Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Re-Examined

Ferris Bueller's Day OffI went to see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the theater the summer before I started ninth grade. We had just moved to Maryland Heights, MO, and I would be attending school at Parkway North High School in Crève Coeur in a few weeks. I didn’t know anyone. I remember feeling scared and stressed. How would I be expected to dress? How would I make friends? Why hadn’t my mother signed me up for band?

Obviously the larger message of the film was one calculated to appeal to people in my age group: the sort of carpe diem theme I would later visit in the poetry of Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell (and they were writing in the seventeenth century—there truly is nothing new under the sun). But there was also this notion of defying authority, represented in the movie by the dean of students, Mr. Rooney. Authority wants Ferris in school instead of out and about in Chicago, where he will actually learn important stuff about life. Perhaps no scene embodies the uselessness of school as well as Ben Stein’s famous economics lecture:

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Despite the fact that this film turned 25 years old (yes! I checked Wikipedia!) this past summer, it still resonates. My students were talking about it, in fact, just this week. There is no doubt that it has become a pop culture icon, and it’s interesting to look at its critical reception. Richard Roeper is a big fan. His license plate even says “SVFRRIS.” He says the film is

[O]ne of my favorite movies of all time. It has one of the highest ‘repeatability’ factors of any film I’ve ever seen… I can watch it again and again. There’s also this, and I say it in all sincerity: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is something of a suicide prevention film, or at the very least a story about a young man trying to help his friend gain some measure of self-worth… Ferris has made it his mission to show Cameron that the whole world in front of him is passing him by, and that life can be pretty sweet if you wake up and embrace it. That’s the lasting message of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (Wikipedia)

Steve Almond says, it is “the most sophisticated teen movie [he has] ever seen” and added that it is “one film [he] would consider true art, [the] only one that reaches toward the ecstatic power of teendom and, at the same time, exposes the true, piercing woe of that age” (Wikipedia). National Review writer Mike Hemmingway says, “If there’s a better celluloid expression of ordinary American freedom than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I have yet to see it. If you could take one day and do absolutely anything, piling into a convertible with your best girl and your best friend and taking in a baseball game, an art museum, and a fine meal seems about as good as it gets” (Wikipedia). One of the film’s stars, Ben Stein, describes it as “the most life-affirming movie possibly of the entire post-war period” (Wikipedia). I found it interesting that such a diverse group as Wolf Blitzer, Dan Quayle, Michael Bublé, Simon Cowell, and Justin Timberlake call it their favorite film.

I remember the film resonating quite strongly with me and other members of my generation. It remains a cultural touchstone. We have all felt like taking a day off without permission, playing hookey, and getting away with it. But I was thinking quite a lot about the film’s message about school, particularly in light of Steve Jobs’s recent death. In his commencement address to Stanford in 2005, Jobs admits to dropping out of college after a semester and auditing classes he found interesting: famously, he credits one class he took in calligraphy for awakening an awareness of and interest in typefaces that would inform development of fonts on Apple computers. Neither Jobs or his sometime friend and rival Bill Gates graduated from college. I have heard them cited in arguments that college is unnecessary, and the message that school isn’t really necessary and actually can impede your real learning is a big part of Ferris Bueller. I’ve not necessarily heard either Jobs or Gates make that argument, but the fact is that both of them learned by taking a risk and jumping in, failing, then trying again. I’m not sure school could have taught them what they needed to know to do that, beyond the basic skills. Frankly, I have never heard anyone advance the argument that Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane would have spent their day better in school.

I don’t think it hurts us to examine whether what we’re teaching students—and the way we’re teaching them—is relevant to their lives, both in the present and the future. Sometimes I think we do a poor job of communicating the relevance of what we teach to our students. I overheard a disagreement about this issue the other day between a colleague and student, and the colleague walked away, while the student remained unconvinced. Listen, I am not sure I would have won that argument either, but I cringed a little when the “I’m the adult with the experience” card was played. Students will use math, science, art, literature, social studies, and all of the other subjects we teach. They might not know it, but they will. We can take this lesson from Ferris Bueller: we have a long way to go help students see school as compelling, and it starts with relevance. A student can’t give me a higher compliment than to tell me something I taught them was “relevant.”

Perhaps if Ferris’s teachers had thought about that issue, he and his friends wouldn’t have had to take the day off to learn.

Another lesson we can draw from Jobs is to remember our “time is limited” and we shouldn’t “waste it living someone else’s life.” One can hear echoes of Ferris Bueller’s statement that “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

I think it’s important that our students don’t feel time spent learning from us is time wasted. I hope instead that they feel it is preparing them for what they want to do and awakening their curiosity.

