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Friday, July 31, 2020

Learning Pods: Types, Design, Teaching and Assessment Strategies, Standards, Motivation

“Learning pods” are springing up around the country in response to the perceived inadequacies of distance learning during the pandemic.  Parents, subject matter experts, learning content providers, and assessment specialists are joining forces in order to assure the best and safest possible educational solutions that align with their individual State standards. 

There are different types of “learning pods” or “micro schools.”

Interview with Susan Nash, Ph.D. regarding Learning Pods and opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way.

Outdoor school with one rotating parent

At least five families get together with their children and they meet outdoors. in backyards or in parks  They try to team with students in the same school and the same grade.  So, there may be five families, with children ranging from 2nd to 6th grade.  The parents take turns, and each parent commits to one day per week.  It reminds me of Cub Scouts or Blue Birds.  The great advantages are the low cost (each parent volunteers), the fact it’s outdoors (which works in California, but perhaps not in Vermont). The downsides are the lack of subject matter expertise on the part of the parent, and the fact that everything will have to be done with books. I do not see where the parents will be able to deliver the actual lessons or course content in an engaging way.  If each student has a telephone or tablet with earbuds, that could work, assuming there is connectivity and a good data plan for streaming.


Here’s an example of a group in San Diego that is planning the outdoor pod approach:


Neighborhood homeschooling pods

It’s not quite clear if the parents rotate or if they  arrange for one or two parents to make sure that the homeschool-based micro school is working. The difference between this and the outdoor school is that the course content and materials could be from a homeschool group, which means that they are not tied to the local school district. Parents are opting for neighborhood homeschooling in the case of feeling nervous about sending the child back to school for face-to-face instruction.


Some districts are giving students an option, which means that teachers are going to be either teaching face to face or online, either of which could lead to a bit of teacher burnout.


There are concerns about education equity, as this new article points out:


Tutor-led homeschooling

Higher income families are arranging for learning pods that are taught by private tutors who are generally teachers who have taught for private schools. They use standard materials that align with State standards, but supplement with subject matter experts. There is a focus on higher-level tech skills and the parents are investing not only in the instructors, but also in computers, equipment, and enrichment activities.  New companies are springing up and tutoring services are modifying their offerings in order to meet these new needs.


Tutoring for at-risk students paid for by the school districts or grants

Some school districts have a budget for tutors to help at-risk students.  The students could be in hybrid learning settings, or in a situation where they could come to an outdoor area in the school for a few hours to supplement their distance education.


Content Aligned to Standards

It is critical to make sure that the instructional materials and the instructional strategy will make sure the students advance and meet learning goals and competencies.


Each state has standards and learning objectives, along with a test that students must pass.


Here’s an example of Oklahoma’s Academic Standards:


The instructional content that the learning pod uses should align with the standards. The sources of the instructional material could be the school district itself, a homeschooling program, or content developed specifically for the purpose.  It is always a good idea to supplement the content with real-world applications and practice in order to help the students engage in active learning.


Preparing to Teach in a Learning Pod

Parents and enthusiastic subject matter experts may find themselves ill-equipped to provide positive learning experiences for their students. They have the best intentions, but find themselves feeling frustrated when the students do not make the kind of progress they expect.  There is also the looming specter of high-stakes testing at the end of the term. If the learning pod leader has not taken into account the need for a good instructional strategy which includes effective scaffolding, the consequences for the student could be nothing short of catastrophic.


1.  Identify the subject matter you will teach. For example, it might be Science.

2.  Download the State Standards and study them.

3.  Assemble your course materials and make sure they align with the State Standards

4.  Start a spreadsheet that aligns each State Standard with the instructional material that you have.

5.   Identify gaps, and create course content.

6.  Make sure that the sequence is in ascending order.

7.  Review the assessments and make sure that there are the following:

    a. practice exercises that provide the right answer
    b.  good alignment with the State Standards
    c.  “chunked” in knowledge blocks that are sufficiently granular to be easily mastered
    d.  appropriate sequence so that the lessons build on each other and tie to the end
    e.  a Final Exam that aligns with the course objectives and the instructional content (including the practice reviews, quizzes, and activities)


Common errors of the well-meaning Learning Pod teacher

There are a number of errors that occur in instruction. In some cases, it does not matter because the real-world consequences of not learning how to knit well, teach a dog to sit, or paint a sunset are not too serious.  However, the failure to read, write, do math, and think critically and creatively, will seriously harm a child’s future.


1.  Failure to cover the material in a way that is comprehended by the students.

2.  Lack of student engagement

3.  Lack of collaborative learning

4.  Focus on the “fun” content to the exclusion of the fundamentals

5.  Lack of application for the real world – putting the knowledge to work

6.  Lack of practice with the quizzes and exams

7.  Failure to understand how children and adults learn


Learning Pods as a Massive Pandemic Experiment

It is possible that learning pods will emerge as a highly effective method for engaging students and revitalizing education by having more parents, learning pod instructors, and stakeholders who feel a renewed passion for education.  In theory, learning pods are adaptive and adaptable for specific needs, and in that way, could be effective in the way that other forms are not. 


Learning pods could supplement our existing teaching strategies in bold, new ways, and create a generation of learners who directly connect learning to exciting futures. The key to success is to make sure that the poor and at-risk are included in learning pods, and that they are anchored to high achievement goals. Learning pods, if done well, could even help bring about education equity and avoid what Jonathan Kozol described in the now classic Savage Inequalities. Published in 1991, Kozol’s analysis of an educational system with structural inequality rings truer than ever, 30 years later. Learning pods could be part of a solution.

More information and Resources? Contact E-Learning Corgi!

E-Learning Corgi has a repository of materials that you can use in your Learning Pod. Do you need a bit of help getting started, or do you need a STEM subject matter expert as a tutor, either via distance or face to face? 

Contact E-Learning Corgi via email - susan at beyondutopia dot com. 





