Book Review: Vargic’s Miscellany of Curious Maps

This collection of invented maps is quite an exploration, showing you the world in ways that you would never have imagined. It includes The Map of Stereotypes; Maps of Internet, YouTube and Gaming; Maps of Literature, Music and Sports; The Map of Separatist Europe; and dozens of others.

I came aware of Vargic’s Miscellany of Curious Maps after the Boston Globe printed a full page, color version of the Gaming Map, which I hung in my room during our game design unit. I went out and found the book, and the level of detail and perspectives is pretty intriguing in lots of ways. Slovakian artist Martin Vargic (who is only 18, if I have my information right) is behind these maps, and his first map of the Internet went viral a few years ago.

What I love most of all is how the maps turn our view of the world as a piece of geography into something different. The world takes on many layers when we see a vision of the globe spinning in different themes, with different data, with different perspectives. This really is what maps can be about, if we allow ourselves to dream of the world in different ways.

I have hung the Map of Sports and the Map of Music in my room, and my students get their faces close, reading the fine details with wonder, and I appreciate that the book has some larger, fold-out maps that one can take out of the book itself. I would bring the book in, but there are some maps that are just not appropriate for the classroom.

Peace (here are the coordinates),
Kevin

 

 

Graphic Novel Review: Coral Reefs (Cities of the Ocean)

The First Second Publishing company, one of my favorite sources for interesting graphic novels, has started up a new educational graphic novel series around science. Called Science Comics, the books are designed to help readers dive deep into scientific ideas.

I just finished reading one of the first in the series, called Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean, and it is a fantastic example of how graphic novels can impart important information in a fun and engaging way, with humor mixed in with facts in a very visual way. Author/illustrator Maris Wicks works as a program manager at the New England Aquarium, so she is well versed in all things related to the oceans.

The book introduces us to our narrator, a little Bony Fish (known scientifically as Osteichthyes .. lots of content-area vocabulary in here), with big glasses, whose witty and funny and curious about the world. The reader, entertained by the narrator, comes to learn about such concepts as classification of animals (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species), the impact of pollution and global warming on the seas, and a wide array of creatures who live in the ocean.

But, as the title suggests, we also learn a whole lot about Coral Reefs, which are amazing structures that have a vital importance to the world as home to many fish and plants, and other smaller beings who helped filter our air and water for the rest of us, even though we rarely show our appreciation.

We learn about Coral as a living creature, and how Coral Reefs are formed, and the symbiotic nature of Coral and other creatures. We also learn about the fragile nature of Coral Reefs in the era of Global Warming. It’s not all gloom and doom, as Bony Fish gives us suggestions for what we can do to protect our oceans, even if you live nowhere near it.

The artwork here is very engaging, and integrates complex information in ways that should hold the interest of any reader interested in the ocean and Coral Reefs. Unlike some content-area graphic novels out there in the world (and I have read more than my share) that seem thrown together to make a buck off the graphic novel movement, Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean seems more like an act of love by someone who is deeply immersed in the ocean, as Wicks is.

A likely target audience would be upper elementary into middle school, although younger readers would still get a lot out of the book, even if some of the vocabulary was too dense.

Peace (in the sea),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Of Zooks and Yooks

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge for March, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We are writing each day about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

sol16This is a sort of deja vu slice, since I think I have likely written about what I do for Dr. Seuss Day and Read Across America Day (they were both yesterday) at least once or twice in past Slice of Life. But I still enjoy digging out my Seuss The Butter Battle Book to share with my sixth graders on that day.

The real lesson for literature is Allegory (a term none were familiar with) and history (The Cold War) but any reason to bring out a Dr. Seuss book is fine by me. Not many have had The Butter Battle Book read to them (a few had watched the video version at some point) and I made sure my reading style projected both the absurdity of the tale (butter? bread? Yooks? Zooks?) with the sharp political commentary of the Cold War’s nuclear arms race.

I even found a great chart online that connected the symbolism of the book with geopolitics of the Cold War age, which led to long discussions in each class about the Berlin Wall, for example, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

You can’t go wrong with Seuss.