And we should feel it’s important and relevant work to spend our days teaching them.

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Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

Like so many, I was saddened to hear about the death of Steve Jobs today.

He made technology into art.

He was one of the true visionaries of our time. The products that Apple created while he was at their helm revolutionized computers, communication, and music. My Apple products have enabled me to create wonderful things.

Dylan Happy

My son Dylan drew the self-portrait above using an app on his dad’s iPhone. Dylan took to the touch screen interface of the iPhone like a duck to the proverbial water, and he was suddenly able to create and communicate in ways he couldn’t before. For those of you who don’t know, Dylan is autistic. The iPad has done such revolutionary things for individuals with autism that many special education programs are now using them in the classroom, and Dylan has been able to use one at school. I know there are programs to try to match families with autistic individuals with iPads, too.

My husband wrote an email to Steve Jobs in May 2010 conveying our thanks for the innovative products that Apple has created that have unlocked Dylan, for lack of a better word. Here is my husband’s email.

Dear Steve,

When my wife got an iPod Touch a couple of years ago our son had only just begun to speak. He was 5 and had been mute till age 4. He was diagnosed with autism and indeed, is a classic autistic child in many respects. His affect is often flat, he speaks now but doesn’t proactively communicate, he tends to obsess on seemingly odd, random things, flaps his hands, etc.

We started letting him play with the Touch and we quickly discovered that the little boy who had become what seemed like a closed-off mystery to us around 18 months or so not only had a vivid imagination and interests all his own, he also found the Touch an irresistible way to navigate the Web. With no help whatsoever he discovered the Youtube app. Then he found the Google mobile app. Through the Touch interface he could find any video he wanted (he is obsessed with movie logos in particular) and find images & websites that interested him. His facility with the Touch was amazing, really.

We were afraid Dylan, our son, would always be closed off from the world around him, walled in by his disability. Then we realized through his use of the Touch that he was going to find ways, whenever possible, to explore the world and to reach out.

We didn’t really understand how he could use these tools to get through to us until the day he was fooling with my iPhone. I took it away from him, miffed because I need it and he had been kind of tough on the iPod Touch, and didn’t think much about it till later, when I was checking out a note-taking app that’s designed to let you write/draw with your finger.

A smiley face with hands and legs is attached to this email. It is the drawing Dylan made with that app. It might not seem like much to a lot of people, but seeing this little smiley waving at me was a kind of milestone. I realized, in some small way, who my son was. It was a greeting and a kind of reassurance. (Actually, I posted Dylan’s smiley on Reddit under a nick because I wanted people to know a little bit of the story and it’s currently the number 1 link on the main page, so maybe a lot of people do understand, after all.)

Twenty years ago, I’m not sure we would have been able to find out nearly as much about Dylan and who he is. There weren’t easy-to-use, straightforward interfaces like those found on the iPhone, Touch & iPad. Were it not for this technology, Dylan might have remained locked inside his head, unable to communicate his interests or in some small way, his feelings to his family, to the world.

So we thank you and we thank Apple. We have some vital knowledge of our little boy, of who he is and what he thinks about, even feels, because of your products. For this reason alone we will always be grateful and will always remain faithful customers.

Thank you.
Steve and Dana Huff

Steve Jobs is somewhat famous for replying to some of the consumer emails he receives, and he sent a short reply to my husband:

From: Steve Jobs <sjobs@apple.com>
Date: Sat, May 15, 2010 at 11:26 PM
Subject: Check this out
To: [redacted]

Its on the iPod and iPad too.

Proloquo2GoProloquo2Go

AssistiveWare

Proloquo2Go™ is a new product from AssistiveWare that provides a full-featured communication solution for people who have difficulty speaking. It brings natural sounding text-to-speech voices, up-to-date symbols, powerful automatic conjugations, a default vocabulary of over 7000 items, full expandability and extreme ease of use to the iPhone and iPod touch.

My husband and I were grateful for the reply. A lot of people would not have taken the trouble, and I don’t like to think about how many emails Steve Jobs received in an average day. It’s not a long email, but it is, in a sense, a typical Steve Jobs response—to share a tool (cue the joke about there being an app for that)—a really, really expensive tool, too, it must be said—that was designed specifically to make the user’s life easier or better in some way.

To me, Steve Jobs is the epitome of what you can do if you allow yourself to fail, to dream, and to find your way. He was a designer in the truest sense of the world, and his innovations made my life better. Though his life was shorter than seems fair, few can say at the end of their lives that they have made as large an impact on the world as he did.

I am hoping that the legacy he leaves behind is that the next generation of creators, innovators, inventors, and engineers continues to “think different.”

