business sale, Arthur is accosted by a group of teenagers who mock him, take his sign and run away through the busy streets of Gotham.  Arthur gives chase, eventually catching up to the teenagers in an alley where they break the sign over his head and savagely beat him before running away and leaving Arthur to fend for himself.  The beating is so severe that Arthur is convinced by a colleague that he should start carrying a weapon to protect himself, a choice that eventually costs Arthur his job when the gun falls out while he is performing at a children's hospital. 

While this kind of bullying is not nearly as prevalent as it once was, there are still students that are bullied to the point that they see no other way out than to protect themselves.  Often times, these are the students, like Arthur, that are the "outcasts" that don't have a circle of friends and are susceptible to severe bullying.  Arthur had no intention of ever using the weapon, it was just meant as a means to protect his ability to make a living.  That is, until his encounter with three more bullies on the subway shortly after losing his job for the incident at the hospital.  Many students are just like this, never intending harm by carrying a weapon, but are suspended/expelled for possession of a weapon (and zero tolerance laws regarding weapons are something that makes my blood boil, I'll save my wrath here), or worse, they end up using the weapon when the bullying becomes too much. 

Phoenix fully evolved from Arthur Fleck to the Joker
Image courtesy of
Several times throughout the film, the scene cuts to Arthur sitting in the office of a social worker.  While the worker attempts to get Arthur to talk about his feelings and struggles, Arthur doesn't reveal much and asks about his medications that he gets through the city office.  Eventually, the social worker reveals that the city has cut her office's funding and that she and Arthur will no longer be able to have their weekly chats and that he will not be able to get his medicine.  It's no surprise that from this point forward, Arthur spirals further away from stability and commits some horrific crimes. 

I am fortunate to work at a school that has six counselors and a team of four safe school professionals.  Students at my school have several people that they can turn to, on top of the caring staff of teachers, if they have concerns, are feeling bullied, or if they have suicidal thoughts.  Unfortunately, like Arthur's situation in the movie, many schools and communities do not have the resources to assist students.  But diagnoses of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and many other instances of mental illness are becoming more common.  If students are unable to access counselors or social workers at school, issues with mental illness can become worse.  And these same students often do not have healthcare coverage in which to access services outside of school either. 

And how did Arthur come to have these issues in the first place?  Initially, you are led to believe that it is because he grew up without a father, then finding out that his father is Thomas Wayne who in order to protect his reputation as a Gotham City billionaire, has been ignoring his mother's pleas for years for help. However, it is revealed that Arthur was in fact adopted by his mother, and was then abused by his mother's boyfriend for years before she was eventually committed to a mental hospital.  It's no wonder that Arthur struggled as an adult with such a terrible upbringing. 

Many of our students come to school from similar situations.  They come from single-parent homes that are struggling to make ends meet.  They come from homes with abusive parent figures.  Some have parents that are in prison.  And while not all students that come from tough homes have a tough time at school and in life, these situations certainly do not help children to thrive. 

Be your students Batman!
Image courtesy of
If Todd Phillips, director and co-writer of Joker, was looking to produce a film that was a political and social commentary, he hit the nail on the head.  As educators, we see so many Arthur Flecks in our classes on a daily basis.  Through our hard work, our compassion, our empathy, and our awareness, we will reach more Arthurs and steer them toward a life of success, not a life of the Joker where his childhood, his mental illness, and the constant bullying eventually lead him to become a cold-blooded criminal that terrorizes Gotham City.  And while it is unfair to say that students that come from a similar background are going to become criminals, I would feel better knowing that I have done all that I can for my students instead of risking it. 

Until next time... 

Monday, October 21, 2019

If I Don't Make It... To #FallCUE

Live performing perhaps my
favorite from their catalog,
"White, Discussion"
The alarm clock was set for 5:35 AM.  As I looked at the clock one last time, it was 12:53.  The blare of the clock would start yelling at me in just under five hours.  I dropped the needle on the record, turned down the volume to just above audible and put my head on the pillow.  As I drifted off, a faint ringing in my ears of the show a couple of hours prior competed with the guitar riffs and falsetto vocals of Raine Maida and escorted me to dreamland.  As the alarm roused me from slumber a few hours later, I groggily jumped into the shower, threw on a hat, grabbed a bottle of Coke Zero, and headed out into the crisp 30-degree darkness of Sunday morning to get into the car for the drive over the Sierra Nevada.  