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Monday, July 06, 2020

Easy and Free Screen Recording Programs

Do you need to record a video presentation to upload for a course, training purposes, or participation in a virtual conference? Here are three screen recording programs that have a free version, and are very low-cost. 

Screencast-o-matic ( Screencast-o-matic is a personal favorite. I like it because it is easy to use, and it has a built-in video editor so I’m not having to edit the video in YouTube Studio after I’ve uploaded, or having to use the video-editing software I have on my laptop. Screencast-o-matic enables you to record your presentation in just a part of the screen, and it lets you choose your display size. It also give you the option to save to Screencast-o-matic or to save the video file to then upload to YouTube, or further edit. 

Screencast-o-matic has a free version, but it’s pretty limited.  You are limited to 15 minutes (actually probably a good idea to keep you from rambling too much), and it has a watermark. Unfortunately, with the free version, you do not get any editing tools.  I have signed for the top-of-the line version (the “Premier”) which costs me $4 per month. It comes with a stock photo and video library, which is really useful.  Also, I get their new video editing tools. I’ve never tried them out, and am eager to try!  Having the ability to import videos and mix them in the recording is extremely useful, and you can animate overlays and use a Green Screen filter.  Nice! Hours of fun! 

EZVID (  How easy is EZVID?  If you’re looking for a cloud-based solution, EZVID is not as easy to use as a program like Screencast-o-matic or Zoom.  However, there are some advantages to having your software on premise, rather than in the cloud. 
It’s very easy to use.  Just click “screen capture” and you will instantly record your computer screen. You can also create synthesized speech from a text slide.  You, too, can make a voice synthesized video just like the ones you hate watching on YouTube. Download here:

TechSmith Capture (the tool, formerly known as Jing). You can create create webcam-based and system audio-based recordings for your video. You can output in .mp4. You can upload and share through a Screencast or a TechSmith Knowmia account. You can capture full screen and regional images, and then share them or save them to your local drive. 

There are also simple annotation tools, including an arrow, rectangle, highlighter and a callout with font face and size control. This may sound minor, but it’s actually a very important feature. 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Interview with Lynn Levin: Poet, Writer, Translator, Professor

Lynn Levin is well known for inspiring creativity in students and writers at all levels. Together with Valerie Fox, she has edited the widely adopted Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets.  In addition, she is known for her quirky, engaging writing that encourages new ways of perceiving and thinking.  Now Lynn has a new collection of poems, The Minor Virtues (2020), published by Ragged Sky Press.

Welcome to an informal chat with Lynn.

1. What is your name and your background?
My name is Lynn Levin, and I am a poet, writer, translator, and an adjunct associate professor of English at Drexel University. I teach composition, creative writing, and literature classes. Before I started teaching, I had a career in advertising.

Lynn Levin

2. How would you describe your writing practice?
I love to describe things in my poems. I think that refreshes and enhances life. I write to think through experience and capture quirky insights, many of them comic. I want to surprise and entertain my readers and myself. My view of the world is like a picture hung on a wall, then set awry by the settling of the house or a mild earthquake. I guess that’s the quirky part. And I want to be understood. Too much obscurity masks feeling and makes the reader’s job a chore.

3. Please share the name of your latest publication.
I am fortunate to have two recent publications. I just published my fifth poetry collection, The Minor Virtues (Ragged Sky Press, 2020), and I recently published, with my co-author Valerie Fox, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets, Second Edition (Texture Press, 2019).

4. What is The Minor Virtues about? What are some of the main focal points?
The title section of poems, The Minor Virtues section, begins with celebrations of small everyday practices—among them, fixing broken things and buying produce from the marked-down cart—which, when fancifully contemplated, branch into deeper appreciations of life. The other poems in the book look at life from both serious and comic angles. I include a range of poems in both free and formal verse. Thematically, I like to say that my writing is dark with a funny edge or funny with a dark edge.

5. What inspired you to write The Minor Virtues
I wanted to aim for happier and calmer poems, poems that conveyed a love of life even as some of the poems speak of missteps or losses. Overall, I set out with good cheer in mind.

6. Any closing thoughts?
While it is vital that writers speak out against injustice and wrongdoing, I made the conscious decision in this book to tread lightly around those topics and to focus on appreciations, affection, nostalgia, bemusement, and other milder sensibilities

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Interview with Spencer Striker, History Adventures. Innovators in Education Series

 History can come alive online, especially in a gaming platform that allows the learners to immerse themselves not only in the time, but in the struggle to stay alive. Welcome to an interview with Spencer Striker, who has developed History Adventures, a unique educational that takes learners to the most intense times and places of history.

1. What is your name and your background? 
My name’s Spencer Striker. I’m a Digital Media Design professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. My background is a mixture of digital media production, digital learning design, and entrepreneurship—with an armchair passion for history. I grew up moving around a lot—mostly in New England, but also Los Angeles, San Diego, and Chicago. I was fortunate that I got to travel a lot as a kid because my mom loved to travel. She took us to Australia, Hawaii, and all over Western Europe—and this evoked a wanderlust in me as well as a fascination for different cultures and lived human experience. I finished high school in Chicago, then did my undergrad in History and Radio-TV-Film Production at the University of Texas. After that I tried my hand at writing novels for a while, while living abroad in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Brazil. That was an amazing adventure—but ultimately, I wound up broke in New York City, with some unpublished novels under my arm, and realized, as many people do in their mid-twenties, it was time to play the Get Out of Jail Free card and head to grad school!

After having tried old-school novel writing for a few years, I really missed collaborative media production. Writing novels is a lonely gig! I missed working with cross-disciplinary teams and all the technical/creative challenges of production/design. It was 2005, and I decided that interactive media was the future. I was fortunate to get into the New Media Design and Production Master’s Program at Indiana University. That’s where I really discovered my passion for building digital media projects and working with talented collaborators. At IU, I started a video game media studio called GameZombie TV, and scaled it up. That’s when I first saw how digital production technologies were colliding with entrepreneurial opportunities in totally unforeseen ways—and as we’ve seen over the past 15 years or so, digital media has disrupted how we do just about everything.

