Book Review: Book Scavenger

Now, here’s a book with a cool story (and perfectly suited for read-aloud, as I did with my son) that comes with a perfect activity for all of us book-loving, game-loving fools of the world. Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is a mystery story of sorts, as our protagonist, Emily, must solve a series of puzzles, found in books, to solve a larger mystery of a game set across the city of San Francisco. It all begins and centers on Edgar Allen Poe, but that’s about all I will say, so as not to give anything away.

Suffice it to say that Bertman has infused her novel with a love of books on many levels, with allusions all over the place to much-loved classics, and established Emily Crane as a heartfelt character. Her family moves .. a lot. Her parents aim to live in all 50 states, and then write a book about it (they already blog about it), and so Emily (age 12) never connects with other kids her age. She knows it is all temporary.

But James, a boy whose family owns the house where Emily’s family rents, is the first kid whose love of puzzles and challenges draws her into an unexpected friendship, as both kids try their hand at Book Scavenger, a website where people hide books and others find them, and collect points. Garrison Griswold, publisher and creator of Book Scavenger, has set in motion a new game, but then falls victim to a subway attack. Emily finds one clue and then game begins… and the story twists and turns, full of cryptic notes and odd discoveries.

Although Book Scavenger, the game and website, is part of a fictional novel, Bertman (and no doubt, her publisher) have created a real-life Book Scavenger site, where you can hide books and track the progress of those books being found. My son was very interested in this literary hide-and-seek game, and I am sure we will be doing some book hiding in our part of Western Massachusetts. Of course, we hope others in our area have read the book and followed the path to the website. (And you can track activity via the #bookscavenger hashtag on Twitter)

Now, the question is: what book shall we hide? And where?

Peace (hidden but in plain view),
Kevin

Book Review: Best American Non-Required Reading 2016

One “count on me reading it” book is often the latest edition of The Best American Non-Required Reading collection for a number of reasons:

  • I can often read pieces I missed during the year from publications like the Iowa Review or Granta or various chapbooks that would likely never be in my radar;
  • The collection is always curated by high school students from California and Michigan as part of the 826 Valencia (an organization started by Dave Eggers) and proceeds from the book purchase support the literacy work of the organization;
  • There is always a cool mix of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and comics, and other assorted odds and ends, and that mix is right up my alley as a reader.

While Eggers has mostly moved on from this project (yet still has his hand in the mix, I think), the venture remains in solid hands, and the high school students who spend a year as curators of material makes it always worth a look because it provides some insight into what is deemed important and interesting to at least one group of young literacy buffs.

The 2016 edition of Best American Non-Required Reading has the expected wide range of pieces, from an oral history of a Palestinian refugee’s life story to the conception of an amazing collection of mostly forgotten bird taxidermies on display in Iowa to the graphic story of a homeless man that shows the cyclical nature of despair to a studied history of the Black Lives Matter movement. There are always a few pieces that I skim through, but that’s to be expected in a collection like this.

Overall, I trust the judgment of the high school curators, and each year, my trust is rewarded with an enriching reading experience. This collection is no different.

Peace (read it and write it),
Kevin

Book Review: The Daily Show (The Book – An Oral History)

 

There was a time when my wife and I were regular viewers of The Daily Show … and then we weren’t. It had nothing to do with not liking Jon Stewart and his show — we did — but more that we didn’t want to pay a cable television bill that included the Comedy Central package. And then we had YouTube, made for our short attention spans and social media sharing.

But I always admired how Stewart and his crew battled the bulls$#t of politics, and brought a fairly progressive voice to the mix. This new book — The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History — is my kind of book (I am a big fan of oral histories), showing the genesis of Stewart’s vision for the show over the years as he found his voice (after taking over from Craig Kilborn) and how he used it with wit and smarts, shaping the way we talk about politics and share political rants and think about how the media plays a role in how we talk about politics.

Is that a good thing? Yes, and maybe no. “Yes,” in that the show made visible how a media outlet might respond to the “message” coming out of Washington. Reading over the Bush years and the wars it led us into, and how The Daily Show responded … it’s a reminder of how the Washington establishment at the time really dictated a message that most media outlets bought, hook-line-sinker.  And “No,” in that we may have put too much weight in Stewart himself to be the “voice of reason” from the progressive arena, and where did that take us? Right into Trump. (I’m not blaming Stewart for Trump, although that might make for a funny bit on the show.) Trump seems able to harness the worst but most effect elements of Daily Show-isms to create .. Trump Inc. (The fact that Trump hates Stewart is another reason to like Stewart).