Peace (let is be now and into the future),
Kevin

Book Review: Mo’ Meta Blues (The World According to Questlove)

I can’t say I am a diehard Roots fan (I have the album they recorded with John Legend … it’s very good), but what I have heard, I have liked. And I know that Questlove (Ahmir Thompson), the drummer and co-founder of the Roots, seems to often be at the center of musical circles and an insightful writer about culture from the hip-hop viewpoint.

His memoir (a format he liberally plays with here) is called Mo’ Meta Blues, and it is a rich journey into more than just his personal history in music (The Roots are now Jimmy Fallon’s house band). It is also an insightful look into the history of hip-hop, with a Philly perspective, and of modern Black music and Black identity.

Music has the power to stop time. When I listen to songs, I’m transported back to the moment of their birth, which is sometimes even before the moment of my birth. Old songs, rock or soul or blues, still connect with me because the human emotions in them, whether jealousy or rage or hope, are recognizably similar to the emotions that I’m feeling now. (Ahmir Thompson, Mo’ Meta Blues, page 272)

I appreciate the humanity and humor Questlove brings to his story, and the way he shows us a band that often struggles to find an identity in the changing pop culture landscape and then keeps true to its heart and reforges its identity, time over time, and yet still clings to a vision of music as a powerful force in nature. They’re after bigger game than the next hit. It’s a bumpy ride for the Roots, and yet, they remain a viable force on many levels.

Peace (in roots),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era

Since late December, I had been slowly sharing out thoughts from the new book by Henry Jenkins, Mimi Ito and danah boyd called Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. We chose the book as a slow-read after Digital Writing Month unofficial ended in November, hoping to continue the conversations and keep our own participatory elements alive and active.

I’m not sure it all worked as we had hoped (this vision of multiple entry points with various conversations emerging and unfolding), but maybe it is too early to make that assessment. There was some activity here and there, and Terry Elliott offered up multiple entry points for folks to “participate” in the conversations. A few did. Some may be doing it still. Some may still enter in. It’s an open invitation.

You come, too.

But I figure I needed an artificial ending point for myself with the book itself (and I wrote this post a few weeks ago but kept it in my draft bin), while still hoping to keep open the connections with other people reading it and learning from it, too. The last page of a book does not mean the last thoughts of a book. Much of what Jenkins, Ito and boyd talk about in Participatory Culture in a Networked Era rattle in my head. I am still hoping to find more people to talk about it with.

 

So, here are some take-aways from the book on my end:

  • Just “hearing” the discussions and debates and diving deeper by these three thinkers around Connected Learning and Participatory Culture is intriguing. The book is framed around main ideas, with an introduction by one of the three, and then edited transcripts as the three bandy about the ideas. I felt like I was in the room at times.
  • By the end, they agree that the defining of Participatory Culture is still in flux. I still have troubles grasping a definition. It anchors on the ideas of people being to come together based on common interests, and creating ideas or things together, with experts helping novices. I feel like those ideas are important.
  • I wish there had been more about classroom experiences, but these three are more researchers, and it seems as if much of their research has been done in out-of-school programs. This makes sense, as kids gather around interests in after-school programs or online spaces. But I keep coming back to the question of how to make sense of this in my classroom, and how to use Participatory Culture concepts to engage students in meaningful learning and literacy moments.
  • The discussion around ways that commercial enterprises and corporate culture have sort of hijacked “participation” for financial gain and status in the world of Social Media is something that I appreciated, and certainly do talk about with my students. It’s about empowerment and filtering, and having agency to decide when to participate. The three authors have strong ideas, culled from their research.
  • Talking about what kind of elements help nurture a Participatory Culture had us thinking of how technology platforms (Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook, etc.) either encourage or hinder Participatory Culture. Most of the sites I use on a regular basis seem less than ideal. There are pieces that invite participatory ideas, but there are also walls to a seamless experience.
  • We found it interesting that our open invitations to discussions, of trying to create a small pocket of Participatory Culture around the reading of the book, didn’t seem to gather any reaction or comments from the three authors of the book. Maybe they didn’t even know we were talking about them. Or maybe they are keeping removed from the discussion around their book. Who knows? But it seemed counter to the theme of participation, of narrowing the line between reader and author.
  • I still don’t get the cover art. I am not sure why I keep wondering about it. I guess I find it interesting and intriguing …. but it is strangely odd.