2.  How and when did you become interested in online learning?
Eventually, GameZombie TV came to a crossroads. Here was this online media production studio covering the video game industry that we’d built from scratch using the tools and resources available to grad students at Indiana University. We’d won Webbys, covered all the major game conferences, and achieved official partnerships with YouTube and Dailymotion. So at that point, I could try to make the project a professional organization—and achieve “escape velocity” from the university… or I could double-down on the education component of GameZombie TV—whereby this online production studio run by students at Indiana University had become a powerful way for students to learn all the different aspects of modern, team-based digital media production. Since digital learning design was my true passion, I decided to take this other route.

I got the opportunity to co-found the Media Arts and Game Development Program at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, and meanwhile expand the GameZombie project to the new university, introducing it to a whole new cohort of undergrads interested in the intersection of the video game industry and online media production. Driven by my enthusiasm for the project, as well as its momentum, I got into the PhD Program in Digital Media (in the School of Education) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, whereby I began to formally study the field of digital media and learning with some of the top experts in the world, including Kurt Squire, Constance Steinhuehler, Dawnene Hassett, and others. And at the same time that I was studying this cutting-edge field of digital media and learning, I was able to apply theory to practice in my day job as Lecturer/Co-Founder of the MAGD Program at UW-W.

3.  what have been some of your experiences in online learning? 
So I had this wonderfully intense experience in Wisconsin studying Digital Media & Learning at the doctorate level at Madison—while simultaneously working full time as Co-Founder of the MAGD program at Whitewater. Doing all this in combination with continuing to run GameZombie TV: the theory/practice of digital learning really got seared into me. Once I completed my PhD in the Fall of 2012, I wanted to try my hand at industry. I went out to Silicon Valley in January of 2013, and soon after that became Founding Creative Director for a games and learning startup called Galxyz, whereby we used a sci-fi narrative game design system to teach kids the Next Generation Science Standards. We managed to raise about $4 million dollars and build a fantastic little studio in Mountain View, CA. The cross-disciplinary team we assembled of educators, creative writers, animators, and game engineers was truly top-notch. After heading up creative and product for the company for two years, I was enthusiastic to return to academia, as I thought that would be the ideal environment in which to build my idea for a new digital product initiative, History Adventures.

4.  What is History Adventures?  
History Adventures is a tablet-based digital learning product that seeks to inspire curiosity for history by using various creative techniques, including character narratives, animation, 3D, interactive infographics, choose your own adventure, sound design, and original music. The idea is to bring history to life by exploring lived human experience through the lens of five amazing men and women who lived through extraordinary, gripping, and dramatic flashpoints in time.

5.  Why did you develop History Adventures, and what is the overall goal?
I developed History Adventures as a way to defeat this unfortunate notion some students hold that “history is boring.” I think the only reason students think that is because typical formal history education emphasizes all the most boring bits—and all the inherent action, drama, and emotional stakes get buried beneath long lists of kings, queens, facts, and dates. History Adventures foregrounds the power of story through the development of character narratives, intended to pull the reader/user into the emotional stakes of these people’s drama-filled experiences. At the same time, I’m using all the tools and tricks I have from digital entertainment product design, to make the product experience come to life and feel magical and fun.

6.  Please describe two or three History Adventures.
In this newest version of the product, History Adventures, World of Characters, Revolutions & Industrialization, 1750-1900, students will encounter five amazing men and women who have to work out where they stand in this age of dramatic, sweeping change.  In late 18th Century America, one unnamed slave turned spy, Agent 355, decides to risk everything for the cause of revolution and the principle of freedom. On the other side of the world in Australia, Jiemba of the Eora Nation, decides to fight for his traditions against British invaders intent on colonizing his ancestral homeland and trampling on his beliefs.

Half a century later, a Chinese trader, Fei Hong fights a different battle. Hong decides to smuggle British opium from India to China and loses everything as he goes from smuggler, to trafficker and finally addict before being caught. In 1890s Africa, Khari decides to oppose European trade and fight back against the Belgian exploitation of his ancient tribal lands along the Congo River. The Belgian’s murderous regime mercilessly extracts rubber using local labour and Khari refuses to let his tribe suffer any more. Resistance is the only choice. 150 years after Agent 355, a social reformer called Thomas Brown decides to disguise himself as a janitor and expose the truth about the infamous Chicago meat packing district. He uncovers a world of filth, corruption and reckless disdain for human life that leads him to question what the future will bring.

7.  What are your plans for the future?
Having just published the definitive version of History Adventures, World of Characters, Revolutions & Industrialization, 1750-1900, we’ve already begun development on the next product in the digital book series, Empires & Interconnections, 1450-1750. This new product will include enhanced interactive features, 3D designs, motion fx, and animation—as well as six fascinating new characters. A conquistador trekking through the treacherous jungles and mountains of 16th Century Peru, doomed to a dismal end in his quest for glory and riches. A woman in the Medieval court of Tokugawa Japan, trading in secrets and intrigue when the politics couldn’t be more high-stakes or ruthless. A man from Angola sold by Portuguese slave traders to the Jamestown colonists in 1619. A zamindar (tax collector) in Mughal India during the British conquest of the South Asian continent. A young woman of Turkish and Byzantine ancestry living through the traumatic 1453 Siege of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire. And finally, a Spanish alchemist living at the nexus of superstition, science, literacy, and the powerful Catholic Church, experiencing the Inquisition even as the Scientific Revolution is just gaining hold. The big picture goal of History Adventures, World of Characters is to spark enthusiasm for learning about the past… and bring the pages of history to life!

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Instant Online Education Using WhatsApp or WeChat

What do you do if your school is shut down for a week or even longer due to outbreaks of flu, bad weather, or a new virus?  Many schools have not budgeted to put their courses online, and even if they had the funds, many of the online commercial options do not meet the curriculum standards.  On top of that, there is simply no time.

