Graphic Book Review: Super Scratch Programming Adventure

Some people learn by diving in. Some people learn by reading the manual. Super Scratch Programming Adventure is a little bit of both as it is both a graphic novel of sorts and a tutorial for Scratch animation software. It’s also a bit dated, as a newer version of MIT’s free Scratch software is already out. But I like the way this book sets out to engage learners with a little bit of story told as comics and graphic novels, and then a series of ever-increasing-in-complexity activities.

Everything from simple commands, to maze games, to more complex animation is covered in this graphic manual. The colorful visuals are key, as the reader/creator can follow along pretty easily enough with the tutorials. I’ve used Scratch a little as a way to show students the underpinning of programming. I never found it robust enough or easy enough for many kids to use regularly. But the visual element of how programming works – how systems work, really, as one piece influences another — makes Scratch worthy of consideration for basic animation and programming work.

The graphic story that weaves together the tutorials is a computer science student named Mitch who encounters Scratchy, a cyberspace cat, and a team of Cosmic Defenders — Gobo, Fabu and Pete — who help Mitch and Scratchy solve problems while holding off the Dark Wizard and Dark Minions who want to destroy space and time. Programming skills save the day!

This book is worth a look if you are venturing into Scratch, but keep in mind the updates to Scratch, so not every activity might still be replicable as represented in the book. Still, there are plenty of tutorials online and resources for using Scratch in the classroom, including the ScratchEd site.

Peace (in the scritchy scratch),


Over at MiddleWeb: My Get It Done review

I am lucky to be doing reviews of educational books for MiddleWeb, and the latest is a look at Get It Done, by Jeff Wilhelm, Michael Smith and James Fredericksen. The book dives into expository writing and strategies in a way that connects nicely to the new emphasis on these texts in the Common Core. I created the chart above as a way to think through some of the strategies that the book suggests, particularly around flowchart thinking and making lists.

Read my review at MiddleWeb

Peace (in the book),



Three Cups of Tea: Does It Matter If It’s True?

We’ve just completed our study and reading of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea (Young Reader’s Edition) as a unit in media criticism as much as reading non-fiction text. I’ll be sharing out the wide range of sources that we brought to our discussions about the story as well as the work that Mortenson has been doing to build schools in the Middle East. One of the topics that opened up long discussions with my sixth graders after watching and reading criticism of the book (via 60 Minutes and more) was the role that “truth” plays in a non-fiction “story.”

As part of our final assessment, I asked my students: Does it matter if the stories that made up Three Cups of Tea are true? Here are some responses, which shows some nice depth of thinking and critical analysis of both the story and the criticism of the story We talked a lot about the balance — of the work being done to help educate girls and the impact of a story on people, and how writers sometimes bend the truth to fit the narrative, and also, the concept of a ghostwriter telling someone else’s story:

“It matters that it’s true. It’s how you think about the book. If you were just looking for a book with heart and meaning, then it wouldn’t really matter. If you are looking for a true story that you can rely on, then, yes it would matter. It all depends on how you look at it.”

“It doesn’t matter if the Three Cups of Tea book is true or not. Why I think that is because it still shows other parts of the world that are very poor and they don’t have an easy life or an easy way to get educated. That was the main idea of the whole book so if it was true or not, the book still got that point across.”

“I think it matters — a lot! — if the story is true. Many people have given donations to the CAI (Central Asia Institute) and if the money goes somewhere else, other than the schools, then that is not good. It’s kind of like stealing and lying. Greg can say it’s fully true, but if it’s not, then it is a lie!”

“I personally think it is bad to lie, unless it is about something good. The book, Three Cups of Tea, may or may not be completely true. I don’t care if it isn’t true because it is teaching you to stand up and do the right thing. So, even though lying is bad, it is okay if it sends a good image to others.”

“I think it both does and doesn’t matter whether the story in Three Cups of Tea is true. Even if the story is a lie, Greg Mortenson still helped thousands of children, and people are still donating to a good cause. But it also DOES matter because thousands of dollars could have been donated because people thought they were supporting one thing but that thing may not exist. Greg Mortenson was made out to be this big, buff, mountain-climbing superhero, but what if he’s just a regular guy, who did some good?”

