Book Review: The Girl Who Was On Fire

I’ve written my fair share lately about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy but I guess I am not done yet. As part of one of our Scholastic Book orders, I saw this collection of “completely unauthorized” essays about The Hunger Games called The Girl Who Was On Fire (edited by Leah Wilson). I know this is just a book marketing gimmick to sell more books, but I have been very curious about all the ancillary books that my students are reading about the book and the movie.

The first few essays didn’t interest me much, as they covered the love triangle (Katniss, Peeta, Gale) and how love becomes an enduring theme in the series. I love love, but I wasn’t all that interested in the analysis of it in the book. (Is that a guy reaction? Maybe. Most of the writers here are female, by the way. And my most avid readers of the series are girls. Why is that?)

But the next few sections centered on the parallels to modern reality television and the games (as well as connections to classic literature that Collins references in the books), and the use of rhetoric and “smoke and mirrors” in the politics of Panem, and how Katniss navigates those ideas to her own advantage. There’s also an intriguing essay about the science of The Hunger Games, and how maybe some of the strange things in the books (such as the genetic mutant Mutts) are not that far-fetched after all, if you consider the scope of modern science. There’s even a piece about the impact of Post-Traumatic Stress on the characters (particularly Peeta) and how those events shape a life.

Overall, it was interesting to read The Girl Who Was On Fire collection after just finishing the series, even if the book is part of a marketing campaign by Scholastic. Now, where is that copy of the parody of the books called The Hunger Pains (by National Lampoon, of all things)? That’s what I need now to lighten up the mood a bit.

Peace (in the book),



Essays, Word Clouds and Loaded Words

A few of my students tried out the use of Word It Out to create word clouds of their persuasive essays. They were intrigued by the visual rendering of their essays, and I pointed out to them the question: if someone looked at your word cloud, would a viewer know the argumentative stance that you took in your essay based on the words in your cloud? (And it occurs to me now that this should be a required part of the essay project next year .. mental note)
The first one here is mine, which I shared as an example.
Fuel Cell Essay Wordcloud
Nuclear Power Essay Wordcloud
Frog Essay Wordcloud
Chimp Essay Wordcloud
Peace (in the loaded words),


Digital Literacy and WMWP

Our inquiry theme of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project in the coming year will be “digital composition” and yesterday, our leadership board and assorted members (including our WMWP Technology Team) began mapping out some ideas to keep that theme working throughout the year. Our hope is to highlight the ways that technology is impacting or changing our perceptions of writing, and how to help teachers see the change and be part of it. Here are some of the ideas we are chatting about and planning for:

  • We’ll be using the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site as our “text” for the year, using pieces there for inquiry reading and reflections;
  • One of our possible goals as a board is to develop and publish our own “resource” at Digital Is by the end of the year — this will help our board members experience the shift from users to producers of content, with a real audience;
  • Our annual conference in the fall will feature a keynote address around digital literacies, and connections to the Common Core curriculum;
  • We’re considering ways to support teachers around place-based digital storytelling ideas, with hopes of getting students across a wide range of communities to produce pieces that could be shared at a regional Digital Storytelling Showcase event;
  • And more …

It’s exciting to be on this path, and our WMWP Technology Team (we have about eight members of the team) will be the leaders of the inquiry initiative. And as it is the 20th anniversary of the WMWP site (which is quite an accomplishment), the idea of looking ahead to literacies as well as remembering our history is a balance we are striving to achieve.

Peace (in the ideas),


Search Stories as Companions to Essays

I introduced my students to Google Search Stories the other day as one extension activity for their persuasive essay/multimedia project. Many of them were intrigued by the short digital storytelling tool, and we had a discussion about why Google would provide such a tool: search queries equals profits for Google, and there was an appetite for people creating their own search stories after a famous Superbowl ad ran a few years ago. I want them to understand both sides of the equation around “free” technology.

A few of them are using the search story idea within a larger media project (such as a Glog or video project) but we are collecting and hosting them at our classroom YouTube site. Here is a playlist of the search stories, so far.

Peace (in the sharing),


The Fuel Cell Video Game Project

Fuel Cell Game Screenshot
I have a significant number of students working in Gamestar Mechanic to develop the “media component” of an environmental essay project. I have been modeling my own essay with students every day — pulling out paragraphs and making observations about my strategies — as a mentor piece, and I have been doing the same with the media pieces. My own essay is about fuel cell technology. Yesterday, I worked on, and then finished, a short video game about fuel cells that I shared with my students yesterday.

What I pointed out to them is how I used the text of the game (in the form of the introductions, rules, and even text messages within the game itself) to reflect the “stance” of my essay that fuel cells are a good idea and need more investment and research. I’ve really been pushing the ways to marry the media project with the argumentative stance of the essay, so that the two work together to create one single powerful message.

Interested in playing my video game called Fueling the Fuel Cells? Give it a try.

Peace (in the game),


Teaching Digital Literacy … to Adults

fake site scam
As a teacher and parent, I am most focused on teaching digital citizenship skills to my students and my children. But let’s face it: adults need help learning about how to effectively read and understand technology, too. I was reminded of this the other day when my wife told of a friend of a friend who fell for one of those email scams (“I need $40,000 and a plane ticket to America.” — man in Nigeria). And then, I had another reminder when I saw that my state (Massachusetts) had put together a new website resource to teach residents about Internet business scams and how to protect yourself from them.

