Saturday, March 24, 2012

May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor: Review of The Hunger Games on Screen

Film Review by River

Gary Ross' fourth feature portrays young adult writer Suzanne Collins' vision of the future. But this future does not bring flying cars, super-advanced robots or time travel. Instead it brings The Hunger Games, a horrific celebration of totalitarianism and fear where twenty-four boys and girls between the ages of twelve and eighteen -- from twelve districts -- are brought to a large arena to fight to the death.

Sounds an awful lot like Battle Royale, a 2000 Japanese film with a similar premise. However, in acting, character development, and substance, The Hunger Games exceeds Battle Royale, which was somewhat an underdeveloped bloodbath, albeit a creative one. Although this film pushes the PG-13 rating, it has nowhere near the level of violence as Battle Royale and should be okay for kids over a certain age.

The heart of this story is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who is forced to care for her beloved younger sister Primrose (talented newcomer Willow Shields) when her father gets blown up in a mining explosion and her mother falls into a deep depression. Her back-story bears some similarities to Lawrence's role in the rural thriller Winter's Bone back in 2000, but The Hunger Games is glossier, more action-packed, and goes in a completely different direction.

In this year's Hunger Games, Katniss knows that her sensitive twelve-year-old sister, who due to her age has been placed in the drawing only a few times, statistically has a smaller chance of getting picked. To her horror, however, Primrose is drawn, and Katniss, knowing her sister doesn't stand a chance, volunteers to fight in her place.

After leaving her potential love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and placing Primrose in the questionable care of her mother, Katniss heads by train to the capital, where she is introduced briefly to a luxurious lifestyle before being offered up in the arena like a sheep for the slaughter. The other kid from her district, Peeta Mellark, has harbored a crush on her for many years, which makes the circumstances of the situation even harder.

Jennifer Lawrence is, at twenty-one, five years too old for the role, but her talent shines through, and her Katniss is a character to be appreciated. Her relationship with Peeta moved a little more quickly than I would have liked, as after a crucial plot development they are hanging over each other like lovesick puppy dogs. Their friendship is more ambiguous and conflicted in the book.

The other actors are good, including Stanley Tucci, Amanda Stenberg, and Woody Harrelson as drunken former child contestant Haymitch Abernathy. Tucci, despite not having as juicy a role as he did in The Lovely Bones, is good, and his portrayal of gaudy, grinning talk-show host Caesar Flickerman is a disturbingly on-target depiction of the fakeness and pomp and circumstance of reality TV.

The Muttations were well done. One of my main concerns about the movie adaptation was that they wouldn't be able to translate them onto the screen without their becoming corny, and although they were not as horrifying as they were in the book -- functioning instead as vicious, kinda-cute mastiff-looking creatures -- the special effects people pulled them off.

The Hunger Games is very much worth a ticket to the theater, although I would not recommend it to young or sensitive children. It is exciting, rousing science fiction with a message, and Katniss is a strong character worth rooting for.

Review by River with minor revisions by the blog editor

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Teaching Math: A Bit of a Ramble and What I'm Working on With Eliza

One of the things I love most about learning at home with my eight-year-old, Eliza, is exploring math in ways that -- for me -- are new and different. I have about as much natural mathematical ability as a groundhog -- or maybe it's just that I was mistaught. Or both.

I can't think of any subject that's taught more badly than math. Think about it -- how much time did you spend, during your formative years, being drilled in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division? This form of teaching probably made sense in an era when children scribbled their lessons on slates in a one-room schoolhouse. But today, when you can buy a pocket calculator for the price of a cup of coffee? And when we're told daily that our children will be facing ever-evolving, complex problems that require flexibility and creativity? What's with all the computation drill, people? Mind you, I don't claim to know how math should be taught, only how it shouldn't.

I do "get" the fact that "real" math is about patterns. But in terms of my grasp of what math is really about, I'm like a non-reader with vague sense that there's something to writing beyond constructing a grammatical sentence and knowing how to use a semi-colon. Meanwhile, people are out there reading War and Peace. ;-)

 My first formal experience with math occurred when I was five years old (about to turn six) and had just started first grade. 1972. Students taking to the streets protesting the Vietnam War. Nixon about to be re-elected. Yes, I'm getting old.

I was presented with a colorful workbook and told to complete the first few pages. It looked easy enough. I was shown a set of 4 shapes in one circle and a set of 2 shapes in another circle along with the equation 4+2=___ and asked to fill in the blank. I answered all the questions, unaware that I'd made all my numbers backwards. (This is developmentally normal at that age, by the way.) When I cheerfully turned in my assignment to the student teacher, she told me they were all wrong. "Go back to your seat and see if you can figure out what's wrong with these."