This oral history book is comprised of a multitude of interviews from many of the people who worked on the show over the years, and Stewart himself. Ignoring some of the soap opera elements that come with any television production (romance, debauchery, conflicted vision), the most insightful elements for me was how attuned Stewart was to creating something that was comedic and serious, and with a message that would cut the heart of a truth (which might be variable, depending on your political lens). Hearing the “voices” of writers and producers and researchers, and many more from behind the scenes, gives power to the idea of how something comes into being over time.

David Remnick, in a piece about Stewart before he left The Daily Show, praised Stewart for “punching up” — for taking on those who were in political power and being unafraid to show fire and anger and zeal, and to hold Washington somewhat accountable.

I really liked The Daily Show (The Book), and The Daily Show itself. It’s fingerprints are all over television and social media, and the ways we use satire and humor. But I haven’t even seen anything with Trevor Noah as host of the show since Stewart left. Have you? Is he any good?

Peace (each day),
Kevin

Book Review: Al Capone Shines My Shoes

Al Capone Shines My Shoes the second in a series of three books (so far) by writer Gennifer Choldenko in which our protagonist, 12-year-old Moose Flanagan, is living on Alcatraz Island with his family. His father is a prison guard there, and Chodenko uses this closed community setting (with a prison filled with violent criminals) as an intriguing backdrop for Moose and his family and friends.

There a nice mix of humor, and insights about growing up, as well as prison intrigue, particularly when Moose and his friends have to stop a breakout attempt with their wits alone. But what sets this book, and the last one (Al Capone Does My Shirts) apart for me (and my son) is how Moose interacts with his sister, Natalie, who has autism during a time when autistic children were often sent to live “away” at state hospitals. Natalie is crucial to the plot from so many angles, and Choldenko treats her with respect even as the quirkiness of her autism makes her different from those around her.

Much of what Moose does in the story is hinged on protecting Natalie, including an ongoing and uncomfortable interaction with the most famous convict behind bars — Al Capone. I won’t give things away, but Choldenko does a nice job of not giving us too much Capone. What we see in Capone is both dangerous and curious, and Moose himself knows he is out of his league with something that started in the first book and continues as a thread here, with hints for the third book.

Al Capone Shines My Shoes is a perfect read for a middle school student, with rich characters and even richer setting. My son and I — we read it as a rad-aloud — are looking forward to her third book: Al Capone Does My Homework.

Peace (breaking in),
Kevin

At Middleweb: A Plethora of Writing Ideas

I recently reviewed this new book — The Writing Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Writers by Jennifer Serravallo – and I thought it covered a lot of ground in a fairly easy-to-use format. There are a wide range of ideas for the classroom on engaging young writers. I counted about 300 ideas in here. That’s a lot of possibilities.

I wrote in my review:

Flip through the book to find a ton of great ideas — helping students engage more with their own writing process; organizing ideas for short and longer fiction and non-fiction pieces; structuring assignments for all learners, or providing structure for student collaboration opportunities.

See what you think. Read the review over at Middleweb.

Peace (in books),
Kevin

Book Review: Best American Infographics 2016

I have a few favorite books that I put on my “wish list” each holiday season, and Gareth Cook’s Best American Infographics has been there since he started the collection a few years ago. Sure, we’re living in the world of Infographics now — with charts and maps and data grids everywhere you look — but there’s something about the story underneath the cream of the crop that makes this kind of curated book a joy to read.

And it is a joy. Visually, certainly, as the graphics here in Best American Graphics 2016 are wonderfully diverse and artistically rendered. But also, the short pieces that explain the rationale and the reasoning behind the visualization of the data bring to light how we can “see” the world different when we put it at another angle.

Interestingly, the opening pages to the book were a familiar sight to me – those of the postcards in the Dear Data collection, which I was in the midst of reading when I received the Infographic collection. We’re using Dear Data as inspiration for a postcard project now in the CLMOOC postcard club.

