Book Reviews: Ship Breaker and The Wind-up Girl

Novelist Paulo Bacigalupi sees chaos in the future, with the seeds of that chaos planted in the decisions we are making — or rather, not making — around environmental issues right now. Two of Bacigalupi’s books that I have recently read — Ship Breaker and The Wind-up Girl — swirl around a future in which the world has been altered forever in a dystopian way by environmental neglect and powerful climate change. Both books have you wondering anew about what kind of world our grandchildren will inhabit, and if not a world as bleak as Bacigalupi lays out, will it be anything close?

Of the two books, I found Ship Breaker to be much more engaging in both character and story. The book is also for young adult readers, so I was reading it in class this spring. The story set in the future revolves around a boy named Nailer trying to survive in a world where oil rigs and ships lay scattered along the Gulf Coast as a result of a failed energy policy of the past (or, rather, our present), and ship breakers are teams who scavenge the hulls for precious metals and other re-useable parts. Honor and betrayal are part of life. Huge storms come in with very little notice. The work environmental is brutal. And a distinct class system has set in. I liked the pacing of the narrative, and also the development of the main character, who is dealing with a violent father while still laying out some hope for a future that will have Nailer sailing on the massive Clipper Ships he sees in the distance.  When opportunity arises, Nailor jumps into the unknown, and sets things in motion that ultimately pay off for him. (See Amazon video of Bacigalupi talking about the story development)

The Wind-Up Girl is for adults (with violence and sex), and is slightly different in its narrative tone. Here, the future is shaped by geopolitical events that have decimated many of the countries of the world, leaving only a few to survive on wits and science and the hoarding of environmental know-how. Bacigalupi weaves in the narratives of a handful of characters as a tightly-knit and controlled society of Thailand that slowly careens apart, and comes completely undone. One of the main prizes being sought is a seed bank, a massive archive of pure genetic seeds for food that won’t be riven with disease. The wind-up girl in the title of this novel is a robotic humanoid whose desire for freedom, after becoming the source for depravity by the powerful elite, becomes an all-consuming thing. Her quest for a better life, however, leads her into violence that unwittingly dismantles the entire society, and shakes the world at its foundation. Morality, technology, politics, revenge and the environment are all at the heart of this story.

Both books certainly make you ponder the future of our planet, and the stories did have me thinking of how much we take for granted that the government knows what it is doing. We place a lot of trust in those who are power to be foresighted in what they are doing. But sometimes, the most innocuous decisions are the ones that have the most far-reaching impact. (Inaction on climate change?) You just don’t always know it at the time. Bacigalupi takes that premise and runs with it, creating stark picture of the possible future to come. His writing is crisp, his characters are interesting and his settings are eerily familiar scenes of what-might-come.

Peace (in a better world than this),
Kevin

Waving Goodbye on the Last Day of School

Goodbye Envelope 2011
We all stood at our bus loop yesterday, watching our students board the yellow buses for the last time this school year. They hung their heads out of the open windows, shouting out to teachers. Some hung back in their seats, dabbing their eyes with tissue. Someone put small bubble bottles in our mailboxes, so a few of us were blowing bubbles into the air. The buses then took off with a loud cacophony of honking and shouting and cheering, then doubled back through the loop for a second time (as is our custom on the last day of school), as all of us teachers waved and shouted out some final encouraging words as summer came into full view.
And then they were gone, and we shuffled back into our school — which now seemed a bit too quiet. Sure, we were happy to see the year end but already, I could feel some pangs of what tomorrow would bring when I would wake up and not be planning for a day of activities with my sixth graders, whom are now off to the larger regional school for middle school.

I’m going to miss those kids.

Before my homeroom class left — before we hugged or high-five or gave handshakes — they presented me with a HUGE oversized greeting card that two girls have been making in the far corner of the classroom for about three weeks now. I had purposely avoided the girls hard at work — I had some idea — but the card and the envelope were so wonderful, so touching, that after the school had emptied out, I stood there, staring at them on the chalkboard in the back of the room.

