Graphic Novel(s) Reviews: Stonebreaker/Over the Wall

 

I am always happy to help out an independent graphic novelist, so after bumping into Peter Wartman in another social media space, I followed his link to his page for the Stonebreaker series. I’m glad I did, for the story Wartman tells here feels like just beginning of an epic tale, but it has much complexity to it and characters I am already rooting for. (And this particular series is a sequel to Over the Wall by Wartman.)

In one sitting, I dug into all three of the available Stonebreaker books (and I imagine at some point, Wartman might try to unite the stories into a single graphic novel) and ended curious, wanting more. That’s when you know a story has gripped you.

Stonebreaker is set in an ancient city that has been destroyed by a Demon God (whose origins we learn here but not much else, but is probably covered in the earlier book, Over the Wall). The city is now mostly abandoned by people, except for folks like our hero, Anya, whose friendship with another Demon (a librarian who is friendly with Anya but who has past memories are just arriving) seems to be central to the larger story narrative. Anya’s brother has a backstory, too, in which he also went into the city, but lost his memory in some encounter with another demon.

There’s a lot of mystery here in Stonebreaker, and Warton is sprinkling hints of where the story is going. The reader has to immerse themselves in the world, and make some inferential leaps about characters. I don’t mind that, particularly with graphic novels like this, but it may be confusing a bit for some other readers not accustomed to diving right in to an imagined world.

I also later ordered and then read Over the Wall, the prequel story that sets Stonebreaker in motion by introducing the characters, and setting, and storyline.

It’s admittedly odd to read the second story first before the first story, and I found myself enjoying Stonebreaker a lot more than Over the Wall, which itself is a fine bit of storytelling. I just happen to think Stonebreaker is a richer experience, perhaps the results of Wharton’s sense of the story and world expanding as he continues to create.

The Stonebreaker series (so far) and Over the Wall are perfectly appropriate for elementary and middle school (and high school) readers.

Peace (on the page),
Kevin

The Range of Writing in our Video Game Design Unit

Writing Activities in Video Game Design unit (update 2017)

My students are not just playing video games all December for our Game Design Unit. We do lots of writing, although most of it is “sneaky” writing on my part — smaller, quick reflection points mixed with larger, more formal writing. A few years ago, for a presentation, I began to chart out the various writing assignments that take place (as much to document our work as to justify any questions from parents and administrators).

Today, they are working on the writing of their persuasive Video Game Review assignment, crafting an argument about a video game through the lens of design features (controls, visuals, sound, etc.) Meanwhile, some students are starting to finish and publish their video game projects, and getting other kids from around the world in Gamestar Mechanic to play and give feedback on their projects.

Peace (write it to live it),
Kevin

Post-Election Reaction: Phew

Photo: This West Park sculpture in Birmingham, Ala., commemorates the four little girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on Sept. 15, 1963. Denise McNair, 11; Carolyn Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14.

There are many reasons why I could not fathom the rise and candidacy of Roy Moore in Alabama. But I read deep enough into the election from many sources to be reminded again that different parts of the country, particularly some sectors of the rural South, see the world very different from my perch here in liberal Massachusetts.

Still, this morning, when I read that Doug Jones won over Moore in that Alabama special election for Senate, I felt myself exhale and go … phew! I don’t expect Jones to be the progressive candidate I personally would like — that is not his constituency — but … phew.

Here’s another reason why I really wanted Jones to win (other than a thumb to the eye of Trump and another thorn in the side of the GOP-run Senate): Jones was the U.S. Attorney who helped prosecute the racist white supremacists who had bombed the church in Alabama that killed four little girls (and injured other children) that is the heart of the book we read in my classroom — The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.

I always start the book with Curtis’ dedication page, in which he names the four girls who were killed, and we talk about what the dates next to the names mean (how young they were and how they were all killed on the same day). At the end of the novel, we circle back around, and talk about the girls and use primary sources to understand the Civicl Rights and the toll it took on so many people and families.

Now, when we read that book, I can point to Jones as one of the people who would not let that crime go unpunished, even though it took decades to identify and prosecute those responsible, and Jones’ rise to the US Senate is partly built on that experience.

Phew.

