Stung by a Stingray

Part 2 in a series discussing the meaning of Wonder

The Greek philosopher Plato wrote most of his reflections – deep, penetrating thoughts, always pushing the limits with his questions, always seeking for an additional degree of precision in his answers – in the form of dialogues; like plays in which the main character would be his beloved teacher, Socrates.

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Socrates and the Socratic Method  — Drawing by hotcheeto89

In one such dialogue, Theaetetus, Socrates is having a discussion with a youth, the very own Theaetetus (my students won’t even try to pronounce his name, so let’s call him Tee). They’re trying to find what is the nature of knowledge, no less. Tee is kind of the ideal student: clever, respectful, curious, and possessing a good sense of himself and his capacities. He’s not afraid to bring forth his own opinions, be contradicted, if it happens, and learn from the whole thing. And he is not interested in what impression he is making on the teachers, whether he’ll look clever or dumb. He is interested in learning about things that, well, have caught his interest.

In his impish manner, Socrates has shown to Tee that it is possible to become taller or shorter, bigger or smaller, without changing in size at all. Compare yourself with someone who has grown a lot. You’re the same size than you were, but you are also shorter!

“These puzzles are not new to you, I guess,” Socrates asks.

“No,” Tee replies, “but indeed, it is extraordinary how they set me wondering whatever they can mean. Sometimes I get quite dizzy with thinking of them.”

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This reaction, I should here mention, is very telling. You can see young Tee (who is a student of math), trying to solve a problem, realizing he’s missed something, looking at it from a different angle, finding it doesn’t add up, starting yet again, until the whole thing gets mixed up in his head. Yet we don’t get from Tee’s reply the impression that he is frustrated by that. Rather, there is something pleasant and fun about getting dizzy and completely baffled!

* * *

Maybe I can introduce here a first definition for “Wonder.” I would call it an onomatopoeic definition.

“Wonder” is what makes us say: “WHAAAT???”

This is not an angry “What?” It’s a baffled, dumbfounded “What?” Socrates compares it with being stung by a stingray. You feel numb, disoriented.

And this is what Socrates makes of Tee’s reply: “That shows that Theodorus (Tee’s own teacher) was not wrong in his estimate of your nature. This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin.”

These are big words. Up until very recently, at least (until, perhaps, the 1800’s), you could say that this remark by Plato was basically unchallenged. Meaning that everyone who was doing philosophy agreed with this: Philosophy has its origin in this sense of wonder. Let’s look at it in more detail.

There are questions that we ask out of a survival (or more broadly, “practical”) interest: “Where should I go if a tornado struck?” “How can I increase the yield in my crops?”” Does this model come with airbags?” “Do you have homework?”

There are questions that we ask because they help us orient ourselves in the here and now, learn where everyone else is at: “Where’s everybody gone?” “What did you have for dinner?” “What was Hawaii like?” “Who won the game?”

And then there are questions that we ask for no practical reason at all; just because they are baffling, or puzzling, or intriguing.

What is winning

Epic Rap Battles of History got it right. It’s not about who wins!

Sometimes they are kind of silly, but the process of thinking through them is a lot of fun (look for examples in the wonderful “What If?”, by so and so).

And sometimes, they are really BIG questions; questions that make us feel that our grasp on reality is no thicker than a light fabric of theories we’ve spun around our minds. Let’s take gravity, for example.

A: “Isn’t it curious that we seem to be stuck to the ground, when nothing is actually grabbing us?”

B: “Duh! That’s gravity!”

A: “But what is gravity?”

B: “It is… the reason why things are attracted towards the earth.”

A: “So… You’re basically saying that the reason things are attracted towards the earth is that there is something that makes things be attracted towards the earth.”

B: “…”

A: “But how does it work…?”

Now A has punched a hole through the fabric, realizing that gravity is for them no more than a word, put in place of—a placeholder, perhaps, for a real explanation. Now B has two options:

Option 1: Retreat!

“Well, I don’t know myself, but I’m sure scientists know.”

(Which is not perhaps not true now, and was certainly not true before Einstein.)

Option 2: Allow  oneself to be baffled.

“Dude, I have no idea…!