I’m going to miss these kids.
Goodbye Letter 2011

Peace (in the remembering),
Kevin

Watching Twilight Zone with my Son

The past three nights, my wife and older son were out town, meaning the other two boys I were on our own. When the younger dude went off to bed at night, my 11 year old and I pulled out a DVD box set of The Twilight Zone that I had received at Christmas but never really watched. In fact, the only time I had watched an episode was with him, and it was not a very good one — it had no dialogue and the pacing was glacial. I was afraid that would turn him off to the series, which I love and want him to at least respect for its storytelling, but he was game to give it another try.

We had a long discussion first about what is the Twilight Zone — he had this idea that it was a place, or a setting, and not a frame of mind. I think he understands it now. Not sure. Then, he asked about how the episodes had twists in the narrative — those little turns at the end of a show that make you go “hmmmm” when it is over. He asked about Rod Serling, and then as we watched the dates of when the episodes aired, we thought about how old my father (his grandfather) was. I think this helped give him some sense of how long ago this show was on the air, and maybe some sense of how revolutionary it was for its time.

We started on Friday with Time Enough At Last about the desire for our own space and what happens when our dreams come true.

And then went into Saturday with The Monsters are Due on Maple Street about how mobs are formed and then how fear turns us on ourselves.

And finished up last night with Steel about machines taking the place of men, and then men taking the place of machines.
(ACK — no video available)
I wanted to show him the classic — To Serve Man — but it is not in my DVD set. What’s up with that? However, thanks again to our trusty friend, the Internet, the episode is right here to be watched.

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It was interesting, because the last one we watched — Steel — was towards the end of the Zone run, where Serling was no longer the writer or producer. The footage was clearer, the pacing was faster, and the acting was slicker. But the story did not hold up to the earlier ones. And my son, when the show was over, turned to me and asked: What’s the twist? There was none, and we were both disappointed.

Peace (in the Zone),
Kevin

A Poem for my Father for Father’s Day

I wrote this one a few years ago and it helped win me an award at the New England Association of Teachers of English conference. In honor of my dad on Father’s Day, I dug it back up from my old harddrive. I would not be a musician if I had heard him playing his music all of my life. Thanks, Dad.

Listen to the Poem

FOLLOWING MY FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS

The sound of drums beating out hours of the day
from the basement workshop he’d go
disappearing for hours
with sticks and mallets and cymbals crashing
music slipping into my ear and out again and then sounds down low
fading into the soft splash of sunlight
the gentle rhythm of Life

On weekends when rain fell from dark skies
and threatened to turn newsprint into soft clay of words
he’d crawl from his bed, bidden, sleepy, smiling, smelling of coffee
driving wordless down empty streets
as I made deliveries of the world from his metal umbrella
not always saying thanks but thankful just the same.

The sound of baseballs thrown in the air, hitting a glove
and the thwack, thwack, thwack of the ball hitting back
returns again in a familiar arc across the backyard lawn.
The crack of a wooden bat — nothing less than the sound of youth
reaching out for dreams of glory before the crowds go home.
“That’s it,” he’d say as I swung hard, and I could touch a star
and wrap myself in the light of his words.

We’d stand by forgotten bends of rivers
swatting at bugs and casting our lines
urging for some action but ready for silent peaceful thoughts.
I’d watch him wade into water
powerful against the currents, careful in his deliberations
and then, a hit, a tug, and a smile towards me as he reeled inward.

Father, Papa, a man of grace and wisdom
he has given me precious gifts: Love, Affection, Encouragement.
I follow his footsteps now as a father,
leaving a trail behind for little footsteps that echo all around us.
I tell them, listen for the rumble of drums.
Listen for the joyful crash of cymbals.
Listen to the music of your heart.

