At Middleweb: Disrupting Thinking (book review)

My latest book review at Middleweb is a look at Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, who explore ways to counter the shrinking interest in reading by our students.

Disrupting Thinking Doodle Collage

I’ve written smaller pieces about this book since reading it this summer (and even did some chapter visualizing as I was reading the book as part of our doodle theme in CLMOOC), but here is my “official” review.

Head to Middleweb to read the review of Disrupting Thinking

Peace (learning),

Graphic Novel Review: Japanese Notebooks (A Journey to the Empire of Signs)

What a lovely discovery. Japanese Notebooks is hard to describe, as writer/illustrator/graphic novelist/manga creator Igort shares his fascination with Japanese culture and Japanese art through a dream-like book that mixes illustrations, art and photographs.

Igort’s artistic vision is stunning and beautiful, capturing his life as a European immerses himself in Japan’s world of manga and animation. The book unfolds with all sort of threads, and Igort warns the reader early on that this is how he intends to tell his story. Even with the strange narrative lens, where linear sequence is less important than the heart of his stories, Japanese Notebooks is sure to capture your attention.

“This book is the story of chasing a dream, and surrendering upon finding that dreams cannot be grasped.” – Japanese Notebooks, Igort, page 7

At its core, it tells of a graphic novelist exploring his inner world of creativity through the lens of a culture that has long fascinated him. Through Igort’s passion, we learn of Japanese poets, artists, writers, animators and more. He found much success, starting with his manga series Yuri.

This book would be challenging in content and construction for students, and some adult themes emerge later in the book.

Peace (through our lens),



Games, Learning, Literacy: Week One

James Paul Gee Quote

I’m off on a new reading adventure, diving into James Paul Gee’s book — What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy — with discussion prompts by my friend, Keegan (who once led me into Minecraft with Networked Narratives). This is our first week of responses, and we read the first two chapters.

A few things stand out for me:

  • Gee’s work has had a lot of influence on thinking about literacy and video games, so I have seen some of his video presentations and read smaller pieces, but never the book itself. It’s a bit dated now (2003, and updated 2007) but it seems so far that Gee’s ideas and insights still stand up.
  • Gee’s defining of terms such as affinity spaces (a favorite of mine in relation to CLMOOC), Semiotic Domains (a new one for me), and literacies and learning already has me thinking of my teaching and my own learning.
  • I appreciated that he approached the topic from the standpoint of a father wondering what his son was doing when playing video games, and then as he immersed himself (perhaps more so than most of us would do), he began to uncover the variety of skills and literacies needed to play these games but also the invisible literacies in the design itself (which is where I am most interested).
  • I am curious/confused about this Semiotic Domain concept, and how people immersed in a system of some sort share commonalities of learning and more.  What is this concept? Well, “Semiotic domains as described by Gee (2003) refers to a variety of forms that take on meaning such as images and symbols, sounds, gestures and objects.” It also refers to “… distinct collective consciousness shared by people with similar interests, attributes or skill sets …” — from You can tell there’s a lot to unpack there.
  • The elements of multimedia composition coming together into the video game medium/format is undeniable, and finding ways to showcase those elements seems important, particularly as I work with my students in a few weeks on our own video game design project.

James Paul Gee Quote2

I’ve been reading the book on the Kindle and then using my highlights and notes for sharing of some quotes. This kind of curation works most effectively for me in my busy life for finding and keeping some anchor points. This third quote nearly goes in the direction of immigrant/native, which would have turned me off (even remembering the 2003 publication date), but Gee straddles the line and makes it more about adults needing to pay more attention to what kids are doing.

James Paul Gee Quote3

Come join the conversation. Keegan has an open invitation. Let’s learn together.

Peace (game on),


Book Review: Al Capone Does My Homework

We were about five chapters into the third “A Tale from Alcatraz” book by author Gennifer Choldenko when my son announced that “this might be one of those books I want to read myself.” In other words, our read-aloud pace for Al Capone Does My Homework was not keeping up with his interest, and he wanted to know what happened with Moose Flanagan and his family and friends on the prison island of Alcatraz.

One one hand, I am always happy to put another book into his hands. At 12 years old, he is still an avid reader and I want to keep it that way. On the other hand, I too was deep into the story and knew I would miss the read-aloud experience (not to worry, we have a stack of read-alouds ready to go). He took it, read it in a night, and gave it to me, and then I read it over the course of two or three weeks (in-between some other books).

Once again, Choldenko does a marvelous job of creating a story that goes deeper than you first expect, as the story revolves around arson, youth pressure, family (including his older sister, Natalie, whose autism is treated with honesty and compassion by the writer), and the strangeness of living on an island full of the most notorious prisoners in the US system at the time of the setting. (Moose’s father is a warden for the Alcatraz prison).

Capone is mostly in the background here, but his presence is felt, rumbling at the edges of the story. Moose and Natalie and his friends are skillfully constructed by Choldenko, and my son and I will keep our eyes out for a fourth book, if it ever comes.

