[REVIEW] “Tom’s Diner” – Suzanne Vega

Title: Tom’s Diner
Artist: Suzanne Vega
Media: Song
Primary subject: English Language Arts

It might be a sign that I’ve finally taken this all too far but I kid you not this idea came to me in a dream. Tom’s Diner is a song from the early 80s that tell’s a first-person narrative of a seemingly boring event. It carries so much detail, however, that it becomes a compelling story. Also, a random fun fact, the original a capella version of the song was used as the original test track for the file format known as MP3. The creator felt that if he could get this song compressed and not lose any of Vega’s voice then he’d made the format right. Here’s the lyrics and a video then I’ll explain why I think this would fit well in a classroom. Note there is a remixed version by DNA that students would probably enjoy quite a bit more as it adds a beat to the song.

Tom’s Diner lyrics

I am sitting in the morning at the diner on the corner. I am waiting at the counter for the man to pour the coffee. And he fills it only halfway and before I even argue. He is looking out the window at somebody coming in.

“It is always nice to see you,” says the man behind the counter to the woman who has come in. She is shaking her umbrella. And I look the other way as they are kissing their hellos. I’m pretending not to see them and instead I pour the milk.

I open up the paper there’s a story of an actor who had died while he was drinking. It was no one I had heard of. And I’m turning to the horoscope and looking for the funnies when I’m feeling someone watching me and so I raise my head

There’s a woman on the outside looking inside. Does she see me? No she does not really see me because she sees her own reflection. And I’m trying not to notice that she’s hitching up her skirt and while she’s straightening her stockings her hair is getting wet.

Oh, this rain it will continue through the morning as I’m listening to the bells of the cathedral. I am thinking of your voice…

Motivational Potential
As I said the version by DNA (found here) should be plenty appealing to students today. The beat is plenty interesting and Vega’s voice has a haunting quality and just grabs you. You should have no problem getting them to listen to the song. They might whine at first (as they always do when asked to listen to and “old” song) but they’ll like it.

Beyond enjoying the song itself your students should really get into the idea of using detail is writing after hearing it. Part of what makes the song so great are the incredibly minute details. You really do get the idea that you are seeing this scene play out in front of you even though it is told through song. I’ve tried tons of methods to get kids to see the importance of detail in story-telling but none ever really stick. I’d argue that is because there is little motivation in an activity, there’s a ton when presented this way.

Educational Potential:
There obviously isn’t any specific content here but examples of two important concepts of writing sure are. Whether you are teaching first-person perspective or using detail to create a scene this song will do a great job at least introducing the topic.

As far as first-person goes I think the song is fairly obvious. It is not just written in first person but written in such a way as to truly make you feel as if you are in that person’s mind. I would highly recommend playing the song as audio only before showing any of the video forms of it to students. Let them “see” how visual the words are in their mind before feeding them the images. It would be interesting then to have students write a first-person account of some, seemingly mundane, happening in their life to the melody of the song – bonus points if they’ll sing it!

There is a minor hiccup in using this for details. It is the epitome of “Tell-not-Show” which is often the opposite of what we want to teach with detail. The whole song is “tell” in a sense. I think there is still value in it though due simply to the incredible amount of “tell” going on. While it may be direct the picture painted using only words really is amazing. The simple comment that the actor was “no one I had heard of” really takes this to another level. Those are the kind of details we want our students to learn to use and there isn’t a much better model for it out there.

I can’t wait to try this out in my creative writing unit this upcoming school year. I think it will do a better job in 3 minutes than my days long series of literary examples. It is going to be far more real to the students and therefore far more educational.


August 11, 2009 at 4:51 pm Leave a comment

[REVIEW] Dawn of Discovery

Title: Dawn of Discovery
Media: Video game (Nintendo DS)
Primary Subject: World History
Secondary Subjects: Economics, Land management

Dawn of Discovery is a deceptively complex civilization building game (like Sim City or Civilization) for the Nintendo DS. It is marketed alongside Ubisoft’s Imagine series of games which are aimed at pre-teens. DoD is much more complex than what you’d find in those games, however. Still, the game is fairly simple to pick up despite the complex underpinnings. Essentially, as with most civ builders, your goal at any given point is to get more people to pay more taxes so you can build them more buildings so you get more people to pay more taxes, etc.