From Digital Ethnography: A Video Collage

You need to check this project out from Prof. Wesch and his students as they continue to explore the impact of technology on students. (Did one student say that 75 percent of what he knows he learned from Youtube?)

Here is what Prof. Wesch says at their blog:

Today the Digital Ethnography Research Team of 2011 is proud to announce the release of the Visions of Students Today: a “video collage” about student life created by students themselves and presented using the wonders of HTML5, allowing us to “cite” books and videos that are being presented in the remix as they are being shown.

Since the call for submissions went out in January we have received hundreds of submissions. The remix in the middle of the screen is in many ways a video of my own experience viewing these videos, shot from my own point of view. You see me sifting through videos, putting them in piles, checking resources, reading and re-reading the lines that have informed and inspired me. It took me 3 months to sift through these materials; you get to race through them in 5 minutes.

But just as important, check out all of the other various strands that come alive with this project, as students take the videos and ideas in different directions. You will have to read the blog post there to get a better sense of what I am talking about, or click inside the video collage itself to follow other strands (wow — html5 does open up some new possibilities, doesn’t it?).

What comes through loud and clear is a growing transformation of the daily lives of young people, and the question of whether traditional education is meeting their needs for learning, exploring and making a difference on the world. And we get to hear that story directly from the students.

Peace (in the collage),
Kevin

Stopmotion Movies from the Classroom

Here are some of the stopmotion movies my students created this week. There was a mad rush yesterday to get as much done as possible. The one movie that did impress me, and would have been better with more time, is the remake of King Kong, using the black and white effect, and flashlights, and the scale of the figures. These boys had a vision, and I wish I could have given them more time. But, now that they know how to do it, I bet they will be doing stopmotion at home this summer.

Peace (in the frames),
Kevin

The Deadline Looms; Stopmotion Work Quickens

Today is our last day for working on Stopmotion Movies in class. As I told my students, they either get done today or they won’t get finished. This is our final full day of school, with Monday eaten up by awards ceremonies and other last-day-things-to-do that won’t allow time for playing around and creating movies on the computers. We’re in the “now or never” phase of production.
A few students finished up their movies yesterday — they are short films and some are more focused than others. That’s what happens when a movie project that should be about three weeks gets crunched down to a single week. But I can say that the kids are totally engaged in the work, and they love making stopmotion movies and using our music creator software for the soundtrack.

Here are a few of their creations:

Peace (in the motion),
Kevin

Lessons Learned from the Ballfield

baseball character

Tonight, my son’s Little League team plays in the city’s Championship Game. I am one of the assistant coaches, but to be honest, if you had asked me mid-season if we were going to go deep in the playoffs, I am not sure what I would have said. We had some erratic games and error-prone losses. But something clicked with these kids in the past two weeks. Our team ended up near the bottom of the regular season standings, but they have been on a tear through the playoffs — hitting, fielding, pitching, etc. We took on the top seed team that went undefeated all year and, twice, we handed them two decisive losses to knock them out of the playoffs.

The other day, the head coach sent us an email about positive comments that he has received from some parents about our style of coaching, which is to keep things fun and positive, and the parents’ appreciation for how we show support even for the players who might make an occasional mistake or lack bat skills at this point in time. It may sound obvious that you would do those sorts of supportive things with 11 and 12 year kids but I can say from experience that some teams have kids sit on the bench for even minor infractions or mistakes.  I’ve watched more than my share of kids on opposing teams kicking at the dirt in the dugout.

Last winter, I wrote a post about my lessons learned from the basketball court as I watched my sons play. This morning, I was thinking a bit about lessons learned from this Little League team, and how those lessons have some resonance with how we approach our classroom environment.

