Talking Back to the Book: Invent to Learn


3d-invent-to-learn hodgson

Over at MiddleWeb, I recently reviewed Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager and found it be such a great resource for wrapping one’s head around where to begin with the move to get kids making things again in a learning environment. (See my review).

But seeing how there will be a book club community around Invent to Learn for Connected Educators Month, I wanted to share out some passages, lines and quotes from the book that really stood out for me as I was reading it. I hope to find time to participate in the book club. We’ll see.

“The past few decades have been a dark time in many schools. Emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing, teaching to the test, de-professionalizing teachers, and depending on data rather than teacher expertise has created classrooms that are increasingly devoid of play, rich materials and the time to do projects.” – p. 1

My Response: Yep. And this shift towards numbers, instead of students, continues to grow by the day, particularly as administrators are forced to show accountability and growth in testing. There is no doubt that this move and shift has taken much creativity out of our classrooms. Mine, too.

“Making things and then make those things better is at the core of humanity.” – p. 11

My Response: Yep. We forget that the most precious times of our own learning are when we are forced to dive in and learn how to do something. We make mistakes. We break things along way. We curse. (or I do). And then, when something falls into place, there is that exhilaration of “I did it!” For me, this often has to do with plumbing and fixing something before calling in the expert. Maybe that’s just me, though. A fixed toilet is cause for major celebration in our household.

“The Maker ethos values learning through direct experience and the intellectual and social benefits that accrue from creating something shareable. Not only are there a plethora of high-tech materials available for childhood knowledge construction, but the growing popularity of making things has led to many ‘low tech’ innovations to spice up hands-on learning.” – p. 29

My Response: Yep. (Sorry. I took these quotes out because I agree with them). I like that low hurdles and low or not tech is part of the Maker Movement values. Access and equity are huge issues. And cost of supplies and technology often are a barrier to classroom Make projects.

“When we allow children to experiment, take risks, and play with their own ideas, we give them permission to trust themselves. They begin to see themselves as learners who have good ideas and can transform their own ideas into reality.” – p.36

My Response: And I would argue that this is true for any educational experience and environment. Or I would hope. But direct instruction, drill and kill skill work and teaching to the test through the year suck all the fun out of learning for so many of our young people. They don’t trust themselves anymore, it seems. They are reluctant to take chances on something new. To fail (the authors don’t like that work) and iterate/innovate (their preferred terms) is part of learning. It’s not the end of the path. It’s the start of a new path.

“Projects create memories for students. Those memories contain the skills and content learned during that project’s development. The best teachers are those who inspire memories in their students, and engaging students in great projects is a powerful way to do so.” – p.65

My Response: Ye.. oh, never mind. I agree that we want learning to extend beyond the classroom walls. Memories are powerful reminders of learning.

“Making things provides a powerful context for learning. An authentic, or real-world audience, for one’s work is a mighty motivator. As teachers, we often promote the idea that process is more important than the end product, yet it is often the product itself that provides context and motivates students to learn. Knowledge is a consequence of experience, and open-ended creativity tools expand opportunities for such knowledge construction.” – p.66

 My Response: This idea of creating things for the world, for an audience, can be transformative in many ways. When we share our expertise, and when we teach others, we are learning even more deeper. That’s why so many teachers are such smart folks, right? And young people have a natural impulse to be part of the conversation with the world. (See the plethora of YouTube how-to videos).

“Re-using materials is consistent with kids’ passion for environmentalism and is an idea of the maker movement.” – p. 83

My Response: I had not really made that connections before. But this is so true. My students are passionate about the environment on many levels.

“Learning to program a computer is an act of intellectual mastery that empowers children and teaches them that they have control over a piece of powerful technology. Students quickly learn that they are the most important part of the computer program. The computer is really quite dumb unless you tell it what to do in a precise fashion the machine understands.” – p. 130

My Response: I suspect this is where we lose a lot of teachers. But we need to dive into these apps and programs that students can use, if only to get deeper into the technology and gain some agency over the devices of their lives. There are now a lot of simple ways to show programming skills and web-based skills. At the heart, though, it is us who are in charge, not the tools. (Although I know some might argue that point.) We control the power buttons.

“A funny thing happens when you make something, particularly something of  a technological nature. You are inspired to learn something else.” p. 162

My Response: That is so true. Success breeds curiosity which breeds innovation which breeds success.