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Preplanning

Golden Gate SunsetI began a new job this week (well, really last week, but this first week with teachers back made it feel more like the first week), and this image of the Golden Gate Bridge seemed to capture something about how it feels in many ways.

I am excited. The opportunity to use my technology skills to help my colleagues has been exhilarating, and they seem so appreciative. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

So far, I have written documentation for using our gradebook software and grade/homework site (Edline) and also conducted training in these two programs. I have also had training on our copiers that I translate into training faculty. I sent my first technology newsletter to our faculty (Gmail tips for Outlook users and Dropbox). I have also helped a few colleagues with some questions or issues that have arisen as they prepare for school. To be honest, I am starting my own classes on Monday, and I was completely unable to prepare anything this week, but I will work on that over the weekend.

Google Calendar has a new feature that allows users to create appointment time slots, so I have created slots and shared that calendar with my colleagues. I already have several appointments booked for next week. I have already learned so much, and most of all, I have actually had a lot of fun, even though I’ve been busy. I have been happier in my job than I can ever remember being. I think it’s really important to me to feel useful, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt this useful before (at least, not at work). It was a busy, busy week, but it was a good week.
Creative Commons License photo credit: vgm8383

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Happy Birthday, Blog

Happy BIrthday Austin

Six years ago today, the first blog post appeared on huffenglish.com. Just as I have done for other anniversaries, I begin by sharing some statistics with you:

  • This is my 765th post.
  • This blog has received 2,942 comments.
  • 1,297 readers subscribe to my RSS feed.
  • 157 subscribe to updates via email.

Some of my favorite posts over the years:

  • A Hogwarts Education: Being interviewed for Irish radio was one of the highlights of my career as a teacher/Harry Potter nerd.
  • Shutting Down Class Discussion: I thought it was an important topic for English teachers, and perhaps all the more timely in light of recent debates on the place of the whole-class novel study.
  • Blogging Teachers: Some Advice: I think teachers should blog, but we have to be wise about how we blog, too. There is plenty of stuff I’d like to write because ranting feels good, particularly when others side with you. But it stays out there, too. People are fired for what they put out there. It’s wiser to be more positive.
  • Why Fiction Matters: A response to Grant Wiggins in which I advocate for the teaching of fiction.
  • Failure: My post about failing as a middle school teacher and how it helped me be a better teacher today. I labored over whether to write that post for years before I felt confident enough to do it.
  • Would You Send Your Kid to Hogwarts?: I never thought this post had much traction, but it was a lot of fun to write. Though it’s now five years old, I still agree with everything I wrote.
  • Grade Inflation: A Student and Teacher Dialogue: I wrote this post with Anthony Ferraro, who was not my student, but was in tenth grade at the time. Last I heard from Anthony, he was studying at Yale. He made a really good case in his argument. I think of this post as a real turning point because it was one of the first posts I wrote that received some fairly serious attention. I also had the distinct feeling of having scored a coup in being able to host the dialogue between Anthony and me.
  • A series on teaching Romeo and Juliet (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four): I’m still proud of these posts and hope that teachers have gained something from them.

    Creative Commons License photo credit: katalicia1

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    In Progress: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

    I began reading Alexandra Robbins’s new book The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School. I am only a little over 20 pages into the book, and I can already tell this is a book that teachers and parents need to pay attention to. I may journal my thoughts as I read here at this blog as I have with other professional reading in the past. I haven’t read any of Robbins’s other books, but I have heard that The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids is also good.

    As a child who had difficulty socially in school and who never was popular, I can relate the book’s message.

    So… anyone want to read this one with me? I know that Gary Anderson is already reading it. Summer book club anyone?

    Full disclosure: the publisher sent me a free copy of this book (not that it will impact any future reviews).

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    Thinking Like an English Teacher

    Moleskineh

    I’m packing up my classroom this week. I won’t have my own classroom next year as I will only be teaching two classes. I am not weepy over losing my classroom. I don’t view it as home or anything like that. I have accumulated a lot of stuff over thirteen years of teaching English. I have been throwing a lot of stuff out. Not in the crazy way I did in 2001 when I swore I was leaving teaching for good and never turning back (I still lament some of the things I lost then). I think I might teach English again some time, but I’m not sure when. For the record, I am teaching a writing class and newspaper next year.