Peace (on the island of the world),

At Middleweb: Empowering Students as Digital Leaders

My latest column over at Middleweb is an interview with Jennifer Casa-Todd, whose new book — Social LEADia — closely examines ways in which technology and social media can help empower young people in the larger world on issues that matter to them. The book has many short profiles of young people doing pretty amazing things, and Casa-Todd helps explain how teachers can help foster those shifts.

Read the piece at Middleweb

Peace (and change),


Book Review: Refugee

I picked up Refugee by Alan Gratz with an eye towards my sixth graders (my seventh-grade son read it before I did), and I quickly found my heart and mind tumbling into the uncertainty of the three characters here as they each navigated an escape from their homeland. I teared up at the end, too, when Gratz effectively pulls all three story threads together in a way that I won’t give away in this review.

You need to read this book.

Refugee focuses on three stories: a Jewish boy escaping Nazi Germany, a young girl leaving Cuba for the United States as part of one of Castro’s boat-lifts, and a Muslim boy trying to make his way to Germany after his country of Syria has been reduced to rubbles by the current Civil War. Each story, from a different time. But the narrative arcs that Gratz spins brings each character’s story closer and closer to each other.

The terror, the uncertainty, the fear, the setbacks, the dangers, the hope … the reader experiences and lives all of these emotional entanglements through the eyes of these three characters, so much so that I am not sure I can use Refugee as a class novel, as I had hoped when I started the book. The brutality of the Nazis, in particular, is too intense. Gratz doesn’t pull punches. I don’t think I am being too protective of my sixth graders, although I wonder how much of the ugly world I should expose them to.  The world is ugly, after all. I’m never completely certain how far to go, to be honest.

I really appreciated what comes after the end of the novel, in his author’s note section, where Gratz shows the three maps of the three journeys of his refugee characters, and then he writes for a few pages about his research and where the stories emerged from, in regards to the world — in both the past and the present. He then goes on to share some organizations that help refugee children in the world, using the book as a platform for reaching out.

All in all, this book is amazingly powerful, and its narrative arcs and sympathetic characters will pull you deep into the experience beyond the newspaper headlines. It does what a good book should do: transforms your view of the world, and leaves you with some hope amid the horror.

Did I mention you should read this book?

Peace (let it be),

Book Review: The Quest to the Uncharted Lands

After reading The Mark of the Dragonfly and The Secrets of Solace, and loving both, I was all gung-ho to read aloud The Quest to the Uncharted Lands to my son. All three books are set in the same imaginary world of Solace. We started to read Quest in summer, got about a third of the way through, and there it sat for weeks and weeks. He wasn’t all that interested. I couldn’t believe it — Jaleigh Johnson is a solid writer, creating imaginary worlds and stories that connect with each other in interesting ways, and you can sense her love of inventing gaming-style worlds — so I kept asking, Can I read now?

No, he kept saying. Not now.

Finally, I gave up (sigh) and said if he wasn’t going to listen to the story, I was going to read it myself. OK, he replied (I think he was worried he was hurting my feelings), and yesterday, I finally had time to devour the rest of the book, and again, I was deeply immersed in the world that Johnson has created in her literary imagination. Most of all, and the reason I keep coming back, is that her characters are so alive in this fictional world.

This third story is an adventure story with a strong girl protagonist (Stella Glass) who sneaks onto an airship about to explore uncharted lands beyond the mountains. On board, she meets another hidden child, a boy (not quite a boy) named Cyrus, who is trying to return to his own lands beyond the mountains and has the ability to save the ship from storms and from sabotage. For someone on board is intent on destroying the ship before it crosses the mountains.

The story races ahead with action, adventure, intrigue and never loses sight of its characters. The Quest to the Uncharted Lands is definitely a book I can put into the hands of my sixth graders, and although the other two books are somewhat connected, there is no need to read them in any order. I suspect Johnson has some grander design here (or is that my hopeful reading?), but you can enjoy each book on its own.

I love her map at the start of each book, and I was intrigued by a post on Johnson’s site about where she writes about the landscape and where inspirations for her world came from. This map of Solace has been expanded west in the new book.

As for my son, I worry that the female protagonist turned him off. He denies this. Maybe he just isn’t up for fantasy adventures, or the story itself didn’t connect with him. We just got Rick Riordan’s new Magnus Chase book in the mail this week, and he has indicated he wants me to read it aloud to him. He’s a boy at age 13, so this is still a huge thing — letting your dad read aloud to you. So I am holding on to the ability to do so as long as possible, as we head off on another adventure together.

Peace (on an adventure),

Book Review: The Playbook (52 Rules to Aim, Shoot and Score in this Game Called Life)

Sports can be a common metaphor for life. Eh, I mean, Life. Just look at how the late writer Frank Deford carved out this niche for decades, with his essays that used sports as the hook for writing about something much larger than the “play of the day.”

Writer Kwame Alexander’s The Playbook (52 Rules to Aim, Shoot and Score in this Game Called Life) explores that terrain with gusto and brilliance and high energy, combining his own narrative story as a young athlete (his game was tennis) with his poetry on themes such as perseverance and resilience, teamwork, character and more.