“Teachers should not be treated as imbeciles incapable of growth or felons who can’t be trusted to show a YouTube video in class.” p. 199

My Response: Can we bulk email this to every school administrator in the country? Tape it up on the walls above the desks of the informational technology officers of every school district? Please?

What do you think?

Peace (in the make),

Book Review: The Hero’s Guide to Saving the Kingdom

So silly. And yet, so entertaining. That’s one of the ways to describe The Hero’s Guide to Saving the Kingdom, by Christopher Healy, which is one of those books that had been on my read-aloud radar for some time. Luckily, I remembered it when my son and I found gap in our reading, and he really enjoyed Hero’s Guide. So did I.

Healy takes the standard fairy tale tropes — witches, Prince Charming, damsels in distress, and more — and jumbles them all up in a hilarious retelling of what happens when heroes get their pride wounded by songwriters who fail to tell the truth. Plus, add in a diabolical witch with an axe to grind — and a giant, some dwarfs, trolls and other creatures — and a quartet of princes whose stories become the legend of Prince Charming, and you have a lot of action and slapstick comedy. And don’t forget those so-called damsels in distress, who turn out to be fiercely independent on their own — thank you very much — and hardly ever need “saving.”

But the entire kingdom does, and the four princes band together, with some help from a few princesses, to save the kingdom and the kidnapped bard songwriters from the witch. This book has a great pacing, and fun characters, and we had such a blast reading it out loud that we are now deep into the sequel: The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle. It’s as fun as the first.

Peace (in the twist),


Book Review: Comics for Film, Games and Animation

Tyler Weaver has done impressive work around thinking about comics as a medium for transforming storytelling, and this textbook — Comics for Film, Games and Animation: Using Comics to Construct Your Transmedia Storyworld — is a perfect entry point for anyone wanting to know more about comics (and you might want to toggle between this book and anything written by Scott McCloud) and the concept of transmedia storytelling. Here, Weaver not only tells of his own experience creating a multi-medium story (called Whiz!Bam!Pow!) that uses comics at the heart of the storytelling, but he also seeks to give us some defining characteristics and considerations of transmedia storytelling. (He also includes transcripts from interviews he has done with folks in this field of storytelling.)

In a nutshell, Weaver argues that digital technology and advances in multimedia tools allow storytellers to expand up on the experiences of readers/viewers by incorporating elements beyond text, so that a story might have images, audio, video, websites and other interactive elements that engage the reader/viewer on a variety of levels.  The story becomes an immersive experience. When we talk of digital storytelling, and try to move beyond the scope of just audio over rolling images of a personal story, this concept of transmedia conception of telling a story is intriguing, in my opinion.

It is also complicated to conceive and pull off as a writer, as Weaver acknowledges, and there are some hints that he suggests if you are thinking of working in a transmedia environment.

  • Make sure each part of the transmedia story can stand on its own, even the fragments of the larger narrative. This acknowledges that some readers/viewers will only want a piece of the puzzle, not the whole enchilada (my word, not his). He cites The Matrix as an experience that failed at this (see movie sequels) and Lost as an example that succeeded, even if it was mostly fan driven.
  • Keep the story at the center. Avoid the flash of technology and getting too smart with the tools. If a reader/viewer cares about the story and cares about the characters, they will remain engaged.
  • Weaver cites four lynchpins of transmedia storytelling: fragmentation, interplay, depth and choice.
  • Use the concept of multiple pieces of a story to create surprise and fun, creating connections to other nodes of the story that might not seem connected at first. Mystery and discovery will engage reader/viewers in new ways.
  • Consider the elements of each part of the transmedia. What does audio bring to the table? What do comics or graphic novels have that traditional text does not? How can a video enhance and move the story along? In other words, don’t jam in one way of writing and storytelling into a medium where it may not fit. Consider how best to leverage the possibilities and then use them to full advantage.
  • Allow for readers/viewers to go off on their own directions with your story. Be prepared for fan fiction, alternative worlds, and, Weaver notes, don’t be afraid of this.
  • Don’t “transmedia-fy” everything. Weaver notes that some stories deserve to be on their own. Resist the urge to create an immersive, multi-platform experience if the story does not call for it.