The entire game is essentially a tutorial. Your first mission, for example, simply tasks you with building a couple houses and raising their tax rate. The next has you building a church and a dairy for your settlers. Doing this allows them to “advance” to pioneers which opens up new building options. The game adds new mechanics at a fairly regular clip keeping the game pretty fresh for a few hours. By about hour four you’re juggling rock quarries, spice farms, and tax rates, all the while buying and selling goods in the market and sending ships out on exploration missions (and even searching for buried treasure!) The game didn’t get hard at any point during this ramp up.

Until I hit mission 6. By mission 6 you’ve unlocked most of the building types. You are now juggling roughly 15 different types of buildings to keep your citizens (not pioneers any more!) happy. That, however, isn’t the problem. The game doesn’t have any disasters that say wipe out your food supply so if you’ve set up a proper civilization you’ll be fine. The problem comes in that by mission 6 the land size is very limited. It requires serious pre-planning and continual re-planning to squeeze in all the needed industry along with houses. The game, in some points, will not advance until you’ve hit a certain population level and that often means leveling an entire island worth of houses and rebuilding somewhere else. It can be daunting but is never overly challenging.

It is also worth mentioning that starting by mission 3 you’ll have to deal with Corsairs roaming the seas attacking your ships (and eventually your towns.) These battles are 100% icon based and have no violence whatsoever short of a few sword-clanking sounds. Your blue disk “battles” the Corsair’s black disk and the game calculates a winner. It is fairly shallow but definitely adds to the mental challenge as you now have one more thing to juggle.

The game is single player only but there is an “infinite” mode which would work well for classroom competitions. The teacher could simply set a goal (most money, most people, etc.) and give students X amount of time to do so.

Motivational Potential
It’s a video game and the graphics are cool (you can see your citizens walking the streets or working which is a nice touch), but it certainly isn’t flashy by any stretch. It is not a game that I think students would pick up and play on their own. One can’t just jump in and be drawn to the action. The action really is all in your mind as you try to juggle multiple variables.

The historical content is also poorly presented. It is there, sort of, but I can’t imagine any student wanting to study the Age of Exploration simply because they played this game. In fact, I think the reverse is more likely to be true. Students will want to play the game more if they already know about the time period.

Educational Potential
I think the game works best in teaching very general concepts about economics and the growth of civilizations. The story told in story mode is fictional (though often based on real people like King George) and goes off in weird directions (you end up working with a Sultan and there are mosques in the area you’re “discovering”) that aren’t really historically accurate. I’d recommend the game to kids to play and if someone I had a DS for every student I’d certainly use it in an economics unit. Otherwise, probably not.

I’ll admit I liked the game more than I expected. The reviews I’d read were pretty awful but I’m a huge fan of civ building games any way. I think the developers missed a huge chance to make the game educational by basing it on real historical events more closely. The story in the game now is boring anyway and, I feel, adds nothing to the experience, why not at least make it educational in that case?

August 4, 2009 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment

[REVIEW] Eagle Eye

Title: Eagle Eye
Media: Movie
Primary Subject: US Government

SPOILER WARNING: Do not read this review if you care about keeping the ridiculous plot of this movie a secret.

This was a pretty awful movie but at least helps to prove that you can find educational content just about anywhere. The movie is not classroom appropriate due to plenty of bad language. The violence is mostly of the off-screen variety but it is fairly intense at points as well.

Motivational Potential:
I’m willing to guess many kids will have seen the movie. It was targeted at the 15-30 market in my opinion and did fairly well in theaters. Setting up a scenario to discuss the various government issues in the film would certainly be interesting to kids.

Educational Potential:
Without spoiling too much the movie revolves around eliminating the chain of succession in the US government down to just one in the chain who is acceptable to the movie’s villain. The film never explains that is what is happening except to say “You will be the next president” at one point. It would require some background to know what was going on. There is also a short scene with a partial reading of the Preamble to the Constitution that is pretty cool in terms of how it is animated. There are equally minor references to the Constitution’s discussion of power.

The movie, however, doesn’t do anything to teach what these things are. It does, however, at least paint a picture of why we have a chain of succession and what the Constitution, taken to the extreme, might mean.

