Book Review: Under Wildwood

This sequel to Wildwood by Colin Meloy (and beautifully illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis) is another tour de force that completely and utterly sucked in my 8 year old son and I as we experienced it as a read-aloud. In fact, after reading the first Wildwood to myself and then as read-aloud to my son, I think this is one of those books whose words and whose story needs to be your lips to treasure and experience with others. Where Wildwood introduced us to Prue and Curtis, and the imaginative land of the Impassable Wilderness just outside of Portland, Under Wildwood continues the saga when Prue goes back to the wilderness (Curtis had remained at the end of the first book, joining in with a band of bandits), and is given a prophecy that will drive the story into the third and final book (I hope he is writing that right now. You hear me, Meloy? I HOPE YOU ARE WRITING IT RIGHT NOW!). We also meet Curtis’ sisters, who are on their own adventure on the outskirts of the Impassable Wilderness.

I won’t go into all of the fascinating twists and turns of Under Wildwood, except to say that there is plenty of action and suspense to keep even the most reluctant reader satisfied and calling out for more, and plenty of depth of characters here that keep getting more complex as the story weaves itself together in various strands.

Meloy (he, of The Decemberists rock band) toys with interesting vocabulary here, tossing out words even I had to look up or stop to think about from time to time. While my eavesdropping wife made fun of way that Meloy writes (“He’s that writer who uses big words just to use big words. Show-off.”), my son was not put off on it and instead, it gave us plenty of conversations about how to read unfamiliar words. One of the more fascinating elements is when Prue and Curtis get trapped underground, and encounter an entire civilization of moles at war. (Thus, Under Wildwood. Get it?)

I highly recommend this book for read-aloud, and for middle school independent readers seeking an adventure. You won’t be disappointed.

Peace (in the wilds),
Kevin

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading: My Goodreads Challenge Stats

goodreads3
For the past few years, I’ve been using my Goodreads account to not only keep track of the books I have been reading, and not only to gather recommendations from my friends, but also, to be challenged to read. Sure, numbers don’t tell the story (so to speak), but I do like the Reading Challenge that you can set for yourself on Goodreads.

For 2012, I first set my goal of “books to be read this year” at 60, figuring that would be a manageable number. But midway through the year, sometime in summer, I realized that 60 books was not enough. So I bumped it up to 100. This week, I finally got to 100 when I completed Under Wildwood with my son as read-aloud. (review, coming)

goodreads 1

I like that Goodreads also keeps some stats on the reading. The screenshots above show the books that I read but also, tracks how it compares to the last few years. Honestly, I am not sure I would have even realized how much I have been reading if not for Goodreads. I read twice as many books as last year!

And check this out:

goodreads2 pages

This shows the page totals, and that number of pages that I read in 2012 (32,000 pages!) is pretty astonishing to me. Some of the earlier years are not quite legitimate because I wasn’t as diligent with Goodreads as I have been in the last two years.

So, now I am thinking of 2013. 105 books? You bet. What about you?
Peace (in the stats),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Siri and Me (A Modern Love Story)

 

This is a difficult book to categorize. It’s not quite a graphic novel, but there are graphic novel parts sprinkled through chapters. Siri and Me: A Modern Love Story by David Milgrim (who lives in my city but I don’t know him) seeks to capture the allure of technology, our reliance of our mobile phones and the advancements of interactive software with humor and criticism. Milgrim, whose parody book Goodnight, iPad is so fun to read and watch, has an eye for what technology is doing to us, as people.

Mostly, in Siri & Me, it is disconnecting us from each other. The main character — Dave — is lonely, and introverted, and only finds comfort in the interaction with Siri on his phone. Ironically, Siri works on her own to severe Dave’s attraction to her and manipulates Dave’s life (via his phone, of course) in order to get him to meet real people, and find real love, in the real world. The scenes where Dave meets his friends in coffee shops is particularly telling — everyone is tweeting, or texting, or shooting videos — of them drinking coffee. It’s the “ever on” generation. You’ll recognize those people anywhere these days. Maybe even you. Or me.

Milgrim’s short book is a brisk read that ends well (Siri sacrifices herself for real love) and reminds us to turn off our devices once in a while and take a look around. Human interaction still remains the most vibrant connections we can have.

Peace (writing on my computer — I know! — ironic, right?),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Be Good (How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything)

If you read the New York Times Sunday magazine, you may know the name of its ethicist, Randy Cohen. He writes “The Ethicist” column, in which he answers questions along ethical lines in a tone that is humorous and erudite (he likes big words), and gives such interesting perspectives on the gray areas of life. This book — Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything — collects some of his best columns, and Cohen is in fine form here. I really liked how he gathered the pieces around themes: family, home, civics, money, technology, school and religion, and more. Each section begins with a short essay from Cohen that parses out his thoughts, and includes points of contradiction.

