Book Review: The Art of Screen Time

Journalist and mom Anya Kamanetz approaches screens and family with a balanced eye in her book — The Art of Screen Time (How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media & Real Life) — and for that, I want to show appreciation. She doesn’t shy away from the troubling aspects of too much screen time for kids and parents. Nor does she ignore the positive possibilities.

Instead, she gives a nuanced look at research and findings around the impact of screens on kids, and the role of parents in the age of the digital entertainment world, and reminds us that all we can do is our best.

She borrows and remixes Michael Pollan’s phrase about food, with a technological twist: “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly with others.” I think that is good advice, even as I both see the benefits as a teacher and father, and worry about the impact of digital devices on developing brains, including my own children.

I appreciated her findings from surveying other parents about how they approach limiting screen time (something my wife and I grapple with at home with our youngest, a teenaged son) and how our difficulties are not isolated. It seems like many of us as parents are finding this a difficult world to navigate. How much screen time is too much screen time? What are the lasting effects of decisions we are making now? How can we find more balance for us and our kids?

Kamanetz looks not just at how kids use technology, but also how parents are becoming the role models for kids, and not always in good and positive ways. She explores the mommy-blogging world (something I sort of know about but not really, and I am both disheartened to see it commercialized and heartened to see there are places where good advice and caring communities exist).

The most important piece of advice — the one huge researched take-away for all parents that sticks with me — is to protect the sleep patterns of your children. No devices and no screens in bedrooms, and turn off screens an hour before bedtime. The sanctity of sleep is key to the development of a growing brain and emotional self.

In a nod to the world she is writing about, where time seems slippery and tl/dr (too long, didn’t read) is a cultural shortcut, Kamanetz even has a final chapter in which she summarizes her book into a five-minute read (sort of like a bulleted cliff notes version). You could read that, of course, but I suggest reading the entire book, and thinking about technology, our kids, ourselves and the world in a critical and constructive way. It is worth it.

Peace (on this screen and beyond),
Kevin

Book Review: How to Write An Autobiographical Novel

 

I’ve heard Alexander Chee’s name before but had not read anything by him, and then his latest book — How To Write An Autobiographical Novel – starting showing up in the places where I read about books.  I’m glad I discovered it, and him, for his writing is lyrical at times, and powerfully moving. In this collection of essays, connected by the larger theme of exploring one’s life through fiction, Chee tumbles into the terrain of writing.

I won’t recount his difficult, yet interesting, life, but themes of race and cultural identity, gender politics, sexual orientation, literary mentorship, and ways of looking at your world through a lens of words all come to the surface in interesting ways.

Even with the title, I didn’t quite realize what Chee was up to until I finished the book, and thought deeply, later, about how his pieces fit together as advice for a writer grappling with identity and stories, and how to tell those stories (and the price you pay for using your own stories to write fiction). He also has some beautifully written sentences and passages. Even if he hadn’t noted that Annie Dillard was one of his professors, you would catch some of her style in his style (not a bad thing), although his focus of topic is very different from hers.

I’d recommend this book for those seeking to explore what it means to be a writer, but this book is probably more for adults than students below the university level.

Peace (between pages),
Kevin

Book Review: 100 Years From Now Our Bones Will Be Different

What a find! This book — 100 Years From Now Our Bones Will Be Different by Lawrence McWilliams and Anand Vedawala — is a treasure and inspiration, as it weaves vignettes and epitaphs of a single fictional African American family over 100 years, with illustrations. The stories are powerful, with overlapping narratives that foreshadow stories and hint back to past stories, weaving the family tree in a way that a diagram could never do.

In here, you will experience the echoes of slavery, of discrimination, of family connections, of hope, of dreams, of tragedy. In short, it’s a family story, with all of its imperfections surfacing through the voices of the multitude of characters (the first, born in 1878, and the last, died in 2015).

There are many applications for this kind of fictional narrative, from historical perspectives to story writing. I am bringing pieces of it into a professional development session tonight, in fact, where our focus is on oral history, and I am going to do a roundtable reading (hopefully, I will record it for a podcast resource later).

And what’s cool, too, is that this was funded via Kickstarter.

Peace (tell the tale),
kevin

My Year in Books (via Goodreads)

Year in Books 2018

I use Goodreads regularly to keep track of my reading, and I always do the annual reading goal challenge (keeping it at 100 books to be read each year). What I like is the final Year in Books that Goodreads spits out, giving a cool glimpse of the books read and reviewed over the past year. I am always taken back by the number of pages I have read (40,000 in 2018).