Other interesting data stories here that caught my attention here included Flowing Data’s What Americans Do All Day? (demonstrated by clusters of activity based on times of the day);  Fallen.io’s Human Toll of World War II (with its devastating reality check of the impact of war); FiveThirtyEight’s How to Hack Science (which shows how skewed data can show you want you want to see); Kevin Ferguson’s The Essence of a Western (in which he distills entire movies into a single frozen frame of light and shadows); and Atlas Obscura’s Literary Road Map (literally, a map tracking routes from famous American road-trip books, like On The Road.)

And there is the stunning A Galaxy of Trees by Nature. Wow. Three trillion trees are on earth. This map sought to show them all on a map visualization. Wow.

Some of the Infographics are online interactives, and some are just static points in time. Another interesting tidbit: the entire cover design of the book itself is an infographic, too (by designers Mark Robinson and Thomas Porostocky) so that you can unfold the cover and see an infographic wrapping up the book about infographics.

Sometimes, data can be a beautiful thing to behold. And read.

Peace (beyond data but not beyond visualization),
Kevin

Dear Data: Personal Connection through Data Collection

Dear Data: To Draw is to Remember

Infographics done right fascinate me, particularly if they tell a story from the data. Cold data analysis … does nothing for me. In the amazing book Dear Data, graphic designers Stefanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi document a year of postcards between themselves, sharing personal data in hand-drawn styles. Their 52-week journey of documenting and share is a reminder of how we might be able to uncover insights into ourselves, and each other, by paying more attention.

In fact, over at the Connected Learning MOOC community, a number of us are using Dear Data as a launching and inspirational point for sharing Data Postcards in the coming year. Some of us sent out Resolution Data postcards in January and “love” is the theme of February, and we are using Lupi and Posavec’s work as our starting point, to some degree.

This is my workspace the other day, as I was working on my data postcards, which I sent to different parts of the world. I sort of cheated by not doing every one by hand, but this is how I got it to work for me.

Making Data Postcards for CLMOOC

The two developed weekly themes that they built their data collection on, from the opening theme of “clocks” to observing urban animals (week 34) to a week of distractions (week 44) to a week of goodbyes (week 52, of course). Along with sharing the postcards, the two write about their experiences, from the difficulties of coming up with data representations to the celebration of sharing to insights they gained about their personal worlds through such an endeavor.

I also appreciated the insights at the end of the book, where the two outline some suggestions for others, such as:

  • See the world as a data collector
  • Begin with a question
  • Gather and spend time with your data
  • Organize and categorize it
  • Find the main story that the data tells
  • Share the data and the story

We don’t need to leave it to our machines and our computers and vast programming ventures to gather our world. We can do it ourselves. Lupi and Posavec show us the power of connections between people, and how to humanize the data, as a means to strengthen insights and understanding through a very visual means.

What’s your data?

Peace (it’s not just numbers),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Dog Man

Well, I could not not read this, right? I mean, Dog Man! I am Dogtrax in social media spaces. And Dav Pilkey! Who doesn’t love the hijinks of Dav Pilkey? (not counting the teachers in his books, who complain about kids making comics all the time).

In a nutshell, Dog Man is a comic story being made by two comic characters (Harold and George) in Pilkey’s comic book. If you know Captain Underpants, then that makes sense. If not, go forth and read Captain Underpants (there are worse things to read, including the daily newspapers with headlines coming out of Washington DC).

Dog Man is a police officer with the head of a dog and the body of a man (and don’t ask how that happened) who always seems to save the day, from either the villian cat (Petey) or animated hot dogs (the edible kind, which sort of gives away the resolution of that particular story … sorry).

Pilkey has great fun with sight gags, and word play, and general mayhem and silliness that makes Dog Man a fun read, mostly for the elementary age (but my middle school son enjoyed it). What more can you ask of a book? (other than some deep underlying theme of the human condition … yeah .. you won’t find that here in Dog Man.)

Peace (it’s ruff),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Secret Coders (Secrets and Sequences)

It’s the third book in the Secret Coders graphic novel series by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes, and I admit: I am pretty well hooked. I was slow to start with this series, even with Gene Luen Yang at the helm, for some reason — maybe the interjection of coding into the story felt a bit forced at the time.