  • Starting the season out with some bonding activities (we held a picnic) set the tone early on that we would be playing together — through thick and thin, with an emphasis on “playing”– and that they should at least respect each other, if not become good baseball friends. Most have.
  • Everybody gets their chance to shine, and not just once — but all season. Even the kids who struggle at this level of baseball play have had plenty of time in the infield and outfield, and at bat. No one is feeling left behind by the team. Win or lose, they know they have a chance to contribute.
  • Practice is important. We’ve had many practices — where we mix serious skills with games, serious with fun — and that seems to have really paid off in many ways. I can hopefully say that every player seems much better as a player now than when we started the season in early Spring (during our rainy season).
  • Keeping things in perspective has been important. It’s a baseball game, after all. The balance of the world doesn’t teeter on the caught or not caught fly ball. We show support for the kids who make that catch just as we do for the kids who don’t make that catch. We set that tone early as coaches, and the team picked up on it, giving everyone high fives when an inning ends or begins.
  • But, there are always teaching moments. Our head coach is great at identifying small moments for teaching individual kids what he knows. Not everything is learned in practice. Sometimes, it is the one-to-one connection that makes all the difference in the world. I’ve watched him get on a knee and have a quiet conversation with just about every player our team.
  • Keep trying. Boy, we’ve come back from a bunch of games just because the team refused to believe the game was over. This mindset that anything may be possible at any given moment is such an intangible thing to try to teach but it is also so important to instill in young people. It’s what we call resilience, right?

We’ll see how tonight goes when the Championship Game gets underway. Win or lose, it’s been a magical season for the boys, including my son. I hope they can savor the moment.

Peace (around the bases),
Kevin

Writing a Rap Song: The Class of 2017 is in the House

I wrote last week of wanting to try out the writing of a collaborative rap song with my sixth graders. Now, listen, they are 12 and live in suburbia. They don’t have hiphop in their blood. But they listen to rap, and they love music, and it was an interesting experience to walk them through the writing of a song. Most years, I bring in all of rock and roll gear — electric guitar, drum machine, amplifiers, microphones, the works. But, heck, times change. I went with rap this year. And using Garageband, there was a whole lot less gear to carry (my back thanks me).

Here’s what we did:

  • I wrote and recorded the first verse, which celebrates my sixth graders as the class of 2017 — the year they will graduate high school.
  • We listened to the introduction and then reviewed our work around couplets, rhythmic beats and flow from poetry.
  • I gave them a simple handout sheet with my verse written out and some blank lines. Their job was to write at least one couplet that continued the theme and kept the model of the introduction.
  • As a class, we wrote the rap, with students volunteering their lines in a Google Doc and then, again as a class, we worked on the editing of the lines. (Ideally, we would have had more time for this).
  • Volunteers came up to the front of the room, where I had my nifty Snowball microphone set up, and they “sang” the rap for the class. This often took a couple of tries and honestly, another day of recording would have been better. But it is the end of the year and time is our enemy.
  • I then took all four raps from my four classes and spliced them together into one rap song, which I noticed this morning has been downloaded almost 50 times from our class site by my student. And BONUS: a few students apparently took the song and used it as a soundtrack for some video project they are going to give to me. Not sure what to expect …

Why the Collaborative Rap Song Writing Worked:

  • We used elements from our poetry unit
  • They have a high interest in music — particularly rap and hiphop
  • They wrote for a purpose
  • They wrote as a class in a collaborative environment
  • Music became part of our writing experience
  • Some students could take center stage as performers
  • We published to the world

I know you must be dying to hear what they came up with. Right? Here you go:

Introducing: The Class of 2017

Or you can listen here.

Peace (in the hip, in the hop, in the hippity hop),
Kevin

A Quick Peek Inside Our Stopmotion Work

stopmotion
stopmotion (1)

Shhhh.

My students are in their last week, engaged in making a short stopmotion movie.

Oh never mind. They can’t hear you anyway. They’re too engrossed in what they are doing.

The question is: do we have time to finish?

Peace (in the frames),
Kevin

PS — I love the shot of the two boys using the study desks. There’s something about that middle dividing line between the computer and the scene that just seems to perfectly capture the small scale of stopmotion work.