Sunday, May 31, 2015

Promises: An Interview with Director Justine Shapiro

Every year, my class watches the Oscar nominated documentary film, Promises.  (Watch trailer.)

The movie follows 7 Israeli and Palestinian children around, and looks at the conflict through their experiences.  It tells their story.

Last year, my students had the opportunity to interview Sanabel, one of the children from the film.  (Read interview.)

This year, we had the opportunity to be part of a video chat (google hangout) with the internationally acclaimed director of the film, Justine Shapiro.

She gave us some insights to the film Promises, the process of making documentary film in general, as well as thoughts on the on-going Israeli/Palestinian Conflict. She also mentioned the importance of being articulate, the importance of foreign language studies, and why her son was wearing a Mexican soccer jersey in the documentary Our Summer in Tehran.  (Watch trailer.)

Some highlights:

(For language arts teachers)

"...And really, that was the question.  Who's articulate?  Who can express something of themselves, and something of their experience with words.  Because we're making a film, right?  It could be that... I'm sure that all of you - every single one of you - is expressive in your own way.   But when you're making a film, you need kids who are expressive with words..." (12:00)

(For foreign language teachers)

-On the importance of learning a foreign language:

"I think it is probably one of the most important things one could learn." (21:10)

"...It was only when I decided, okay.  I'm gonna take a French class.  I'm gonna make myself read a half an hour a day.  And I'm gonna make myself TALK.  I'm gonna talk to people.  I'm gonna make a lot of mistakes.  They're gonna be mean to me.  But I'm gonna talk.  And I did.  And that's when I started learning French.  And then...  I'd say my French is fantastic now, because I got so much foundation in school - even though I didn't really think I got it - that foundation actually ended up helping me a lot.

So for those of you who are struggling in your language at school - you're getting more than you realize you're getting.  But don't give up, because if you go and spend time in a place where they speak that language, you will learn to speak it.  And it's INCREDIBLE speaking another language.  It really is.  It just - it opens your mind up in so many ways."

(An update on Shlomo)

-On why Sholmo didn't appear in the updates:

"...Shlomo had left the Orthodox community.   And I think that he was probably in the interim - sort of the interim stages of trying to figure out whether or not he was part of the Orthodox community or not - And I think that's why he - you know - ultimately why he wasn't in the film."  (31:00)

(The Ambiguity of the film)

-And life

"...What did you think the scene (burping scene) was about?  And there isn't one answer.  And that's really why... When you read a great book, or you watch a film that you think is... that sticks with you... It's probably because there are scenes like that - that provoke questions.

"You know sometimes, I know it's very satisfying to have answers, but as you grow up one of the things you learn is to just be comfortable with the questions and with the ambiguity.  Because, there's very little certainty in life.  There's very little that's black and white.  And so we put that scene in there because it's about a lot of different things."  (9:00)

(On bias, being overly-opinionated, and ambiguity)

"What I realized in the process of making the film is that you can hold more than one opinion in your hand.  Right? That's really important.  We all feel like we have to choose sides.  Or we have this binary way of thinking: this or that; right or wrong; black or white.  And as I said earlier, really, even in your own lives if you think of any issue that you feel passionate about...  If you really, really, honestly feel into whatever that is - whether it's somebody you really, really don't like.  Or something you think is really, really, really, really ugly.  Or something that really, really, really, really makes you mad...  If any of you really look at it, you'll see...  you'll know that there's something there that's...  that you can't totally reject...  There are very few things that are just, absolutely one way or the other.  I realized in the course of making the film that you can have more than one opinion.  You can have two opinions or three opinions.  We're human.  You know, that's kindof what we're all about as human beings.  Is that we're capable of holding on to ambiguity." (27:40)

(On being overly-opinionated vs. listening and saying, 'I don't know.')

"Now, you know, when I hear people - like REALLY opinionated about the Palestinians or the Israelis or Israel or Palestine - I just put my hands over my head and I think, "until you've spent time there... Until you've spent time in people's living rooms...  Until you've broken bread with them... Until you've read a couple of books - NOT Wikipedia - ...I don't want to hear your opinion.  I really don't.  It's much more important to say, "I don't know."  I think it takes a lot of courage to say don't know.  It's true.

