Book Review: Odd Type Writers

 

Now here is a book for those who not only love to read (me!) but also those who are curious about the writers behind the books we love to read (me!). Odd Type Writers by Celia Blue Johnson is a light-hearted, whirlwind tour of the eccentricities of many of the most famous writers, with all of their quirks and processes laid bare for us to marvel at or wonder about.

Johnson explores through research the elements of where some writers wrote, their odd routines, the foods they had to eat when writing, the color pens and inks they used, animal companions and more. Yes, writers are quirky characters and this book really brings that to the surface (making my own quirks as a writer feel a bit normal).

You might think of this as a gossip book about Joyce, Dickens, Woolf, Wharton, O’Connor, Capote and many others, and I suppose you would be correct. But there is a certain humanity that comes to the surface, too, when you dive into the lives of famous writers and the passions that drove them to create great art.

Peace (under cover),
Kevin

Book Review: The League of Seven

I introduced by son to the concept of Steampunk with a read-aloud of The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz, and he was intrigued by the elements of alternative history (in which electricity is bad) as much as the development of a new book series. Gratz has a nice pacing to his writing, and although this is the first book (we meet only three of the seven heroes who will have to saved the world), those three are interesting.

The story revolves around mythology, with a mix of traditional and non-traditional stories of evil lurking below and ready to rise. In this book, Archie Dent is our protagonist, and he envisions himself the leader of a new League of Seven (each generation has a league to fight evil), although twists at the end change this expectation in intriguing ways. But I won’t give it away.

In this world, Edison is the evil genius, and electricity will help the evil creatures (Titans, in Greek Mythology, I assume) rise from their prisons in the depths of the Earth. Archie’s parents are part of the Septemberists, a collection of people who work to keep the world safe. But they get, well, kidnapped (in a way) and Archie must save them, along with two new friends with different, special abilities.

What unfolds is an adventure and immersion into a world both like and unlike our own, and the League of Seven has us hooked as a read-aloud, and now we wait for the second book (The Dragon Lantern) sometime later this year.

Peace (in the place),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: The Graveyard Books

I think I have re-read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book more times than just about any other book. I read it myself. I read it to my three boys as a read-aloud (at appropriate ages), and then I read it myself again. There is something about the story and the writing, and the mystery of Nobody Owens’ story, that keeps pulling me in, and I am not much a book re-reader.

I knew there were graphic novel versions of The Graveyard Book out there, but I had forgotten about them until I stumbled into the two books the other day in the library, and quickly scooped them up for summer reading. I was not disappointed, as the graphic novel versions not only remain quite faithful to Gaiman’s story but also move the story in a very visual direction with the power of illustration and graphic novel format.

There are a few different illustrators in the two-book series, so I had a slight jarring feeling going from one section to the next at times, but it did not take away from my enjoyment as a reader. There is always that sense of someone else’s artwork taking over what you had imagined, and I found some elements of that as I read the graphic stories — that’s now how I imagined the witch, or the Sleer, or even Silas.

Still, I was deep in The Graveyard Book again and for that, I am always grateful.

Peace (in places unknown),
Kevin

PS — check out this video by Gaiman’s wife, Amanda Palmer, about Gaiman in dream mode:

 

Book Review: Teaching Naked

This is not necessarily a book I would have chosen to read on my own, as it deals with the university level and not K-12 (where I teach), but as an extension of Rhizomatic Learning “into the wild,” I have been happily following my friend, Autumm, and her colleagues in a book discussion that is mostly offline and somewhat online (Hashtag: #tomereaders).

Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of the Classroom Will Improve Student Learning by Jose Antonio Bowen examines the impact that technology is having on college students and how universities — from professors to administration — can start making shifts to meet the needs of these learners. The term “naked” (which I don’t really like as terminology) by Bowen is that the more technology instructors can use outside of the classroom  — such as podcasts, judicial use of email, Twitter/Facebook/Social Networks, etc. — the more time there can in class for inquiry discussions. In other words, the technology can replace the traditional lecture hall lecture.

Or, in another educational term, Bowen is talking “flipped classroom” — deliver the lecture outside of the classroom so that the classroom experience can be more engaging for learners. Personally, I think “flipped” can work for some students, those who are motivated to learn, but worry about this approach for disengaged students, those for whom school is just “passing the time” and watching videos of teachers or lessons or using other technology for specific learning goals outside of the classroom just would not be a priority. I wish I didn’t have those students, but the reality is: I do.