 Further complicating the situation is the fact that many families in some school districts may not have a family computer or online service. Those who do may need the computer for other purposes during the day, particularly if a family member is working remotely from home. In addition, the students may not feel comfortable with a new learning management system, and they may not know how to proceed.

Are there any quick answers? Yes. It builds on the lesson plans and course materials you already have, but makes it possible to hold class and maintain student engagement, instead of simply having a week of homework and independent study.

Here is a bold approach that allows a school to seamlessly move to online education with very little extra cost by using smartphones.  In general, the extra cost would involve having a more robust data plan. It may be necessary to negotiate with the phone service providers to allow more data transfer each month.  If there are many children in a household, it may be necessary to have a family plan with more than one phone.

We would use WhatsApp or WeChat.  I’m selecting those two because they are extremely flexible and it is possible to create groups, use video chat, send group and private messages, share and send files for text, images, and videos.  However, the same could be done with Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting, with just a few adjustments in considering the individual apps and their differences.

Step 1:  Modify daily lesson plans to be structured into lectures, check your knowledge quizzes (fun interactive polling), independent work, and receiving student work.

Step 2:  Review WhatsApp and familiarize yourself with video chat, group chat, photo transfer, and text messaging.

Step 3:  Build your Course Design Plan, which will be your lesson template. It will contain the following:

    Learning Objectives:  Clearly state to your students what they will learn. Use Bloom’s Taxonomy to describe the outcome.  It is best to limit your learning objectives to one or two. Keep in mind that their learning activity and assessments will tie to the learning objectives.

    Lectures:  You will talk to the students via video chat.  Plan for the video lecture to be between 10 and 15 minutes.

    Check Your Knowledge and What Do You Think?: 
At least twice during the lecture, pause for a moment and ask your students to answer a question. They will send in their responses via text message. It can be an opinion (as in What Do You Think?), which could make the topic and lecture more engaging. Stress that class participation is a part of their grade.

    Independent Activity:
  This will be a moment when you’ll ask your students to turn to their books and read a passage.

    Activity Review: 
Doodle Polls are extremely easy to make and they are free. Most people use them for selecting schedules, but you can create multiple choice questions as well.  You can send the URL of your poll to your students via WhatsApp messaging, and when they complete them, you will see their responses in a single document. These are ideal for keeping students engaged, checking their knowledge, and giving them a class participation grade. For graded quizzes, ProProfs is a sophisticated package and also free, although the free version is limited. It takes some time to create the multiple choice questions, so you may not wish to do more than one per week.

   Multiple choice quizzes:  You can use ProProfs or one of the other free quizmaker programs to create graded multiple choice quizzes that your students can do via their phones.  You will be able to see their grades. Ideally, your quizzes will provide feedback that points them to the correct answer and also ties directly to a specific text in the lessons.

   Written Assignments: This is an opportunity for you to ask your students to complete one or two short answer questions and to turn it in via WhatsApp. 
  • Student procedure:  Ask your students to write the answers on a piece of paper and then take a picture and send it to you. Alternatively, they can create a document using an app on their phone, save it, then send it via their phone.  

  • How you provide feedback: You will grade the work and provide feedback by recording a message in WhatsApp and sending it to each student. Your response should not be more than 2 minutes in length.  If you need to write an answer or add diagrams, you can do so on a piece of paper, and then take a photo and send it.

How you record grades:  You can record grades in the way that you normally do so. 

If you teach the same course to several different sections of students, you may wish to record your group video chat in order to save it for anyone who may have missed it due to illness.

For maximum engagement, however, it is important that all the students participate together in the group chat.

Online Classroom Management. 
As you move forward, you may have a few online classroom management challenges.  Here are the main guidelines:
  •     Ask everyone to mute their phones during the lecture.
  •     Do not send messages during the lecture.
  •     Ask for 100% participation in the Check Your Knowledge and What Do You Think?  Sections. Make sure that you emphasize that participation is a part of their grade.
  •     Shut down any possible cyberbullying or cybershaming right away.
  •     Make sure that your recorded responses are succinct and positive.
  •     When your students complete their graded multiple choice quizzes, put some thought into encouraging your students to work in groups.  If you do so, you will increase engagement, collaboration, and facilitate deeper learning.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Audience Analysis: Important for All Messages from Social Media to Technical White Paper

Before you write, during the writing and revision process, the key to an effective document, presentation, or message is understanding your audience.

Who is your audience?  Who, specifically, are they?
As you prepare to write, you need to have a good idea of your audience.  This will probably involve more than one stage of contemplation.  Of course, you know who your primary audience is likely to be, particularly if it is an instructor or an editor.  But who are the secondary audiences likely to be?  Why?

Demographics of the audience
As you define your audience, you need to have an idea of their basic characteristics.  Where do they live?  What gender are they? How old are they?  What is their income level?  What is their education level?  What are the demographics that specifically apply to your topic?  That will influence the questions you ask yourself as you try to obtain an accurate idea of the dominant characteristics of your audience.  For example, if your paper is on gun control, it is useful to know if your audience is likely to be comprised of gun owners, or members of the NRA.

How will they receive your message?  What is the medium?  Printed or written discourse?  Internet?  Graphics?  Film?  Television?
The medium of the message has a definite impact on audience impact.  For example, if they read your article in a newspaper, they will respond to it in a different manner than if they read it on typed pages.  If your message is on the Internet, you need to keep in mind such factors as design, color, accessibility, loading speed, etc.  If your message includes graphics, how are they printed on the page?  In color? Black and white?  If the medium is film or television, what are the production values?  What are other factors, such as music, set design, mise-en-scene, direction, camera angles, etc.?  All these are non-narrative elements that have an impact on your audience because each element carries with it meaning.  The mind makes meaning from each of the elements, and, like it or not, it will impact the spoken or written part of the discursive package.

