Book Review: Wildwood Imperium

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You know that feeling you get when a beloved series ends and you can’t quite believe the story is over? That the literary hang-over I am feeling this morning after finishing a read-aloud of Wildwood Imperium (the third book in the Wildwood Chronicles) with my son yesterday. Sure, author Colin Meloy left a few hints that another book might be possible (as any good author would do) but for the most part, the loose ends of this engaging story about the Impassable Wilderness on the outskirts of Portland, where all sorts of strange magic happens and the most unlikely of children becomes the bravest heroes of all.

Oh, Wildwood, we will miss you.

Wildwood Imperium is the third book in the series and is not for the feint of heart. It has multiple storylines, and a rich vocabulary, and a style all of its own, with engaging characters and a treacherous villain (whose actions will surprise you), and the threads that come together to tie up the story are heartfelt and resonate with a respect for the environmental world and the unseen stories in our lives.

If the Wildwood Chronicles does not become a movie some day, it would be a shame. Unless the movie sucked, then it would be a shame. But my son and I both agree that the series, if done right, could be a powerful storytelling experience. Meanwhile, I have two students who eagerly read the first two books this fall and who are waiting, hoping, that I will lend them this third one. Of course, I will. Of course.

Peace (in the woods),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: D-Day (24 Hour History)

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Some events in history do unfold rapidly, and a new graphic novel imprint from Capstone Press seeks to use that as a the theme of a series of graphic novels under the banner of “24 Hour History.” It’s an effective structure for a book like D-Day, where so much happened in such a short amount of time, but which impacted the way World War II played out.

This graphic historical narrative, D-Day, is suited for middle and high school readers (although, interestingly, the Capstone site suggests an elementary grade level – I don’t agree, given the vocabulary and content here). Less a novel than a history lesson, the book begins with an introduction to World War II and then quickly moves into the planning and launching of Allied Forces into France as a move to turn the tide of the war and push Germany back through deception and overwhelming force.

The artwork is nothing to write home about here (ie. rather bland and boring), but with the use of maps, timelines and geographic narrative devices (telling the story of each landing point) along with a few personal stories (which could have been stretched out a bit more, I think), D-Day is an effective piece of graphic non-fiction story that could easily be part of a classroom World War II collection. The writer even gives us some perspectives from both sides of the confrontation, although it is clear the Allies are the heroes here. The stories do not mince words about mistakes that were made and sacrifices given by soldiers in the name of war and liberation.

The use of the 24 hour time frame allows the narrative to move at a rapid pace, as the reader shifts from landing point to landing point, with a clock face read-out on the corner of the frames. It is also helpful that the back of the book has short biographies of some of the main leaders on both sides of the battle, as well as a handy list of additional resources about World War II.

Peace (in the landing),
Kevin

Book Review: The Memory Bank

Such a sweet book. The Memory Bank is a delightful story that begins with a hint of Roald Dahl (terrible parents, neglected kids) and veers into more Roald Dahl (a factory of dreams and memories, an innocent child will lead the way to understanding) and none of those echoes of Dahl is a bad thing, in my book (if I were to write it).

The story revolves around the wonderfully named Hope Scroggins, whose little sister has been left behind by their parents. Hope has been told to forget her sister, Honey, but she can’t, and thus begins an adventure into the factory where dreams and memories are held and documented, even as a band of outlaws is trying to upset the whole enterprise with juvenile shenanigans (like jamming one of the machines with lollipops).

There’s a gentle flow to The Memory Bank and it is jam-packed with wonderful illustrations, including whole sections (reminiscent of Brian Selznick’s work) where the narrative is told entirely in wordless images, one flowing after another until a new chapter of writing begins. It’s very effective.

The Memory Bank will remind you about what’s important in life, with a little adventure thrown in for good measure.

Peace (in the memories),
Kevin

eBook Review: Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom

Let me disclose a few things:

  • I know a lot of these editors and writers through my connections in the National Writing Project;
  • I hung out with the editors in Seattle as they were working on their drafts (and I was working on some resources for the Making Learning Connected MOOC). I knew they were up to something cool, even as they worked in other rooms;
  • Last spring, I had only a vague idea of what Connected Learning was (other than I like having connections and I am a big fan of learning … thus, Connected Learning sounded like something I should know about);
  • And, finally, I stole a paper copy of this ebook from the table at the Digital Media and Learning Conference when NWP friend Christina Cantrill turned her back. (I am sure she didn’t mind).

All that said, I highly recommend a read of this important collection around teaching and learning.

Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom is in many ways a classic National Writing Project production through and through: Teachers sharing their classroom experiences (successes and trials) through the lens of inquiry and writing, all viewed through the overarching frame of Connected Learning principles. What are those principles? These ideas emerged from extensive research done by Mimi Ito and others on the ways that young people are learning in this digital age, and center on a few main concepts (better seen in this infographic).