Again, it’s both uncomfortable – deeply unsettling, some would say – and exciting. Here is this world we’ve taken for granted, and there’s actually so little we know about it!

This is, according to Plato, and Aristotle, and the bulk of classical philosophers, what originated not just philosophy, but all the sciences (which in the beginning, if you want to know, were all jumbled up under the name “Philosophy”).

Newton

Yep, that’s what Newton’s brilliant work on the laws of motion (and, yes, gravity!) was called: not ‘Physics,’ or ‘Astronomy,’ but the ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’!

And that’s where it all began, philosophy and science: with people that got carried away by these immense questions, and decided to be methodical about it.

<Coming next: Wonder is not just “Whaaat?”, but also “WOW!”>

Wonder

Part 1 in a series discussing the meaning of Wonder

Plato would be mad at me. So would be Alice, for that matter.

I didn’t try to define my subject (which would have upset Plato), and (against the King’s only good bit of advice to Alice) I didn’t begin at the beginning.

I’ve had the nerve to subtitle my blog, “Looking for Wonder in All Things,” and to name it after one of the most famous expressions from (you probably knew this) Alice in Wonderland. Yet at no point, in the year or so it’s been up, did I even try to explain what this Wonder thing is!

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I’ve had my reasons, of course; the first being that it is a very difficult thing to do. I have a very narrow comfort zone; doing something difficult is already stepping out of it…

Secondly, Wonder and Philosophy go a long way back. Plato makes Socrates say (in Theaetetus) that “this sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher,” no less, and that philosophy, indeed, has no other origin than wonder. After Plato, many great philosophers – and hundreds of minor ones – have written magnificent things about it. So the task is reasonably daunting. Especially since I plan to do it blog style.

What got me started, then? Well, this: I teach Philosophy. I brought my students to the library to do some hunting. Among the questions I posed was, how do you define ‘wonder’?

Easy, I thought. Just go into one of the many encyclopedias of philosophy we’ve pulled out for you and look into the index. Well, here’s what they found.

Nothing.

In fact, I think I should center it for emphasis. Here’s what they found:

Nothing.

Yep. They looked in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 10 volumes, and the word wasn’t even in the index. They looked in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and got just a few inconsequential hits, of people, well, wondering about something, but never about wonder itself. Somehow we’ve gone from “the mark of the philosopher” to “not worth writing an article about,” and this is certainly puzzling. A screaming silence, if you will.

I’m talking, of course, of the peer-reviewed heavyweights. Wikipedia, which is awesome (another word for “wonderful”), but so far unquotable in the academic world, has a somewhat discombobulated article that amounts to, let’s see, 700 words. Fewer, probably, than any minor supervillain from Marvel (yet another word for “Wonder”). Certainly less than Wikipedia’s entry on Wonder Woman (which, come to think about it, is such a silly name for a character: it applies to about half the population on Earth!)

Wwoman

Yet wonder is very, very important. Not just for philosophers, but for human life.

Without wonder, it’s like the light has died inside you.

* * *

Just bring these two images to your mind: two traditional high school classrooms. In one students are slumped, their eyes glassy, their whole body language lazily screaming, “when is this class going to end?” In another, students are not just sitting upright but a bit forward, itching to speak, nearly falling from their desks in their efforts to catch the teacher’s attention so they can share what is buzzing through their minds…

The difference? Easy. Wonder. Call it curiosity or interest, if you want; that’s wonder at its lowest intensity. Bring it up all the way to mind-blowing (or sometimes mind-numbing) puzzlement, disbelief, the impossibility to reconcile what they think they know with what is being proposed, and you have something closer to what Plato meant by it.

Do you begin to see why wonder is important? Maybe you’ve been present at a class, or a meeting, where “nobody cares.” It feels like people are breathing, but not really alive. We can lose our capacity for wonder – that interior light. It is rather common, actually.

But why?

If you’ve read this far, it means you haven’t lost your capacity for wonder – at least it’s a very good sign. But maybe you are considering – wondering, yes – how to recover it, wake it up when someone has lost it. If you teach, or if giving presentations is one of your career hazards, you may be asking yourself how to wake up this wonder in your students, in your audience.