What are the core values of your audience?  How can you affirm those while making your point?
What are the core values of your audience?
  Of course, you will probably never know all of them, but if you understand a bit about the religious, ethnic, group, and/or demographic background of your audience, you may have a fairly good idea about how the audience members respond to certain issues.  What do they believe is the appropriate role of government and the state?  Is the human being inherently good, bad, or neutral?  Is the human psyche malleable or rigidly programmed?  The key is to identify the core values that pertain to your primary thesis and the topics in your paper.  If you affirm your audience's core beliefs, you can help convince your audience of your credibility and they will be more likely to pay attention.

When do the attitudes and values of your audience shift?  This is a key opportunity, but why?  What are your audience's situational attitudes?
This is an often overlooked and underestimated element in audience analysis.  And yet, it is precisely this area that holds the most promise because these are the points where you may actually be able to wield influence.  When the attitudes and values of your audience begin to shift due to a changing situation, or a different speaker, then you know you have an opportunity to create a more effective argument, and one which actually has a chance of working.  This is not to be overlooked.

Why will your audience read your document?  What's in it for them?

In constructing your paper, you need to keep in mind that your audience is not likely to read past the first line unless they perceive that there is some benefit or utility in continuing to read.  With that in mind, you need to structure your paper so that you "positively program or condition" your audience by making the paper readable, relevant, reliable, and rewarding.

What are audience expectations?  Narrative expectations?  Generic expectations?
Because of the nature of narrative and form, your audience will begin to develop the expectation that your paper will follow along these lines.  You must analyze your paper very carefully and decide what basic narrative form it is following. If it is a story, is it a Cinderella story?  Romeo and Juliet?  A revenge story?  If it is a report, is it a sales pitch?  An expose?  A recommendation?  A informational review?  Does it take a position and argue a point?  Generic expectations have to do with the genre or type of paper that it is. If it is a paper that takes a position, you would hardly expect it to read like an instruction manual.  Thus, you need to keep in mind how your audience will typecast your paper and just accordingly.

What are your audience's preconceptions about your topic?  The "major players" in your topic?
Is your audience likely to have preconceptions about your audience?  If they do, you need to address them.  If you do not acknowledge the preconceptions, your audience will think that you are not very well informed.  In addition, it is important to determine who the "major players" are and that they manifest themselves as subtopics, statistics, case studies, images, or individual characters.

Who do you consider yourself to be? 
Who are you, and, more importantly, where are you in relation to your audience?  What are the power hierarchies?  Who and where is the "Other" in relation to you and your audience, and how does it change the way they approach you, each other, the text?
As you read your paper, think about how you would respond to your audience if you were meeting them face-to-face, then explaining the topic to them.  How do you envision them assessing you?  Your response to this is a key indicator of how you perceive yourself, and whether or not you believe yourself to be speaking to a group of peers, or to a group of individuals or an individual with more or significantly less power than you.  It's absolutely indicative of the post-colonial (and post-feminist, if one discusses the phenomenology of oppression) mindset, and it indicates how you know your own reality, and how you prioritize your perceptions.  If you can manage to think in an "Other"-centric way, you will have achieved what Kenneth Burke referred to as "consubstantiality," or the ability to "get under the skin" of your audience.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Using Statistics to Support Your Research

Statistics can provide excellent evidence for your paper.  However, unless they are used appropriately, they can undermine your argument and can even be destructive. In addition, it’s easy to reinforce cognitive biases with cherry-picked statistics without realizing what you’re doing.  The coupling of cognitive bias with flawed statistics was explored by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and was part of their Nobel prize-winning findings. 

Here are a few guidelines for using statistics in your paper.

The key is to be aware of how statistical reasoning occurs and where it might be faulty.  Faulty statistical reasoning can be harmful.  It can lead to causal relationships or conclusions that are unwarranted, inaccurate, or deceptive.  Even if the presentation of the statistics is compelling, and even if the source seems to be reliable, they can be inaccurate. As you analyze, keep in mind when / how you might be making errors when analyzing data.

The Manipulated and "Sanitized" Statistic.  Numbers can be manipulated to make the facts seem to conform to one’s agenda.  For example, the College Board manipulated the SAT scores in 996 and it made it appear that math and verbal scores improved, when in reality, the performance was about scene.

Needlessly precise and hard to read:  need to put it in a form that it is easier to decipher and compare.

The Meaningless Statistic.  Exact numbers can be used to quantify something so inexact, vaguely defined, or difficult to count that it could only be approximated.  The exact number looks impressive, but it can hide the fact that certain subjects (domestic abuse, eating habits, use of narcotics, shopping, sexual preference) cannot be quantified exactly because respondents don't always tell the truth, because of denial, embarrassment, or merely guessing. Or they respond in ways they think the researcher expects.

The Vagueness of the Average.  The mean, median, and mode are three measures of central tendency (the intermediate, or middle, value in a set of numbers) can be used in inconsistent and inappropriate way in order to make .

How to say it’s the average:  The core of the problem comes from the fact that there are ways of reporting "average" - mean, median, mode

Unethical uses of "averages”.  people can tend to use the average that serves their purposes

The Distorted Percentage Figure.  Percentages are often reported without explanation of the original numbers used in the calculation.  Another fallacy in reporting percentages occurs when the margin of error is ignored.  This is the margin within which the true figure lies, based on estimated sampling errors in a survey.

False Ranking.  This happens when items are compared on the basis of poorly-defined criteria.  Unless we know how the ranked items were chosen and how they were compared (the criteria), a ranking can produce a scientific-seeming number based on a completely unscientific methods.

Drawbacks of Data Mining.  Many highly publicized correlations are the product of data-mining.  In this process, a software program searches databases and randomly compares one set of variables (say, buying habits) with another set.  From these countless comparisons, certain relationships, or associations, are revealed (perhaps between green tea frappucino drinking and pancreatic cancer risk).  At one retail company, a correlation between diaper sales and beer sales, presumably because young fathers go out at night to buy diapers.  The retailer then displayed the diapers next to the beer and reportedly sold more of both.

