At Middleweb: Assessing Student Digital Writing

I posted a book review over at Middleweb that explores the difficult terrain of assessing student digital writing. It’s an area I know I continue to struggle with. This book — edited by National Writing Project colleague Troy Hicks and featuring a number of National Writing Project educators — seeks to show a variety of paths (via protocols) to look at digital writing, mostly from the view of process of creating as opposed to evaluation of the final product.

Read my review of Assessing Students’ Digital Writing: Protocols for Looking Closely

Peace (we’re all looking),
Kevin

Book Review: Inventology

My wife picked up an advanced copy of Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World by Pagan Kennedy at a conference for librarians (you should see the bags of books she brought home), and I was intrigued. I was quickly sucked into Kennedy’s interesting exploration of how inventions come to invent, and how their creative visions of the world, particularly imagining the future, help pave the way for progress through tinkering.

Kennedy explores through stories many inventions, but she also takes a step back to provide the larger picture of how ideas come to be, from the synergy of crowds feeding off shared ideas, to solving problems that aren’t even problems yet, to random discoveries by inventors with attentive vision, to the ways that education and political systems can encourage or discourage the fertile minds of inventors.

My big take-away is that we need to do more to give people — I am thinking of students — the possibilities for exploration on their own terms, and anticipate that there just might not be immediate results or maybe they will never get results. Most invention ideas go nowhere in the short run, but sometimes, those nowhere ideas lead to something else, and then …. who knows. It might lead to an idea that can change the world.

Inventology is worth a look for anyone interested in the mindset of inventors, and also, for anyone wondering how to set the stage for the next generation of inventors. The question of how we, as teachers, give that kind of creative space to students in this era of standardized learning and testing is a critical one, but I see gains in Maker Spaces in libraries and engineering programs in elementary schools and more.

The next leap forward is probably already underway …

Peace (in the think),
Kevin

Book Review: The State of Play (Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture)

“… video games are a complex and rapidly evolving form, where different qualities intertwine and influence each other in subtle, often surprising ways. A progress, critical approach to games and their place in culture does not preclude the appreciation of them as the rich and wonderful pieces of entertainment they are. But if our understanding of them is to move beyond the simple escapism, games must be held up to the same standards and allowed the same scrutiny as any other form of creative expression. “ — Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson, editors, from introduction to The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture

This rather uneven collection of essays — The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture — is nonetheless an important look at how video game culture reflects both the good and the bad of this still-emerging form of popular culture entertainment. Tackling topics like Gamergate head on and exploring issue of gender and race, the writers here go deep with insights. And many of them are game developers themselves, as the subtitle suggests, and so, reading their insights from the other side of the console, so to speak, is an intriguing element of The State of Play.

One of the more intriguing essays here is from Hussein Ibrahim, whose piece entitled “What It’s Like to Always Play the Bad Guy: On the Portrayal of Arabs in Online Shooters” does what it says — it gives Ibrahim a platform to explore the culture of video game design that always seems to pit denizens of the Middle East as the enemy terrorist with guns and bombs.

“The problem is, the ‘authenticity’ (of games like Medal of Honor) is only on one side. As an American, you get to relate to the hero defending his country from terrorists threatening your freedom. As an Arab, you get to relate to the guy who wants to blow up your city, and that’s all,” Ibrahim writes. “Often, it seem more time is spent making sure the guns in the game are authentic than on accurately representing the culture I belong to.”

Interestingly, Ibrahim plays those very games, and finds himself feeling “Indifferent (about the portrayal), which is unsettling.” He then notes an event in which someone noticed a map in Modern Warfare had a saying from Allah hanging in a virtual bathroom. An uproar ensued among Middle East gamers (Ibrahim says there are “several million” players of the franchise in the Middle East) and the map was later revised, the Allah engraving removed. He wonders why this event (the engraving) caused more uproar than how Arabs are used as villains.

“… I guess we have all grown a little numb,” he notes.

Another interesting essay — “A Game I Had to Make” by developer Zoe Quinn — explores a game designer’s quest to make a game for themselves, to understand a confusing world. In this case, the game in question — Depression Quest — is designed to help a player deal with depression. Writing in second person, Quinn tracks the development of the game and the release into the world. She never expected the kind of splash her game received.

“You have inadvertently become a beacon for the cause of depression,” Quinn writes. “A massive conversation has begun around the game, sometimes positive, sometimes negative … you’re happy that a lot of people feel like they can talk about this enormous, invisible thing (depression) they have always been unsure of in the public eye.”

