Book Review: Energizing Research Reading & Writing

Talk about the right book at the right time. Christopher Lehman’s Energizing Research Reading & Writing dropped on my doorstep just days before I began launching into the start-of-the-year research project with my sixth grade students, and I feel as if I have had Lehman by my side just about every step of the way. Written in an engaging tone, and very teacher-friendly format, this overview of how to think anew about the benefits of research projects (and how to consider research through the Common Core focus) has so much good advice, it is difficult to know where to begin.

From the opening chapter that puts our ideas about research projects in perspective (particularly the way that technology and Internet access has reshaped the ways in which students find information) to helping students narrow down topic choices, considering and using sources without the “plagiarism” effect, the benefits of graphic organizers (or not), and the need to balance short-term research with long-term projects to develop skills.

I highly recommend Energizing Research Reading & Writing as a resource for any classroom that has research in its future (which, if you are a Common Core state is just about every upper elementary classroom through high school). I’ve already been sharing out some of the many charts that Lehman pulls together around the main ideas, in which he helpfully shares teaching strategies and ideas to differential the research instruction for a variety of students, and makes direct connections to content-area classroom research, too.

Peace (in the search),


Book Review: Wildwood

I got so completely and utterly sucked into this debut novel by Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists fame) that I didn’t want to stop reading. Gosh darn it, life got in the way. But I snuck my moments here and there, and when I was done with the story, I wished I had read Wildwood out loud to my son, and I still yet may do that (when we get through Rick Riordan’s Mark of Athena.) In Wildwood, Meloy has created a convincing and imaginative world of the Impassible Wilderness where adventure lies in store for our young heroes, Prue and Curtis. Prue’s baby brother has been kidnapped by a murder of crows, and she must go off to save him. Thus begins an adventure of a lifetime in a world not too far removed from our own, and yet magically distant from our own experiences.

I won’t give much away except to say that the book works as a pace perfect for read-aloud – with lots of action and adventure, and female protagonist in Prue that will connect to girls and boys. There’s much to love in this book. As soon as I ended Wildwood, with one of the characters remaining behind as the others returned to the regular world, I was on my Barnes and Noble account, calling up the second book: Under Wildwood, and placing an order. And I can’t wait to see what happens in that story.

Peace (in the wild woods of childhood),


Encouraging Home Literacy Moments: The Laptop Letters

Laptop Letters from Bill Zimmerman

Bill Zimmerman, whose Make Beliefs Comix site is a great place for students to begin to learn how to make web comics, has just put out a book called Laptop Letters. Zimmerman, whose aim is always to strengthen literacy, has assembled many of his comic-based writing prompts into one collection for parents as a way to encourage them to write to their own children. This is a great idea worth considering, as a parent and as a teacher connecting with parents.

And the book is offered up as a free ebook, too, from Zimmerman (although I think it might be even more valuable as a real, paper book where you could use the prompts and visuals a little easier.) Throughout the book, Zimmerman (with illustrator Tom Bloom) offers advice for how to write letters from parents to children, on themes of memories and experiences and shared hopes and dreams. There is a certain spiritual element to some of the prompts, but mostly, they are centered around sending forth a message of caring and compassion and thoughtfulness.

What’s fascinating is how Zimmerman is trying to frame the letters from a technology standpoint, noting that parents should find ways to reach their children through communication means that the children will read. In the introduction, he notes that while some bemoan the lack of traditional letter writing, many of us (adults and children) now use email and text messaging throughout the day, and why not use that medium to send words of love and support and wisdom to our kids?

I was wondering what my older boys would say if I started writing them stories via their cell phones. Would I be invading their space? Would they write back? We certainly have our struggles with our oldest son around communication. I guess I am not sure what the impact would be if I used some of the prompts here. And while Zimmerman notes that the power of these laptop letters is in the sharing of words and wisdom that last as family memories, there is such a temporary effect with text messages. Nothing gets saved beyond a moment of time. It had me wondering if texting is the medium for these literacy moments.

Still, one can’t argue that any suggestions for strengthening the bonds between parents and kids, particularly during this age where technology seems to cut off some of those interactions, is a good idea and one worth advocating. Zimmerman has provided a path for those kind of connections in Laptop Letters with some wonderful prompts to consider and starting points from which to begin.

Peace (in the letter),



Graphic Novel Review: Zeus and the Rise of the Olympians

Campfire Books has been putting out an increasingly interesting array of graphic novels lately that deal with mythology in various cultures, and this one by writer Ryan Foley and illustrator Jayakrishnan K. P. is the dense, but fascinating, tale of the origin myths behind the Gods of Olympus. Zeus and the Rise of the Olympians tracks the myth of the creation of the world, and resonates with the theme of the “son overtaking the father” that comes into play in so many Greek stories. The graphic novel — which is gorgeously drawn and inked and really captures the sense of being in a world of gods — explains the story of the rise of Cronus over Ouranous, and then the rise of Zeus over Cronus, and the birth of the Golden Age.