Much to the delight of
especially the ladies in
attendance, Bush frontman
Gavin Rossdale walks the
crowd while performing
"Little Things".
The Fall CUE conference kicked off in Rancho Cordova on Saturday morning, but I wasn't there for the festivities.  While the drive from Reno to the conference was only about 2 hours and I easily could have gone, my priorities were different.  Months prior, a concert that I could say that I had waited 25 years for was announced for Saturday night.  In celebration of the 25th anniversary of their debut album, Sixteen Stone, Bush announced the ALTimate tour, a tour that would bring Live, a band celebrating the 25th anniversary of their most successful album, Throwing Copper, and Our Lady Peace, celebrating 25 years of their debut, Naveed, to Reno as one of the stops.  With my teen years in the mid and late 1990s, this was a show that I would be devastated to miss, especially because I never had the opportunity to see Bush or Live (I saw Our Lady Peace in 2009, and they were hard to see as their tour schedule rarely brought them to the US).  

Closing out the night
with "Comedown"
The show was everything that I expected and more.  Our Lady Peace opened, playing favorites like Clumsy, Superman's Dead, Innocent, Somewhere Out There, and closing with one of my personal favorites, Starseed.  Live was great as well, churning out I Alone, White, Discussion, Pain Lies on the Riverside, a stellar version of The Rollings Stones' Paint It Black, and closing out with Lightning Crashes.  Then Bush closed the night out, opening with Machinehead, a few songs from their upcoming album, then classics like Little Things, Glycerine, The Chemicals Between Us, Everything Zen, and closing out with Comedown.  My voice was a little hoarse after the 3 and a half hours of nearly nonstop rock that defined my high school and college years, but that wasn't even the highlight of the night!

Jason Pierce, Steve Mazur,
Duncan Coutts, Mary,
 Raine Maida, and I 
Of the three bands, Our Lady Peace is by far my favorite.  They are the least well known of the three and many people do not know the group when I talk about them.  That's not the reason why I love them so much, but I do enjoy a lot of bands that aren't as well known.  OLP, as they are also known, is big in their native Canada but only in a few pockets of the United States.  To say I was most excited to see them is an understatement and most people in attendance at the show appreciated their set, but were not nearly as vocal or singing along like my wife, Mary, and I.  In the day or so leading up to the show, my wife participated in a contest in an Our Lady Peace Facebook group.  When it was all said and done, she won a signed copy of their album, Clumsy, that she would be able to pick up at a meet and greet after their set!  

Had to listen to it,
 but this is going into a frame!

As soon as their set was complete, Mary and I left our seats and nearly sprinted to the meet and greet area, happy to see that we were the first ones there!  We not-so-patiently waited for about 15 minutes for the band and chatted with a few others that jumped in line with albums, posters, and shirts to have signed.  Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Raine, Duncan, Steve, and Jason made their way through the crowd and settled in at the table.  We walked up to the table and introduced ourselves, took a couple of quick pictures and asked about the album.  The band themselves had been running the promotion and were excited that Mary had participated.  They told us that it would be a few minutes but if we would wait nearby, they would get the album.  We waited for about 20 minutes, Mary got her copy of the album and we chatted with them for a few more minutes (Steve, the guitarist, is originally from Michigan and is a big Tigers fan like me, so we chatted about our mutual love for the team and mutual agony over their patch of rough seasons as of late).  In the words of Mary, it was a dream come true to meet one of our favorites bands, one that has had such an impact on both of us over the past 25 years.  

Which brings me back to the early wakeup on Sunday morning.  My ears were no longer ringing, but I was EXHAUSTED!  However, the drive was relatively short and I was excited to get my learn on, see a great keynote, and catch up with a few friends.  So with the GPS set and albums from each other the previous night's bands lined up, I got onto the 80 and set out for Rancho Cordova.  

Maggie Elliot made me take a picture before I was
fully awake... even though this was 3 hours into the day!
Minus a stretch near Truckee and Donner Summit where it was really foggy, I made great time in light traffic.  I pulled into Cordova High School in time for the sticker swap.  I had stickers to swap, but outside of dropping a few of mine on a table and getting a couple of new ones, I didn't have much of an opportunity to swap stickers.  Several people asked me where I had been on Saturday and I spent time explaining that I had been at the concert the night before.  Minutes later, I worked my way to the theater to see Eddie Campos deliver a great keynote about his experiences as a math educator and how CUE and the CUE family has made him a better educator and how he can now make math fun, not the anxiety builder that it is for so many people.  

Before the conference, I had done some research on the sessions and built a schedule.  However, I did not do a great job of reading for whom the sessions were built.  My first session was a great session on tools for special education teachers... if you are elementary.  I sat there for about 15 minutes reviewing some great tools before I realized that the tools were not going to shift to high school.  Luckily, I had a backup plan: a session on universal design for learning (UDL).  