Connected learning is:

  • interest-powered
  • peer-supported
  • academically-orientated
  • production-centered
  • openly-networked
  • shared purpose

Watch this video:

Which is all good  and everything but what does that mean for the classroom teacher (like me)? Editor Antero Garcia and the fabulous writers and curators here try to answer that question by focusing the lens on classrooms with stories from teachers grouped around those themes, with curation editors framing those specific stories in the light of inquiry.

“I believe connected learning principles can provide a vocabulary for teachers to reclaim agency over what and how we best meet the individual needs of students in our classroom,” Garcia writes in the introduction. “With learners as the focus, teachers can rely on connected learning as a way to pull back the curtain on how learning happens in schools and agitate the possibilities of classrooms today.”

And so as educator Christopher Working shares how his third graders took blogging to new levels, and how their writing flourished as a result, other teachers (such as Chuck Jurich, Gail Desler, and Danielle Filipiak) explore the dynamics of multimedia production and global audiences and collaboration for student work that goes above and beyond expectation.

“… I was able to see firsthand how centering production afforded opportunities for students to construct affirming identities, make authentic connections to classroom texts, and develop new and specialized technical skill sets,” writes Filipiak, of  projects undertaken by her students that merged media and culture together for a social justice message.

Still others are pushing boundaries, even if they are still grounded in literacy. Jason Sellers has his elementary students creating interactive fiction games and stories, mixing in the overarching lessons of programming with the lessons of writing stories. “The unforgiving nature of programming languages was a frustrating but valuable experience for some students, ” Sellars admits. “Small mistakes in a line of code often would render their games unplayable” and yet, lead to revision and iterative design.

One of the more fascinating projects here is the Interactive ‘Zine project, and Christian McKay’s insights into the merging writing, publication and fabrication/maker techniques to create bound collection of writing that has electronic elements built right into the design (with Makey Makey circuit boards and Scratch programming systems). “The Interactive ‘Zine provides opportunities for learners to consciously engage in the creation of their artifact for a public audience, ” writes McKay. “The public entity is developed through the written word that the students share — at a minimum, within the classroom, and more broadly, through public sharing of their Scratch projects at the Scratch website.”

There’s more, much more, that I could share here, but I think you’d be best to get your own copy. And you won’t need to pilfer it from the table off an unsuspecting friend, as I did. Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom is a free PDF and a relatively cheap ebook for Kindle right now.  It is published through the Digital Media and Learning Hub.

Oh, did I mention that just about every article here has a link to a media resource at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site? That alone is worth the free price of admission. Links are embedded right into the ebook itself, allowing you to see student samples and teacher resources and more, so what are you waiting for? Get connecting.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: A Start to New Stories

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(This is part of the Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. We write about small moments each and every day for March. You come, too. Write with us.)

There’s something special to starting a new book. Yesterday, I began to read two new books that have been on my radar for some time. On one hand, I love stacks of unread books. They represent so much potential. On the other hand, seeing a stack of book to be read makes me antsy, and I risk losing the “moment” of being “in” the book I am reading in order to rush to get to the book next up on my list.

Does that happen to you?

 

Wildwood book cover

Anyway, the first new book I began reading yesterday is a read-aloud with my nine-year-old son (a common theme of my Slices of Life – if you remember, my very first Slice of Life six years ago was reading The Lorax to my older boys, who were much younger then). Wildwood Imperium, by Colin Meloy (he, of The Decemberists fame), is the third book in the Wildwood Chronicles. We read the first two books and have been waiting for some time for the third. That’s a whole other feeling, right? Waiting for the writer to get to work and get the story out (I’m talking to you, George R.R. Martin).

So, when Wildwood Imperium arrived earlier this week, and sat on the kitchen counter, my son and I were both thumbing our way through the pages, checking out the glorious illustrations by Meloy’s wife, Carson Ellis, and getting ready to dive in. Of course, neither of us can recall all the details of the last book, so I keep stopping and we keep asking each other, do you remember the shape shifting fox? the bear with hooks as claws? the plan to find the automaton boy prince? the magical tree?

There is tricky vocabulary in here (no surprise if you know Meloy as a songwriter) but I like that, and I like that my son has new words floating in his head as the story unfolds.

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The other book I picked up as a solo read is The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud,  American Legend – a non-fiction book about the masterful leader of the Sioux Indians who oversaw a huge swath of America and even defeated the U. S. Army at one point (I believe), only to have the tide of injustice sweep him under the rug of history. Those who win write the history books, right? I know I never read about Red Cloud in my social studies classes. Now, I am learning.

While non-fiction, the book has beautiful writing, very evocative of the landscape and characters and the time of expansion and turmoil in our country, and I am only a chapter deep but already wishing I had a few hours to sit with the pages, reading.

What are you reading?

Peace (in the words on the page as stories in the mind),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Wandering the Books of Memories

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(This is part of the Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. We write about small moments each and every day for March. You come, too. Write with us.)