You might be wondering how Weaver’s focus on comics comes into play here. In the book, Weaver keeps a lens on how comics hold multiple possibilities for storytelling, either on their own or connected to a transmedia experience. There are elements around comics — the use of the “gutter” to create inference and time gaps, for example — that other mediums can’t go to. And comics has an emotional connection to readers, too, Weaver notes. Fans of comics are hard-core fans open to new experiences, and therefore, the possibilities of extending a story across platforms and mediums can be a natural fit.

Weaver ends the book with this thought:

“If there is one thing I hope you take away from this book, it is that most great storytelling inventions were created in service of the story being told … (the) danger we face in this ‘wild west’ media landscape (is) a loss of story, a loss of the joy of engaging with a character, replaced instead with a desire to ‘out-tech’ or ‘out-cool’ your transmedia competitors as you ‘engage’ your audience …. Always focus on the unchanging: the audience’s desire to be entertained by a great story that makes them want to be part of your world.” — Tyler Weaver, Comics for Film, Games and Animation, page 257

I agree.

Peace (in the stories we tell),

PS — I should note that after I saw Weaver tweeting about the book, I asked if he might send me a review copy, and he did.

Graphic Novel Review: Adventures in Cartooning – Characters in Action

I really love this book as much as the concept behind it. And I have loved the other books put out in this series from the Center for Cartoon Studies (and published by First Second Publishing). In this newest edition of Adventures in Cartooning, readers not only get a funny story about a knight looking for a king whose kingdom has been taken over by a movie producer, they also get an embedded lesson around developing strong characters (and how to draw them for comics).

The knight on his horse is a recurring character in the series, which includes the first one — How To Turn Your Doodles into Comics — that really does a fine job of looking at the art of making comics. An activity book that came out later allows kids to work right in the book itself. My son loved it.

Characters in Action is a sly bit of teaching, and perfectly aimed at the elementary level of students. By the end of the story (which has a quick pace), you realize that with a few strokes of a pen or a few good descriptor words, you can make characters old or young, brave or fearful, smart or not-so-smart, and more. For young writers who struggle to create original characters, Characters in Action might be another fun resource to put into their hands.

Peace (in the action),

Book Review: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Last spring, just as our principal was on his way to a new job, he decided to assign Where the Mountain Meets the Moon as an all-school summer read. (I admit: I asked him if we were doing another summer reading program and that spurred him on.) He had read this one with his daughter and raved about it. This summer, as part read-aloud to my son and then by myself, I dove into this intricately-told tale based in Chinese culture of a girl who seeks good fortune by running away from home, trying to ask advice from the Old Man in the Moon.

Writer Grace Lin weaves stories inside stories here, creating a real tapestry of fiction with echoes of traditional Chinese folk tales. And there is plenty of adventure, with dragons, and evil leaders, and magical string and more. The pace of the novel is quick, making it a perfect read-aloud, and the resolution of the plot is nicely done, spinning through friendship, hope and forgiveness. I should also note that the illustrations are stunning, giving a rich Chinese texture to the story itself.

We won’t get too deep into the book when our students come back next week for a number of reasons but I want to find a good way to reference the story within the story idea, somehow. Still thinking …

Peace (in the book),


Annotated Bookshelfie Photo Meme

Thanks to Anna, I found out about the #bookshelfie meme idea, which is to simply take a photo of yourself in front of your bookshelf and share it out. There is even a Tumblr site for easy sharing. It’s a twist on the “selfie” image idea. I took mine, and then realized that it might be neat to annotate some of the books on the shelf behind me. I used Thinglink to do it.

What books are on your shelf? Consider sharing.

Peace (on the shelf),


Summer Reading Book Reviews

This is a quick post reviewing three books that I read while on the beach. Lots of reading … that’s part of my down time. And not a professional book in the bunch.


First, A Conspiracy of Faith is the third book in the Department Q mystery series by writer Jussi Adler-Olsen and his Danish main detective, Carl Mørck, is back better than ever with his grumpy personality and keen insights into solving crimes. This book is more sprawling than the other two, but that is not a bad thing. Adler-Olsen weaves a rich tapestry of stories and characters, and while you know who is the antagonist, the thrill is in watching Carl Mørck solve what is going on. In this book, the mystery involves a serial killer who targets strict religious sects and Mørck is racing against time to save two children who have been kidnapped. This was a perfect summer read for me.