The Biased Meta-Analysis.  In a meta-analysis, researchers look at a whole range of studies that have been done on one topic (say, the role of high-fat diets to cancer risk).  The purpose of this "study of studies" is to decide on the overall meaning suggested by these collected findings. 
These are just a few of the many areas of bias in the use of statistics. With new algorithms being developed and the quest for meaningful pattern recognition in machine learning and deep learning, it’s important to recognize that bias can creep in at any point, especially if you have a predetermined idea about the result, or have a vested interest.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Sunshine Cleaning (2008): Sisters and Entrepreneurship

The independent, low-budget film, Sunshine Cleaning, (Dir. Christine Jeffs, 2008), was well received at film festivals and by critics. It received six non-winning nominations and two winning nominations for film awards. The film won “Outstanding Achievement in Casting – Low Budget Feature – Drama/Comedy) and also Women Film Critics Circle Awards “Best Woman Storyteller.”  The film’s budget was capped at $5 million. The box office proceeds came in at $17.3 million, which does not include Internet / app distribution.

Megan Holley

Cast (partial listing):

Rose (Amy Adams)
Norah (Emily Blunt)
Joe (Alan Arkin)
Oscar (Jason Spevack)
Mac (Steve Zahn)


After deciding her gifted by quirky young son should attend private school rather than continue to be bullied, Rose Lorkowski, a mom who has been employed with a maid service provider, discovers that crime scene and biohazard cleanup pays many times more than her current job. So, with the help of her free-spirited but unreliable younger sister and baby-sitting support from her hapless entrepreneur father, she launches Sunshine Cleaning. The first few jobs are a bit overwhelming, especially since the two sisters know absolutely nothing about hazardous materials, bloodborne pathogens, or personal protective equipment. They persevere, however, and start to build the business.  As they clean up the aftermath of accidental deaths, accidents, criminal acts, and suicides, the sisters start to confront some of the darker issues of their own lives, including the suicide of their own mother, the erratic parenting of their father, and the tendency to become involved in relationships that have no hope of a positive outcome.


Set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the light has that clear, yellow-gold clarity of northern New Mexico mountains, that contrasts with a clear blue sky and a chaparral / desert pavement ground. It’s earthy and realistic, lending the film a sense of authenticity.

What I like about the movie is the entrepreneurial spirit in a time of desperate challenges; the financial collapse of 2008 is not explicitly mentioned, but its presence is palpable. The uneasy relationship between two sisters and their well-intentioned but hapless father is also very touching. The sisters, through sheer force of will (and love for family), overcome the sickening nature of the crime scenes and bio-hazard zones.

In doing so, they are able to see the murky shapes in the recesses of their conscious minds, and to let the undifferentiated masses of emotions long suppressed come to the surface and untangle themselves.

Through the contact with death, many times due to the suicide of someone, the suicide of their mother emerges.  They come to realize that many of the patterns and behaviors they’ve had over the years have been in response to that traumatic loss.

And, as time goes on, they courageously face the memories and the feelings, they start on the tough work of cleaning up the ultimate bio-hazard zone, grief and loss.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Self-Knowledge and the Enchanted Road Trip in Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)

When Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001) was first released, there were a few problems due the number of scenes featuring sex and smoking marijuana, both of which obscured the fact that this is, at its heart, a road trip movie. The road trip is, for two teen-age friends, a coming of age experience, while it is, for the older woman who befriends them, a kind of dying wish. In both cases, it’s an end of innocence for all involved, and as such, the movie plunges the viewer into the heart of a kind of innocence of experience that triggers deep emotions.

 In just a few words, the plot involves the final summer before college when two best friends, Julio and Tenoch, spend time with an older woman, Luisa, who is the wife of Tenoch’s cousin, while their girlfriends are out of town. Triggered by the news that her breast cancer is in an inoperable late stage and that her husband has cheated on her, Luisa agrees to travel with Julio and Tenoch across rural Mexico to the mythical (which turns out to be real) beach town of Boca del Cielo.

 What they experience along the way transforms them in many ways: stories told about their experiences, narratives that shape their perception, the narratives built into the places they visit (sites of terrible accidents, political contexts and events, economic migrations) and in the traditions they observe and experience (the traditional Mexican food, the beautiful Mexican coast, the desert, the winding roads through the mountains). With the voice-over and a documentary hand-held camera style of filming, the people seem uniquely rich and textured, engenders both nostalgia and a sense of the sublime.    


On the surface, this is a road trip movie featuring two male teenagers and a female acquaintance, who decide, on a whim, to drive from Mexico City to the Pacific coast. Also, on the surface, it’s about the way that Mexicans live, starting with privilege and entitlement (a politician and his family, with elaborate weddings and memberships at an exclusive country club), then traveling into the twists and turns of the road as it bends through mountains, deserts, coasts, pueblos.

The stories, misunderstandings, sexual tensions, and appetites enveloped into the history of the places they travel through, and the food, drink, hotels, sand, surf, churches, albarrotes (small family-owned stores), restaurants, cantinas, which give it an indelible imprint of Mexico, not only of its appearance, but more importantly, the heart and soul of the people. The plot is relatively simple: Julio and Tenoch are trying to find the best way to make it through the summer while their girlfriends are traveling in Europe before they change their lives and start studying at the university. Julio and Tenoch are innocent creatures of pure appetite: they eat, they drink.

They happen to meet Luisa, the wife of Julio’s cousin, Jano. They banter a bit about places they’ve been.  Tenoch and Julio invent a beach place, “Boca del Cielo” and claim it’s the most beautiful beach in the world and that they’re planning to visit it. That seems to be the end of it, until the next day when Luisa calls them and asks if they’re still planning to go.  In their eagerness to say “yes,” they do not inquire why she is interested. They do not know (although the viewer does), that Luisa’s husband, Jano, called and confessed he was unfaithful to her. They also do not know that she was just informed that she has Stage 4 cancer.

