Slice of Life: One Little Word for 2013

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Over at Two Writing Teachers, my writing friends Stacey and Ruth are using today’s Slice of Life post (a Tuesday feature) to ask folks to write “one little word” for the new year.

Here’s mine, which goes to the heart of what I do as a writer and what I try to do as a teacher (and as a father and husband, and well, just about everything. I am not saying I am always successful with my reflective stance, but I try):
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What’s yours?

Peace (in the word),
Kevin

 

 

The Ted Talks Master List

This is a pretty amazing find from Twitter this morning: a Google Doc with listings of hundreds of TED talks. Actually, there are more than 1300 talks listed on this spreadsheet, with links and titles and more. I feel smarter just looking at the short descriptions. Wow.

Check out the TED Talk list

Peace (in the new year),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Cardboard

There’s a real creepy undercurrent to the latest graphic novel by Doug TenNapel. Cardboard tells the story of a single father’s gift to his young son of a magical cardboard box, which animates and brings to life whatever the recipient creates. Cam, the boy, and his unemployed dad, a down-on-his-luck kind of guy who has not yet come to grips with the loss of his wife, don’t quite believe the story (as told by a sort-of carnival barker who lays out a few rules for using the cardboard that Dad ignores, to his peril, of course). Still, Cam and his dad create a cardboard man anyway, who springs to life as a boxing champion named Bill. Then, in a burst of inspiration, dad creates a cardboard machine that can create other cardboard creatures (which is against the old man’s rule), and suddenly, the story is full gear.

The strange part of the story takes hold when Cam’s neighbor — Marcus, a boy with zombie-like eyes and a mean streak a mile long — decides to steal the cardboard machine and begins to create his own creatures. Needless to say, the entire plan by Marcus goes awry, with the cardboard creatures creating an entire city underneath the ground and staking out their own independence. Cardboard replicas of Marcus and others start appearing, too, with maniacal eyes. Told you. Creepy. Cardboard then becomes a story of good versus evil, as Cam and Marcus join forces to put a stop to the cardboard kingdom.

The story is engaging and the artwork is pretty interesting. I haven’t read any of TenNapel’s graphic novels before, but he clearly has a good sense of creating a world within a story, and using the image to tell the story. I imagine some of my students will be intrigued by the book cover, which shows Cam staring into the massive eyes of a cardboard giant.

Peace (in the box),
Kevin

 

PARCC, Common Core and Technology Requirements

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I’m not writing today about my usual topics about technology, digital media and writing. No, today, I am thinking about the technology requirements that the PARCC consortium (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career)  has just put forth for school districts as part of its upcoming assessment connected to the implementation of the Common Core. This is the nitty-gritty of the technology, not the creative side of things. You see, the assessment will be mostly administered online (I say, mostly, because there has been a clause I’ve seen that allows districts to opt out of the digital component, although I am not sure how long that opt-out will remain).

The PARCC group, as well as its Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium competitor, has been working to document the minimum technology necessary to administer the assessment. This follows a required self-assessment of school districts on their own technology capabilities. The other day, PARCC released its latest report. I should note that PARCC says (in bold letters) that these criteria are for guidance only, and that as it evaluates pilot assessments, it may adjust its requirements. Here are some of the things it says school districts need to do to be ready for the 2014-15 assessment phase:

  • Computers must have access to the Internet and run at 100 kb per second per computer or higher;
  • Strict security requirements must be in place, including: unrestricted Internet access, video and photo cameras, screen capture, email, instant messaging, blue tooth access, application switching and printing;
  • Devices (including tablets) must have at least a 9.5 inch screen. It is recommended that all tablets have portable keyboards;
  • Headphones and microphones for every computer, for the English Language Arts component and for speech/hearing impaired students;
  • If you are using Microsoft OS, you will need a browser other than Explorer (due to HTML5 components);
  • E-readers, smartphones and other smaller mobile devices will not be supported by the PARCC assessment.

You can read the document yourself at the PARCC site. EdWeek has a nice overview, too.

The questions I have encountered in my own school and in other school districts has revolved around having enough computers for students taking the PARCC in a given school, and the legimate concern that those computers, labs and carts will be locked down for long time stretches for testing, and not for student use for creating and exploring with technology. I think that is a legitimate concern, don’t you?

Peace (in the tech requirements),
Kevin

 

Living the Manual to Understand the Instructions

I found this passage from a recent blog post from James Paul Gee fascinating, and harkens to discussions I am having in my classroom right now as we dive into video game design. It has to do with manuals to play games, and whether gamers read them or just jump in. Gee notes that, as cold reading, manuals make almost no sense. You have to experience the world first before the instructions can be helpful. This is so different from other kinds of reading, right?

Check out Gee‘s thoughts:

If you try to read a video game manual before you have ever played a game, you can, at best, associate definitions and paraphrases with the words in the text.  The manual is boring and close to useless, when it is not simply inexplicable.  If, however, you play the game for hours—you do not have to play at all well—then when you pick up the manual again everything will be clear.

Now you will be able to associate images, actions, experiences, goals, and dialogue from the game with each of the words in the text.  You will have lived in the world the manual is about and will know how the words of the text apply to that world to describe it and allow you to solve problems in it.

The same thing is true for any text, for example, for a middle school science text.  If you have lived in (mucked around in) the world it is about and applies to, you have situated understandings for the words in the text and can use the text to facilitate problem solving.  If you have not had such experiences, then all you have, at best, are verbal meanings.   These may be fine for passing skill-and-drill paper-and-pencil tests, but they are not fine for deep understanding or problem solving.” — James Paul Gee, at http://www.jamespaulgee.com/node/64

Peace (in the thinking of reading),
Kevin

 

A Reader’s Lament: The Digital Devours Newsweek

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(or listen here)

So long, Newsweek. I’m going to miss you.