Hosted by the Massachusetts Consumer Affairs Division, the website (Top Massachusetts Deals) lets folks know that the links are all fake websites, but if you stumble on one of them (such as the one about weight loss, or medical billing, or great Internet deals) and click on any of the “pay links” or “free stuff” links, you get a nice, large alert that THIS IS A SCAM. The scam part of the site also provides very details explanations of why it is a scam, and what you need to be looking for before you pull out your credit card.

I love that our state is doing this, and I hope it becomes part of a larger campaign to educate people about the need to be literate in many ways, including the ability to “read” a website, determine its origin, think about the legitimacy of product and owner, and make an informed choice based not on the flash and graphics, but on the content of the material.

Check out the website and take a tour


Peace (in the know),

Resource Review: Summer Apps and Tech for Kids

CommonSense Media just put out a handy guide to summer technology activities, broken down by age levels. I might share this with the parents of my students, as I often get questions about what kind of technology is appropriate for my sixth graders (I often say, the kind that gets them creating not just consuming). This guide is worth checking out and maybe sharing.

I like that Minecraft, Machinarium, Scramble with friends, and other games that stimulate the mind are on the approved list here. And the apps are grouped around themes, too, as if it were a summer camp flier. I appreciate that stab at humor. Keep in mind that CommonSense has a pretty strict filter for technology — they are a bit narrow in what is good for kids. I’m fine with that, but it is important to be aware of that bias around technology, too.

Peace (in the summer),



Remembering the Collaborative ABC Movie Project

These videos were in my Google Video archives as part of our Collaborative ABC Movie Project from a few years ago, as my friend Bonnie and I sought to explore digital storytelling with a bunch of other connected friends. The other videos are scattered about in other people’s collections or hard drives, no doubt (we had used the now-extinct site, JumpCut, to pull them all together and even edit them together on Jumpcut, which was a pretty neat experience). I still got a kick out of seeing what we were doing with that project, and thinking about how much I learned about digital storytelling, collaboration and coordinating a huge project.

Head to the ABC Movie Playlist

Peace (in the stories),


What They Are Creating: Glogs, Games and Slideshows

Media Choices Essay Project

As my students start completing the essay portion of their Science-based Persuasive Essay Project, they are shifting into working on a multimedia component. The other day, we chatted about the various technology tools we used this year in class — Glogster, Bitstrips, Gamestar Mechanic, podcasting, Photostory 3, and a few others. While they were not confined to the tools we used (I made it clear I was open to other ideas), they have to choose some way to create a companion media piece to their essays.

Yesterday, I did a quick survey with the classes, to determine the choices they were making. I find it interesting that so many are choosing Glogster (57 percent), although I don’t find that surprising, given their use of it during the year. They really do enjoy that site for its multimedia functions, and it allows them to mix video, photos and text together in a visual way. Gamestar Mechanic (25 percent) is the second highest choice, and I will be interested to see how the games turn out. I’ve been coaching a few students about how to represent ideas from their essays into their video game creations. Although I do not teach Powerpoint (14 percent), I am not surprised a few have turned to that old stand-by.

Another interesting point is that not a single one of my students decided to use Bitstrips for making a comic about their topic nor dipped into digital storytelling. I’m fascinated to see how the projects will develop, given my Tuesday deadline for everything to be done and handed in — the school year is just about done.

Peace (in the survey),



Book Review: Mockingjay

And so ends The Hunger Games series. (or at least, until the movies keep rolling out). I finished up Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins in a marathon reading session the other day, inspired by the face pace of the action and also a desire to be, well, done with the series. Overall, I very much enjoyed the political intrigue, the twists and turns of the plot, and the narrative voice of a conflicted Katniss Everdeen. There’s rarely a dull moment in the series, which makes it a great adventure story … for older readers.

I could not shake off the anxiety that so many of my sixth graders have read this series. More than the other two, Mockingjay is incredibly violent — a firebombing of little children, skin falling of bones, heads being gnawed off by “mutts,” and too many graphic scenes to really relay here. I’m not a prude when it comes to using violence in stories I read, and the violence is part of the narrative landscape of these books, but I don’t think it is appropriate reading for 11 and 12 year olds. (Of course, if you have read other Collins’ novels, you know this is the norm for her — she uses violence to make a larger point, and couches its use through the act of resistance or outrage by her protagonists.)

The other day, I was chatting with one of my students. She has read all of the books and most of the ancillary “resource” books that have come on the tail of the movie’s success. The parody book has been in her hands for a few days now (The Hunger Pains). She’s a thoughtful, quiet student. I told her I was halfway through the third book and liked it better than the second book (Catching Fire), and she nodded but disagreed with my assessment.

“I didn’t like that one (Mockingjay) nearly as much as the others.”

“Why not?”

“It was all about war, and not about the games.”

What I didn’t say was, that was the point, right? The games are a version of war, just sanctioned by the Panem state. But I think the focus of the rebel attacks on the Capitol is what she was referring to. It’s incredibly brutal reading, even painful at times.

So, in the end, I am not sure what to make of my Hunger Games experience. I am glad I read the series, considering how many of my students are or have read all three books (including a book club sponsored by our librarian), and I did enjoy the story as an adult reader. But I am thinking now of the book campaign by Scholastic around The Hunger Games, and how much of the spring, the book club fliers features the trilogy. Now that I have read the books and taken in the violence, I wonder about my role as a teacher in handing out those fliers and encouraging my students to read the trilogy. I guess we trust Scholastic a bit too much to determine appropriate audience for the books in the fliers. Or am I being too much of a prude?

I feel conflicted right now.

Peace (in the game that is more than a game),