UDL is something that I had heard of but honestly did not know much about.  Even after walking into the session nearly 20 minutes late, I was able to gain a better understanding of UDL and how I can implement UDL into my classroom.  I really like how UDL breaks down lesson design into three things: engagement (the why), representation (the what), and action and expression (the how).  To dive deeper into the basics of UDL, we were given some time to explore a variety of resources, then we were paired up with another attendee in two circles where we each had 30 seconds to share something that stood out to us.  After we each had a chance to share, we shifted to another person and shared again, and shared a third time with another person (I'll be doing this with students in my classes very soon!).  And the presenters, Kristina Allison and Trisha Sanchez, built a Padlet where attendees could add resources for helping others implement UDL.  Check out their website for more information on UDL and the shared resources! 

To the left, a news story without
Mercury Reader.  This is the same story
with Mercury Reader!
This is a great story about
rural Nevada counties getting
a grant to put wi-fi on busses.
Check it out here!
The next session that I attended was another geared toward closing the accessibility gaps for students with special needs.  Shannon Tabaldo (of the My Tech Toolbelt podcast) and Amanda Johnston presented a variety of tools for accessibility.  Many of the tools were ones in which I was already aware of or that I am using with my students, however, my goal is to always learn at least one new thing from a session and this session did not disappoint.  While voice typing, the Explore button in Google, screencasting, closed captioning, Google Keep and Grammarly are already part of my repertoire, I was really excited to learn about Mercury Reader.  This Chrome extension takes webpages and eliminates all of the extras like ads, spam, and other items not related to the text.  A great example is an article on a news website.  Not only does it open the text in a "quieter" window, but it also allows users to change the font style and size and share it out to a Kindle! There are a lot of distractions on the Internet and Mercury Reader allows students to read without those distractions.  I loved it so much that I installed it for my personal Google profile in addition to my school profile!

After lunch, I headed to a session on social-emotional learning (SEL) hosted by Dr. Todd Schmidt.  His session highlighted a lot of the research behind the importance of incorporating SEL into schools, such as decreased incidents of behavioral issues, bullying, and other issues and different ways he has incorporated SEL into his school as the principal.  Perhaps my favorite thing that he did was two-fold: when it was time notify students and their families which teacher they would have for the school year, each teacher in the school wrote a handwritten postcard for each student and mailed them home, but included on the postcard was a link to a Flipgrid video where the teacher introduced themself (if they chose to do so) and gave a tour of their classroom for students, easing the anxiety of wondering who their teacher was going to be and what their classroom was going to look like.  Dr. Schmidt stated that since incorporating this "hack", he did not get any phone calls from concerned parents regarding their child's teacher.  I also enjoyed his story about hosting a national play day event at his school but inviting parents to come to school and bring games, participate in events with students, and make it more of a community event instead of simply a school event.  I so enjoyed his session that afterward, I introduced myself (while we have interacted on Twitter previously, we had never met in person) and asked if he would like to share his story on The BeerEDU Podcast.  He readily agreed, especially since he has interacted with my partner, Ben Dickson, through various leadership chats on Twitter.  Look for an episode of The BeerEDU Podcast in the near future featuring Todd!

To close out my day, I walked into a session, but I wasn't feeling it, so about five minutes in, I left and headed over to the common area of the school's campus.  I was meeting up with a couple of friends after sessions were done so I figured I would relax for about an hour.  I had a great conversation with a couple of people and Kristina Mattis and Bill Selek had me come on to CUE Live to talk about my (limited) Fall CUE experience and to share a little bit about my upcoming book.  After a couple of quick conversations with Rebekah Remkiewicz, Ryan O'Donnell, and Tom Covington (plus I had a gift of some local Reno beer that I had promised Tom), I got in the car, had a quick pit stop for food, then headed home.  Between the long day on Saturday with the show and the great day of learning, I was in bed and asleep by about 8:30.  And even though I got a solid 9 hours of sleep, it was still tough getting up for school on Monday!  

Whenever I write a blog post, strangely, I name it first.  This time, I wanted to tie the concert and the conference together in the title.  One of Our Lady Peace's early songs is one titled 4 AM and one of the lines of the chorus is, "If I don't make it, know that I've loved you all along."  I felt that it was very fitting to the weekend because I love my CUE family and getting to spend days learning and interacting with so many dedicated educators.  Had I not made it to Fall CUE at all, I still would have learned a ton just from following the hashtag during and after the event.  So if you were at Fall CUE, whether we spoke or not, whether we have known each other for years or if we have never met, just like OLP says, I've loved you all along! 

As for the song, it's more about an estranged father and son, but that line really stuck with me while writing this post, check out this video for the song!

Until next time...