When I was newly married and my wife and I were “making” our first home, she was doing most of the making and I was doing most of the homing – partly because I’m a guy dropping the ball and blaming it on being a guy (my guilty conscience wishes to interject here that I do help with laundry, vacuuming, dishes and so on; but, alas, my wife Julie does more than her fair share; God bless her and help me!), but also because of a video game popular at that time, some sixteen years ago, a game which held me in its clutches and sucked the free time right out of me. X-Com: UFO Defense, it was. Many still call it one of the greatest video games of all time. But that is not the point. The point is that I played the game relentlessly, found myself enthralled and addicted, wasted a couple dozen hours per week trying to save fictional people from fictional monstrous invading alien forces, neglected my wife in the process, and finally, none too soon, gave up on the game, realizing with stuporous slowness that one devoted wife is worth more than all of the imaginary universes in the… well, universe. (Notice the theme here: Love Conquers All!)
Technology packs a punch. That’s why, a decade and a half ago, I quit X-Com cold turkey. It’s why several years ago I quit online poker cold turkey. It’s why I have recently given the cold shoulder to Words With Friends. Some games are too good. I know my limits.
Most young people in the developed world these days – including my kids and my students – are constantly faced with the temptation to settle the frontiers of their minds with ever more realistic games, simulations and assorted other time-sucks. Without even attempting to count the cost that this represents to society as a whole – nor perhaps the benefits – I often wonder about the cost that it represents to education. When wired-in children must unplug to learn, to what extent does withdrawal divert focus; to what extent do the imagery and stories of these alternate realities infringe on actual reality, including the ability to think and learn?
These are questions for which I have no answers. And yet occasionally such questions guide the choices I make in my role as a teacher. Regardless of the dangers of addictive technology, there is no disputing technology’s motivational potential. Hence the talk of bringing tech into the classroom. We want our children to know how to function in an economy that requires from most of its productive members a keen facility with tech, yes. But we also want to leverage the allure of tech. “Hey, kids, come on over and try this game/app/gadget.” (And you just might learn something along the way.) Truly, I don’t mean to be flip here. Tech and learning can and do go hand in hand. We educators must attempt to maximize the harvest of the fruits of this marriage.
Which is why I was thrilled when my fellow Literacy teacher Kelly Coleman introduced me to a very cool web site: Xtranormal.com. She showed me a video she had made using the site’s robust online app, a video featuring President Obama and Lady Gaga wittily discussing vocabulary affixes. This gave me an idea. What if I incorporated this video-making site into my Theme Unit? I could have the kids study theme, trace theme through a short story, write scripts in which two characters from the story discuss its Most Significant Theme (first individually; then, in small groups, collaborating to combine the best of each member’s script into one stronger group script), and finally create their own videos from those group scripts.
My students are now in the midst of this project. Soon they will be creating their own videos. I don’t know how these will turn out, but I do believe that the prospect of creating videos, of working with technology, of joining words and sounds and images, motivates the students. I hope that the results will be better writing and higher level learning than we otherwise would have seen.
After giving the lessons in which I examined with the students how to trace theme in Toy Story, I made a video that features two Xtranormal animated characters bearing a slight resemblance to Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Buzz and Woody themselves are not amongst the characters available, so I had to make do. I concocted a story that attempts to make sense of their new looks and that injects humor and drama while allowing Woody to trace the film’s theme and Buzz to both play devil’s advocate and voice of reason.
Here is the video. Immediately following it is its script, in case you’d prefer to view the text.
Woody: Buzz Lightyear! I haven’t seen you in years. What in the world are you doing in this subway car? And what happened to your so-called epic space suit and your “impressive” wingspan?
Buzz: Sheriff Woody! How strange to meet you in such circumstances. Honestly, the subway is usually beneath me. I prefer to fly, as you know. Currently I am piloting this nifty jet engine headgear which enables me to fly, to hover, and to maneuver in tight spots that my old terillium carbonic alloy wing system could not accommodate because of its prodigious size.