I’ll put down a few thoughts in my following posts. I can’t claim them as mine, since some of my favorite philosophers have been working on this for a very long time; but the least I can say is that they are “time-tested” – for at least twenty three hundred years or so.

In the meantime, I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on the matter!

<To be continued…>

Getting ALL your students to participate in class

Its’ not so difficult, believe me!

The trick is to make it easy, both for them and for you, to visually check whether each student has participated or not. I use a very simple method: paper cards that are green on one side, and red on the other. Every time a student asks a question or adds a (somewhat substantial) comment, they get to turn their card from red to green.

It’s all explained in this little video:

By the end of class, you can see with just a glimpse which students still have red cards on their desks. If you have a “participation grade”, it will take you no more than a minute to pen down which students got their points, and which didn’t. (That is, when you’ve learned all their names. At the beginning of a course it may take a bit longer.)

The neat thing is that students immediately know whether they are getting their points or not, and will make an extra effort – I normally get about 80% of the students to participate in one form or another without prompting. Which makes it also easier to pay attention to the students that find it more difficult to participate, and to help them out.

This system also helps you to avoid a student “hogging” the discussion without being curt to them: if a student is raising their hand for the tenth time (it’s a good problem; I love those students!) you can simply say, “Let’s hear from the red cards first.” A very easy way to open the discussion.

Let me know if this was any help!

AML

The LEGO Movie (2014)

(This is part of the What to Watch With Your Kids series)

Minimum Age: 7 Maximum Age: None Categories: Recent Good Stuff
Test drive: I watched it twice, which is rare for me. It became a favorite of my 11-year old boy, who eventually got the soundtrack, which he now uses to torture his sister.

This movie is deceiving. It looks for most of its run as a pastiche, devised to sell sets from all LEGO collections while making better-than-average jokes about action-movie cliches. The adventure, set in a variety of LEGO worlds, is done with enormous talent, cleverness and attention to detail. It’s enough to make every kid (and a fair share of the grownups) laugh from beginning to end, with some wows! here and there.

But there is more to it than that. An unexpected, fantastic twist makes all the apparently chaotic silliness suddenly make perfect sense.

That’s all I want to say about it, else I’ll ruin it (“You’ve got to trust me on this one.”) If, like me, you are looking for wonder in all places, you won’t want to miss it.

Special mention deserves the theme song, Everything is Awesome! Engineered to be both insufferably catchy and obnoxious, the energetic lyrics (proclaiming, yes, that everything is awesome, and going through a hilarious list of awesome things) also have a deeper level (though this may have been unintentional). I, for one, used the above, fan-made video in one of my classes to comment on the Bible’s story of Creation. After all, “God saw that it was good” will be more readily understood by my young students as “God saw that everything is awesome!”

Alf the Red

*If you are already a fan, and are craving for more, check out this HISHE (How it Should Have Ended) clip.*

Comments?

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

Minimum Age: None Maximum Age: 9-10 Categories: High Adventure;
Disney Classics
Test drive: Takes a while to pick up speed, so your kids will need to be patient with it. Once you get to the fantastic Animal Soccer scene, however, it’s more than worth the wait!

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

As a child, one of the most popular Super-8 shorts they’d show at birthday parties was the Jungle Soccer Match, in which the various animals in both teams displayed their abilities while running over and over the unlucky human designated to referee. It was a short masterpiece of animation, that brilliantly incorporated some live-action actors (including the unfortunate ref.) We’d never get tired of it!

So imagine my surprise when I discovered, on a rerun of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, that there was a High Adventure context to this little story! The human characters, guided by a benevolent but inexperienced witch (Angela Lansbury) are trying to save Great Britain from an upcoming German invasion. To do so, they must travel to magical places in order to recover an artifact that will let them conjure the spirits of old warriors to come in their aid.

The movie is not the timeless masterpiece that Mary Poppins is: it takes a while to pick up the pace, and even then still moves slowly for present day standards. But if you and your children can withstand the slow buildup, you’ll be rewarded with such classic scenes as “Portobello Road” (now I can’t eat a portobello sandwich without humming it!), dancing under the sea, Germans vs. Knights, and of course, the inimitable Jungle Soccer Match.