In “The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird,” Ian Bogost explores how such a simple app game became so popular (before the developer, overwhelmed by the success, pulled the game from the Apple App store). Bogust’s exploration of game design, and the ways in which Flappy Bird both ignored and followed the “rules” is intriguing, particularly when he dips into how games reflect culture, and vice versa.

“In game design circles,” Bogost writes, “we sometimes wax poetic about the elegance and simplicity of a design, the way complex emergent behaviors arise from simple rules and structures … The best games are not for us (or for anyone), but instead strive to be what they are as much possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.”

The State of Play is a needed book, in that it steps back from video games and examines the ways in which culture and gaming are meshed together, warts and all. NOTE: there are some themes and language in here that might not be appropriate for classrooms, so you might want to read it first before bringing it in for students to read or use.

Peace (beyond the game),
Kevin

Book Review: The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

 

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

It’s not easy to bring a sprawling, creative series of books that bustle and brim with incredible doses of imagination to a close.

But Catherynne M. Valente does a pretty decent job with The Girl Who Raced Fairlyland All the Way HomeSuffice it to say that if I tried to summarize the plot here, you would be completely confused (I’m not sure exactly what happened all the time, either) but the gist of the book is that the protagonist, September, does indeed find a sort of “home” by the end of this book, which began many books ago with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

September has become Queen of Fairyland, and in order to keep her crown, she must go off on a race and find the Heart of Fairyland in order to keep her crown. All other past royals who ruled Fairyland (including a quite happy talking Stone) want to regain the crown, too, and duels and mishaps happen. The race is called The Cantankerous Derby, and that it is.

What strikes me is how true Valente has stayed to her vision of Fairyland and imagination itself, and how every page in every book in the series provides the reader with places to pull the fabric of reality aside, to see another world of strange creatures and odd ideas, and September trying to figure out her place in one world while hoping to return, and then leave, the other world.

As always, the language in this last book in the series is challenging and interesting, as Valente writes like no other writer in the young adult market that I have come across. It’s not just the vocabulary. It’s syntax and sentence structure, and the periodic way the narrator is suddenly there, right by the reader’s side, giving advice and inserting herself into the story. It all works together like a magic reading spell.

I was hooked from the first book, but I know this series is probably not for everyone. Maybe hidden worlds are not made for everyone. Maybe only some readers can enter through those passageways. Good luck, Rachel.

Peace (there and back),
Kevin

Book Review: The Trials of Apollo (Hidden Oracle)

Well, Rick Riordan is at it again, taking on mythology to weave a story of action and adventure. And he succeeds again at spinning a solid story (and start to a yet another new series of books) with The Trials of Apollo: The Hidden Oracle. If the title isn’t self-evident, the god Apollo has been cast down to Earth as a mortal by Zeus, and he must earn his godhood back by performing heroic deeds.

If you like Percy Jackson and all of the other Riordan books about Greek, Roman, Egypt and Norse mythology, then you are sure to enjoy this one. I’ve had a handful of students loving the book, and as a read-aloud book with my son, I enjoyed it for what it is. I’m finding the narrative voice of his characters a little too much the same, but that’s my own critical reading, I guess.

Actually, I don’t want to review the story here. Rather, I want to note a subversive element that Riordan is working into his stories these days. Let’s note that, in my estimation, the target audience for these books is probably nine year olds to 13 year olds.

The subversive element (which perhaps is the wrong choice of words) that I am noticing began with Nico di Angelo, the son of Hades, in the Heroes of Olympus series, and continues with Apollo in this one. Riordan is making visible the gay sexuality of some of his characters, and while it did not make me or my son uncomfortable (if you knew the community we live in, you’d know why … diverse families are part of the fabric of our city), it did strike me as a daring move by Riordan, given the size of his youthful audience.

Now, let me be clear. There is nothing risque about what Riordan is doing. In fact, there is a tenderness to it. And Riordan does not make a big deal out of Nico being a gay character in this story (in an earlier book, we learn that that he had a crush on Percy Jackson). But here, Nico has a male partner (Will) in Camp Half-Blood. The two hold hands and show love openly. And Apollo, as Gods are oft to do, is clearly bisexual. He has loved and cast away female loves of the past as much as male loves of the past, and those memories haunt him.

In particular, Apollo recalls multiples times in the novel how Hyacinth was one of his “true loves.” Apollo regrets how his own jealous actions led to Hyacinth’s brutal death, and how the flowers he created from Hyacinth’s spilled blood is a reminder of that love between God and man.