As we explore systems thinking the Making Learning Connected MOOC this week, this kind of thinking makes sense if we think our current educational system of students in the classroom, listening to lectures, is disfunctional or not reaching enough students. The reason “flipped” is an interesting idea is that it changes the learning system — moving the traditional teaching outside of the classroom with technology (videos, interactives, etc.) and puts the discovery and inquiry and collaborative projects inside the classroom time. The role of the teacher changes, in hopes that the learning space changed, in hopes that the educational system changes … for the better.

There are plenty of solid points in Bowen’s book, and I enjoyed elements of it even if very little were new to me. He provided plenty of “implementation guides” for what it might look like in the classroom itself. His emphasis is on gamification of the classroom, a theme he returns to again and again.

Two things really struck me:

  • Much of what Bowen writes about to engage college students – writing to learn, peer feedback, inquiry questions — is the heart of what is being done in elementary classrooms already. It makes me wonder where the threads get lost for that kind of learning. And it makes me think, this is the impact of standardized testing on students, particularly high school students.
  • The gap that Teaching Naked fills makes evident how far removed many universities are (or were, as this book is now three years old) when it comes to understanding technology and digital literacies, and learners. You can sense Bowen chastising his university fellows for being stuck in the old “lecture” mode of college teaching and for university administrators for not realizing the shifts underway, and making changes to meet the needs of modern learners.

 

I had an opportunity earlier this week to video chat with Autumm and Matt, who are running the book talk, and we focused in on the idea of “transformation.”

I’m glad I read Bowen’s book, and I have been happy to engage in various online conversations and sharing in the #Tomereaders hashtag. It has given me some new insights into a level of teaching that I don’t often inhabit (although being with the National Writing Project opens a lot of doors to conversations across disciplines and levels).

Peace (in the teaching),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Seveneves

This book took me forever to read. It wasn’t that it was a chore. It was that life got in the way and it was that the book is huge (880 pages). But I kept with Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, and I am glad I did. For while some sections got a bit bogged down with technical, scientific details, the second half of the novel soared with imagination, and showcased some of Stephenson’s fine skills as a science fiction writer.

The story revolves around Earth in the aftermath of a devastating event: the moon is blown up into seven pieces by a mysterious object and the result of this extraordinary event changes Earth forever, leading to a survival story of the human race. The first half of the book is how Earth will send a core group of representatives to space, as they anticipate a cataclysmic event known as the Hard Rain, as pieces of the broken moon break apart further and form a shower of fire and destruction. Humanity will be destroyed.

Only those in space will survive, with a mission to stay alive and return to Earth many generations down the road. The moral quandaries of this mission — who gets to go? who has to stay? — as well as the scientific ones — how will they survive over the term? — are at the heart of the first part of the novel.

The second half of the story is set way deep into the future, when humanity has regained some foothold in space (as descendants of the only survivors in space — seven women known as the Seven Eves who use genetics and science to begin a rebirth of humanity … thus, the title) and these people are helping Earth comes back to life through terraforming. Surprises await this race of humans as they slowly make their way back onto Earth.

I won’t give more of it away. Seveneves is a good read if you like science fiction, with a hefty dose of science thrown in. Stephenson never explains what caused the moon’s destruction and only hints that it was part of some larger event or religious experience, like some modern Noah’s Ark story.

Peace (in the world),
Kevin

Book Review: Space Case

Imagine being stuck on a pioneering base on the moon and someone is murdered. The murderer is among you. It sounds like an Agatha Christie novel, doesn’t it? And Space Case by Stuart Gibbs plays out a bit like “And Then There Were None …” in that there is a closed setting, a murder and someone can’t be trusted.

Gibbs, whose fine sense of humor have been on display in some of his other books for young readers, is in fine form here with Space Case, as pre-teen Dashiell Gibson realizes that the untimely death of a famous scientists on Moon Base Alpha does not add up, and he is determined to get to the cause of the incident.

Gibbs plants plenty of red herrings, a must in this kind of story, and a surprising twist near the end of the novel, and Space Case really captures both the amazing idea of living on the moon and the claustrophobic element of a murderer hiding in plain site. I read this aloud to my son, and he and I both enjoyed the tale.

