44 Pages (2017)

“44 Pages” isn’t just an important documentary, but it’s perhaps one of the most life affirming and entertaining made in a while. Centered on the “Highlights” magazine writing team as they prepare for the 70th Anniversary issue of the publication, “44 Pages” is a long overdue exploration of the classic children’s magazine. Director Tony Schaff brings us along to discover how the magazine was created, and how it’s created today. There’s also an interesting exploration in how the magazine has managed to stay alive in the age of digital media, and what it’s done to remain relevant and a key tool in educating children around the world.

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First Degree (2016)

Two-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Roger Weisberg (“Sound and Fury,” “Why Can’t We Be a Family Again?”) helmed this intriguing documentary short on efforts by New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison to reduce recidivism through higher education.

A primary force in this endeavor is Sean Pica, who first came to Sing Sing as a 16-year-old convict—he earned his Bachelor’s Degree while incarcerated and later returned to run the prison’s program in conjunction with Mercy College. Also interviewed is Jermaine Archer, a former drug dealer and convicted murderer who is banking on his degree to help facilitate a successful reintegration with the outside world. Also included here is graduation ceremony within the prison—and no less a figure than legendary singer/actor Harry Belafonte is the commencement speaker, offering an upbeat pep talk for the unlikely student body.

The film details how the program also provides job-hunting consultation involving work-appropriate clothing, resume writing and interview training. One graduate, Clarence Maclin, benefits from this last boost and is able to gain work as a social worker counseling juvenile offenders. There is also a financial consideration of how the investment in education proves to be more cost-effective: recidivism among graduates of the Sing Sing program is miniscule.

Sadly, “First Degree” has a troubling post-script: funding for this type of program has been shrinking over the years while the U.S. prison population is ballooning. Hopefully, this well-made and moving tribute to the power of education can help change minds and bring more money back to this worthy cause.

The PC Thug: 25 Facts You May Not Know About Reading

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Believe it or not, there was once a time where not all kids shows was about goofy characters singing songs in repetition. Surely, we had “Barney,” and “Bananas in Pajamas,” but we also had shows that taught, educated, and brought us an experience. Before Elmo took over, “Sesame Street” was a great parade of puppets and humans learning together. There was also “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” and “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” The best among them though was “Reading Rainbow.” After the heartbreaking cancellation of “Reading Rainbow” in 2009 by (the gradually right leaning) PBS Network in America, Levar Burton fought to bring the show back, and despite his difficulty the series still lived on through memories and the love by fans of all ages.

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The Magic School Bus: All About Earth (DVD)

In honor of Earth Day, Scholastic releases a DVD compilation of four episodes of one of the best educational animated series of the nineties, “The Magic School Bus.” A series that taught kids about everything involving science, while entertaining with its diverse characters and ability to turn every episode in to a unique adventure, “All About Earth” is a DVD gathering of episodes about the glory of the planet Earth and what it has to offer.

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Spellbound (2002)

spellboundA parent in “Spellbound” makes a point of saying, “The National Spelling Bee has been around for nearly a hundred years, and it’s a part of Americana that has been somewhat brushed aside.” I’m paraphrasing of course, but they make a good point. We live in a country where the strongest and prettiest are revered, a country where we strive to be the strongest and prettiest among our peers. “Spellbound” is an apt title and a glowing portrait of eight kids from humble beginnings who are training desperately for the national spelling bee. What comes with the territory of making it into the National spelling bee aside from adulation and respect is a lot of pressure which is set upon by parents who unwillingly and willingly apply pressure to their children and high expectations that they strive to reach.

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