Like many, I know the story, but I think I have known the simplified story. Here, Foley brings other details into focus and, using the technique of a Greek teacher recounting the story to her students, lets us know that much of the story is still shrouded in the mystery of the gods. We have to accept, for example, that Cronus swallows his children but they don’t die (and grow in his being to become the Olympians). Even the hero of the story, Zeus (looking like some powerful super hero of DC comics), and the villain, Cronus, are complicated creatures, with strengths and insecurities brought to the surface by this book’s story.

Some years, I teach The Lightning Thief as a novel, and I have a stack of Greek Mythology books ready as additional resources. This graphic novel will surely join the pack, and while it may be a bit tricky for the casual reader (the text is sort of dense for a graphic novel), I can see some of my stronger readers with high interest in mythology eating it up (and hopefully, not spitting it out, as Cronus did).

Peace (in the myth),



Book Review: The Endless Caverns

About two years ago, a teaching colleague of mine – Mike Flynn — told he was writing a kids’ book. I wasn’t all that surprised. Mike’s work in the classroom with the younger kids had earned him lots of recognition and kudos (Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, meeting the president, working around the country on helping other educators with math, etc.). He told him that the book stemmed from work he was doing as a consultant on a website for kids, a place of interactive activities built on educational concepts. The site — Mutasia — is colorful and full of interactive play but I’m not sure what differentiates it from other educational “portal.” Still, Mike said the organizers had done a lot of research, and talking to teachers, and were working hard around thinking of how to build a site for kids in meaningful ways that combine challenging fun with learning. I don’t know enough about the site to give an opinion, except to note that along with activities, they also sell products (plush toys). So, there clearly is a marketing element (I imagine the word “synergy” comes up in meetings)

At one point, my colleague — Mike Flynn — asked me to read over a draft of the book that he was writing, and I gladly did, offering up some advice and impressions. I liked the concept of Mike’s story — the central theme is about taking chances on new ideas and how to be a good friend — and the characters (which come from the website) were interesting, in a Fraggle Rock kind of way. Plus, I was excited that Mike was asked to write a book. Anytime a friend is writing a book to be published is cause for a little celebration, right?

Mike’s book — The Endless Caverns — is now out, and Mike’s publisher sent me a copy. (I had asked Mike if he could get me a copy to look at when the final book was published.) It’s an adventure story in which a character named Figley goes off into the wild jungles of their homeland but then has reservations about his abilities to make it to the end of the journey, and some fears crop up. His friends, however, step up and help him work through those fears, with compassion and support. The story (a version of the ‘heroic journey” for the younger set) ends with a crazy and thrilling ride over a waterfall.

I am going to leave The Endless Caverns on the table near my second grade son (the grade that Mike used to teach before he left to help run a Summer Math Program at a local university) and see what he thinks. And then I am going to bring it to my sixth graders, some of whom had Mike as their second grade teacher. They will be thrilled, I am sure. And kudos to Mike for working through the years-long process of writing, revision, more revision, and even more revision … and then, to publishing a children’s book.

I wonder if I can get him to visit my classroom?

Peace (in the book),


MiddleWeb’s Professional Book Review Collection

A book review that I did for the MiddleWeb site (aimed primarily at middle school teachers but has a lot to offer to teachers of all levels) is part of the site’s Fall Book Review Festival. There are some interesting books on the list and all the reviews were done by educators, so you can mostly trust the lens. The book I reviewed — How to Teach Critical Thinking Skills Within the Common Core — was just OK. I wouldn’t rush out to buy it, but if it were on our teacher resource shelf, I’d pull it down to peruse.

Read my review

And, of course, I could not resist a comic element.

Peace (in the review),


Banned Book Week: The Annotated Huck Finn

Huck Finn
I saw this via my NCTE connections. In honor of Banned Books Week, a company has put out for free its annotated version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  While the design of the annotated text isn’t all that great (particularly in a Kindle/Nook/iPad world), there is a lot of useful background information at the start, and you can activate various color-coding systems for things like voice, plot, style, point of view and more.
huck finn 2
It might be a nice way to show (maybe on a whiteboard) all of the ways that an author gets at a story, but also, to talk about why this book and others ruffle so many feathers, and end up from time to time on the banned book lists of communities.
There is also this video about Banned Books, which is part of a video playlist from Video Amy over at Edutopia.

Peace (on the pages),

Graphic Novel Review: Tune (Book 1 – Vanishing Point)

Loaded with references to Star Trek and Star Wars and plenty of comics that have come before it, Tune by Derek Kirk Kim is a fun graphic read in which the main character — Andy Go — is at a dead end with his life dream of becoming an illustrator and gets talked into becoming an exhibit at a zoo in a parallel universe. Talk about job opportunity! Much of this first book centers on the character of Andy, who loves a girl who may or may not like him back, battles his parents who demand that he get a job or move out of their house, and is a bit frustrated with his own vision of art.

