Book Review: Under Wildwood

This sequel to Wildwood by Colin Meloy (and beautifully illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis) is another tour de force that completely and utterly sucked in my 8 year old son and I as we experienced it as a read-aloud. In fact, after reading the first Wildwood to myself and then as read-aloud to my son, I think this is one of those books whose words and whose story needs to be your lips to treasure and experience with others. Where Wildwood introduced us to Prue and Curtis, and the imaginative land of the Impassable Wilderness just outside of Portland, Under Wildwood continues the saga when Prue goes back to the wilderness (Curtis had remained at the end of the first book, joining in with a band of bandits), and is given a prophecy that will drive the story into the third and final book (I hope he is writing that right now. You hear me, Meloy? I HOPE YOU ARE WRITING IT RIGHT NOW!). We also meet Curtis’ sisters, who are on their own adventure on the outskirts of the Impassable Wilderness.

I won’t go into all of the fascinating twists and turns of Under Wildwood, except to say that there is plenty of action and suspense to keep even the most reluctant reader satisfied and calling out for more, and plenty of depth of characters here that keep getting more complex as the story weaves itself together in various strands.

Meloy (he, of The Decemberists rock band) toys with interesting vocabulary here, tossing out words even I had to look up or stop to think about from time to time. While my eavesdropping wife made fun of way that Meloy writes (“He’s that writer who uses big words just to use big words. Show-off.”), my son was not put off on it and instead, it gave us plenty of conversations about how to read unfamiliar words. One of the more fascinating elements is when Prue and Curtis get trapped underground, and encounter an entire civilization of moles at war. (Thus, Under Wildwood. Get it?)

I highly recommend this book for read-aloud, and for middle school independent readers seeking an adventure. You won’t be disappointed.

Peace (in the wilds),



What I’ve Been Reading: My Goodreads Challenge Stats

For the past few years, I’ve been using my Goodreads account to not only keep track of the books I have been reading, and not only to gather recommendations from my friends, but also, to be challenged to read. Sure, numbers don’t tell the story (so to speak), but I do like the Reading Challenge that you can set for yourself on Goodreads.

For 2012, I first set my goal of “books to be read this year” at 60, figuring that would be a manageable number. But midway through the year, sometime in summer, I realized that 60 books was not enough. So I bumped it up to 100. This week, I finally got to 100 when I completed Under Wildwood with my son as read-aloud. (review, coming)

goodreads 1

I like that Goodreads also keeps some stats on the reading. The screenshots above show the books that I read but also, tracks how it compares to the last few years. Honestly, I am not sure I would have even realized how much I have been reading if not for Goodreads. I read twice as many books as last year!

And check this out:

goodreads2 pages

This shows the page totals, and that number of pages that I read in 2012 (32,000 pages!) is pretty astonishing to me. Some of the earlier years are not quite legitimate because I wasn’t as diligent with Goodreads as I have been in the last two years.

So, now I am thinking of 2013. 105 books? You bet. What about you?
Peace (in the stats),


Considering Student Perspectives: Video Game Design Unit

Gaming Survey Results
We neared the end of our video game design unit with a survey, and one of the questions I asked was simple: did you enjoy our inquiry into game design and the development of a video game project? Almost every single one of my students check off “yes.” But one single student didn’t. I did not ask them to put their names on the survey so I can’t say who that student was or what their thinking is.

But I feel sorry for them, even if they never complained to me about it. I suppose not every student is going to enjoy every single unit of instruction, but I do always hope that an innovative project like video game design will engage everyone — creatively, intellectually, academically. And there is a lot more to what we do around game design than design games – we explore science, symbolism, technology, digital media, and more.

I was pleased to see that in my second question, asking what part of the unit they liked the most, the category of “designing the game” received the most clicks. Remember that one of my goals is to show them how to shift from consumer of information (games) into creator of content, so that is quite satisfying to see. They weren’t so hot on the idea of using a science idea in their own games, I see, but that is not surprising. For them, it may have handcuffed some ideas. For me, though, it was a way to legitimize game design in the classroom, and helped them to have a better grasp on difficult vocabulary and concepts.