Now, Riordan could have ignored this sexuality element of Apollo’s mythology, but he hasn’t. I can only imagine the discussions going on with publishers. I may be wrong. Perhaps the turning tide of acceptance makes this homosexuality element a non-discussion point.

But I doubt it.

I admire that Riordan has not flinched from that part of the mythological stories, particularly in these controversial days of awareness of gay rights and equality. Still, I can’t help but think that some parents (and maybe teachers, even), if they bother to read what their kids are reading (as many are no doubt reading Riordan on a regular basis), might feel different about the move, given the conversative political and strict religious views of parts of the country.

I remain hopeful that the storylines will spark a discussion that can lead to understanding of lifestyles. Maybe a young reader, confused about their own sexuality, will see themselves in the story and find a path forward themselves. It may take writers like Riordan to plant seeds of compassion in young readers with literature, and the flowers may yet bloom in years to come. Adults are always more difficult.

Peace (is not a myth),
Kevin

Book Review: The Perfection of the Paper Clip

Here’s a book that will force you to look at all of the odds and ends on your cluttered desktop (sorry, I am sure yours is nice and tidy but mine rarely is) and wonder about the stories behind the objects that we use everyday with a single thought as to their origin: the paper clip, staplers, Scotch tape, Post-it sticky notes and more. The Perfection of the Paper Clip: Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius and Stationery Obsession by James Ward is a delightful romp through the mundane elements of the office, and while sometimes the chapters feel a bit too obsessive (look, the title gives you fair warning, right?), the uncovering of the stories is impressive and intriguing.

The book is rich with Ward’s humorous take on life (he runs the Boring Conference … which seems intriguing in its own way, right?) on the objects we often take for granted, and plays up the spoils of competition among inventors and manufacturers.

Actually, I found the opening chapters about the invention of the “pen” itself, and all of its various evolving natures over time (from quill to ball-point to space pen and beyond) to be rather fascinating, for some reasons. Maybe it is the hold-out for tactile writing elements or maybe it is the unending drive by engineers to keep perfecting an object even as they try to find a market to buy what they are inventing.

The Perfection of the Paper Clip is a nifty ride through the objects on your desk. You’ll never staple a paper, write a note to a lover, tape that ripped letter back together or file things away in that filing cabinet again without some story coming to mind. It’s already happening to me.

Peace (in the stick of the story),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Artists, Writers, Thinkers, Dreamers

I saw this book — Artists, Writers, Thinkers, Dreamers —  on the shelf of the public library and grabbed it quickly on the way out. Sort of an impulse buy. I’m glad I did. James Gulliver Hancock, an artist, has created a wonderfully illustrated book of, as the title says, many people with big dreams.

But it is the subtitle that says it all: Portraits of 50 Famous Folks and All Their Weird Stuff. This is not a typical biographical book. Rather it is a sort of sketch book, in which Hancock devotes a single page to one of the 50 folks, and weaves a sketch map of ideas, noting quirks and little known facts about them.

We learn about Helen Keller’s glass eyes, and about Buzz Aldrin struggling to get the flag on the moon, and about Billie Holiday dying with 70 cents to her name, and Salvador Dali’s fear of bugs, and about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s song entitled “Kiss My Arse,” and about Marie Curie’s notebooks still being radioactive, and (personally) that one of Babe Ruth’s wives has the same last name as me. (That was of interest to my son, who know wonders is maybe we are related to the Babe.)

I also appreciated that Hancock has shared a pretty diverse list of people to focus on, from Margaret Thatcher to Louis Armstrong to Coco Chanel to Bonnie & Clyde to Ghandi to Muhammad Ali, and more. I guess you could criticize this very diversity by saying no single theme emerges, but I appreciated the surprise of not knowing what the next page would bring.

And Hancock gives himself over to his art at the last page, too, making fun of his own foibles and quirks, showing that not even the writer is immune to the strange ways we live our lives.

Peace (in all of its quirkiness),
Kevin

Sparking Creative Thinking and Rich Imagination

Peter and Paul Reynolds visit Norris

Is there anything better than bringing some talented guests into a classroom and school who then urge everyone in the room, teachers included, to lead a creative life full of possibilities?

That was the clear message from writer/illustrator Peter Reynolds and his equally talented brother, Paul Reynolds, as they visited my school to observe students working on a digital picture book site and to give an uplifting presentation to all sixth graders.