...It takes a lot more courage and intelligence to say, 'You know, this is what I understand.  This is what I've read.  This is what I've heard.  I kindof feel like this, but the fact is... until I do more research until I meet more people or read the...  ...I don't really know.'

I hear the smartest people in the world saying that."  (29:45)

(On the flaws of the film)

"...You know, we didn't succeed entirely.  There aren't enough girls in the film, certainly.  There are no Mizrahi kids - children of Jews from Middle Eastern countries.  So we couldn't be entirely representative.  There were no Christian Palestinians..  (14:50)

(On the editing process)

"When we finished shooting, we had a hundred and sixty hours of material. ...160 H.O.U.R.S.   ...Of material.  We could have featured 14 kids.  We had enough footage - what you saw in the film was 7 kids. We shot enough of another 7 kids that we ended up having to edit out of the film.

The hardest part about making a documentary film is editing.  You know, you leave a LOT of great stuff out of the film - it's very hard."

There are plenty more highlights.  If you'd like to see the interview in its entirety, here it is.  The text of the interview is after the page break.

If you're a teacher, and use the film Promises in the classroom, consider doing something like this.  You can get information about it by emailing  

As Ms. Shapiro said, much of being an independent documentary film-maker involves raising money.  If you believe in the story and mission of the film Promises, or Our Summer in Tehran, please consider donating.  (It is tax-deductible.)

Friday, May 29, 2015

Final: Click the Link. Take the Test

When I get time, I'll post a picture I appreciate here.

I realize I haven't been able to post extra credit to the blog lately.  I've been busy grading, and finalizing dates, times, etc... for the interview.  I'm hoping to post the video over the weekend.

Mr. Krecsmar made this meme, and I thought it was hilarious.

Hopefully, this isn't the case for you.  Remember, you can always play extra credit geography games or read/watch/listen to the news if you want extra credit.

Most importantly, you can follow along in class so that you don't need extra credit in the first place.  And study.  I'm sure you studied plenty for the final you're about to take.  Go take it.  Ace it.  Here's a link:

Here's a link to the final.  Click it.  Take it.  (Link removed after students finished taking the test)

Good luck.  (But you won't need it, ace.)

Monday, May 25, 2015

Questions for the Interview

We're gearing up for three things right now:

  • Wednesday's interview with actor/director Justine Shapiro
  • Final Exams
  • The summer
Lets start with the top of the list.

I've been going through the questions you want to ask Ms. Shapiro, many of them are very good.  Please come to class tomorrow with more.

Some of you (and no doubt, some of your parents) are wondering what Ms. Shapiro has been up to since finishing Promises.  First, I'd check out THIS LINK to for Time Team America.

I'd also consider checking out the trailer to her documentary, Our Summer in Tehran:

Given that we'll be having a conversation with her in a couple days, it would be a good idea to be prepared.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Promises Update

Here are updates from 2 of the children from the film "Promises."

...If there are other updates out there, let me know.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Promises: Track

Every year that we watch Promises, there is a scene that really gets me: the track meet scene.

In this scene (some mild spoilers ahead... you've been warned...) Faraj is chosen to run track for Deheishe, and he comes in 2nd.  Anyone who has ever played on an athletic team knows the feeling.  It doesn't feel good to lose, and the close ones are often the most difficult.

There's another scene in the movie which shows the twins, Yarko and Daniel losing their volleyball match.  They too, came in second place.

I think (and this is just speculation, mind you) these scenes were included for two reasons: to connect us - the audience, especially the young audience - with them.  We've all been there.  These are kids playing sports; being kids.

But later on in the film Yarko, I believe, says something like, "People think there's a winner in a war, but there's not.  In a war, both sides lose."

I think it's showing that in this conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, both sides are currently coming in 2nd place, and it doesn't feel good to anybody.