Peace (in being critical),

Book Review: E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core

This is a bizarre book. Which is not to say the second installment in William Joyce’s new series of The Guardians of Childhood is not interesting, but it is bizarre. E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core picks up the story where the first book — about Nicholas St. North — ends, and the battles against Pitch, the Nightmare King, continues. While the first book established the mythology of Santa Claus (although, never outright), this one establishes the myth of the Easter Bunny (but again, never outright).

Here, our heroes — Nicholas St. North, the wizard Ombric and the girl, Katherine — must venture down into the center of the earth to save their young friends who have been kidnapped by Pitch (who wants to use them as leverage to gain access to magical powers). Along the way, they meet and learn about the Pooka, a long-eared, long-lived creature called Bunnymund who hails from outer space who keeps tabs on the Earth from the center of the planet. This is the bunny, and he has an army of warrior eggs which made my son crack up every time he saw pictures. They are funny things – eggs armed to the teeth with bows and arrows.

This series is tied into the movie franchise now underway, and Joyce is clearly developing alternative histories to common icons of holidays and stories and traditions — next up is the Tooth Fairy. While I find myself slipping in cynicism (thinking: these books are merely props for the movies aimed at kids like my son), I also find myself acquiescing to the adventure of the stories, and the ways that Joyce weaves magic and adventure, along with the power of belief, into the narratives. The books are good for read-aloud, and my son is thoroughly enjoying them. He gasped when it seemed as if North was going to die from a sword wound by Pitch. He jumped off the couch with a prediction about the connections between Pitch and Katherine. He guffawed at the sight of Bunnymund using his power to transform into a bunny warrior.

And in the end, that’s what’s important, right?

Peace (in the center of the earth),

PS — by the way, the bunny looks very different in the book as compared to the movie. The beefed up the movie version into more of a warrior, and adding Hugh Jackman’s voice gave him more depth as warrior.


Graphic Novel Review: The Red Pyramid

It’s been some time since my youngest son and I read The Red Pyramid by the ever-prolific Rick Riordan, but the latest graphic novelization of the first book in the Kane Chronicles stories brought it all back to both of us. “This is a pretty good,” my son said, after spending about an hour reading through it.

I guess.

The Red Pyramid graphic novel does some wonderful things with imagery as the two Kane children (Carter and Sadie) discover their history and their magical potential within the Egyptian culture (Riordan seems determined to use all the main ancient religions as backdrops for adventure stories). The pictures are colorful and vibrant and full of action (I suspect this is what elicited the comment from my 8 year old son). The use of dark and light canvasses are pretty interesting to view.

The problem is that the novel part of the graphic novel moniker is overplayed. There’s too much text. Or so it seems to me. It feels like they were determined to jam as much of the novel into the graphic version (and I realize if they had done the reverse, I would have been complaining that they ruined the story that way. Such is the role of a critic). The text is so dense that I wonder if any kids will actually read the book, or if they will just look at the pictures. My older sons did just that — glanced through the book and then put it down. They had no interest in the story. What makes this story particularly difficult, I think, is that the novel is narrated alternatively by Carter and then by Sadie, and then back and forth. Here, although they tried to use color in text boxes to signify the narrator, it is very confusing to follow.

I do like the idea of the graphic novel complemented the novel, though, and I think this graphic novelization is done better than the one of The Lightning Thief. I’ll be adding it to my classroom collection, and keep an eye on who takes it out, and whether they read it or just skim through the pages. And maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe this version of the story gets kids interested in the Kane Chronicles series, and that keeps them reading. Which is what I want.

Peace (in the duat),


Book Review: Stick Dog

It’s hard not to like a story with (self-professed) simple stick drawings of stray dogs trying to steal some hamburgers, told from the viewpoint of one of the dogs. Stick Dog by Tom Watson won’t go down in the annals of high literature, but it is a fun and engaging story for elementary students who have finished up the Diary of a Wimpy Kid collection and are looking for a fix. Yeah, Stick Dog is another in the same vein of Jeff Kinney’s genre of first person narrative told with comic doodles. They seem to everywhere, right?