And beyond the individual scenes, the movie still inspires, better than many more recent ones, the feeling that-below the surface, yet not too deep-magical things could happen at any time.

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Tools for teachers: Do-it-yourself Snakes & Ladders!

A fun activity for an end-of-the-term class!

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Spongebob Business Ethics!

You’ve been there: You’ve taught the whole syllabus, next class you’ll have the test, and you’re afraid that, if you try to fit just one more bit of content into your students’ brains, the whole thing is going to collapse like a Jenga tower. (Not that it matters, since your students’ brains are ready for the break, and have wisely decided to shut down all communications with the teaching world).

What to do then? Cupcakes, music; a course-related movie if you are really dedicated… But in my experience, this approach usually feels flat, as if you had given up, instead of ending with a Bang!

Thus this activity, which, truth be told, won’t probably teach your students anything new, but will have the whole class buzzing and laughing together. Which is good enough for that final class!

You’ll need:

  • one poster board for every 5 students
  • a die or two
  • some goodies (candy bars, etc.) for prizes.

A game of Light and Darkness – Bingo style!

Snakes_and_Ladders Ancient game

Snakes & Ladders: Origins

Snakes and Ladders  (“Chutes and Ladders,” your students will be quick to point out, referring to the famous Mattel version) is an ancient Indian board game. Players, in turn, through a die, and move forward. If they land on a “ladder” square, they move up and skip a number of steps, depending on where the ladder lands. But if they fall on a “snake” (or chute), they move down and have to roll their way up again. The first one to reach the end wins the game.

If Wikipedia is to be trusted, “the historic version had root in morality lessons, where a player’s progression up the board represented a life journey complicated by virtues (ladders) and vices (snakes).” Which makes it a great choice for a final class on Business Ethics.

But how to make it personal? Begin by drawing on poster board various versions of an 80-square track, without adding any ladders or snakes. This is the time-consuming part: you need to have the boards ready ahead of time, one for every 5 students (it takes about 1/2 hour each, depending on skill).

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(Tip: Keep the used boards. The next time you want to do this activity, tape the poster board to a window, and use the transparency effect to copy the board design on the other side. You will save money, and it will take you about ten minutes per game board!)

Here are some examples of boards I used in my last class:
(Clicking on them will open a high-res version in a new tab)

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Snake style

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Tape worm-inspired?

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Old-fashioned labyrinth

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Ever played “Tron”?

In class, I divided students in groups of 5, each group sharing a board, and asked each student in a group to add both a snake and a ladder to their board. Here’s the teaching part: The “reason” why you go up or down has to be stated on the square, and it has to be related to the course content (e.g. Lied on your Resume will be a “snake”; Helped cover shifts will be a “ladder”).

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Walk among them, help them with ideas, and keep them on track.

Tip: They’ll have even more fun if they select a “theme” for their game board, that connects the various rewards and penalties.

Ask them also to design their “tokens” (the playing pieces), which can also be related to a theme.

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Darth Bubble, The Flying Dutchman, and that happy starfish thingy. And a sales graph?

Playing together

It would probably be fun enough to let them play on their own once they are ready. But it’s even more fun if the teacher rolls the dice and announces the results, “bingo style”. To do this:

– Each player in a group should have a number from 1 to 5

– Write those number on the board, and find a way to mark which player is currently rolling. (I have some wonderful magnetic erasers that I simply move around!)

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– Move the marker, roll a die, and announce the result. Each player with that number moves, in every team. They are all playing simultaneously; but because the distribution of snakes and ladders in each board is different, results will vary.

– Move to the next player. Repeat.

(Tip: I bring two or three and a cup. Even if I roll one die at a time, this helps move things faster. You want to keep this moving!)

Pay attention to your students’ reactions. If they laugh out loud or scream in frustration, ask them what happened. This will allow the rest of the class to participate on each teams’ game.

The first player in each board to reach the end gets a goodie (runner-ups too, if you want).

What have you learned?

The actual learning/reviewing done in this activity is thin at best (though, if I taught math, I’ll ask students to do probability analyses for each board, that kind of thing). It is mostly aimed at having a good last day together with them.