We as viewers know that she is in a hyper-real state of being, intensely aware of life and every precious moment of it. Because the viewer has inside knowledge, the road trip is fascinating, and the squabbles, misunderstandings, and intemperance are all framed in a larger panorama of life, death, coming-of-age, and endings. And, even as Julio and Tenoch open-heartedly try to sample all possible carnal indulgences, we know that they do so because when this road trip is over, they will have matured and will no longer have the same adolescent mindset. We also know that when this road trip is over, Luisa will be facing the very end, and so this “last hurrah” is even more poignant.  Like most road trip movies, traveling way from the stifling, congested, corrupt city represents a move toward nature and freedom. It also means a journey another state of mind or state of being.

The road trip itself is a punctuated narrative: Julio and Tenoch share stories and then question each other about their sexual exploits; the towns they pass bring up memories and historical facts, which are narrated to us by the omniscient voice-over narrator, and finally, the mise-en-scene is stunning inasmuch as the Mexican landscape and small pueblo-scapes become a character in an of themselves.  As they drive, they share stories about themselves and discuss their sexual transgressions. Julio and Tenoch try to outdo each other, confessing that they’ve slept with each other’s girlfriends, and Julio even claims to have had sex with Tenoch’s mother, but it’s not clear if this is even true. That night, Tenoch, upset with Julio, leaves his room and passes Julia.  Julia, tearful, has just spoken with her husband, Jano, and explained why she left him. She seduces Tenoch, and they have sex. The sexual rivalries trigger heated arguments, and Luisa threatens to leave. 

The main action of the film has to do with the road trip to the Boca del Cielo (which turns out to actually exist), and the intense experiences along the way, which include camping on the beach, the ocean, and a final scene of seduction in which Luisa dances with both, then stimulates both Julio and Tenoch at the same time.  This is a turning point; and the line that Julio and Tenoch crossed with each other is something they do not want to face. Luisa stayed at the ocean to continue exploring beaches and coves, while Julio and Tenoch return, uneventfully, to Mexico City. After they return, they do not see each other for more than a year, and when they do, it is the last time. They have changed; the events of the road trip matured them, perhaps even frightened them as they faced an abyss they feared. Tenoch tells Julio that Luisa died a few months after they left her at the beach; she lived her final days to the fullest.

The true story has to do with how the viewer gains insight into the shaping of identity and the depth and richness of the characters who, even though they may seem to be involved in rather simplistic activities, are participating in traditions and beliefs that date back to even pre-Hispanic times. Mexican independence, clashes, civil war, conflicts, along with the traditions of church, traditional dances, town patron saint festival days, weddings, funerals, and traditions of food and drink interweave. The technique is very realistic; the viewer feels the dust on the road, hears the music, almost perceives the smells and tastes. By the end, we see Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa as complex, multi-dimensional individuals. There is a deep sense of nostalgia and the week-long trip has the feeling of a dream or a life-changing memory.

Notable techniques:

Voiceover Narration:  The voice-over tells the back-story and also tells the overall significance and meaning of the actions, many of which may seem trivial, but turn out to be formative and as such, deeply moving. For example, as they pass by a village around a curve, and see two wooden crosses, the voice explains that if Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa  had passed by here several years before, they would have seen a woman weeping hysterically at the death of her two children.

Documentary-style handheld camera:
  The point of view of the camera and the movement give the film a documentary feel, and emphasize realism. The handheld camera creates a sense of authenticity.  The angles are often at eye level and shot from, for example, the back seat of a car, which generates immediacy and intimacy.

Innocence vs. Experience: While Julio and Tenoch consider themselves experienced, inasmuch as they do everything possible to satisfy their appetites. Nevertheless, the progress of the film shows them to be very innocent in terms of the world, of who they are, and the relationship between confusing and conflicting desires and what it means to be human and alive.

Sexuality:  Julio and Tenoch are sexual beings, and in their youth, they have healthy appetites. In fact, much of their time seems to be dedicated to the quest of satisfaction. For example, Julio and Tenoch have access to the country club on Mondays, when it is closed to patrons.  In one memorable scene, they swim in the pool and then, jump out, lie on the diving boards and stimulate themselves as they discuss different girls they know. 

Coming of Age:  The road trip leads to deeper self-knowledge and encounters with darker truths about themselves that made them reflect on their own sense of identity, and also their overall place in their society.  After Boca del Cielo, it was no longer possible to live in adolescent bliss where the chief concern is the satisfaction of appetites and living completely in the moment.

There is a tremendous difference between love and sex, and for that matter, there is a huge difference between fraternal love and carnal love; when the two intersect, confusion occurs.

Loyalty:   Julio and Tenoch are loyal friends, and are very close, tight friends, but the road trip breaks their friendship apart. They find that their bonds were rather fragile, after all. But, on a deeper level, they are loyal to what it means to be Mexican; the family values, the ties to traditions (Pre-Conquest as well as Colonial), and ties to the Mexican volcanoes, desert, mountains, and beaches.


Julio: Friend of Tenoch whose parents were relatively wealthy, which gave him privilege but not as much as Tenoch. He lives in Mexico City during a time of tremendous political unrest, and the rural population is involved in uprisings.  Julio, however, is relatively uninterested in politics or the economy. As an adolescent male, Julio is most concerned with satisfying his appetites and joking around with his best friend.

Tenoch: Son of a prominent and very wealthy politician. His life is of privilege, to which he is largely oblivious except for being aware that he has to behave properly in public (which inspires him to rebel). He attends the weddings and other politically-motivated spectacles of his father, and he interacts with his extended family without ever understanding or becoming conscious of the fact that there is dramatic income and social inequality even in his own family.

Luisa:  Luisa is of Spanish descent, and she speaks with a Spanish / Castillian accent. This sets her apart and gives her the impression that she is of high social status. The reality is that she has a very low level of education, due to the loss of her parents at a young age, and her relatively impoverished childhood.  Thus, she has a sense of inferiority, as well as an ongoing sense of loss and grief, not only for the loss of her parents, but also her first love, who died in a motorcycle accident. She married Jano, the cousin of a high-ranking politician, but it is not a happy union, and he is constantly correcting her and elevating himself over her.  She finds out in the same day that she has incurable cancer and that her husband has been cheating on her.  The shock is enough to inspire her to go on a very impromptu road trip with two immature yet sweet and well-meaning teenagers.