Peace (in pages),
Kevin

 

Student Reflections: Choice in Books and Time to Read


reading flickr photo by Ken Ronkowitz shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

I’ve been trying to work more independent and choice reading time into my classroom this year. I’ve always done so, but this year, I’m stretching the time frames and trying to be more thoughtful about the time they need in the school day to read. I’m inspired by books like Game Changer (Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp) and Book Love (Penny Kittle) and others.

As we neared the end of a recent seven-week block of an independent reading unit, following a class novel unit at the start of the year, I asked them to write a bit about what they liked or didn’t like about this extended time.

Reading their responses, three main themes emerge across the board (and of my nearly 80 students, only two did not like the independent unit all that much, citing too much choice and freedom).

  • They liked the choice and the variety of books they could read, and some notes resistance to teacher-driven books, even if they like the story
  • They liked the quiet space we created in the classroom for reading — sometimes it was only 10 minutes a day but often I stretched it to 20 minutes — and many noted they don’t have time to read or desire to read outside of school
  • They appreciated learning about more books from other classmates reading, getting recommendations from peers (as opposed to me, the teacher, although many did ask and receive books from my classroom library upon my recommendation)

Here’s what some of them wrote:

I have enjoyed this extended independent reading unit from the moment we started it. One of the reasons why I liked it is being able to read what I wanted instead of what other people wanted or were reading. I like having my own book that is harder to have a spoiled finish than others that people already read. Some of the books that I read other people didn’t read or had forgotten about reading it. This experience of independent reading has made reading something more enjoyable. – GM

 

During the last several months I have enjoyed the independent reading unit. I have had trouble finding time to read in the past, which is a hobby I enjoy, so it is not only helpful but to have the opportunity in class but also fun. I like deciding where to sit in the classroom, and I enjoy the quiet atmosphere it provides. – CC

 

I enjoy independent reading. I like it because, If I did not have a time to read, I might of stopped reading or forgot about the book. I like choosing a book because the books that people pick out for me might not meet my interests. At school, the teachers pick out good books, but if anyone else did I probably would dislike it. — LB

 

I really enjoyed our independent reading. One reason is, I get the freedom to chose the book of my choice. I also like that if I don’t like a book I can stop reading it and chose a book that I will better enjoy. Lastly, I like that I can read at my own pace and I don’t have to stop reading if I’m enjoying something. In conclusion, I really enjoyed our independent reading. — JS

 

I have enjoyed it because teachers don’t always pick the best book for the class. I know because all last year I did not like the books. Also, it gives me freedom to try different genres. Also, because it is fun to read all kinds of books. – EM

 

I have enjoyed the independent reading unit. I love to read and I have really enjoyed being able to pick out my own books so that I can understand what I’m reading and enjoy. I have been able to read 2 books and I am starting a third. Even though I like to read I don’t usually read so it was nice to read every day in class. – LG

 

Yes I did enjoy it because you are able to pick your own book. I like it better than having to read an assigned book. Also it allows me to read diverse books. – LP

 

I have enjoyed quiet reading because,  it is nice to have sometime in the middle of the school day to sit back and quietly read a book after all the rushing around. It is nice to also be able to pick out the book that I want to read, unlike being forced to read a book That I may or may not like. When it is time for quiet reading, it is nice to be able to pick out where to sit, what to read, and how fast or how slow you read. – SB

 

Yes, I have enjoyed this independent reading unit. I like how I have the freedom to pick a book that particularly interests me. However, I did like the book that we read as a class. I also liked that I did not have a reading limit. Especially when I am at a suspenseful part. When reading in class I agree that it was really quiet and peaceful. I think that the amount of time we spent reading in class was good, not too long but not too fast. – OM

 

I love reading so naturally I love silent reading. I also enjoy the fact that we get to choose our own books because it encourages me to read more. Reading has always been one of my favorite things to do. However, when I’m forced to read a certain book I enjoy the book less even if it is a good book. – AH

Peace (pondering),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Be Prepared

Vera Brosgol has mined her childhood (as part of a Russian immigrant family in the United States) for this interesting take on a common childhood experience: overnight summer camp. But in Be Prepared, Brosgol gives us a glimpse of something else, too: how Russian immigrants created an entire community here after the Purges to help children keep their Russian roots.

I know this a reflection of the times we live in, but as I read Be Prepared, I couldn’t help thinking: is this story going to shift in some spy indoctrination story of young Russian children (Perhaps I’ve been watching The Americans too much and reading the collusion headlines of this presidency). But no. This is about a girl trying to find her own place in the world, where cultural clashes and family tensions make friendships difficult.