I dutifully went back to my seat, and I tried again and again to work out what I'd done wrong. But I could plainly see that my numbers added up. Either the laws of the universe had been suspended, and 2 and 4 no longer made 6, or my teacher was clinically insane.

No matter. She eventually clued me in to my mistake. And my first grade teacher clued my parents into their mistake in encouraging me to learn at home during my preschool years. I'd learned to read and write, and was having a marvelous time creating my own stories, but was making all my letters backwards and using capital and lowercase letters indiscriminately. Mothers and fathers: that's why you shouldn't try this at home. Best to leave the teaching to the professionals who know what's really important.

I quickly decided that math wasn't worthy of my time. I'd complete my work at the other learning centers, conveniently skipping the math center. My teacher readily solved that problem by threatening to paddle me with a ruler if I didn't do all my assignments. So I did. Thus began a 12-year relationship with schooled math that ended with my flunking algebra in my senior year of high school. I drove by the school, a few days after graduation, to pick up my report card. Each subject had its own slip for recording grades, and on the way home I ... umm ... accidentally rolled down the window and let my algebra grade fly out the window. My young, impressionable brother was riding shotgun, and his moral development was irreparably warped. He's never forgotten it. Ask him. He'll tell you.

I could tell you a lot about how badly I mistaught math to my two younger children, who are now teenagers, probably killing their interest in the subject beyond any hope of resurrection. And I am happy to get on my soap box, at any time, about my oldest child's math experiences in her four years in public school. But I won't go there right now. You're welcome.

However, I am now having a great time exploring math with my youngest. I've completely abandoned all learning standards and expectations and just introduce a topic here and there, following her lead. I've finally figured out that formal teaching of math, at least during the early years*, isn't really necessary anyway. It's in everything: board and card games, video games, cooking, constructive play, art, music, and the natural world around us, like God's fingerprints on our planet. I'm not a fast learner, but I am learning.

As I posted earlier, I recently "formally" introduced Eliza to multiplication through the "Real Estate Game." Yesterday, I decided to give multiplication circles a shot. I'd done this earlier with the older kids.

You start with a circle like this. ( Image lifted from this post on Mathrecreation)

Then you use multiplication facts, or skip-counting if you prefer, to connect the dots, as shown in this video and this blog post. When you get into 2-digit numbers, connect to the second digit. For example:

the 1s: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 ... (connect the dots between 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9, and 0)
the 2s: 2,4,6,8.10,12,14,16, (connect the dots between 2,4,6,8,0 ... then 2,4,6, ... the pattern repeats)

and so forth. If you do this for numbers 1-9, you'll easily see that there is a symmetrical pattern in the shapes created in the circles. (5 makes its own shape, 4 and 6 are the same, 3 and 7 are the same, 2 and 8 are the same, and 1 and 9 are the same.

I love, LOVE this activity, because it doesn't just show how multiplication and skip-counting work -- it illustrates that math has an intrinsic beauty, logic and symmetry. O.K., to a "real math person," this might be amateur hour, but I think it's COOL. ;-) Maybe if I'd been taught this way, my first-grade teacher wouldn't have needed to threaten to hit me with a ruler.

The thing that thrilled me to pieces was the way Eliza took to this activity, stuck with it, and insisted in solving all the math problems herself (through she's never been "taught" how to multiply or learned math facts). Most of the way through, she was devising her own techniques to solve problems, including expanding on what she already knows (e.g. 2 x 7 O.K. ... 2 sixes is 12 ... so (add 2) ... 14!) and using manipulatives:

As I've written before, it's her problem-solving process that fascinates me -- and her perseverance and joy in solving difficult problems! -- not the answers or the specific skills mastered.

As we went along, I encouraged her to notice the shapes we were making and predict what might come next. By the end, she'd worked out the pattern, and was using the shape and pattern to figure out the math facts, not the other way around. (*Happy Dance*) She quickly figured out the "Nines Tables" by looking at the patterns in the circles.

I think this is a great way to introduce math facts -- I don't know whether it is used in schools, but it was new to me when I ran across it on the internet.  

What are some of your favorite ways of learning and teaching basic math concepts through exploring patterns?

*I do make my teens do some "book math" -- they'll tell you I subject them to an onerous amount of grueling work, but I call bullshit on that. :-P

Friday, March 9, 2012

Weekly Wrap-Up and Geology Project

(Click on photo collage to make it larger)