But Stick Dog is a cute story that begins with the unknown author (we assume it is an elementary student from the stories he tells) letting us know that he has a story to tell but that he can’t draw, so we (the readers) need to agree not to criticize his drawings. His dog is basically a box with legs and tale. (I’m not criticizing … just sayin’) Stick Dog and his pack of stray dogs are hungry and decide to steal a few burgers from a picnic going on at the park. Adventure ensues, as does humor (such as when a squirrel comes by and disrupts all of their focus.)

I imagine this book would be enjoyed by kids who have dogs, or wish they had dogs, and wonder what they are thinking as they eye the dinner table for scraps. Watson has done an admirable job of bringing us inside the head of his main character, even if it is a little square (OK, so a little criticism … sorry).

Peace (with the dog),

Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid 7 (The Third Wheel)

Listen — Jeff Kinney is probably never going to sweep the “serious awards” category for his Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. And with the seventh book in the series (The Third Wheel), the newness of his drawings and the discovery of his characters have long since become just … “comfortable.” But Kinney can still get you chuckling over the circumstances and ego-centric world of his main character, Greg Heffley, in ways that are sly and (as a parent of three boys) a bit too real at times.

Here, in The Third Wheel, Greg is off to a middle school dance with his goofball friend, Rowley, and a girl they bring as their “friend” (the title gives away what is going to happen, so I don’t have to). But much of the first half of the book is Greg remembering various events from his childhood, and it was in these tales of Greg in the womb, Greg commandeering the television when his mom tries to use the Baby Genius tapes, Greg’s frustrations at getting everything as a hand-me-down from his older brother (including underwear) that had me chuckling.

It’s a quick read, as all the Wimpy Kid books are, and Kinney’s illustrations are light and funny. My 8 year old son read the book — devoured it, actually — in two hours. My older sons read it in less than an hour (the older one being a bit furtive about it now that he is in high school, I think). In the end, The Third Wheel is a good entertainment, and sometimes, that’s all we ask in a book, right?

Peace (with the kid),

PS — bonus video: Jeff Kinney drawing lesson!


Graphic Book Review: Amulet (Prince of the Elves)

Amulet Comic Creator
You have to admire writer/illustrator Kazu Kibuishi for the way he is unfolding the story of the Amulet graphic novel series. Years go by between books (the latest is Book Five: Prince of the Elves), and Kibuishi wastes no time with backstory for readers. He trusts that we have been reading, and thinking, and that we remember the characters and storylines enough to be brought right back into the tale of the Stonekeepers. (I’m not sure what a new reader would make of it all, though. They would be completely lost, it seems to me)

As I dove into Book Five,¬† I had to jog my memory, but I bit in to the story in the latest Amulet book anyway. You can’t ignore the beauty of the illustrations, which are so evocative and powerful, nor the narrative sweep that Kibuishi is setting forth in the series, which tells the stories of a girl, Emily, who is learning how to harness the power of her magic stone; Max, whose mysterious past is slowly coming to life; and the showdown between the race of Elves and others in the world that was once hung together with the magic and power of the Stonekeepers.

There are echoes of many traditional epic stories in the Amulet books (the mysterious voice inside the stones, the pull between good and evil, the redemption of society, the reluctant hero) but I find it refreshing that Kibuishi trusts us to believe in his storytelling power and to let the narrative strands slowly pull apart before coming back together again. We are shifted quickly into different storylines and you have to stop to take stock of where you are. This is not a bad thing, but I wonder about his young readers. Or maybe, like the cult of Harry Potter, the legions of kids who were wowed by the first Amulet book years ago are now older, and more sophisticated, readers.

And I can’t ignore the comments of my 8 year old son, who snapped up the Amulet book as soon as it was out of the box. (He has read and re-read all of the series many times)

“That book is one of the best books¬† I read,” he said, handing it back to me a few hours later. “Serious.”

I won’t go that far, but I will say that the Amulet series is bringing the art of graphic novels to interesting levels, and I am ready for Book Six, whenever that happens.