My students are using an early iteration of a platform that the Reynolds’ media company — Fablevision — is testing out as a means for young people to write and publish a book. (I’ll write more at some later date about that). Peter and Paul, and their sister Jane, who leads a school in England, and Andrea, who works at Fablevision, arrived at the start of the school day, and watched my students working on their digital picture books. My National Writing Project friend, Judy Buchanan, was also there, as NWP is my connection to Fablevision.

willow and macy and peter reynolds

(image courtesy of Paul Reynolds)

There were so many positive interactions, it’s hard to pinpoint the power of my students not just meeting a very famous author/illustrator, but also, to get to chat personally with him and to let him, and the others, read their draft stories. I had a whole group of students beaming all day, and walking on air, because they got some advice and support from Peter Reynolds.

trisha and peter reynolds

(image courtesy of Paul Reynolds)

In the presentation to the entire sixth grade, both Reynolds exuded positiveness about possibilities of the world, and encouraged students to use their imagination and to imagine the possible. When asked what his favorite book was when he was growing up, Peter Reynolds pulled out a blank book, with empty pages, and said, This was my favorite book. The kids loved that.

What a nice counterpoint this all was to the state testing season that just ended last week, where students are shoved into boxes of expectations. You have to know this. You have to know that. One answer only, please. Follow the rules.

The Reynolds’ message and Fablevision philosophy– which resonated with many of students, as evident by our discussions later and the energy level for the rest of the day — was quite the opposite of that.

Peter Reynolds talked of being a dreamer as a student, of doodling his ideas. He described how “When I read words, they turn into pictures in my head.” It was Peter’s math teacher, who told him to illustrate a math concept that led to Peter creating a comic book that led to his first animation movie as a 12 year old that put him on the path to writing books such as The Dot, and Ish, and many more (including the illustrations of the Judy Moody books and the Stink books).

We need more creative thinking, not less, and I applaud the Reynolds and Fablevision for staying true to that philosophy in all that they do — from books to software to video animations and more.

Peace (in deep thanks),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Amulet Vol. 7 (Firelight)

 

Kazu Kibuishi continues his extraordinary artistic run of deep, rich graphic storytelling with the seventh book in the Amulet series. This book — called Firelight — is both incredibly to look at, with the graphic form, and to read, with its ever-widening storytelling.

If I am looking for a prime example of how an artist is using the graphic novel medium to spin a narrative, I turn to Kibuishi’s Amulet series, which often falls under the radar because it is aimed at young readers and not necessarily adults (although it is a New York Times bestseller, so maybe that statement isn’t quite correct).

Here, the merging and diverting stories of female protagonist Emily, who has become a Stonekeeper, a source of magical powers. But there is some nefarious schemes at work behind the source of that magic, and Emily is slowly getting sucked into the unknown. Meanwhile, the boy protagonist — Navin, Emily’s brother– is connecting with a rebellion against the Elf King, who may or may not be part of Amulet secrets.

Lots of interesting characters, and strange journeys into the memories and the past, as well as beautifully drawn artwork that forces you into the world of Amulet, make this series one worth checking out. While this seventh volume does not contain any huge surprises, it advances the story along quite nicely. I think Kibuishi has ten volumes planned, so we are moving towards the last third of the story. Books come out every few years, so this is taking a long time to unspool. Which is fine.

Some fan made this book trailer.

Peace (go deep),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Brass Sun (Wheel of the Worlds)

Wren lives in a dying world. A world that is part of a mechanical solar system, created long ago, and now its inner clockwork is slowing down. That system is now dying, and it is up to Wren and some companions to make her way through the inner workings of the solar system to find the disparate “keys” that will connect to rewind the clock and save the Sun, and all of the worlds that are revolving around it.

Brass Sun (Wheels of the World) is an intriguing ride as a graphic story, immersing you fully into an imagined world in which a Blind Watchmaker acted as a sort of God to create the mechanical solar system, and then divvied out the keys to different planets so that they would have to work together in times of crisis. It didn’t work. Instead of seeing each other as partners, they went to war with each other, trying to be the planet that would have the upper hand with the most “keys.”

Part steampunk, part sci-fi, part tech adventure, Brass Sun centers on Wren, who is sent on her mission by her grandfather just before he is captured and killed by a government suspicious of his activities (which run counter to the political, religious narrative of the time). There are lots of complicated smaller stories unfolding in Brass Sun, and writer Ian Edgington never lets you forget that this is a strange world he has imagined. The art by I. N. J. Culbard is wonderful and engaging, particularly in the oversized book that I got from my public library.

This book is part of a larger series apparently (since the story does not resolve at the end of the version I read). It would be appropriate for any middle and high school classroom and would surely engage those young readers who enjoy the concept of alternative world building. Wren, as a protagonist, is a strong female character.

Peace (in the worlds beyond worlds),
Kevin