And they may never look at a video game in the same again, knowing now a bit about what it takes to create a simple game with a narrative arc.
science games 2012

Peace (in the data),


Inside Student Video Games: The Music Mix

As part of the end of our video game design project, I took some screenshots of student games (as I was playing them) and popped them into this animoto video mix. It’s a little inside look at what they were up to for the past three weeks as they designed science-based video games in Gamestar Mechanic:

Peace (in the game),

Graphic Novel Review: Siri and Me (A Modern Love Story)


This is a difficult book to categorize. It’s not quite a graphic novel, but there are graphic novel parts sprinkled through chapters. Siri and Me: A Modern Love Story by David Milgrim (who lives in my city but I don’t know him) seeks to capture the allure of technology, our reliance of our mobile phones and the advancements of interactive software with humor and criticism. Milgrim, whose parody book Goodnight, iPad is so fun to read and watch, has an eye for what technology is doing to us, as people.

Mostly, in Siri & Me, it is disconnecting us from each other. The main character — Dave — is lonely, and introverted, and only finds comfort in the interaction with Siri on his phone. Ironically, Siri works on her own to severe Dave’s attraction to her and manipulates Dave’s life (via his phone, of course) in order to get him to meet real people, and find real love, in the real world. The scenes where Dave meets his friends in coffee shops is particularly telling — everyone is tweeting, or texting, or shooting videos — of them drinking coffee. It’s the “ever on” generation. You’ll recognize those people anywhere these days. Maybe even you. Or me.

Milgrim’s short book is a brisk read that ends well (Siri sacrifices herself for real love) and reminds us to turn off our devices once in a while and take a look around. Human interaction still remains the most vibrant connections we can have.

Peace (writing on my computer — I know! — ironic, right?),


Holiday Greetings

Whatever your beliefs, I hope you find peace and happiness today, and every day. Thanks for stopping by.

Peace (in the unwrapped box),


Book Review: Be Good (How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything)

If you read the New York Times Sunday magazine, you may know the name of its ethicist, Randy Cohen. He writes “The Ethicist” column, in which he answers questions along ethical lines in a tone that is humorous and erudite (he likes big words), and gives such interesting perspectives on the gray areas of life. This book — Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything — collects some of his best columns, and Cohen is in fine form here. I really liked how he gathered the pieces around themes: family, home, civics, money, technology, school and religion, and more. Each section begins with a short essay from Cohen that parses out his thoughts, and includes points of contradiction.

There’s something to be said about reading the queries of others. It’s sort of like eavesdropping. That’s why advice columnists are still so popular. And I think we often see our own personal quandaries, and weaknesses, reflected in the questions of others. That’s why Cohen collection is strong — he acknowledges our confusion, and provides an ethical path forward. In his view, our ethical decisions are ones that impact others around us, and he is careful to delineate the legal decisions from the ethical decisions. Sometimes, they overlap; mostly, they don’t.

Being good is difficult, particularly since we live in the realm of others. Cohen gives us solid advice, in an entertaining yet educational way, on as wide arrange of subjects.

Peace (and ethics),


The Art of Juggling Two Voices: Digital Is and Me

dual voices
Last week, I had the pleasure of taking part in an ongoing collaborative Twitter adventure with my National Writing Project friends at the Digital Is site. A handful of us have signed up to take on the “digital is” handle (@NWPDigital_is) on Twitter for a week at a time, sharing resources and encouraging discussions through the shared identity of Digital Is.

It was fun, but odd, too. I enjoyed diving into a few more resources at the Digital Is site (if you have not visited it, you really should — there is some amazing work being featured there on how digital media and technology are impacting the ways our students write and the way we are teaching writing) and sharing the work of NWP colleagues to a wider audience. I also kept my eye on news and articles that seemed to fit the parameter of what I imagined @NWPDigital_Is — if it were a person — would tweet and retweet about. (There’s part of my odd factor: imagining a website as a person, tweeting.)