This book is well worth your time, even if you don’t connect with discussions. I think it makes for a richer experience to read with others in online spaces, and explore and create, but the book is worth your time one way or another.

Peace (on pages),
Kevin

 

Let Wind and Chance Plant the Seeds of a Poem

There is a great scene in the wonderful picture book, Weslandia by Paul Fleischman, in which Wesley, the outcast boy who decides to build a new civilization for summer vacation break, has an argument of sorts with an adult neighbor. Wesley has been prepping a garden, and the neighbor tells him to plant tomatoes, Brussel Sprouts and other common crops.

Instead, Wesley looks towards the unexpected, and makes room for it.

“Wesley found it thrilling to open his land to chance, to invite the new and unknown.”

He decides to leave it to the winds to decide what will grow, and one night, a magical wind of chance does come a-blowing, scattering strange unknown seeds in Wesley’s plot of ground that become the flowering plants that will transform the backyard into the civilization that Wesley calls Weslandia.

The neighbor tells Wesley that if he doesn’t watch out, he will have trouble with the sprouts.

“You’ll have almighty bedlam on your hands if you don’t get those weeds out,” warned his neighbor.

“Actually, that’s my crop,” replied Wesley. “In this type of garden there are no weeds.”

Project postcsrd

Way back in early January, I started a poem project. A connected poem project. A slow-moving connected poem project. Here’s how it began and still is unfolding:

  • I wrote a poem
  • I cut up the poem into words and phrases
  • I sent a word or phrase to a dozen or more people who have been part of a periodic Making Learning Connected MOOC Postcard Project (we send postcards to each other)
  • I asked them in a note on the postcard to go to an online space and add the word and any media they thought applicable
  • I suggested they try to reconstruct the poem, sort of like a puzzle (which is difficult with no context, I know … that is part of the whole endeavor)

And I waited. And I waited. (Not my strong suit, this waiting for projects to unfold … I like to do things nownownow)

Nearly eight weeks later, a few postcards are still arriving (some of the postcards went to other parts of the world.) Some postcards never made it. Some may have been forgotten or ignored. But the Padlet wall where the poem is being reconstructed? It’s pretty cool.

Postcard Poem Padlet Wall

While waiting for the postcards to be delivered, I had also started up a Twitter Messaging forum with the folks I sent the postcards to. Originally, I had just intended to “warn” them about the postcard on the way (my handwriting stinks so if they could not read it, I wanted a way for them to reach out).

That string of messages in the Twitter backchannel has become a very interesting space over the past eight weeks or so, as conversations have turned on the project, on the use of traditional mail for a connected learning project, of patience and perseverance, of global connections, and of the nature of “chance” in an open environment. I feel more connected with that conversation that I have with the poem itself, interestingly enough.

And then something interesting happened … one of my friends shared the link to the poem project in a blog post about process of writing (which I think is cool to think of it all as a process of writing and collaboration over time) and one of their readers, another friend of mine outside of the postcard project but in other networks, went and left a piece of media and their own new word on the poem wall. Suddenly, the poem was becoming something new, moving out of my hands in an intriguing way.

So, while I have not yet come to a point of writing about my intent as the first writer behind the Postcard Poetry Project (since the poem is not yet completely reconstructed .. this post is not the reflective post I still intend to write someday), I want to open the whole poem itself to the Winds of Chance, as Wesley did when he was beginning his summer civilization project, and I want to invite you (and you and you) to come into the Padlet wall, and maybe add a word and a piece of media.

What shared writing can we create together? What will the winds bring? Come add to the poem. We will write this next phase of the project together. Wesley would be proud.

Peace (in the poem),
Kevin

Book Review: Book (My Autobiography)

You know those moments when serendipity hits?

I had one of those moments yesterday, as I brought my son to the library and stumbled, just as I was thinking of creative non-fiction that would make sense in my classroom, on Book: My Autobiography by John Agard (illustrations by Neil Packer). There the book was, just sitting on a bookcase, with the word “Book” facing me. I picked it up and was immediately lost in the story. Took it home. Kept on reading. Kept on thinking.