Derek Kirk Kim has created an interesting character in Andy Go, and the interdimensional creatures that come to recruit Andy for his zoo at the end of the book have a lot of slapstick possibilities. This graphic novel nicely mixes science fiction and comedy, and while never taking itself too seriously, the story does have a solid emotional center around Andy and his own insecurities about life and the dead ends that seem ahead of him.

And Kim keeps the story going at his online site — Tune — where you can also read the entire first book (which I am reviewing) as well as the second book that he published online. How cool is that? Pretty darn cool. This book would be fine for high school students (some profanity), but not so much for middle and elementary students.

Peace (in the other dimension),

eBook Review: Gutenberg the Geek

It’s not hard to think: that Johannes Gutenberg really changed the world. The use of the moveable type printing press suddenly made books more available than ever, opened the doors of literacy to more than a small, select group, and set the stage for various revolutions that took place once data and information began to flow. In Gutenberg the Geek, Jeff Jarvis seeks to understand Gutenberg as a man of his time, but also as a foreshadowing icon of the current age of technology, where innovation, hardship, luck and the ability to pull together disparate ideas into one large concept are shaping the environments in which we work, learn, and live.

“Our accepted wisdom today is that the change we are experiencing is pushing us forward at lightning speed. But I’m coming to wonder whether, instead, it is happening very slowly. That is, we are only at the bare beginning of the change we will undergo and we cannot yet fathom its full shape and extent.”

Jarvis, Jeff (2012-02-27). Gutenberg the Geek (Kindle Single) (Kindle Locations 239-241).  . Kindle Edition.

In this book, Jarvis tracks some elements of Gutenberg’s life as a businessman, and a printer, showing some connections to various tools of social media and the Internet itself. His aim to create echoes from the past, with Gutenberg’s ideas around information flow altering the way the world worked, to today, where things are still very much in flux, and unknown. Living as we do in “the moment,” it’s hard to know for sure what the Internet and technology will end up doing to us as information gatherers and creators. If we look back to Gutenberg, it’s clear that seeds get planted when information is cut loose from the narrow few (publishers, etc.), but what kind of flowers and weeds will bloom won’t be known until historians look back.

And Jarvis concludes his fascinating piece with these words of warning and possibility:

“I believe the internet could prove to be as momentous an invention, as profound a platform. This is why we must protect the net from the control of governments and corporations — especially because they are the objects of the disruption technology enables. Only if it remains as open as the printing press for anyone — no, everyone — to use can the net realize its potential and can we realize ours.”

Jarvis, Jeff (2012-02-27). Gutenberg the Geek (Kindle Single) (Kindle Locations 298-301).  . Kindle Edition.

Peace (in the geek),


Reading in the Shadows of Strangers: On Shared Highlighting

Like many of you, I am sure, I remember saving money in college by buying used books. I really hated the concept of using someone else’s books for class because I always wanted a pristine copy of the textbook or novel that I could mark up as I saw fit. Instead, I had to deal with someone else’s version of main ideas and interesting points highlighted in (mostly) yellow, and I was always distracted by those markings by the past owner. Did I agree with their marking? If I didn’t, was I missing something? I found myself reading in the shadows of strangers, trying to make my own observations and connections whole in some invisible conversation with someone else.

I was thinking about this again as I (late to the game, I realize) began to use my Kindle App on my Mac to read ebooks. I like Amazon’s collection of short pieces just for the Kindle, but I don’t have an eReader device. So I read on my laptop (which is not quite the same thing as snuggling down on the couch — so the reading experience is not nearly the same but still …). I hadn’t quite counted on a feature that seems completely logical given our connected culture, but it still has me remembering those college textbook days: the notation feature that shows how many other readers of my eBook have highlighted specific passages in the same ebook. (It also reminded me that the ebook that I buy is still part of the Amazon infrastructure, and not really sitting there in my Kindle App. Which is odd to think about, right? Do I really own this book or not?)

For example, I am now in the midst of Gutenberg the Geek by Jeff Jarvis. One section that I highlighted was also noted by 41 other readers before me.

ereader highlighting

And so I am left with the same conundrum that I had in college: I am interested in what other folks find interesting, and yet, I find myself reading those passages very differently — almost out of context from the whole. When a certain sentence has a few dozen highlighters affixed to it, I wonder: what is so important about that particular sentence that so many people added some color to remember it? I also wonder, did the first person highlight it for a specific reason, and then the next reader comes along, and say, “that must be important, I’d better highlight it, too,” and then the layers of highlighting grows from there, as if we were are reading-lemmings? Are we all being influenced by the readers before us? By the very first reader of this book to click on the highlighter?

I assume I can turn the shared highlighter off somewhere in my app, but I haven’t done that yet. That’s because I am still uncertain about how I feel about having it there. On one hand, it makes reading feel like a collaborative journey. My highlighting will be part of the ongoing narrative of this text for the next and future readers. I am not alone. On the other hand, I am unsettled by having other voices in my head as I read, pointing me to things that might be important to them but not to me.

No doubt, the emergence of eReaders and the tools that come with them are intriguing and unsettling at times, and completely fascinating in a range of ways.

Peace (in the highlights),