There is an important indirect lesson though, which you can discuss with those cooler-than-thou students that insist on keeping their distance: The more you put of yourself in an activity, the more you’ll enjoy it! This is strikingly visible in this activity: the groups that select a theme and try to produce very elaborate boards have a total blast while playing it; those that start reticently will eventually warm up to it, but not with the same level of enjoyment.

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Eels & Ladders

In one class, I could see the diminishing degrees as the desks got further away from the board. Those sitting in the front desks, by far the most enthusiastic players, celebrated every play: they had designed a very detailed Spongebob Business Ethics theme, down to downloading the show’s theme song into one of their phones. Those on the back row had one team member move the pieces for everyone else, while the rest stole glances into their computer screens. Something else to think about…

Alf the Red

Around the World in 80 Days (2004)

Minimum Age: 7 Maximum Age: None Category: High Adventure
Test drive: My 9-year-old boy loved it.
My 11-year-old girl passed.

Product DetailsStarring: Jackie Chan, and some British comedian that looks very familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. (It nearly drove me mad!)

I have to say: The 1956 version of Jules Verne’s classic bored me to death when I was a kid, and the 1989 miniseries with Pierce Brosnan had only one joke worth remembering.
This version, though cheesy at times and very “out there”, is constant joy. But then, I’m very partial to Jackie Chan. (If you are not, better stop reading now!)

Phileas Fogg’s classic wager is here made more pressing by a dangerous plot from some evil Chinese faction (the reason why he is joined by Chan’s Passepartout), and his love interest takes the shape of a French artist; so the licenses are obvious. But Jackie Chan’s physical comedy finds a great complement in the understated, self-deprecating humor of his eccentric employer, and we are treated by cameos from John Cleese, Luke and Owen Wilson, Sammo Hung (as the legendary hero Wong Fei Hung) and yes, the Gobernator.
All in good fun, nothing inappropriate. A few good laughs, but mostly a very happy movie, from beginning to end.

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Tools for Philosophers: Fun with Ethical Dilemmas!

…Or how to make your students create their own dilemmas to use in the classroom.

Real ethical dilemmas, of course, are never fun. You have to choose between conflicting values–sometimes the lesser of two evils–and it is always a tough decision that leaves you somewhat dissatisfied, when not thoroughly depressed…

Bring them to the classroom, though, and things lighten up! Even the most disaffected student cannot resist voicing their opinion when one of these turns up.

They work greatly when you need to “change the air” in  the class; that is, if you’ve been lecturing for too long and feel that if you don’t do something else your students will die in their desks. It’s good to keep a couple of these handy.

Selecting dilemmas to use in class

Where can you get a good ethical dilemma? Most textbooks will have a good selection, but you should always read them in advance and look for such things as these, and possibly modify the case:

  • A case that provides a lot of detail is more fun to analyze than a very vague one (and thus, dilemmas based on real cases are usually more interesting)
  • A case that makes you decide from the point of view of one of the characters is more engaging than the general question, “what should be done”?
  • Some cases end up telling you what was done, and ask you to judge on those actions. If that is the case, it is better to cut the last paragraph out, and let the students develop their own solutions to the problem

There are many ways of using cases in a class discussion. I’ll discuss them in a future post. Stay tuned! (I.e., press the “Follow” button!😉

A classroom activity: Dilemma “skits”

Download this activity

While I normally bring to class (that is, to Ethics class) some handouts with good “standalone” cases, I’ve recently had the opportunity of showing my students some flash presentations onscreen presenting short, everyday ethical dilemmas. These immediately capture the full attention of the most tired and distracted students, and are excellent for bite-sized discussions. Even if the acting is crummy, this adds an element of fun to the presentation!

The problem, however, is that there aren’t that many available. I quickly ran out of them.

So I thought: Why don’t I make my students come up with some?

That is how I came up with this activity, which you can download here. In a class with 22 students, we got five skits ready in just 45 minutes! You should allow about an hour for performing & discussing.