This book was fun to read, and I really ended up caring deeply about the main character — Vera, a version of the graphic novelist, who tells us at the end that not everything here happened as it happened in real life. She’s funny, witty, creative and uncertain about herself, and in the end, she finds a friend and connection at the summer camp.

This book is appropriate for elementary and middle school readers, for sure, and high school students might enjoy it. Brosgol is a graphic novelist/cartoonist to keep an eye on, for sure.

Peace (in cultural frames),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

What a find! I am thankful to some friends on Twitter who recently surfaced Isabel Greenberg’s mesmerizing and delightful The Encyclopedia of Early Earth. Rich in storytelling and packed with intense artwork, this graphic story within stories is steeped in layers of mythology.

The story itself revolves around the time before our own history began, when Greenberg’s imagined cultures were full of explorers and traditions, and the skies ruled by a mercurial god and his two offspring. A linking narrative thread is the roaming of a Nord man on a quest, and how the magnetic pull of love brings two worlds together, and how those two worlds also keep these lovers apart. You’ll have to read to understand.

Along the way, we have spiteful god interference (as well as helpful god interference), mad kings and kingdoms, long pages of art and no text, and a hearty stew of ancient creation myths woven together, and echoing into the present, by Greenberg, a writer and artist whose talent brims on every page. There’s also a sly narrative voice underneath this all — sort of like a winking at the reader, mostly in the form of the wise man.

Meanwhile, the illustrations and graphic design in The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is a joy to view, a pallet of mostly deep blacks and contrasting whites, thrown off now and then with splashes of color that surprise your eyes and bring you deeper into the story.

This graphic novel might be appropriate for high school, but there is some nudity here and there — nothing not in use of advancing the story — that might give a teacher pause, particularly for any students below high school age. The content itself would be accessible at an earlier age, however. And teachers could easily use sections of this book to teach about creation myths as well as the art of the graphic novel. It’s that good.

NPR has a link to read parts of the book. Check it out.

Peace (across oceans and time),
Kevin

Book Review: Towers Falling

How do write about tragedy for a young audience? This is what writers of young adult fiction often grapple with. In Towers Falling, novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes does a masterful job addressing this dilemma by having her young narrator — Deja, who lives in a homeless shelter in New York City with her family as our story unfolds — learn about the 9-11 attack just as the audience does.

Set more than a decade after the attack on the World Trade Center, the novel follows Deja and her friends as they learn more about what happened on that terrible day. It turns out that, although Deja is a New York City native, she doesn’t even know there had been an attack at one point.

She has been kept in the dark. And there is a reason for that.

I won’t give the story away except to say that the novel does not shy away from the discovery of the horror of the day itself, but  it is Rhodes compassion for Deja and her family that is the powerful guiding force, allowing the reader to be amazed, scared, compassionate and educated right alongside with Deja as her eyes are opened to the world in a new way. You may tear up at times, particularly when Deja and her friend, Ben, visit the new memorial, only to be stunned by its sadness and its beauty.

This novel is rich with character development and with the weaving of the historical record into the fabric of a family affected by the 9-11 events. There may be some references that might be a bit too much for elementary students — when Deja sneaks a viewing of the videos of 9-11, she is forever haunted by the images of those who jumped from the towers, the same as me and maybe you — but Towers Falling is a powerful book for middle school students, those who were born after the event and may wonder how New York City survived. It is through the stories of those like Deja that we grapple with the past.

Peace (please),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Sci-Fu (Kick It Off)

So, strange title, right? Sci-Fu. But Yehudi Mercado’s new series — Sci-Fu — is a fun ride into the hip hop world of Brooklyn, with a slight detour into a world of battling robots. Plus, there’s an ice cream truck.

So, you know, weird title captures the strange book that this is, and that’s perfectly OK because Sci-Fi is a fun read, with lots of visual elements, likable protagonists, and a Sunday Morning sugar-cereal feel to the narrative.

I really enjoyed how Mercado captures the love of hip hop and rapping here, as the main hero — Wax — and his buddy are emerging street rappers, and throughout the story, this hip hop element is consistent, right down to the main conflict as Wax faces a huge robot in order to save Earth.

This book — Sci-Fu: Kick It Off — is the first in a series, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of the story (one of the character got left behind in another world, when she discovers her true identity as a hero).

This graphic novel is completely appropriate for elementary students, and is aimed at middle school readers. It’s fun, entertaining and comes with a Spotify hip hop playlist with some old school rappers so young readers have a bumping soundtrack to listen to while enjoying the story.

Peace (on the page),
Kevin