Not anymore. As the story of our young female protagonist/coder — Hopper — and her friends uncover more and more strangeness in their school, and their school’s history, the narrative behind Secret Coders: Secrets and Sequences starts to kick into gear.

Sure, there are still interesting moments when the Luen Yang and Holmes stop the reader, ask them to mentally solve some coding puzzle, but I found myself enjoying those moments more than in the first book (and the second book started to really draw me in). I think it is me, not them, that is finally getting used to being pulled into the story from time to time as a programmer.

Here, in this third book, we meet a character who seems to be the main antagonist – Dr. One-Zero, a green man who was a brilliant student long ago but underwent a personal transformation of sorts (echoes of Dr. Strange here) — and we learn a bit more about Hopper’s missing father (part of the overarching narrative), as well as the strange connection to the school (Stately Academy) itself as a former place of innovation.

The coding gets more complex here, too, as the writers’ underlying mission to show young readers the ways that coding and programming through storytelling can be used to accomplish goals is extended out even further than the first two books. The kids at the heart of this graphic story use what they have learned about coding to escape from predicaments.

There is also a neat coding puzzle left for readers at the end of the book, as a sort of challenge for readers to uncover. You need Logo to solve it but the website connection to the book gives all of the information you might need to dive into programming. And the Fun with Coding page has some downloadable activities for use.

All in all, this series is a nice fit for upper elementary and some middle school students, particularly those with an interest in computers and programming. But the inclusion of a strong and fiesty female protagonist, ample amounts of humor, and a series of challenges for the reader to consider broaden the appeal for a wider audience with the Secret Coders series.

Peace (all ones and zeroes for action and adventure),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Innovator’s Mindset

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my reading of The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros became a “wicked slow read.” I don’t normally do “slow reads,” particularly with books about education. I zip. I devour. I readreadread. I write.

But since George was co-hosting the Innovator’s Mindset MOOC last fall (think of the IMOOC like a large book study, with the author co-leading discussions), I figured I would take my time with his book, which is fashioned for an audience of mostly school administrators (which I am not) on the theme of expanding notions of how to “innovate” schools for today’s students. “Taking my time” became nearly three months of reading one book.

The IMMOOC ended more than a few weeks ago (actually, the end took me by surprise .. I’m not sure why .. did I expect the MOOC to keep going? I blinked, and it was over) and it was some time before I now finished the book, on my Kindle app, and even more time to post this review (it was in my draft bin for a stretch).

My take?

I’m still juggling the jargon in the book and discussions. Words like “innovation” and “mindset” make my eyes go blurry. That said, George and IMOOOC co-facilitator Katie Martin tried to bring many people into the conversation about what it means to innovate our school system. That was helpful, even if some still slipped into edu-talk.

What is innovati0n? George defines it as “a way of thinking that creates something new and better” (which is still a bit too broad for my brain but I don’t have anything better to offer in replacement) and he wisely reminds readers that technology, while perhaps useful, is not a defining factor in innovative thinking.

The Innovator’s Mindset book itself provides a solid number of stories of schools, administrators and teachers pushing against the constraints of our school system constraints, and George writes in a very positive, upbeat manner — giving readers the push they need to take chances on ideas and, in an important stance, to support teachers in the classrooms to try ideas to meet the needs of their students.

I appreciated how George taps into Sylvia Duckworth’s visual notes as a complement to his text — she really does an outstanding job visualizing ideas — and George’s move to make lists and bullet points will no doubt be helpful for harried school administrators. George weaves his own stories as an educator-turned-administrator into narratives of how change can happen, and how sometimes change doesn’t quite happen. That doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying.

If nothing else, the book reminds us of the drawbacks of being isolated — as a teacher or as an administrator — and not being supported by those with the means to make things happen. I refer to superintendents, curriculum coordinators and principals. Again and again, George tells his readers to find ways to make things happen, even on small scale. Celebrate each step. Reflect. Keep pushing forward.

Innovation doesn’t emerge suddenly — it’s a gradual shift forward, spurred and powered by a shared vision of how things might be. The Innovator’s Mindset book, and the accompanying IMMOOC that took place last fall, is another compass on the journey. It’s a read worth your time, particularly if you are a school administrator. Speaking as a teacher, I hope you dive in.

Peace (pages of it),
Kevin