I didn’t expect to find anything educational in this movie when I plopped down to watch it this morning but there it was. If I taught U.S. government and if I felt that chain of succession was something worth teaching I think I’d take the time to edit the film’s ending sequence to show at least that (as most of the references are found here.) I think I will use the Preamble scene for US history as it is already. Again, it was really not a good movie but I think kids, who don’t tend to over-think (or think at all…) during movies would be plenty motivated by it.

July 13, 2009 at 7:32 pm Leave a comment

[REVIEW] National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Title: National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Type: Movie
Primary Subject: U.S. History

So wait, history is cool?! Apparently it can be! National Treasure 2 essentially follows the same pattern as the original. Historian/treasure hunter finds clues hidden in historical documents and locations to lead to an undiscovered treasure. While a “real” historian might be bothered by the rather unreal glorification of the profession I’d argue this is no different than the way most jobs are presented in media and it is, in fact, good for history teachers. I don’t care why students become interested in history, I just care that they are!

Motivational Potential:

Top-notch movie in terms of everything a kid would want. Jerry Bruckheimer produced movies always movie quickly and with high energy -this is no exception. What Pirate of the Caribbean does for pirates, this movie does for historians. If discussed properly I could see many kids coming away with a serious interest in history and archaeology.

I always present history as putting together a puzzle. This movie takes that to “Hollywood” level where everything in history is part of one puzzle or another (or all part of one big one!) With the movie as the backdrop any future discussions of history would be much more interesting to students. They could start to view facts as puzzle pieces and not just trivia pieces to be memorized and forgotten quickly after a test.

The movie is rated PG which I know is a problem for many schools. Know that this is about the least objectionable PG movie you’ll find. There’s no foul language and not even any innuendo. There are a few “romantic” scenes but none beyond a slightly passionate kiss. The violence is all threatened at worse minus some destroyed property and a car crash or 10. Guns are flashed but never used. It is far less violent than Peter Pan or even the animated version of Robin Hood.

It is, however, very long. The movie runs about 2 hours, 10 minutes which might make it hard to justify using the class time. It could be cut down to about an hour and 30 to fit into two class periods but it would take some key editing to keep the true feel of the movie.

Educational Potential: 1/5
History is referenced constantly but the subjects are always very fleeting and rarely explained. The discussion of dead languages and the importance of protecting archaeological finds could easily be used apart from the movie though.

Again, I’d argue the true educational benefit comes from the interest in history in general it will generate among students. In a U.S. history course I think it would be more than worthwhile (though one might argue the first film is better for that, I wouldn’t) but in World history, perhaps not.

This will almost certainly become my new “End of Testing” reward movie. I’d love to find a way to use it earlier in the year as I truly would like to see what inspiration it would provide to students. It would be hard to justify giving up the two class periods, however, given that I teach world history.

I hope this franchise continues as anything that can give historians a rock star quality is all right in my book.

July 5, 2009 at 6:32 pm Leave a comment

REVIEW – IBM “Smarter Math” Commercial

Title: Smarter Math
Media Type: Commercial and Website
Primary Subject: Math

Just caught this commercial for the first time while watching TV. Apparently it has been around awhile as the date on the YouTube link is 6 months old. I’m not a math teacher myself but I do teach AVID and deal with math in there regularly. Even I get the constant “Why do I need to know this stuff?” question. This commercial aims to answer that question.

There is a website to go along with the campaign here: http://www.ibm.com/ibm/ideasfromibm/us/math/070907/index.shtml

It has a podcast along with some additional information that may be worth checking out.

Motivational Potential:
Let me just say that if there was a history version of this commercial I’d use it and use it often in my classes. It is short, rapid-fire, and to the point. There is no chance for the kids to get bored as it ends as soon as it gets going. That, however, is my one complaint, the commercial is so quickly paced that it can be hard to get the impact. It will require multiple viewings and analysis to get the full effect. Still, I’d definitely go for it if I were a math teacher. You can’t deny the impact of telling kids that math can solve financial crisis, predict mutations, etc. This is powerful stuff.