Woody: Ha! Ha! Ha! Well, wrap me with a lasso and hang me from a Christmas tree! That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in ages. You say that thing on your head is supposed to make you fly? Here I thought you were breaking in your Princess Leia costume and getting reading for Halloween.
Buzz: Oh, you sad, strange little man. You are trapped in a second-rate suit and you are obviously feeling insecure that children of all ages prefer the pint-size version of yours truly, Buzz Lightyear, loyal member of the Universe Protection Unit of the Space Ranger Core, protecting the galaxy from the threat of invasion of the Evil Emperor Zurg, sworn enemy of the Galactic Alliance – to an outmoded “cowboy” – or sheriff; what-have-you – who now apparently commutes on the Red Line and works a 9-to-5 in a cubicle.
Woody: I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen any sales figures. But clearly any child who prefers you to me does not understand the most significant theme of Toy Story.
Buzz: You mean the theme: “Never give up,” right?
Woody: No, not that one. It is indeed one of many themes in our story, but it is not Toy Story’s most important theme. Really, you must move beyond the notion that every story’s theme is to never give up. Come on!
Buzz: In that case you must mean the theme: “You’ve got a friend in me.”
Woody: That is not a theme. It is a theme song. There’s a difference. Perhaps you mean: “Together we will conquer.” But in that case you are still wrong.
Buzz: “To infinity and beyond,” then?
Woody: That is your catch phrase, Buzz. Do you even know what a theme is?
Buzz: Sure I do. I’m only testing you.
Woody: Good one. A theme, Buzz, is a motif, a recurring idea throughout a work of art. And the most important kind of theme is the author’s message, the life lesson that is typically conveyed through the protagonist’s plot line. That would be my story.
Buzz: Ah, yes. Very good, professor. It’s all so clear to me now.
Woody: Okay, if you need me to explain it to you, I will.
Buzz: Not quite what I was implying, but I see you are determined to pontificate. And anyway it’s a long train ride, so what the heck.
Woody: Right. Since I am the protagonist…
Buzz: And by “you” you mean me. I am the space ranger here, Andy’s new favorite toy. Everybody loves me.
Woody: No, Buzz, I am the protagonist because – ahem – I need to learn the most.
Buzz: That makes you the protagonist?
Woody: Yes, the protagonist is the one whose story we follow, who has the biggest problem to solve.
Buzz: What’s so great about your problem? I am trying to defend the galaxy. What are you trying to do, save a few toys? I think you need a little perspective.
Woody: The audience is not concerned with your problem, so it is not a big problem.
Buzz: Sure they are. Nobody wants to be annihilated by Zurg. The audience cares. They want to live.
Woody: No, Buzz. Everyone knows you are deluded. It’s clear from the beginning that you only think – I repeat, think – incorrectly – that there is a threat from some evil emperor.
Woody: Zurg, yes. But the audience relates to my problem. They’ve had problems like mine before. They understand what I’m going through, and so they care.
Buzz: You still haven’t told me your problem.
Buzz: Me? I am the solution.
Woody: You think you are the solution. To me you are the problem.
Buzz: All I do is help you – and this is the thanks I get?
Woody: I never wanted you around, Buzz. Life was pretty darn good before you showed up. I was Andy’s favorite toy – he scrawled his name on the sole of my boot first, you know – until that fateful day when Andy opened your box at his birthday party.
Buzz: What box?
Woody: The box you came in, the box from the toy company. Um, I mean, uh, your space ship.
Buzz: I see. You are referring to the day that I crash landed upon your uncharted alien planet.
Woody: Yeah, that’s it. Anyway, everyone used to listen to me. I could hold a meeting at a moment’s notice, speak through Mister Spell’s microphone, and bathe in the glow of all my fellow toys’ admiration and respect.
Buzz: Mmm. You speak of your jealousy. Is that it?