That's not why I'm writing this post, however.  A few years ago, a student noticed something:

Now, I'm no track coach, but shouldn't Faraj's opponent have been disqualified?   I mean, he's clearly in the other lane.

I'm sure I'm just adding my thoughts into a narrative that's already been established, but I always think now, that in both the conflict, and the race those involved feel cheated out of what they believe to be rightfully theirs.

That said, I'm sure that Faraj never thinks about this race.  (...Even though I think about a goal I shanked in a soccer match more than a decade ago...)  Still, I'd want to tell him.

I mean, seriously... where are the refs?

I declare Faraj the winner.  I can do that, right?  Or am I missing the point?

Maybe my point is that I feel the injustice of this situation in the movie.  And this is a track meet between 12 year olds.  What about the conflict as a whole?  The land?  The checkpoints?  The terrorists?  The jails?  The water?  It's not just a track meet that's been lost.

If you're in my class, read and discuss the blog post with an adult.  Write down some thoughts from your discussion and have them sign the paper.  Turn it in tomorrow.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Good News

Most classes finished up the movie, Promises, today.  If you want extra credit, tell the adult you're reading this with what happened.  Write down a little summary of the movie on a scrap of paper.  Have the adult you're reading with sign the paper.  Turn it in tomorrow.

Side note: I received some good news today during 5th hour.  ...If you know what that was, tell your parents as well.  What do you think?

That's all I've got for you today.  I think tomorrow's post will be a little more in depth.  Until then, have a great day.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Short Promises Post

I may not be posting as much in the next couple of days.  I'm trying to make sure I keep up with all of the grading.  I make sure to read everything the students turn in, and I'll often comment back or let them know when I want them to ask a question out loud for everybody's benefit.

If you're worried about your grade, don't forget that you can get extra credit a number of ways.

For now, if you want the extra credit, discuss with an adult what's been going on in the film.  Maybe mention Sanabel's dad.  Or the twins volleyball tournament.  Or Faraj's race.  Talk about the check points.  Show them that you can draw a quick map of Israel (J, Circle, Rope, Peanut).

When you're done, write a couple sentences telling me about your discussion.  Have the adult you discussed with sign the paper.  Turn it in tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Promises (2015)

We started watching the documentary "Promises" today.  It's interesting to see how much things have changed in Israel since I started showing the film 9 years ago - but it's also interesting to see how little they have changed.  *I should also add a hat-tip to my colleague, Mr. Cowells, who was showing the film before I was hired.*

Here's the film trailer:

For those of you at home, the film is definitely worth watching.

We'll talk more about what's going on in Israel today as the film progresses.  For now, if you want extra credit for my class, watch and discuss the trailer with an adult.  Discuss it, and write down a couple sentences from your discussion.  Have the adult you discussed with sign the paper.  Turn it in tomorrow.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Israel and Palestine: Avoiding Bias

We're rushing around, trying to cram some last bits of learning into the school year.  I fit two lessons into one class period today.  Hopefully it wasn't too much.

Essentially, we looked at how difficult it is to teach the Israeli/ Palestinian Conflict.  There is bias everywhere you look.

Here are my thoughts from the two lessons I previously taught.  Follow the instructions at the end of those posts if you want the extra credit.

Lesson 1 - from May 13, 2014.

Lesson 2 - from May 14, 2014.

They're pretty good.

Also, today we drew a map of Israel: a J, a circle, a rope, and a peanut.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Reincarnation - Google Drawings

Although we're now disucussing the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, we spent some time yesterday figuring out how google drawings work.  I'm sure there will be a lot of ways I could use them in class.  As with everything, there's a lot of potential - if I could just figure out how to access it.

Students could make diagrams, flowcharts, posters, etc... from various topics we've studied throughout the year.  I had them start off with the reincarnation cycle.  I didn't take it for a grade, because we were figuring it out together.

Some students shared with me what they did.  I'll put those up here for you to look at.  Tell me what you think.

If students want extra credit, they should have read and discussed the blog with an adult.  Which of the diagrams do you like the best?  Why?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of each one?  If you were in class today, you could tell them a little bit about the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict.