Educational Potential:
You won’t be teaching any math from this unless you visit the accompanying website. Once there it is fairly high-level stuff and doesn’t really teach it so much as show how it might be used. I’m not putting down this resource in any way by rating it as such – it just isn’t for teaching content.

I’ll be using this with my AVID kids no doubt. If I were a math teacher I’d use it regularly. A fantastic resource though not as awesome as Old Navy’s 2004 History commercial (ha, we still win!). Highly recommended, check it out.

June 25, 2009 at 12:40 am Leave a comment

REVIEW: Year 1

Title: Year 1
Media Type: Movie
Primary subject: Ancient Israel

Year 1
Hollywood has quite a legacy of putting history on film. From the early epics like Ben Hur, to modern action movies like Gladiator Hollywood has presented history in a very powerful, if somewhat fictionalized way. These epic films have shaped entire viewpoints of history and inspired people to study subjects they might not have otherwise touched.
Year 1 is not one of those films.
Year 1 is a comedy based very loosely on the events of The Old Testament. It is often crude and boring for unnecessarily long segments but it certainly has laughs.
The question is does it bring anything to the classroom?

Motivational Potential
Judging by the crowd in the showing I just attended many students will have seen this movie. The audience was easily 50% under 14 (the movie is rated PG-13) so any reference you make to it likely will be understood by many students. Even if they don’t see it there has been a fairly massive advertising campaign that will at least make students aware of the movie.
The rating is low due to the fact that ultimately many of the jokes will not be understood by kids. They will certainly get the toilet humor which would have to be edited out anyway but they will not get most of the historical gags which you might actually use.
For example, there is a scene early on where two men are discussing traveling beyond their village. When one argues that will simply lead to them falling off the edge of the Earth the other protests saying there must be more to the world. This leads the first to give a doubtful look to which the latter replies “Would you stop looking at me like I’m some kind of idiot?” The first mumbles in response “well, it is generally accepted knowledge…” In context that short exchange could be motivating but it would probably require more explaining than the length of the clip itself.

Educational Potential
In a course on ancient history there is definitely some content here that could be of use. Additionally, the above mentioned discussion on the size of the world could find a place in many units of history. There are scenes based on Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac and Sodom and Gomorrah. There are some potentially useful scenes late in the movie showing the reliance many had on “the gods” for their provisions historically.
Ultimately though the “history” here takes a very far back seat to the story and the jokes. Even the scenery is weak at best in portraying the historical period.

I’m sadly disappointed. When I first saw the commercial for this movie back during the Super Bowl I had high hopes. It seemed to take place during the Roman Empire (which the very misleading title “Year 1” also implies) and looked to provide a different perspective on it. It didn’t. The movie takes place entirely in ancient Israel and doesn’t do much with it anyway. There might be something here if you really, really dig but given the weak motivational potential it really isn’t worth it.

June 20, 2009 at 3:01 am Leave a comment

RESOURCE: The Simpsons Archive (www.snpp.com)

One of my plans for this blog is to slowly (very slowly…) go through and review the seasons of The Simpsons for their educational opportunities. I personally use tons of clips from the show in my lectures throughout the year. For someone like me who is a Simpsons junkie this is fairly simple. I can proudly (sadly?) quote just about every line from every episode from the first 10 seasons and pretty well from the next five too.  However, even I have had life catch up with me. The last five seasons or so I simply have not kept up.

There is, however, an answer! The Simpsons Archive located at www.snpp.com is one of the best resources for teachers looking for media I’ve ever found. In short it is a searchable Simpsons episode guide.  There are quite a few of these online but none that I’ve found are nearly as comprehensive. You can type in any word or topic you want and the descriptions are thoroughly searched (the search bar is hidden at the bottom of the page.)

Perhaps even better are the user generated lists under the FAQs, Guides, and Lists tab.  There is, for example, a list of all references to American presidents ever to appear on the show at http://snpp.com/guides/presidents.html. This list alone is many pages long.  There are also lists for religion and music references on the show among many, many others. Clicking on the individual episode will tell you what season it appeared in as well as the episode title making it very easy to hunt down the desired DVD.

So, if you’re looking for that one little video clip to spice up a lecture or one to really close one out memorably check out this great resource.

June 13, 2009 at 10:32 pm Leave a comment

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