Woody: No. Er, yes. I must admit it now; I was jealous. My pride was hurt. I was used to being the top dog, the head honcho, numero uno, king of the bed, leader of the toy box. When you arrived on the scene and Andy was shouting, “And you press his back and he does a karate-chop action!” and Potato Head was griping, “How come you don’t have a laser, Wood-dee?” and Rex was cheering, “You flew magnificently!” and Bo Peep was cooing, “I found my moving buddy!” – well, there’s only so much humble pie a humble lawman can stomach.
Buzz: Understandable. You had good reason to be jealous.
Woody: My pride. That was my character flaw.
Buzz: One of your flaws. You were also…
Woody: Okay, okay. Pride was the greatest of my many character flaws. And because of my pride –
Buzz: Oh, I know this one. Because of your pride you knocked me out of Andy’s bedroom window and I fell into the bushes. And then you and I both became lost toys. And then I was imprisoned in that horrible boy’s sadistic playground.
Woody: Sid’s room.
Buzz: Yes. Sid’s room. I shudder to think of it. And my arm was thrown from its socket. And I became a loony old lady.
Woody: Mrs. Nesbitt.
Buzz: Mrs. Nesbitt. Yes. I shudder to think of that, too. And I was nearly obliterated by a massive explosive device launched into the air by the boy, for nothing more than my demise and his amusement.
Woody: The firework.
Buzz: So you say.
Woody: But I saved you.
Buzz: Thank you for that. And why did you save me, anyway?
Woody: Because I learned my lesson.
Buzz: Which was?
Woody: That I am a toy, just like you are a toy. Remember when I screamed that in your face?
Buzz: You mean when you said, “You! Are! A! Toy! You are a child’s play thing!” Yes, I remember that.
Woody: Mmm-hmm. I was screaming at myself as much as I was screaming at you; I just didn’t know it at the time. Recall that you never realized you were a toy. Literally, you didn’t know it.
Buzz: Are you saying that you actually believe me to be a toy?
Woody: And even though I’ve known all along that I am a toy, literally speaking, obviously, I forgot what that really means: that my job is to serve my boy, Andy. And how can I serve him if I’m not actually physically there for him, if I’m a lost toy?
Buzz: If you’re not there for him, you cannot serve him.
Woody: That is correct. You showed me that. I got us lost. I left us homeless and friendless, till we only had each other. And Sid.
Buzz: Please. I shudder.
Woody: Sorry. Only then did I realize that I had failed Andy. In my own way I had forgotten that I am a toy.
Buzz: What’s your point?
Woody: My point is that I learned this: “True leadership and happiness depend on fulfilling one’s life purpose.” That is the most significant theme of Toy Story.
Buzz: How do you mean?
Woody: I mean there’s no way I’m going to be a good leader or be happy if I forget my role, if I forget what it means to be a toy, if I forget to focus on Andy and him alone. Without that, all is lost. I am then, figuratively if not literally, a lost toy. You showed me that Buzz. And I thank you.
Buzz: You’re welcome. And good timing, my friend – this is my stop.
Woody: Oh, yeah? Brooklyn, huh? Why are you stopping here? Is this where you live now?
Buzz: No, I’m renting a bungalow on Staten Island. Just out and about for a little shopping.
Woody: Shopping for what?
Buzz: A new car. Maybe some linens, too.
Woody: A new car? Sweet. Which car dealership are you going to?
Buzz: To Infiniti.
Woody: To Infiniti. Of course. What else would you drive but an Infiniti. And then?
Buzz: Bed, Bath and Beyond.
Woody: To Infiniti and Bed, Bath and Beyond. Very good. And I’ll ride off into the sunset. Happy trails, my friend.
Buzz: Until next time, may the force be with you, urban cowboy.
If you should ever create an Xtranormal video that you don’t mind sharing, please stop back here and paste its link in the comments section. I’d love to check it out!
And now another Monday is breathing down my neck. When soon I lie in bed waiting for Mr. Sandman to visit me, I might first read from my Kindle, or I might close my eyes and pray or just think, or – if you send me a Song Pop request – I just might slip on my headphones and play a round or two. That insidious app is next on my Cold Turkey List. Still, for now at least, I’m game.
Photo by: kiltedlibrarian