Row 1 (L --> R) 
  • Eliza in the Raw Learning Library
  • Our Rocks & Minerals Learning Center
Row 2 (L-->R)
  • Our Rocks & Minerals Learning Center: The Lab Slips are from Crafty Classroom
  • River and Seamus with the new Playstation Move
  • The film Hunger, which River and I chose for our homeschool studies; she did some related research about Bobby Sands, who died in the 1981 hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, and on "Bloody Sunday" in 1972, which highlights "The Troubles" in Ireland. This tragedy is the subject of the popular U-2 song, "Bloody Sunday." River was disgusted to run across this quote, referring to the deaths of 13 unarmed civilians in the hands of the British Army: "The Widgery Tribunal, held in the immediate aftermath of the event, largely cleared the soldiers and British authorities of blame—Widgery described the soldiers' shooting as "bordering on the reckless." Bordering on the reckless? :-( What does one have to do to cross the line into outright irresponsibility and cruelty?
Row 3 (L --> R)
  • Eliza participated in Team Games and Meditation for Kids at school this week. She made this mandala in the mediation class. The teacher talked about the meanings of various colors in the mandala.
  • Just a filler. I made this graphic for my first-ever homeschooling website in 2003.
  • I pulled this picture off Pinterest. Does anyone know where I can purchase some of this? I could use  a break in that time-out corner.
The week started out with another serendipitous snow day -- Seamus and Eliza spent part of the day, out in the yard, sledding with their dad. By Tuesday, things were back to some version of "normal."

Geology Project

Recently my kids and I had informal "meetings" to talk about what they want to be doing and learning, and Seamus expressed an interest in several science topics, including rocks and minerals.

This week I set up a rocks and minerals learning center on the dining room table (formerly the art journaling center). Just for the record, our dining room table hasn't been used as a place to serve meals since
1998. :-) ) These learning stations were adapted from activities I pinned here and here. Seamus and Eliza explored the learning center, off and on, throughout the week with minimal guidance.

Station 1:

The lab slips are from Crafty Classroom. This set of rocks, along with a nail and streak plate, the balance scale (below) and the poster (below) are new purchases from Rainbow Resources. Collectively, these materials are my favorite resource of the week.

Station #2:

Station #3:

Station #4:

There's a nail and streak plate for testing the hardness of the rock. I put out the vinegar in case anyone wanted to test whether a rock reacts with an acid. Seamus found that the vinegar reacts with calcite.

Station #5

This is the Pinterest board I set up for this unit.

Linking to:

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Homeschool Mother's Journal #20: Erratic, Messy Learning

The Homeschool Mother's Journal

In My Life This Week… I had a setback with my health issues and I've been sleeping a lot.  Oh and the PMS fairy arrived. One of the days I'm going to catch that wench and shoot her ass.

In Our Homeschool This Week…

Documenting Learning ... It's All in the Details

I've been working on being more effective in documenting the kids' learning. I find documentation challenging, because
  1. I'm an erratic homeschooler. The title of the blog says it all. 
  2. For me, it's all about the process rather than the product. For example, I could note that my 8-year-old and I played a game that involved practicing multiplication facts through 6s. Fine, but that doesn't interest me nearly as much as how she did it. Was she enthusiastic and curious about exploring this new concept? How did she approach the problems? Did she work out her own computation methods? How?
During the day, I find myself grabbing the camera to take a lot of snapshots, so I'll remember what I want to put in my notes later. (If I simply jot down notes, I'll lose them faster than you can say "erratic mama.") I end up with a lot of random images like this:

 A messy pile of stuff Eliza and I did Tuesday

 The "Real Estate" Game -- introducing multiplication and area

Quick notes on how she approached novel math problems (e.g. 3 x 6 -- "Let's see ... 3 threes is 9 
... so ... 18!"      5 x 5 -- "2 fives would be 10 ... so 2 tens would be 20 ... (plus 5) ... 25!" 
For me, this is the most fascinating part of the process.

Note about an interesting conversation I overheard ... lots of learning there.

Well ... you get the idea. :-) 

I'm trying to get in the habit of noting these things, every day, using  Homeschool Day Book, which I like because it's very simple and unschool./eccentric/eclectic friendly. It's a tidy way of sorting myriad random acts of learning into academic subjects. Y'know, for when you need those proof of progress reports and transcripts.


Mathy Stuff:

As I mentioned, Eliza and I had fun with "The Real Estate Game" -- click here and scroll down to "Dice in Dice Land Plot Geometry Game."

In addition to devising ways of doing multiplication, which is a fairly new concept for her, Eliza worked out a way of adding a slew of two-digit numbers to figure out who won the game -- i.e. who had claimed the most squares. She's been taught very little math formally. This was a deliberate decision I made after watching what worked, and more importantly what didn't work, with my older kids who were reared more traditionally. Once again, I was delighted at her excitement at approaching a difficult problem, with little or no guidance, and her persistence in working it out!

Now if I could only find a way to rekindle that in my teens. It would probably take a miracle akin to raising Lazarus.