Peace (in the morning),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Holding It Together

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

The email from our principal began: “Nobody knows why sad things keep happening to our faculty/staff.”

It has indeed been a year of loss within our teaching staff family. Two colleagues have lost their husbands in unexpected and tragic circumstances, the most recent happening just the other day. A cloud of concern hangs over us all at the school.

We talk to each other in low voices in the hallways, checking in with other. We ask about news from those who are dealing with grief, using the informal friendship grapevine to keep track and show support when we can.

Our principal has been there for all of us, making sure we have space and a place to share thoughts and connect, and those simple gestures of understanding and compassion go a long way in any place where people work together. That email invited us to come together, after school, in the library, for some community time. The upper administration also seems to understand, sending its thoughts (and gifts of food and nourishment) to us.

All of us are looking ahead to brighter days while opening our hearts to those of us still deep in the darkness of loss.

Peace (sent forth),
Kevin

Video Game Design Unit: Student Story-Frames

(image via Gamestar Mechanic Teacher Blog)

I’ve been sharing out about our class work with merging video game design and story-telling, and my reminder to my sixth grade students about the importance of story. In a recent Gamer’s Journal reflection, I asked them to remind me of their game story-frame.

Here are some of the examples, which are a good indication of how my young writer/gamers are thinking of narrative in terms of game design.

The story frame is that a young magician is trying to get revenge on another older magician that has gotten him in trouble and fired his favorite teacher for standing up for him. Your player is his servant and you must make the older magician look bad in return by stealing one of his magical devices, but that won’t be easy. The hardest part of building my game was making sure that it fit the story accurately.

It is called “Lab X: the experiment”. It is about a scientist who is new at Lab X, and is told to see how an experiment ended up. He heads up to the room in which they conduct experiments, to discover that the experiment turned everyone else into monsters. Then he tries to escape with only the help of a few robots to instruct him.

It is about a girl named Amy trying to find her long lost brother. He was taken from her and her family about a year ago. He was taken by evil creatures or the creatures of death. But in the second level you are her brother trying to escape from the creatures.

The story-frame of my game is that Tyson (the character) is trying to save someone he knows Percy from Tartarus. There are 4 levels and Tyson starts at the Empire State Building and has to make it through the Empire State Building, the Underworld, and Tartarus alive. He will face monsters on his way, too.

My story is about a young hero who wakes up in a wonderland after defeating Gregor the Great, (or so he thinks,) A great wizard that needs “sun-gems” for power. Roger G. will guide the hero through the wonderland so they can get the sun-gems to leave and thwart Gregor before it’s too late.

My game is about sprites who are able to fly, and use their abilities on a daily basis. However, the new King has restricted their ability to fly. None of the sprites like this, and the player is chosen to go challenge the king to get back their right to fly.

My video game follows the story of a heroine who finds the courage to go save the princess. The princess has been kidnapped (or I guess you could say princess-napped), by the Evil Oracle, who brings her to a secret chamber within a volcano. He puts her under a mind control, so she listens to everything he says. The heroine first escapes the kingdom, which is under a sort of lockdown. The next step is to venture through the Dark Forest, where she must battle three evil sprites to collect the Keys of the Forest, which allow you to safely leave. Lastly, the heroine must battle the Evil Oracle, who told the princess to jump into the volcano. She defeats him, and must rescue the princess, who will unknowingly attack you, without harming her.

I would like to give you an update on my game I titled “The Treasure Rescue”. My game is about an evil turkey that steals the treasure that is filled with the national history of the Galapagos Island and the queen has asked you to go on a dangerous journey to find and retrieve the treasure.

My video game’s storyline is you get captured by the evil snow Queen and you need to escape before she destroys your whole village with her giant snow monster servant! You have to escape her dungeon and get past her royal guards before it’s too late to save your village!

Peace (in story and game),
Kevin

The Story-Frame Component of the Video Game Design Project

Text Samples: The Queen's Mission

My students no doubt think I am a broken record (if they knew what a record was). Every day, as they are working on their Hero’s Journey Video Game Design Project, I am reminding them: What is your story? How will the player “read” the story by playing your game? Is each level a “chapter”? Where are you putting text into your game?