When my kids were younger, the Picture Book rooms of our libraries were our home away from home. As a stay-at-home dad with my two older kids (now in their teens), we could/would spend hours in the stacks, just browsing, reading, playing and hanging out with stories. Sadly, our youngest boy is now a bit too old for the picture book room, as he moved on to novels and graphic novels.

I still look wistfully at the room, though, and last night, as my youngest son and I were killing some time before getting his older brother from his Confirmation class, we drove to the library (our small city has two libraries, and this one is the one we don’t visit as often). While he sat on the ground, perusing a graphic novel, I wandered into the Picture Book room.

Such memories!

And I could not resist. I went thumbing through the stacks and pulled out a few favorites of the boys over the years — you know, the books that I had read hundreds of times and was always at the point where I was happy when the books were either taken out by someone else or I could convince them to leave the stories for another child. Captain Raptor, Traction Man, Bill Peet stories … oh, there were others, but these are some of the few I could still find in familiar places in the bookshelves, thankfully.

Books

And then I figured: check ‘em out. Bring ‘em home. And so I did.

Welcome back, old friends.

Peace (in the books),
Kevin

Book Review: Robot Army Rampage

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This is the second book in a series about Nick and Tesla, two kids with a Maker ethos who get broiled up in adventures while staying with their eccentric inventor uncle. The series by “Science Bob” Pflugflelder and Steve Hockensmith comes complete with diagrams and plans for building the things that Nick and Tesla build in the story, so an intrepid reader could construct their own robo-hovercrafts or bot-blasting soaker gun or maybe a robo-bug? My son and I haven’t yet made any of these, but we’ve bookmarked a few for the future.

The story in this second book – Robot Army Rampage — moves at a quicker pace than the first book (High-Voltage Danger Lab), which I appreciated, and the characters in the story are bit more lively, too. Here, the story involves a series of robberies of stores in town, the sudden emergence of a bunch of odd little robots, a comic book/Maker store where kids like to hang out, and some off-kilter characters. My son guessed the culprit early on but still thoroughly enjoyed the tale.

I like how the writers really bake in the whole engineering/inventor/Make ideas into the books. It doesn’t seem terribly forced and instead, the kids use their wits and humor to solve problems. It helps their uncle has a fully-equipped science lab in the basement of their home (doesn’t everyone?) but the schematics that are provided here rely on mostly common everyday objects and materials.

So, you could build your own robo-bug. And why wouldn’t you?

Peace (in the make),
Kevin

Book Review: Spy School

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A few years ago, after reading some Carl Hiaasen with my class, I saw the book Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs in the book store. The cover had the same sort of style as Flush and so I picked it up. It was a fun read, certainly influenced by Hiaasen’s style of humorous writing and focus on hijinks and the environment, albeit with the setting of a zoo, of sorts. Still, it was a fun, fast read, with lots of chuckling on our part. I guess some students liked it too because Belly Up went missing from my classroom library not long after I put it there.

Darn kids.

So, when I saw that Gibbs had another book out (and a sequel), I kept it on my radar. Finally, my son and I dove into Spy School as a read-aloud and as soon as it was done, we were searching for Spy Camp. My son is nine years old, so spying as the source for stories has great appeal (that Gibbs, he knows his audience). The novel tells the story of Ben, who gets invited to join a super-elite school for young spies-in-training, only to find out things are not what they appear to be and suddenly, the hunt is on for a mole in the espionage establishment.

There’s plenty of action, and pretty decent characters, as Gibbs establishes some of the ins and outs of the spy agencies, and puts Ben’s life in danger more than a few times. Luckily, Ben has a protector of sorts in Erica, a beautiful girl whose espionage skills would rattle James Bond on a good day. She’s a one-person wrecking crew of smarts and skills. And Ben is smitten (my son wasn’t all that interested in that element of the story).

Spy School is a good, adventurous read for middle school kids, particularly boys. Gibbs has found a solid topic to build some novels off, and my son and I are going deep undercover … to read.

Peace (this blog post will self-destruct in five seconds),
Kevin

Book Review: Fortunately, the Milk

Fortunately, the Milk is another amusingly, bizarre book by Neil Gaiman that was such the perfect read-aloud on our wintry day that we are tempted to read it again (although I think my son and wife might save it for their boys’ book club). A fast-paced, quirky adventure in which a dad goes out to get the milk and returns with a whopper of a story involving aliens, volcanoes, hot air balloons and time traveling nonsense that will have your head spinning. (in a good way).

Coupled with fun illustration, Fortunately, the Milk is a riot. Not very deep in terms of characters or plot, perhaps, but still a rollicking adventure. I also thought it interesting how Gaiman and the publisher used font sizes and styles to denote parts of the story as the narrative moves in and out of the present (kids talking to dad) to the past (the story that dad tells), and the ending reminded me a bit of that last scene in The Usual Suspects but that’s all I will say.

On a day when snow was falling and my son and I were cuddled up on the couch, we were fortunate to have Fortunately, the Milk handy and my admiration of Gaiman as a writer continues to grow.

Peace (in the tale),
Kevin