Meanwhile, I was also tweeting with my @dogtrax identity throughout the week, and even added in a few items from my rock band’s identity (@dukerushmore), and what I realized was how strange it was to be shifting from one identity to the other, sometimes within minutes of each other, and periodically, the tweeting would overlap. Not always on purpose. In some other cases, postings of a single item by multiple accounts would happen by mistake — I’d want to tweet something specific for @NWPdigital_is and find that my @dogtrax was still in the “on” mode because it is my default, and both would get published. (I wondered, does anyone notice that I am both dogtrax and digital_is this week? No one said a thing. Then I thought, maybe they just think I am always behind both accounts. There’s this Wizard-of-Oz-feeling when you tweet out of your normal routine as a guest, I’ve come to realize.)

It reminds me of how identity is often in flux when we use digital tools, and while it is easy enough to create multiple accounts, it is not as easy to maintain individuality and voice when you have more than one “you” on the stage. Who I am in this moment of time, and who I want to be represented as to a larger audience, is a critical question. You need to experience it from time to time in order to better understand the implications for identity with your students, and then think about how to teach that skill. There’s value to being part of multiple voices (such as this @NWPDigital_Is venture. You can also see from my screenshot that I have access to our feed from Western Massachusetts Writing Project and my classroom) but in the midst of it, you can feel the pull and tug of those multiple voices, too, splintering your message in ways you don’t quite grasp until you find the time to reflect, and write.

In the vein of sharing Digital Is resources, this one by Peter Kittle — Inquiring into Distributed Identities — hits the points I am trying to make here in this post. Another — Teachers Tweeting Teachers: Building a Community of Practice through Tweeting — talks about the benefits of a shared tweeting experiment.

Peace (in the tweets),


Ignite: David Lee Finkle – Question Things

Yesterday, I reviewed a comic strip collection from David Lee Finkle called Mr. Fitz, which makes fun of teaching and standardized testing and being with middle school kids all day. So, yeah, it was right up my alley. David Finkle presented in one of the NCTE Ignite sessions in Las Vegas, using comics as his presentation. I love his David explores with his students what we mean about “writing” and “reading.”
David’s key inquiry to explore with students: When Do Stories Matter?

Peace (in the frames),

Comic Book Review: Mr. Fitz vs. the Test Score Zombies

There’s a whole series of comic strips in this book in which David Lee Finkle, himself a teacher, envisions famous writers in history getting feedback on a standardized test, with Finkle using humorous anecdotes and famous phrases from each author as the punchline. It had me cracking up early, and often, even if it was a sort of literature-junky inside-joke kind of thing. That’s OK. In fact, this entire collection of comic strips from Finkle — Mr. Fitz vs. the Test Score Zombies — is aimed right at teachers who are struggling to keep their students engaged in the age of standardized testing.

Mr. Fitz is the lead character, a teacher in middle school with a crop of oddball students. There’s no main storyline here, except the ways in which Mr. Fitz motivates his students to be passionate about reading and writing, and the ways that his teaching style often runs into administrative roadblocks. (In one series of sketches, an educational consultant arrives to give “advice” but refuses to enter a classroom with real students.)

(from Finkle’s website)

I like that there is also a fair number of strips in which students are completely immersed in a book. Finkle really captures the intense attention that a good book can provide.

(from Finkle’s website)

While I personally still love a comic called Mr. Lowe (by Mark Pett, but the comic is now out of print) because it dealt with a new teacher in a challenging classroom, Mr. Fitz shows the veteran teaching trying to make sense of the changing landscape shaped more by the leaders at the top than the students in the classroom. Finkle captures those difficulties nicely, and puts it all in perspective.

Peace (in the strip),