Peace (on the moon, baby),
Kevin

Book Review: Letter to a Future Lover

In the end, I just couldn’t do it. Essayist Ander Monson asks, requests, even cajoles the reader of his Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries to write in his book, to add the reader’s perspective to the writer’s notes.

But I just could not bring myself to write inside a book that I had borrowed from the library. It was inter-library loan, for goodness sake, shipped from another library an hour’s drive away just to allow me to read it. Writing in the borrowed book seemed to fly in the face of some unwritten contract. Although, if you think about it, a library book has a larger audience. Still. I don’t own the book. All I could think about was some imaginary librarian frowning at my marks inside a borrowed book.

Instead, I did the next best thing: I wrote some pieces on sticky notes and stuck them into various pages of Monson’s book. It’s the same, adding removable notes. But maybe this will start a trend. I even left my Twitter handle on the notes. Maybe my note to a future reader will boomerang right around, and fly back to me with a response, and we will have Ander Monson to thank.

More notes

Speaking of Monson and his book, I really loved this collection of essays about reading and books, and the interactions between reader and writer. Monson hooks his ideas around artifacts that has he has found in books and libraries, from notes on an old catalogue filing card to scribbles on the margins to scraps of paper once a bookmark, filled with writing. From there, Monson takes off in free-ranging essay style, examining what reading means to him, and to us.

Note to letter to future lover

Interestingly, each piece in this collection was originally left in the books the essays were about. That’s the “letter to a future lover” that the title refers to. Can you imagine opening up a book and finding a folded essay by Monson waiting for you? Can you imagine how many of those essays will never get read, ever? Many of the books that he examines are dusty and unread, sitting on the shelves of university libraries for decades. There’s something intriguing about that whole notion, right?

More notes

This is my note to you, reader, about leaving notes for an unknown reader, inspired by a writer who writes about writing notes to other readers. What will you write?

Peace (going round and round),
Kevin

Making a #Tomereaders Video Game

Yesterday, I shared out a game that I made in Gamestar Mechanic for some friends who are part of a book study group toggling between online and offline meeting. I am online only. In the book, Teaching Naked, the author (Jose Bowen) goes into detail about how gamification might change the way students in a college classroom interacts with material and enhance learning.

Note: I am not convinced on all of the merits of gamifying our classroom but I am intrigued by game design as a learning possibility, and teach an entire unit to my sixth graders on game design. I even did a K12 Online Conference keynote about it.

Some of us in the book group called #Tomereaders were talking about games and wondering how we might create a game for the book study group. That might still happen. I saw some sketches of game levels from Matthew Cook. He was making a point about engagement and design, I think, but I decided to take his levels literally and design a video game with his sketches as my template.

His design:

My interpretation:

tomereaders game

I decided to keep things simple, with limited enemies and treasure, and more of a discovery game of content related to the book we are reading. You can play the game, too.

Peace (in the mix),
Kevin

Adding Commentary to #Tomereaders

The other day, I shared out a video collection of quotes from a book I am reading with a few others in a project called #tomereaders. The book — Teaching Naked — examines the use of technology in university learning spaces. I wanted to move beyond just quotes, so I took that digital story project and added in a layer of my own commentary/interpretation about each quote (ie, why I grabbed it and showcased it in the first place), and republished it (with a different theme, to differentiate between the two).

Peace (in the share),
Kevin

#CLMOOC Book Recommendation: The Invent to Learn Guide to Fun

Josh Burker does a fantastic job of explaining, step by step, how to create and make wonderfully amazing projects in his new book, The Invent to Learn Guide to Fun (Classroom Technology Projects). I’ve had a Makey Makey set and a Squishy Circuit set sitting in my room for almost a year now and after reading Burker’s book, I feel like this summer, I am ready to break those puppies open and get making something.

From creating an Operation Game with boxes and circuits to making animated postcards to making light wants for Glowdoodling, Burker is a patient teacher and each chapter is handy with diagrams, and photos, and detailed steps. He also introduces various technology, from Scratch to Turtle Art to Lego WeDo to TinkerCAD and more, and is clear about the level of complexity for each project.

After reading about TinkerCAD, I went in and quickly made this:

CLMOOC with TinkerCAD

I wrote a more detailed review of the book for MiddleWeb and will share it out when it gets published.

For now, let’s get making … This book is a perfect companion for the Making Learning Connected MOOC about to start this week. In fact, let’s get making, together.

Peace (in the fun),
Kevin