Book tells the story of the book, in a very creative narrative style, bringing us Book as the narrator of the book through the ages. It begins with:

My name is BOOK and I’ll tell you the story of my life.”

And from there, it moves briskly through ancient times of writing across cultures, through the refinement of paper, to moveable type to the Age of eBooks. The voice is poetic, and funny, with enough research behind the story of Book to provide multiple in-roads for discussions about various cultural advancements (Egypt, China, India, Sumar, etc.). The text is also complimented with rich illustrations and a handful of poems about reading and writing and books as physical objective manifested with imagination.

Book is my kind of book.

As I was reading, I was remembering an old unit I used to do around the printing press and newspapers (it was a Student Teacher project). I had this activity where students created their own moveable press device for printing text. And as I read further, I could see timeline constructions, argumentative writing, and mapping activities and more as I read this story. Mapping the changes of how we write and how we read … that’s a perfect text for the kinds of discussions we have in our classroom on a regular basis, to be honest.

As it happens, this year’s class parents are asking about how they can give a “gift” to our grade from fundraising money they have, and they wondered if a book set might be possible … so I see this as one possibility. (Cost might be prohibitive, though, as it is only in hardcover right now).

It also has been reminding of me this cute video from a few years ago (which is a version of the picture book). The video is a trailer for It’s a Book by Lane Smith:

Peace (in the love of books),
Kevin

Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Old School)

(Note: I wrote this review a few months ago and then it sat in my draft bin, so some of the time references are past now.)

I’m not sure how Jeff Kinney taps into the experience of my kids, but every Wimpy Kid book seems to have done it. With his latest, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School, Kinney touches on a push to pull back on technology in our lives in order to reconnect with family and community (which Greg Hefley, our protagonist, has qualms about, in a funny way) and a school trip to a week-long outdoor camp adventure (with very funny results and a new connect with dad).

So, we just had a discussion about lessening our technology in our home AND my youngest son — still a fan of Wimpy Kid books and Jeff Kinney — just came back from a week-long school trip … to an outdoor camp adventure facility.

Weird, right?

Listen, Kinney’s writing is fun and engaging, but won’t be pushing any deep literature thinking. However, his use of visuals to help tell the story continue to be a mentor text on how simple illustrations can impact a story. You want to know who is carrying around Kinney’s books in my classrooms? Mostly the boys. Mostly the boys who don’t like to read. They sit and read quietly with Kinney’s books, though. (Some girls, too. But mostly, the boys.)

So, yes, it would be nice to see them choosing deeper stories with larger themes. But to see them reading? That’s a deep “thank you” to Jeff Kinney. One step at a time. My job is to keep moving them forward from that book to this book to that book to this book. And if we can laugh along the way, I’m all for that.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

Book Review: Thing Explainer

Cover of the book Thing Explainer

What Randall Monroe pulls off in Thing Explainer reminds me a bit of what Dr. Seuss did with his early books for young readers: he purposefully uses a minimal amount of words to explain the complicated world (although Dr. Seuss sought to teach young people how to read with The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham).

In the case of Thing Explainer, Monroe limited himself to 1,000 common words, and no more (he lists them at the end of the book). That may seem like a lot, until you realize the complexity of the world he is explaining — such as computerized data centers that make up cloud computing, and the space stations, cells, and the human body, and more.

What Monroe brings to these explanations is his witty sense of visuals and webcomic ability, which are always on display at his xkcd webcomic, but here, his visuals are given full pages (the book is oversized, and I would probably recommend going with the physical book over a digital book, but that’s just me). He may only use stick people, but those stick people are hilarious in their poses and verbal asides, and they fit in perfectly with Monroe’s visual design of our modern world, told in simple language.

It’s fun learning.

My students are in the midst of expository writing right now, and I might see if I can get a few of Monroe’s drawings out of the book and up onto my classroom walls. The pencil one in particular is very interesting and inviting, and it would surely draw the attention of my students (we’ve been doing diagram drawing all year long for creative writing).

Monroe also created a “simple writer” website, for trying out yourself how to explain something in few words, using his database of common words. I popped this entire blog post into it, and discovered many words above and beyond the complexity point.

Using SimpleWriter

 

Peace (in the thing, explained),
Kevin