River is still trudging through Algebra I. Seamus hit a roadblock with Key to Fractions. Multiplying fractions is just not clicking with him. He could learn the algorithm, of course, but he needs to really get a concept or it's a  no-go. It's a "right brain" learner kind of thing, and I honor that. I drew all kind of diagrams; I talked him through it. No amount of teaching on my part seemed to be helping. One thing I've learned with him, is that it has to be just the right time to learn something new and he has to learn it his own way. When the time is right, he just gets it. It's a "right brain" learner kind of thing. So I decided to drop the curriculum for now and get him to explore math through patterns, playing strategy games, and such.


Eliza has done lots of French this week. She asked for a Bingo game to help learn the names of animals, and I found it online. See the Forest Animals Bingo and Forest Animals Cards here. I read the words aloud for her as we played, and I find little opportunities to speak French (you know, because I only speak a little French). :-)


River has been very absorbed in watching and reviewing movies this week, and she's talking about applying for an unpaid job as a reviewer for an online film magazine. I am way beyond thrilled at this spark of confidence and motivation, and I am trying to keep my distance for fear I might kill it. ;-) 

As a family, we watched Hugo -- what a wonderful movie! It's basically a celebration of imagination and the art of film.


Seamus and Eliza decided to start reading Story of the World with me, and I am way beyond thrilled. We read about the early nomads and the transition from a nomadic lifestyle to farming. We're planning to make "cave paintings" and I'm going to show the kids this video by John Green on Crash Course:

By the way, I LOVE what John says about "the test." Thank you! :-) I knew I liked that guy.

River and I watched a movie titled Hunger which deals with "The Troubles" in Ireland and Bobby Sands' hunger strike in 1981. I asked her to do some research on "The Troubles" and on Bobby Sands and we talked a little bit about the long, painful history between England an Northern Ireland.

Review of Hunger

 Film Review by River

Consumed with artistic ugliness and teeth-grindingly nasty realism, Hunger is the first film by up-and-coming director Steve McQueen, not to be confused with the The Great Escape man. No. This Steve McQueen is big, black, and British, and knows more about European prisons in the 80's than any man should be comfortable knowing.

The setting is 1981 Ireland, and the film follows Bobby Sands, a real person, as we are told. Bobby is played by Michael Fassbender, who is now acclaimed for playing in McQueen's new NC-17 drama Shame. Fassbender is considered a handsome man by many, and seeing him brought to this sad physical state is disturbing, to say the least.

The real Bobby Sands, an IRA member and Irish Republican, was arrested for keeping handguns in his home, with a history of other suspected crimes. In the movie, we are never told this. He is simply there, participating with the others in a no-wash strike, demanding status as political prisoners and better treatment. His rebellion is quickly and brutally ended when a group of guards drag him, kicking and screaming, and cut his unshaven hair and beard.

Undeterred, Bobby begins to starve himself, but not before a serious talk with one of cinema's only cool priests, Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). What the ol' father's saying is, basically, "don't do it."

Despite the Father's strongly urging him not to proceed, Bobby does, and both he and his counterpart, Fassbender, begin rapidly losing weight. My mother says Fassbender's weight loss took "dedication," and I agree, but it's dedication leaning towards insanity.

Sound unpleasant? It is. Sand's story is linked with the stories of prisoners Davey Gillen and Gerry Campbell (Brian Milligan and Liam McMahon) and prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) who might feel guilt about the whole situation. Or he might not. It's hard to tell, since the film has minimal dialogue. He might just be an unhappy guy.

At first, I found this movie to be a bit of a bore. Bread crumbs falling onto a lap? Why waste a close-up on that? I stand by what I said on that matter. But, just when I thought I'd have to admit my stance to the film snobs of the world and endure their rage, it got better. It was around the time of the brutal rest home scene, which wasn't very restful, and the conversation between Bobby and Father Dominic, which goes on for seventeen minutes, according to Wikipedia, but doesn't get old.

The realism really stands out here. The filth, the feces, the full-frontal male nudity that prudish or fearful American filmmakers try so desperately to hide. Yup, schwangs flop a-freely, but rarely in a titillating way. The acting seems similarly real, as do the little details (radio 'phones up the vagina? That's *one* way to get them to your jailed hubby.)

I did think that Bobby's character seemed a little underdeveloped. He was passionate about his cause, and the ambiguity of that cause was thoroughly explored. But he wasn't fully developed enough for me to fully care about him. My favorite character was the priest, who, in his one short scene, was neither bitter, hypocritical, rapey, or pedophilic, and gave the best impression.

An interesting watch for people who either do or don't know a lot about English-Irish hostilities, Hunger is worth watching through the slower parts, and at 98 minutes, it's short and concise. It pulls no punches, offers no enemies, except maybe Margaret Thatcher, and gives a compelling look into an ugly part of history.

Note- The condition of the penitentiary makes modern American prisoners look like Disneyland, and makes you not only think about basic human rights, but also about foreign state institutions that leave their prisoners in similar conditions. (7/10 stars)

Review by River with minor revisions by the blog editor