There’s something to be said about reading the queries of others. It’s sort of like eavesdropping. That’s why advice columnists are still so popular. And I think we often see our own personal quandaries, and weaknesses, reflected in the questions of others. That’s why Cohen collection is strong — he acknowledges our confusion, and provides an ethical path forward. In his view, our ethical decisions are ones that impact others around us, and he is careful to delineate the legal decisions from the ethical decisions. Sometimes, they overlap; mostly, they don’t.

Being good is difficult, particularly since we live in the realm of others. Cohen gives us solid advice, in an entertaining yet educational way, on as wide arrange of subjects.

Peace (and ethics),
Kevin

 

Comic Book Review: Mr. Fitz vs. the Test Score Zombies

There’s a whole series of comic strips in this book in which David Lee Finkle, himself a teacher, envisions famous writers in history getting feedback on a standardized test, with Finkle using humorous anecdotes and famous phrases from each author as the punchline. It had me cracking up early, and often, even if it was a sort of literature-junky inside-joke kind of thing. That’s OK. In fact, this entire collection of comic strips from Finkle — Mr. Fitz vs. the Test Score Zombies — is aimed right at teachers who are struggling to keep their students engaged in the age of standardized testing.

Mr. Fitz is the lead character, a teacher in middle school with a crop of oddball students. There’s no main storyline here, except the ways in which Mr. Fitz motivates his students to be passionate about reading and writing, and the ways that his teaching style often runs into administrative roadblocks. (In one series of sketches, an educational consultant arrives to give “advice” but refuses to enter a classroom with real students.)

(from Finkle’s website)

I like that there is also a fair number of strips in which students are completely immersed in a book. Finkle really captures the intense attention that a good book can provide.

(from Finkle’s website)

While I personally still love a comic called Mr. Lowe (by Mark Pett, but the comic is now out of print) because it dealt with a new teacher in a challenging classroom, Mr. Fitz shows the veteran teaching trying to make sense of the changing landscape shaped more by the leaders at the top than the students in the classroom. Finkle captures those difficulties nicely, and puts it all in perspective.

Peace (in the strip),
Kevin

 

 

Book Review: How Music Works

I love music. I play music. I listen to music. I think about music all the time. So, I was intrigued by David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works, because I know him to be thoughtful and interesting. And he doesn’t disappoint here. While I skimmed over some of the sections about the workings of his former band, The Talking Heads, I was intrigued by Byrne’s insights into the creation of music. (I enjoyed some of the work done by The Talking Heads but I would not put them on my “favorite bands” list. And I suspect that some of his former bandmates might dispute some of his stories here, given what I know about the acrimony of the band)

In particular, I found Byrne really shifting my thinking about the ways that technology has altered our relationship with music. Here’s something that I never really considered but now seems obvious: when the ability to record music and share music first began, the way that music was constructed and composed changed to the meet the constraints of the recording aperatus. For example, music on a vinyl disc (remember those?) was limited to a set amount of time, or else your ran out of space. So, songwriters and composers began to write pieces that fit the time allowed on a disc. And listeners began to get accustomed to the set time frame, too, and from that emerged the three minute pop song.

The ways that music was recorded impacted the writing of songs, too. Early microphones were set up in a room, and the band crowded around it, moving closer and farther away, depending on when your part needed to be heard. But bass tones were difficult to hear, and so the sonic construction of the music began to become part of the songwriter’s tools. And this is not just pop music. This was jazz and classical, too. The technology was changing our perceptions of what we thought we were hearing, and composers began realizing the limitations and the possibilities of the technology¬† to revamp the way that songs were composed, performed, and heard.

Byrne also goes into the way a social space (in this case, CBGB’s and New York City) can influence the creation of art, and about the business of music, which is interesting in these times when that entire business model is complete flux, and he describes his songwriting techniques of constructing songs from the sounds first, lyrics later, and aiming to use unconscious thought patterns as the springboard for a song. I found it interesting because I have done the same thing with songwriting. I just never thought of it through the same lens as Byrne.

Which brings me to the connections with all kinds of writing. One of the things that I remain fascinated with is the ways that digital tools and technology may or may not be shaping the ways we write, and what we write. How do the constraints of the tools inform our choices about the meaning of what we write? How are we taking expectations of technology and pushing at its borders in order to reconsider our traditional definitions of writing? In many ways, Byrne is exploring similar terrain, just with music. This is a smart, insightful book that forces you to move beyond music, and into the larger conversation about composition.

Peace (in the sounds),
Kevin

Jogging the Web: The Three Cups of Controversy

3cups jog screenshot

In an effort to bring all of my informational resources that I used with my sixth graders as we did a close and critical reading of Three Cups of Tea, I decided to use Jog the Web to collect and curate in sequence what we were doing. You’ll notice that it spans the range of the book itself, to the 60 Minutes investigative report, to Greg Mortenson’s tepid response to Outside Magazine, to exploration of girls’ education in Pakistan and more. I even added some student reflections on the idea of truth in storytelling.

Go Jog the Web with the Three Cups of Tea Controversy

Peace (in the jog),
Kevin

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),
Kevin

 

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),
Kevin