Second, Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield is one of those unexpected surprises. While I read Sheffield regularly in Rolling Stone magazine for his witty pop culture views, this is the first book of his that I have read. It’s lovely, really, telling the story of how he fell in love with his first wife, married her and then was suddenly adrift when she died of a brain clot in 1997. Lovely, as in sad but powerful, particularly as Sheffield weaves in their collective love of music and pop culture. And for anyone who ever made or received a mix tape in the 1990s (my hand is raised), Sheffield’s insights into why those collections mattered and what they said about us had me reconsidering music in new ways. Each chapter starts with song titles of a mix tape that Sheffield dissects in the glow of his wife, and then, the music is what finally helps him grapple with the loss and begin to take steps forward into life. I really loved this book, and now am on the hunt to get his latest.

Third, The Second Mouse by Archer Mayer is another mystery. Here is a book that I did not bring with me, but ran out of reading material (panic!) and scoured the bookshelf of the summer house we were renting to see if anything might pique my interest. I have read about Mayer before because he sets many of his stories in southern Vermont, not far from where I live. I gave this novel a try and liked it. Mayer’s main character, Joe Gunther, is another detective with gut instincts and here, while piecing together the death of a young woman, he uncovers a larger crime. Standard crime fiction, in many ways, but Gunther is a likeable lead character and Mayer does use setting to his advantage here. I was glad that it was the shelf, and returned it when I was done for someone else to enjoy.

Peace (in the review),


Book Review: Joyland

You never know how brutal and gory Stephen King might get (well, if you read him, you know), but I have to give Joyland a hearty thumbs up for an entertaining summer read. King’s paperback pulp-style (look at the cover) novel centers on a narrator just getting over having his heart broken for the first time who ends up joining an aging amusement park in North Carolina for the summer. The story spins around  Devon Jones (the narrator) coming to terms with life, a ghost story that leads to a murder investigation, and odd connections that Devin makes during the summer and beyond.

King is fairly restrained here, slowly building the suspense of a mystery underway, and it works. Joyland is a joy to read, and as part of a Hard Case Crime series of books, it is both a detective novel and a foray into the unknown (King territory) as one or two characters have the “gift” of vision beyond reality. These visions help Dev solve the case of a murdered girl, almost too late for his own good.

More importantly, King immerses the reader in the language and behind-the-scenes views of the carnival life, complete with the Talk (the ways in which carnies communicate with each other in a sort of code). That kind of attention to detail gives the story a real hook, and allows King to use his considerable writing talents to the benefit of character development and story.

Peace (in the carny world),

Graphic Novel Review: Louis Armstrong Jazz Legend

When I was a music major in college (yep, for one year), all roads in our jazz music history class rightly went through the life story of Satchmo, or Louis Armstrong. While there were many before him (Sidney Bechet, for example) who nurtured the concept of jazz before it became mainstream, it was Armstrong nearly alone who rode the wave of popularity of jazz and gave it both an inventive and popular culture twist — in concerts, on records, in movies.

And on street corners.

This graphic novel biography — Louis Armstrong: Jazz Legend — tells a condensed life story of the legendary Armstrong, from his roots in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New Orleans where some gun play lands him in a youth detention center where he first learns to play music, to his scramble to find enough coins to buy his first horn, to his band work with renowned leader Big Joe Oliver, to singing Hello Dolly as a surprise hit (he didn’t like the song all that much and sang it as a toss-away song) on the big screen. The narrative tone of this graphic novel (aimed at elementary students) is Armstrong’s own voice, told through a short history he wrote while recuperating in a hospital bed.

The pace of the book is quick, moving from one event to another like a riff, and as always with Capstone Press graphic books, there is a solid glossary at the back with musical terminology and a text version of Armstrong’s life, as well as some additional website links that readers can follow to learn more about Satchmo (called that because he had a large mouth and was nicknamed Satchel Mouth, before shortened to Satchmo) and his impact on popular music and jazz.

I wasn’t all that keen on the illustrations in this book, but I get that the artist was trying to capture the free jazz style of Armstrong in the drawings. I found them a bit too rudimentary, and green-washed, for my own liking.

Peace (in the story of jazz),