    The weirdest thing is trying to turn off the English teacher in me. For instance, just now, I was reading Holly Tucker’s Wonders and Marvels blog, and she is giving away three copies of Mary Chesnut’s diary. I thought first that I could use that for my classroom library. What a great primary resource for the Civil War era if I teach American literature. But then, I reminded myself, I won’t be teaching American literature any time soon, and where would I put it if I just wanted it for some time in the distant future (just in case, you know)? This incident is not the first of its kind, nor do I think it will be the last. In some ways, it makes me a little sad. I am an English teacher, and it’s hard to switch gears and think of myself differently. I think in some way, I will always be an English teacher, even if I never teach English again (which I don’t believe will happen). Some things happened as I began the transition to Technology Integration Specialist that have left a sour taste in my mouth, and they have contributed to my mixed feelings—I won’t get into them here.

    I am excited. I love working with teachers, which is something that presenting at conferences has taught me. I also love technology. Indeed, I have a passion for technology integration. I have a lot of ideas that I couldn’t necessarily implement in my classroom, but that I would love to help others implement. I have always been interested in other subjects besides English, and working with teachers will enable me to explore these interests alongside them. I will need to think more broadly about an educator. Instead of keeping my eyes open for interesting English ideas, I need to look for ideas of interest to teachers in all subjects. I think I will find the new role challenging and interesting.

    Creative Commons License photo credit: Amir Kuckovic

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    Book Blogging

    Tome Reader

    First things first, a few questions. How many books do you estimate you read in a year? How do you know how many you read (do you have a system for keeping track, if so, what)? What kind of books do you like to read?

    Do you blog about your reading?

    Some years ago, I started a blog. It’s a bit older than this one, but it didn’t find a real focus until after this blog had already been established. The focus became books. At my book blog, I write about books and reading, I review every book I read, and I participate in reading challenges and memes. It has revolutionized the way I read.

    First, I know that my blog has an audience, however small and perhaps irregular it might be, and I feel some compulsion to update with new material. I am reading more now than I ever have. The first year I blogged regularly about books, I think I read only 12 or 14 books that year. Last year, for the first time, I read 40. It might not seem like a lot to those of you who read 100+ or regularly devour over 50 books a year, but it was a milestone for me. I don’t mean to imply that it’s all about quantity instead of quality (if it were, I would read only skinny books instead of some of gigantic ones I’ve picked up over the last couple of months). However, I find that the more I read, the more quickly and more deeply I seem to read.

    Reviewing each of my books gives me a record of what I read and what I thought about it right after I finished it. I can turn back and read my initial impressions on finishing each book I’ve read over the last three years or so. I am enjoying this record of my reading life.

    I have also begun trying different ways to read. I have a Kindle, and began subscribing to DailyLit books some years ago (first read was Moby Dick, and I’m not sure I’d have read it otherwise, but I truly enjoyed it; my review is here). One thing I decided to try after some serious book blogging is audio books. Now I often have a book going in the car on my commutes, one in DailyLit, one paper book, and one e-book. I never used to juggle more than one book at a time, but I find that I can do so much more easily now than I used to be able to.

    Another fun part of book blogging for me is the reading challenges. They vary in subject and theme. I decided to host my first reading challenge this year, and I am participating in many others. I find that they honestly remind me to try reading different things (although at the moment I’m on a huge historical fiction kick—always a favorite with me).

    If Goodreads or Shelfari had existed when I started my book blog, would I have started one at all, or would I have used those networks to share reviews? I don’t know. I do have more freedom to completely customize my blog in ways that I can’t customize Shelfari or Goodreads, though I use both networks.

    Ultimately, as this blog has made me more reflective of my teaching practices, my book blog has made me more reflective of my reading, which can only be a good thing—at least in my book (sorry; couldn’t resist).
    Creative Commons License photo credit: Ozyman

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    Your Favorite Teacher

    Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September 1950, teacher at deskTell me about your favorite teacher.

    What role did your favorite teacher have in your own decision to become a teacher? In choosing the grade level or subject matter you teach?

    What made your favorite teacher special? Why was he/she your favorite?

    In what ways are you like or do you try to be like your favorite teacher?

    Creative Commons License photo credit: George Eastman House

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    What I’ve “Drawn” Up

    CreativityIn a previous post, I discussed some trouble I had teaching a lesson, and basically, it all hinged on the vocabulary my students had. One mistake I made, I think, was assuming I needed to get in the middle of the learning. When my other class reads “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” today, they are going to use a remixed version of Joe Scotese’s group work lesson on the poem. Changes I made to the lesson:

    • I took out references to the Milton poem and “The Rape of the Lock.” (Essentially removed questions 1-3 on Joe’s lesson).
    • I tweaked the other questions
      • I removed references to Uncle Remus, Song of the South, etc. from question 4.4.
      • I added the word “pastoral” to terms to look up and discuss along with the image of The Shepherdess by Jean Honoré Fragonard (which I put on the back of my revised questions).
      • I removed question 4.9 because I removed the Pope excerpt.
      • I altered question 4.17 to remove reference to Uncle Remus.