Interspersed with Alexander’s narrative and poetry are quotes from famous athletes — from Michael Jordan to Simone Biles to Andy Roddick, coupled with some pretty interesting images by photographer Thai Neave.

The result is a sort of quilt of ideas, a mishmash of media with a single message on finding yourself in the face of adversity and coming through by working through the barriers of life. As a result, this book is nicely in tune to middle schoolers, particularly those with an interest in sports.

I handed this book to one of my students as soon as I got it. This student has difficulty concentrating but loves sports, and is only vaguely interested in reading novels. He loved this book, though, and thanked me afterwards for lending it to him.

Peace (take a shot),

PS —

Book Review: Streampunks (YouTube and the Rebels Remaking Media)

Robert Kyncl is no neutral party here. He is one of the executives at YouTube (YouTube Chief Business Officer) so his title of his book has to be taken with a grain of salt (as catchy as it is). Even so, Streampunks (YouTube and the Rebels Remaking Media) is an interesting look behind the curtain, a way to see how the Google YouTube corporate structure is working to find new personalities to anchor video watching as people shift away from network television and other traditional media.

I read with a critical eye, as it is easy to see Google as supporting the development of YouTube only to make money off our eyeballs, but I still appreciated Kyncl’s analysis of the transformation of entertainment that has emerged from the notion of anyone can post and publish video, anytime. More and more, we see YouTube personalities making their way into the mainstream (for good or for ill, and Kyncl is open about both, citing PewDiPie’s problems as just one recent example while also noting how Vlog brothers John and Hank Green have used the platform for good in the world).

One pervading message in Streampunks is that more and more of those entertainers hosting their own YouTube Channels are finding niche audiences around the world, giving rise to massive viewership for such interests as watching other people play video games, doing make-up, unboxing packages, and more. It’s another version of the long tail.

The important points that Kyncl raises here is that many of these YouTubers doing this work would never have found a platform on network television or in the movies or in music because they never would have been given a chance (Kyncl’s story of Justin Beiber’s rise is a good example of this as is the reach of Lilly Singh, aka IISuperwomanII), and that YouTube has created a place for cultural representation and communities of interaction between performer and audience. In fact, success on YouTube relies heavily on the personal touch, which video can provide in a way no other media really can.

Kyncl does write pretty honestly about the challenges of such open spaces, too, of ways that trolls bring negativity and how comments can become places of vitriol (when I ask my students about places they have seen the Internet as a negative experience, the overwhelming response is always YouTube comments). He says YouTube needs to do more to reach an even more diverse talent pool, and notes the efforts by YouTube to highlight diversity of personalities and cultures, and seek out new voices.

What I found most intriguing here is his profiles on some of the talent who are earning a solid living off video, and the work ethic those folks put into what they are doing, feeding the audience with new material, engaging always with comments and questions, and nurturing a vision for their material that fills some sort of gap. Kyncl makes it clear that almost no YouTube video comes out of nowhere, and goes viral. Most of those videos now come from a careful long-term plan by the creators, slowly building audiences until something catches with the general public, and then riding that wave to the next level of stardom.

As a teacher, and as a father of sons who dabble in video production, this insider’s look was valuable, as is trying to understand the YouTube phenomenon from an insider like Kyncl, who does have a long-standing vision for streaming video (he helped lead a project at Netflix as it was transitioning to streaming) and putting more opportunities in the hands of everyone (while making a bundle of money in advertising for Google, of course).

I’ll leave you with Kyncl’s book dedication:

To the kid out there filming a video on a smartphone who will one day become the biggest entertainer in the world

Peace (on the air),

Book Review: Blind Spot

Some books just pull me and leave me lingering. I’d put Teju Cole’s Blind Spot in that category. A mix of intriguing photographs from different parts of the world, combined with small essays that are inspired by the photographs, or the taking of the photographs, this book by Cole is a wonder to experience.

What struck me most was the construction of the essays, and the way I had to “read” into the photographs to understand the slant that Cole brought to his writing with each small piece. And small, they are. For the most part, the essays are a paragraph or two. The ideas he can pack in just a small bit of writing is amazing, and inspiring, and has me thinking of ways photography might better inspire insightful writing.

There’s no one narrative thread through these pieces (there are more than 150 pieces here), except Cole has an eye for humanity, for struggle, for hidden stories, for a sense of place off the beaten path where life shows itself in different ways. He weaves in personal narrative — an eye injury is part of the underpinning of many of his stories — yet finds balance with the global view.

Some of his sentences are so beautiful, so poignant, they could be framed as art. I had read and enjoyed Cole’s Known and Strange Things, but Blind Spot is very different, on so many levels.

I borrowed Blind Spot from the library, but I am thinking now that this might be one of those books I splurge on at some point and get my own copy. I can see myself returning to these essays and photos from time to time, learning more about how to write, how to use images to see the world, how to explore deeper topics.

Thanks to Terry E for recommending Teju Cole, including Blind Spot, a few months ago …

Peace (goes deep),