Like many (but not nearly enough, apparently), I have been following with some amount of trepidation the new year because I knew that Newsweek‘s print self was coming to an end. And so it has. The last issue of Newsweek arrived the other day, and all the adults in our house huddled around it to see what the end of the magazine would look like. Sure, the venerable and scrappy magazine is now headed online and there are hopes by its owners and top editors (including Tina Brown) that Newsweek will survive and maybe even thrive as an entire digital magazine.

But, well, I don’t know. It’s sad to see print fade away like this. I’ve looked forward to every Tuesday for decades because that was the day when Newsweek and The New Yorker would arrive together in my mail. Sometimes, if there was  a delay, it would be on Wednesday. Beyond that, and I would get frustrated. Where is my Newsweek? I’d ask my wife, as if she were hiding it somewhere. At school, I get Time magazine, but it isn’t the same. There was always something about the writing and the layout, and yet, it must be more than that. I suspect it has to do with the emotional resonance that a magazine can bring.

And I’m not sure a digital magazine can replicate that experience. It can certainly bring other things to the table — embedded media, direct links to other content, etc. But the arrival of a notice in my email inbox just does not compare to the arrival of the magazine in the mailbox at the end of our driveway. For me, magazines hold such promise — I am always curious about what stories lay beyond the cover story. What unexpected nugget will I discover just by flipping through the pages. What will I learn today? It’s the same feeling I get with the morning newspaper, and one I don’t ever get from reading news online. It’s the “old guard” in me, I suspect, who remembers the black inked fingers from delivering newspapers as a child and the late nights pounding out stories on deadline during my tenure as a journalist. I don’t get those same feelings from digital content.

It’s not like I ever relied on Newsweek for breaking news, either. But I did rely on it to help me make sense of the world, and to put the breaking news in perspective. In this day and age of flash news and headlines driving everything, I always appreciated the chance to dive into a longer piece that required me to think, analyze, reflect. Newsweek consistently brought me new perspectives on world events.

I don’t blame Newsweek for taking the plunge away from print and into the digital. It’s been on life support for a few years and it comes as no surprise that they had to do something. I don’t anticipate the magazine surviving, though, even with Brown at the helm. There’s just too much information clutter out there. Newsweek has offered to extend subscriptions to its digital edition, and I did sign up and added it to my wife’s iPad, but I am not at a place where I spent a lot of time reading magazines on the screen. In fact, the iPad often sits buried in a drawer, so it’s not like our regular reading device. I like to hold the news in my hands, leave a magazine open on the couch as I get a snack or rush to get my son to a sports game, return hours later to keep reading or find something new because the dog has turned the page with his tail, wander over to my wife or kids with an article I think might interest them, put it in the magazine pile and rediscover the issue weeks later. Those days, alas, are now gone.

So long, Newsweek. It’s been great to read you. I’m going to miss you.

Peace (in the news),
Kevin

 

Ten Things I Notice When Playing My Students’ Video Games

(If you have been following my blog lately, you know we are towards the end of our video game design unit. I’ve been playing — assessing — games over the holiday break. I’ve seen some pretty amazing games, and played some pretty poorly-designed games, and everything in-between. Here are some things that come to mind — in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way. I don’t mean for them to be negative, but I have found myself being critical of the projects. That comes through with this list, I think.)

Ten Things I Notice When Playing My Students’ Video Games

1. It’s evident that more than a few of my students have designed games for an audience of one — themselves. They didn’t quite remember that games are developed for others, too. That’s the real joy of a designer.

2. Where’s the story? The narrative arc? All that planning, all those discussions, storyboarding … and still, some of these games are lacking it so much I wonder if it has been worth the time to teach gaming. (It has, but still …)

3. Every now and then, I get completely blown away by the skills of a student as designer. Some just … get it. More than I ever did, or ever will. In those moments, I realize that what we are doing in school with this game design unit means something to those kids. And more often than not, the students who rise to the surface during game design are not the ones who rise to the surface in other academic units. That’s a fact.

4. I’m spending too much screen time, playing their games. Have they spent too much screen time building their games? I worry about this. A lot.

5. I can’t get past this first level on a few games. If I can’t get past this first level, how can I see what they have done in the next five levels. If I can’t play the next five levels, how can I assess their work? Ack. Buckle down and play. It’s me against the game. I intend to win!

6. I teach game design here. But I am not a gamer. So, is what I consider to be a good game what they consider to be a good game? Sure, I have laid out criteria on paper and talked about the expectations. But sometimes, I wonder about gaming sensibilities of an adult (me) and children (them).

7. I should issue a challenge: make the best game you can without a single gun or shooting avatar. Make it a puzzle challenge. A logic game. A peaceful endeavor. I need to do that. No guns.

8. How is it that this particularly student thinks it is fun for a player to be stuck inside a blocked room, with 100 enemies dancing around, and the clock set at 7 minutes? I can’t move on until that time has expired and I have survived. Boring. That’s seven minutes I will never get back. Please, at least make the challenge worth my time. Here, I am just avoiding enemies, or shooting them, for no reason or rationale that I can tell.

9. Hey, remember spelling? It’s important. We even talked about it. A lot.

10. No. Not again! Fail, fail, fail. Not you. Me! But I refuse to give up. I will win this game, even if I have to come back tomorrow and keep playing. I am nothing if not resilient. (But could you give me a clue, please?)

In balance, I’d like to share out a game from a student that I really liked (although the first level is a bit tricky).

 

Peace (in the reflection),
Kevin

 

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),
Kevin

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading: My Goodreads Challenge Stats

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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)

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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:

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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),
Kevin