    Joe’s work is copyrighted, rather than licensed under a Creative Commons license, but you are free to join his site and download the lesson. I am not able to publish my altered version because I respect Joe’s wishes regarding the publication of his work.

    One critical component of Joe’s work is that in the groups, students read the poem and do not go on until they understand what is being said. I think students might need to read with dictionaries in hand, and I will be able to facilitate as they discuss in groups, but putting more of the work on them and making them more active is a positive change. I’ll leave a comment here after the lesson and let you know how it went.

    I have also recently come upon Dawn Hogue’s text for Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (PDF). Dawn has created a great text that invites students to annotate and think about the story. A lot of the fat literature anthologies don’t include this story, and I like it better than some of the more commonly anthologized stories, so I am grateful to Dawn for sharing.

    I was also pleased to discover Romantic Circles as I prepare to teach Romanticism in British Lit. and Comp. Romantic circles has electronic texts, audio, literary criticism, and teaching ideas.

    On an unrelated note, I discovered that my Diigo account wasn’t updating with a links post each Sunday, and I have fixed the problem. My Diigo links should now publish each Sunday for those of you who follow the RSS feed and don’t see them in the sidebar to the left.

    Creative Commons License photo credit: Mark van Laere

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    Back to the Drawing Board

    Tapping a PencilMy lesson on Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” bombed pretty spectacularly today. Well, that might be a bit hyperbolic. Surely the time of day, and few classroom irregularities also bear some blame.

    I began the lesson by telling students I was going to tell them a story. In Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain, there is a fantastic story about General James Wolfe’s capture of Quebec in the French and Indian War. Things were going badly for the English and Americans. The French wouldn’t budge out of Montreal, and the only way to get to them was up a steep cliff. To top it off, Wolfe had consumption and was so sick at one point he could barely lift his head. He tried to give orders, but all the English attempts to engage the French were failures. Summer was passing quickly, and before long, fall would come, freezing over the St. Lawrence, and making an attack unfeasible until the spring thaw. Suddenly Wolfe’s consumption went into remission, and he hatched a crazy plan. He had seen a little inlet and wondered if he could get his troops up the cliff. From the text:

    At dead of night, Wolfe led the the 5,000 British and American soldiers with blackened faces silently downriver in rowing boats till they were opposite the Heights of Abraham. As he was borne along the treacherous river whose rocks and shoals made it a hazard to all but Quebeçois, Wolfe softly read out his favourite poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray, published only a few years before, a copy of which his fiancée had just sent out to him from England. His thin face, touched by moonlight, seemed to wear a beatific expression as he murmured the sonorous words whose Romantic, melancholic spirit echoed his own. As the mysterious cliffs loomed up ahead and the men rested on their muffled oars, Wolfe closed the book. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I had rather have written that poem than take Quebec.’ But then he leaped overboard, into the swirling St Lawrence, and ran ahead of them until his was only one of the many tiny figures on the vast cliff face pulling themselves up by ropes.

    When dawn rose over Quebec Montcalm [the French commander] awoke to see on the plain behind him, above the cliffs said to be unclimbable, row after row of British redcoats. They were in battle array and far outnumbered the French, whose sentries’ mangled bodies bestrewed the cliffs or floated in the river below. It was a breathtaking, almost impossible, feat, to have put thousands of men on top of a cliff overnight, but Wolfe had done it.

    Wolfe died of wounds received in the battle, but his attack was successful, and the English captured Quebec. And yet he says he would rather have written Gray’s poem. After telling my students this story, I asked them to close their eyes and try to picture the images as I read the poem. That was a mistake. It’s about 128 lines long, which is bearable, but longer than their attention spans for sure. Second, they did not have the vocabulary to picture the images in the poem. After I read the poem, the students journaled, and that was where I lost them. They didn’t know what to write, and they knew they had trouble comprehending the language, so they felt a little lost. That was when I realized my mistake. We read it a second time, and I redeemed myself a bit. If I were to do the activity again, I wouldn’t read the poem aloud. Instead, we would read it together or I would split them in groups to read and annotate. I might even have had them read the poem for homework and define all the words they didn’t understand as they read.

    My thinking with the read-aloud is that the poem has such strong imagery that I thought listening would lead my students to a stronger understanding of the images used in the poem. I had always intended to read the poem twice, but the first time through was a bit of a waste of our time.

    Back to the drawing board!

    Do you teach this poem in your class? How do you tackle the vocabulary?

    Creative Commons License photo credit: Rennett Stowe

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