Peace (in the frame),

PS — I used the comic creator at Scholastic to create the top comic from the Amulet template;


Book Review: Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King

I know the movie Rise of The Guardians comes out soon, but I wanted to read the books in the series (Guardians of Childhood) first with my son. Honestly, I had some trepidation. Books that revisit and reboot the back stories of famous figures like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and others? Yeah. I don’t know if that needs to be done.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King as a read-aloud with my son. The story (which never mentions Santa Claus, ever) of the swashbuckling pirate, Nicholas St. Nick, who joins an aging wizard and a young girl named Katherine to fight off the (literal) armies of darkness under the command of the evil Pitch is a rollicking yard, moving at a quick pace with just enough magic and sword fights and mystery (and connections to popular culture’s understanding of the man from the North Pole) to keep both of us interested. It was a quick read but we were both wondering what was going to happen next.

A number of times, the writing got bogged down with over-dramatic flare, as if they were given a bit too much literary license. Luckily, it wasn’t all that often, and the action overtook the writing anyway. There is some tricky vocabulary in here for younger readers, and I had to stop a few times to talk about some words, but that’s OK — if the story draws them in and exposes them to new words, I am all for it. But I did wonder about the audience for the books. Is it the younger kids who still believe? Or is it the older kids who are hanging on to the myths of childhood? Maybe it is a little of both.

There are two other books in the series so far (with picture book star William Joyce being one of the co-writers and the main illustrator) and while I am sure I will be dragged to the see the movie soon, my son is also antsy to read the other two books in the series (the next is about the Easter Bunny and so, my trepidations rise again). Still, I was pleased with the first book, so maybe I just need to be wide open for some more magic to enter our lives through the pages of our read-aloud experiences.

Peace (in the north),


Book Review: The One World Schoolhouse

Let me first admit: I certainly know of the Khan Academy but I have never actually visited it or viewed any of the videos. I’ve followed some of the ways that Salman Khan’s video tutorials have sparked the Flipped Classroom concept, and some of the controversy that comes with both the academy and the flipped idea. But I am relatively outside of the loop on Khan. I offer up those words because I spent the plane ride back from Las Vegas devouring Salman Khan’s book about educational change, The One World Schoolhouse (Education Reimagined) , and found it very intriguing.

Readers of my blog know that I am a sucker for the “inside story” of ideas, and here, Khan brings us right to the beginning of his idea of using video tutorials to help his sixth grade niece understand some basic math concepts, which then spread to other family members, and soon, he found that thousands were viewing his videos on YouTube. For a long period of time, Khan Academy was little more than Khan, sitting in a converted closet, screencasting lessons and publishing them on Youtube. After discovering his passion for teaching, he quit his job as a hedgefund manager, did the tour of various foundations and companies (Google and Gates were intrigued), and then launched the Khan Academy as an experiment in education that is built on some assumptions that Khan has, including:

  • One size classrooms does not fit all students
  • Gaps in math understanding lead to bigger troubles later on
  • Systematic collection and interpretation of data allows teachers to target individual students
  • Education should be available for anyone, anywhere in the world

Now, I am one of those teachers who are part of what Khan sees as a problem. I teach in a traditional school, with one-hour blocks, where curriculum is often (but not always) built on time more than student mastery, and I have classes composed of students in age groups instead of mixed (he is against tracking and is passionate about how tracking students into honors and lower classes traps students, particularly in math). But I am open to change.

What Khan advocates is sweeping shifts in the way we see our learners, and his ideas include:

  • large classrooms (of up to 75 students) run by multiple teachers, bringing various expertise and talents into the pictures;
  • technology as a tool for reinforcement and understanding of student mastery, but also as a way to free up teachers to teach individuals;
  • accessible, affordable learning for students, no matter where they live in the world, so that everyone has a chance to reach up;
  • using summer as an extended learning period, and not as a “time off” from learning;
  • that standardized testing be more precise in testing what kids should know and have mastered (and how difficult that it when it comes to important things like creativity), and not about the test construction itself;
  • building fun and play into the curriculum so that topics like math don’t become rote learning that never really gets learned.

I think The One World Schoolhouse is worth your time and worth a read. Even if you have preconceptions of the Khan Academy concept (and more schools are now partnering with his organization to pilot the use of video tutorials and computer assessments), the book at least centers where Khan is coming from, and it encourages you to re-examine the “why” of our school system, which is built around a framework that Khan argues was constructed by chance and politics, and not necessarily the best interests in young learners.

Peace (in the schoolhouse),