 This is how it works:

  • The activity guides students in creating “skits,” 2-3 minutes-long
  • The creation process is broken down so that it is very easy to keep students on track. The time assigned for each step worked perfectly in a 20+ students class…
  • …but you should walk around the groups and nudge them in the right direction if they are having trouble deciding on a topic
  • Groups can be of 3-5 students each, and every student should choose a speaking role. (One role can be the Narrator, introducing the characters and the situation)
  • The skit should not end with a decision, but instead should stop at the point in which a decision needs to be made.
  • When a skit ends, congratulate the students, and then use the opportunity to discuss the case with the whole class. In this way you pace them, and give each one the attention they deserve

* For a nice “extra credit” project, you can challenge your students to make a video of their skit. Eventually you may end with a small collection that you can use in future classes! (If you happen to do this and decide to make them public, let me know!)

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Minimum Age: 7 (Okay, maybe 6) Maximum Age: None Categories: High Adventure;
Recent Good Stuff
Test drive: It became the favorite show of both my 6-year-old boy and my 8-year-old girl, who continued watching it over and over, for many years since.
When my wife and I began watching it, it became the show we’d all watch together every evening.

Avatar coverIf you haven’t watched this one, you should definitely begin here!

How good is it? Don’t let the fact that this is an animated series put you off: This show has better writing than most live-action series, and it is possibly the best-written show that’s ever been done in the fantasy genre.

Just how good is it? Do you have a family member who cares only so much for fantasy, and not at all for cartoons? Well, that would be my wife, and she made me promise not to watch too many episodes ahead.

Which was hard, I tell you, because the story draws you in. This is neither one of those shows in which every episode is like the rest, but a three-season story in which characters develop, allies are won and lost, and cities and countries fall to the war. The animation is extremely beautiful, each elemental type of magic based on actual kung-fu styles. The humor is spot-on, with visual gags that will have the young ones rolling on the floor, and clever jokes on the genre itself, which will stay with you for a long time. (The song “Secret Tunnel!” appearing early in the second season, became a family joke for months! I think my kids asked me to stop.)

In short, I can’t recommend this show enough without becoming a bore.  The one bad thing about it is that it ends. How dare they!

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(P.S.: Just make sure you don’t confuse it with the very disappointing live-action movie by M. Night Shyamalan. If you want to see how bad it is, follow this link to Honest Trailers. Nuff’ said…)

Back to the Future (1985)

Minimum Age: 10 Maximum Age: None Categories:
Spielberg’s ’80s
Test drive: Another family hit! “Very good and clever,” according to my 10-year-older.
A few of the special effects haven’t aged that well; but the fire tracks the DeLorean leaves on the pavement still look super cool!

Back to the Future coverThe mid-eighties saw many protegees of Spielberg make a great number of truly creative, truly entertaining adventures, always with some element of the fantastic or sci-fi in them (much more fun as a rule than the gloomy adventures of the 2010s). Of these, Back to the Future is one of the most accomplished, and possibly the best time-travel movie ever made. Definitely something that you should share with your children!

You should know this; but in case you don’t (spoiler alert), the movie follows the story of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, in one of his most famous roles), the teenage son of underachieving parents, as he travels back in time to the 1950s, and accidentally causes his future mom to get a crush on him, which will in turn cause him to disappear from existence. So now he has to make his parents fall in love with each other, while fighting school bullies, finding a way to repair the time machine, and avoiding any further history mess-ups. On the way we are treated with buckets of out-of-time jokes, cool skateboard-action scenes, and a mounting tension, as at every turn of the road things gets increasingly difficult for Marty.

Nearly 30 years later, my kids still picked most of the humor, with the exception perhaps of some jokes based on political figures and celebrities (“Ronald Reagan is president?”) They found some of the effects “cheesy,” and the beginning felt a little slow. But soon they were caught in the mounting difficulties of Marty, and fell in love with the irresistible Doc, the eccentric, always intense inventor that envisions the ’80s like a Buck Rogers comic.

In short, the movie was a Blast from the Past.

For age-appropriateness, keep in mind that Marty’s mom tries to seduce him in a couple of occasions, and in a key scene, one of the bullies tries to, er, have his way with her. I mention this to avoid some awkwardness. I should also warn you against renting the sequels (BTF II and III). I sort of liked them in my time, but they get repetitive (most of the humor being based on repeating the same situations in a slightly different context), and the gags are too silly. My kids gave up early on them: they may have retroactively ruined their enjoyment of the first movie! Which means we’ll have to watch it again. Oh well…

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