Monday, December 14, 2009

A Break in the Action: Holiday Time and a Few Movies

This is the last full week of work before we all have a much needed break, so I thought that since such weeks tend to be somewhat low key (though not to look at my schedule, to be sure!), I would offer up a bit of holiday break information. To that end, I wish to suggest some truly great movies for you to watch during your time away. These are all fairly recent, and can be found on NetFlix or at a local rental store.

1. Knowing: I am not normally a fan of Nicholas Cage, but he is just right for his role here. This film, which was written by Alex Proyas (who also wrote and directed the marvelous film Dark City), is far better than its promo would suggest. Cage plays a theoretical physicist grappling with whether the universe is random or deterministic. Cage feels the latter must be the case; he has, after all, just lost his wife. In the film, Cage’s son becomes the recipient of a sheet of paper taken from an elementary school time capsule planted 50 years earlier. The sheet is covered in numbers, which Cage comes to interpret, with terrifying implications. More than this I cannot say; the movie moves relentlessly to a staggering climax and lyrical coda. [Trailer:]

2. The Secrets: This film is a true surprise, the story of how one young woman in a religious world comes into her own as a spiritual leader. Noemi is the daughter of an important Orthodox Jewish rabbi, able to hold her own with him in discussions of religious texts. With the recent loss of her mother, and pledged by her father to marry a student scholar who is held in high esteem by him, she asks instead to spend a year studying in a woman’s seminary in one of Israel’s holiest cities. She ends up paired with a student from Paris, Michelle, who is your typical troubled teenaged girl. The two end up providing care to a local woman shunned by others for having murdered her lover. This woman, played by the great Fanny Ardent, wishes to be cleansed of sin, and asks the two yeshivah students to help her. In this, Noemi creates her own ceremonies (known as tikkun), improvised from her own knowledge of Torah. Much happens along the way, as Noemi and Michelle fall in love, Michelle also falls for a local klezmer musician, and the world catches up to them. The ending is perfect. [Trailer:]

3. The Band’s Visit: Another Israeli film, this concerns the story of an Egyptian police band accidently getting off a bus in the wrong town, one located in isolation deep in the desert and occupied only by Israeli citizens. The next bus will not come until tomorrow, but a local woman helps organize friends to put the band members up. The night is spent with interactions between the band and town members, some humorous, some deeply poignant. A beautiful film, well worth visiting. [Trailer:]

4. Happy-Go-Lucky: A film by the wonderful British filmmaker Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Life is Sweet, Topsy Turvy). Sally Hawkins rightfully earned an Oscar nod for her portrayal of Poppy, a woman who is simply happy, but not simple. This woman exudes happiness and goodness and attempts to infect the rest of the world with it. Initially seen as a bit odd, as the movie progresses we see exactly how perceptive she is. Then she decides to take driving lessons and meets Scott, the instructor, a man as angry as she is happy. Their interactions form the heart of this movie, which is so full of heart itself it just bursts. [Trailer:]

5. Encounters at the End of the World: A film by Werner Herzog, one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. A documentary, it examines the lives of people working at Murdo Station in Antarctica, and is a deeply thoughtful commentary on how we are facing the end of life- the title can be read in two ways. The conversations with the people he interviews are fascinating, and we watch as divers enter the sea to study life in the water, but do not take rope with them to find their way back to the hole they dug to get in the water. There is but one penguin here, and as Roger Ebert says, once you see that penguin the image will not leave you. [Trailer:]

6. Let the Right One In: The best movie I have seen in several years. Vampires as they should be done, not sparkly things with inhuman good looks, but real and dangerous. But that it is a vampire story is beside the point; it is really a story of two children in jeopardy. Oskar is a lonely 12-year-old whose parents, now divorced, have no time for him; Eli (pronounced el-ee) is the (we think) young girl who moves in next door. They meet one night at a jungle gym in their isolated apartment complex, in the snow. Eli has no coat, nor shoes, and smells sort of bad. Oskar asks if she is a vampire. Yes. Fine. Can they be friends? Well, maybe not. But friends they become, and Oskar asks her to be his girlfriend. She tells him she is not a girl. Oh. Oskar is bullied at school, but with Eli’s help he begins to stand up for himself, until one day his tormenters try to kill him. At times like that it is good to have a vampire as your friend. There is more going on, but this is a remarkable film, with some remarkable images in it, and an ending that can be seen as uplifting or perhaps depressing. I will say no more. [Trailer:]

There you have it, a few films to get you through the snow and cold certainly coming. When we return from break, I will return to writing.

Best wishes to you all for these coming holidays and New Year.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Continuing the Psychology of PowerPoint

One of the points made by Kosslyn (1) is that designing a PowerPoint presentation is similar to designing an agenda for a meeting. That is, it needs to be organized in a way that leads your audience into its flow, and it should lead to a logical and concise ending. However, unlike meetings, the presentation should have a single overall theme and mission, which is supported by its parts. This theme should be explicit from the outset and it helps provide the organization for what then follows. In terms of designing your presentation, you need to keep in mind that it is a presentation; it is not a written report, so it will not have the detail and precision of a written report. What it should, or will, do is engage your audience; that is its goal.

Kosslyn suggests 8 guidelines for the overall structure of a presentation.

1. Prepare to speak to a particular audience. You should tailor your presentation to their knowledge, goals and beliefs; thus, you should keep mindful of what information is important to them and what level of presentation is important to them. Typically, for us in education, answering a question about our audience is easy; they are our students, and we know what level of knowledge they have. Were this for an outside audience, we would need to account for this.

2. Show and tell. By doing so we help reinforce memory of our presentation, since we invoke different areas of the brain in the processing of the information we present. Practically, this means combining graphics and text. Provide variety as well (i.e., use video clips, etc.).

3. Plan in advance how you will direct the audience’s attention. This means more than just knowing your content. It means looking at your slides and ensuring they help reinforce learning. Keep the text minimal, and highlight in some fashion the important message on a slide (for example, by using a different font color).

4. Don’t lose your basic message by providing either too much or too little information. Again, keep in mind the information you are trying to present. Put up only the information necessary to achieve that goal. We typically want to give more information than we have to, so don’t. You want the audience to process information, not search for it in too much text.

5. Prepare your slides to function as your notes; don’t rely on your memory. This is hard; we know our content and the slides allow us a chance to show it. But we can forget material. You need to build in prompts in your slides to remind you, the speaker, about the content you are covering. Kosslyn does not recommend using the built-in PowerPoint note set as a reminder, since it is hard to read and people will see you scanning your notes as you present them.

6. Use the full range of communication options. Some topics don’t lend themselves to bullet lists or graphics. PowerPoint is meant to add to other forms of communication; don’t forget you have readings and assignments for your students as well, and your slides should not be the only tool in your box.

7. Build in breaks that allow the audience to “come up for air.” Use breaks in your presentation, such as a slide of a cartoon or joke, to give people some time to process and catch their breath. Stop continual force feeding of content.

8. Prepare for questions. Getting them is a sure indication that you have engaged them. So, master your material and be prepared for questions; anticipate the thorny ones that might arrive. Be ready to seed the audience with a question to get them started.

This is just a quick overview of how you should look toward developing your next presentation. When you do, don’t focus on the content; that part is the part you know. Focus on the medium and the technology and harness it in favor of reinforcing learning.


1. Kosslyn SM. Clear and to the point: 8 psychological principles for compelling PowerPoint presentations. New York, NY; Oxford University Press, 2007