Text Samples: The Queen's Mission

It’s important that the narrative be part of the game, but they often get wrapped up in the design of the game that they are apt to forget about the story. My daily and constant reminders, and questions as they work, are more about narrative than level design at this point in time.

Text Samples: The Queen's Mission

As always, I am working on my own game as they work, too, as a way to share out my thinking process, my workarounds, my progress and a mentor text for them to play to understand the mix of game and story that this project is all about.

You can play my game, in development process, if you want. I am revising my game as I work, re-publishing new versions as I add new levels/chapters, and talking through my process with my students.

Play The Queen’s Mission (NOTE: does not work well on mobile devices).

Peace (written and read),
Kevin

 

 

The Hour of Code Still Engages

Hour of Code 2017

This is our fourth year (I think) of taking part in the Hour of Code, which nicely falls right within our video game design unit. I know that the whole Hour of Code gets some periodic push-back due to the corporate funding sources behind the week-long celebration of computer science, and that it gets flack from those who think the focused emphasis on programming and coding has gone too far.

Agreed. Somewhat. Still …

Hour of Code 2017

There are some pretty interesting projects available for young people to explore at the Hour of Code site, and during our time working on Hour of Code this week (as a break from our video game design project, another form of programming, right?), many of my students — particularly the girls — were very engaged in the learning and the playing.

So, there’s that. Which is a good thing.

I had some students — but not many — who had done Hour of Code either in other grades (but not at our school, alas) or in technology summer camp programs. At least one had come to our Family Code Night held last Spring. Those few with Hour of Code experience went into Scratch to work on some existing projects, sparking interest around them by other students.

All good.

Peace (every hour, beyond the hour),
Kevin

At Middleweb: Making Maps to Support Literacy

I wrote a bit about maps and writing in the classroom over at Middleweb, where I have a regular column about teaching. The piece dovetailed with work being done all November with CLMOOC on mapping in many forms and varieties.

Check out Using Maps & Mapmaking in Your ELA Classroom

I also shared this list of map-making resources:

Peace (map it out),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Dogs (from Predator to Protector)

The latest in a series of Science Comics coming out of First Second Publishing will surely catch kids’ attention. It’s about dogs. Artist/writer Andy Hirsch’s Dogs: From Predator to Protector is a lively romp through the canine world, told with humor and gusto and jam-packed with science.

In fact, there is so much scientific information — told engagingly and with a nice mix of comic images and writing — that I wonder about the audience of this book. The text complexity pushes it into upper middle school/high school, I would think, as we learn about behavioral science, mapping of genetics, breeding for traits, the history of humans to animals (and vice versa), and more.

It’s all very interesting, but deep and dense. Luckily, the mascot of the book — a dog off chasing his ball as a portal into time — is cute, and engaging, and very dog-like in his mannerisms.

I suspect many kids will pick up the book because of its cover, and hopefully, they will stay to learn more about the complex canines in our midst. This book is another example of how the graphic story/comic format can engage learners and impart informational text, in a fun way.

Peace (woof),
Kevin

 

Annotation Invitation: Critical Literacies and Student Stories

Annotation Event: Critical Literacy

As part of the ongoing Writing Our Civic Futures project, through Educator Innovator and Marginal Syllabus, a crowd annotation of Linda Christensen’s deep article on how she turned her classroom around to focus on the lives of her students is underway.

And you are invited.

The project uses the open sourced Hypothesis tool, which allows for discussions and annotations in the margins of online documents. Linda Christensen is also participating, so you might have a chance to dance in the text with Linda. The article — Critical Literacies and Our Students’ Lives — was first published by NCTE via In the Middle, and Christensen’s views about how to pivot towards authentic stories in times of testing is an important sharing moment.

I’ve been moving some of my annotations of the paper version of her piece to the online piece, via screenshots. But you can add text, images, gifs, videos, sound, and more in Hypothesis, creating a multimedia collage of thoughts and connections.

Critical Lit Margins6

I was fortunate to be invited to take part in a video conference with Linda and some other educators to talk about what she wrote and the nature of public annotation of writing, as sort of a preview for the annotation event. She was very open and insightful, and I most appreciated her thoughts when I asked her about how she was feeling about opening up her words to annotation in the commons. (see her response)

I hope you can join us in the margins …

Peace (in and beyond the classroom),
Kevin