Character Analysis:

The son of middle class parents, his father disappeared when he was young, and his mother works hard to raise him.  His sister is politically active and leftist, meaning that she is part of a tradition that upheld the rights of the indigenous and rebelled against the often authoritarian rule of the elites, whose influence traces back to the Spanish conquest and privileging of those of Spanish or European descent. He is more or less oblivious to politics, but the road trip and the people, places, and political memory start to awaken him.

Curious:  At first, Julio is remarkably unaware and seemingly indifferent to the world around him. However, he is curious about Luisa, and as he starts to understand her life and her background, he starts to think about many of the political issues that his parents have talked about during his childhood, and that his sister, an activist, is involved in. 

Idealistic:  Julio  has no political leanings, but as time goes on in the movie, he awakens to the demonstrations and protests against social inequality and the dire poverty of the working classes. The omniscient narrator explains what is happening behind the scenes, and what has happened politically, so that the viewer sees just how Julio has almost no choice but to become very idealistic as he matures.

Proud:  He knows that his friends, who are wealthy and from politically connected families, look down on him for being of middle class origins. He feels some resentment toward it, but more than anything he seeks to make his own way in the world, and is relatively free to do so, as opposed to Tenoch, whose family is pressuring him to study economics.

Tenoch is the son of a Harvard-educated economist and the Secretary of State.  Tenoch is short for “Tenochtitlán,” an Aztec city, and was inspired by his father’s sudden burst of nationalism.  Tenoch’s father is corrupt, which is a fact generally accepted by both Julio and Tenoch.  The omniscient narrator voice-over explains that Tenoch’s father will not be the “tall hog at the trough” forever; in the next election, his party will be voted out.

Rebellious:  Tenoch’s father wants him to study economics.  Tenoch wants to study literature and become a writer.   The pressure put on him by his father makes Tenoch rebellious.

Insatiable: Part of Tenoch’s frustration makes him channel his frustration into his appetite for adventure, sex, and drugs. At times he seems insatiable for those, but later we realize that his insatiability is really for living life, and for feeling the depth of intense experiences.  It is here that we see his artistic, writerly spirit.

Entitled:  Tenoch’s father’s position has resulted in a life of privilege and wealth.  Even though he rebels against his father, and is not in agreement with the lifestyle, he is the beneficiary of entitlement, and takes very much for granted the ability to have access to country clubs, travel, expensive equipment.  However, the trip starts to change him.


Luisa’s parents were killed in a car accident when she was ten, and she was raised by an aunt who was an adherent of Generalissimo Franco in Spain.  She wanted to travel, have a career, and study, but she had to stay at home and take care of her aunt in her last years. When her aunt passed way, Luisa studied to become a dental technician. She married Jano, who often mocks here and cheats on her.

Insecure:  Due to her unrealized dreams and the mistreatment of her husband, Luisa is very insecure and quiet.  But, knowing her cancer is late-stage and her husband will never change, Luisa takes risks and embraces life.

Adventurous:  At the end, Luisa embraces life and everything that it symbolizes: nature, ocean, self-acceptance, and sexuality.  She wants to do everything possible to experience life, not intellectually or at a distance, but by means of physical contact.  Thus she seduces and is seduced by both Julio and Tenoch.

Romantic: The director’s hand-held camera shots, many shot from the periphery, give the viewer a voyeuristic feeling, and, combined with the narration of the omnicient voice-over we start seeing Luisa as a romantic; not only in her feelings, but also in the philosophical, Kantian sense of the term, inasmuch as she bases her beliefs and her behavior on her individual perceptions and experiences. Thus, to gain knowledge about life, one must experience it.  And, she does.

Philosophical:  When the three finally do find a place called Boca del Cielo, Luisa runs into the ocean and lets the foam and spray flow over her. Life is to be lived in the present, she says. She dances in the surf, and the cries out to Julio and Tenoch: “Life is like sea-foam -- so give yourself away to the sea!”

Review Questions:

1.    In Mexico City, Julio and Tenoch battle the daily frustrations of traffic jams, accidents, and protests. They also see dirty, poorly designed infrastructure, and examples of human misery, even as they have a chance to spend time in oases such as the country club and expensive homes (paid for through corruption).  What are some of the elements in the film that criticize Mexico’s politicians and ruling elites?

2.    Julio and Tenoch’s friendship dissolves after the road trip, but Cuaron (the director) does not explicitly say why. There are several friendship eroding moments.  What are the implications of each of the following?  Julio and Tenoch have had affairs with one another’s girlfriends; they are from antagonistic social classes; they embrace and kiss each other while Luisa is stimulating them in a sexual encounter.

3.    Why and how is this movie much more than a simple coming-of-age road trip movie? With the hand-held camera, the innovative mise-en-scene with  unusual angles and shots, and the omniscient narrator voiceover, the film is able to establish a sense of authenticity, and also to connect past and present. The repeating motifs of the beach, of water, and of the landscape give one a sense of the beauty and majesty of Mexico, with its rich culture and historical heritage.  Please describe two or three scenes that illustrate how the film is much deeper than a typical coming-of-age film.

4.     How does the director suggest that nostalgia and grief are an essential part of the Mexican identity? Describe the scenes that represent accidents or political tragedies in the past, and also various family histories, such as that of Luisa and that of Chuy’s family.


Acevedo-Muñoz, E. R. (2004). Sex, Class, and Mexico in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también. Film & History (03603695), 34(1), 39–48.

Amaya, H., & Blair, L. S. (2007). Bridges between the Divide: The Female Body in Y tu mamá también and Machuca. Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, 4(1), 47–62

Quintanilla, F. Q. (2014). La Llorona como esfinge subversiva en Y tu mamá también (2002) de Alfonso Cuarón. Chasqui: Revista de Literatura Latinoamericana, 43(1), 132–146. 

“Y Tu Mamá También” Is a Sexual Grenade from Mexico. (2002). Rolling Stone, (893), 138

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