Write down your thoughts from the conversation on a scrap of paper.  Have the adult you read and discussed with sign it.  Then turn it in tomorrow for extra credit.

It took Gandhi (and the Indian National Congress, etc...) a long time before they gained independence from the British.  I'm not expecting to fully understand google docs or drawings overnight.  But I want to be sure to use whatever tools I have at my disposal in order to be the best teacher I can be.
  (As long as those tools are genuinely enhancing the education of my students.)

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Best Geography Games

We're working our way towards the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, and just finished up the Arab Spring, so I had my students play some online geography games in class today - mostly The Middle East.

Tomorrow, we'll play again, but this time we'll look at some different geography games from around the web.  Here's a list of some good ones - you can get a head start by playing some tonight.

(Sorry if you have an iPhone...  iPhones don't support JAVA, so some of these games won't work.)

Here is the mainstay.  It's the website I've used for years.  It has political maps by continent and region, landscape maps, maps with capitals.  It's also how I learned the world when I was in college.  It's been around for a while.   Tried and true: Sheppard Software.

I like this one, because it expands the Middle East to include Afghanistan and Pakistan.  (However, it also includes Georgia and Azerbaijan - which fit, but lets see if my 7th graders can figure out the others, first. I'm linking directly to the Middle East game, but the website has a lot of other good ones as well.  Just hover your mouse over the bar at the top. Here is the link: Lizard Point.  (For instance, it's the only one I've found that has a U.S. Governor's game...  not that that falls under my standards... but still...)

If you search for "world geography games" this site is bound to be the first to come up, and it's pretty good.  I especially like the rivers, deserts, and mountain range games.  For myself, and I would assume for my students, the countries are a little overwhelming because it is only broken down into continents, and not by region.  Still, it's worth checking out: World Geography Games.

I like these minefield games, and while they are a little difficult for 7th grade, my students enjoyed them in the class.  It is a bit overwhelming going to the website, because there are so many games -  most of which do not apply to my class.  But we have talked about population density, and the difference between population and population density.  Playing this game with the class is a quick way to reinforce that - as China doesn't make the cut for the top 50 countries with the highest population density - but currently has the world's highest population.  Feel free to give it a shot: Sporcle..  (I bet this one will work on your phone...  Don't feel guilty about googling the answers... I didn't.)

It's been a while since we've studied latitude and longitude, so it's worth reinforcing.  If my students mastered the layout of the Middle East, they could play this one.  It's pretty good.  Just make sure the volume is down.   Here's the latitude and longitude game: Kidsgeo.

A lot of the geography games out there are very similar - click on the correct country, drag the country to the correct location...  But if students want a change of background, they could check out this one: Your child learns.

Some are quite different.  I really liked this global development game from The Guardian.  It was a good way to reinforce some concepts I've taught throughout the year - like GDP, standard of living, "developing nations," industrialization, etc...  This comes from the "Round 2 Games."  But it also gave me a way to bring up some of the international organizations I've always wanted to bring up but never have.  When students play the Round 3 games, I get them to ask themselves, "why is this question on here?  What does it have to do with social studies?"  And even if they've never heard about the people in the game, it gives them a reference point for lessons and discussions later on down the road.

If you know of any geography games that you use, or that you like more than these, email me or let me know in the comments.

If you're here for extra credit, play a game or two and tell me what you think.  Write a note telling me which was your favorite, and have the adult you read and discussed the blog with sign the note.  Turn it in to me tomorrow.

Friday, May 1, 2015


There were a lot of outcomes in the Arab Spring, here are a few:

Tunisian dictator: fled.
Syrian dictator: fought; still fighting.
Libyan dictator: fought; killed.
Egyptian dictator: imprisoned, since released.  ...Since re-imprisoned...
Jordanian King: listened to people... mostly...

...The list goes on, but you get the point.  When faced with protests, each country handled the situation differently.

We played a game today depicting this.  The students got to make the choices.  Let them tell you about it.  If you weren't here, make sure you ask about it when you get back.

In case you're interested: