Book Review: Mister Max – The Book of Lost Things

My son and I sort of stumbled on this book by Cynthia Voight by accident. We were in-between read-aloud books and my wife had picked Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things at a conference. It was the back cover that had me interested: “The trouble began with a mysterious invitation.” I read that blurb out loud to my son and he responded, “Well, now we have to read the book.”

So, we did.

The story — which lays the ground for at least one sequel, due out in 2014 — is about young Max Starling, whose parents are actors. The mysterious invitation is for the family to pack up and spend time in Kashmir as a teaching and traveling theater group. But when his parents go missing, Max is on his own (with help from his grandmother, a smart librarian who lives next door). Max embarks on finding independence, as he holds out hope that his parents are OK.

Much of the story involves Max solving problems — not as a detective, a label he does not like, but as a solutioneer — someone who finds creative solutions to problems, allowing him to earn enough money to live on while he ponders what might have happened to his parents. (You have to suspend reality here, as Max never goes to the police to inform them that his parents are missing. I would hope my kids would inform the authorities if my wife and I suddenly were gone.) The characters here are well-drawn, and Cynthia Voight is a writer with much talent, laying different pieces of different puzzles here and there, and then expertly pulling them together by the end, only to leave yet another mystery to untangle (thus, the sequel).

Mister Max was a perfect read-aloud and my son had a lot of questions about characters and foreshadowing, and those “aha” moments when Max figured something out. We thoroughly enjoyed the story, and appreciate how the random discovery of a book like Mister Max can light up a reading life.

Peace (in the mystery),
Kevin

The Collaborative Song: Tweeting ’bout a #Nerdlution

Nerdlution song lyrics
The other day, I created a collaborative document on TitanPad (open source/free writing platform) and asked folks to contribute lyrics to a remix of Tracy Chapman’s Talking ’bout a Revolution by making it into Tweeting ’bout a Nerdlution. Over a few days, a few folks joined me and added lyrics and ideas, and then I worked (see above) to pull it together into a song. This week, during our “frozen roads day” off from school, I finally had some time to record a version of the song (no one took me up on the offer to sing it with me so I was on my own, and I apologize in advance, y’all. It’s out of my natural range.).

Take a listen:
Tweeting ’bout A #Nerdlution by Dogtrax

And here are the final lyrics:

Tweetin’ bout a #Nerdlution
Don’t you know we’re talking about a Nerdlution
Found on Twitter
Don’t you know we’re talking about a Nerdlution
Found on Twitter

Well, we’ve got these personal goals in line
opening up doorways of creative invention
Making time to nurture body and mind
Sharing out our daily resolutions

Don’t you know we’re talking about a Nerdlution
Found on Twitter
Don’t you know we’re talking about a Nerdlution
Found on Twitter

All people are gonna rise up
and fight back their fears
All people are gonna wise up,
and tweet what’s theirs!

Don’t you know you better, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet
Oh I said you better share, share, share, come on and let’s share

‘Cause finally the world is starting to turn
(talking about a nerdlution)
We’reĀ  finding different ways to connect and to learn
(talking about a nerdlution)

And we’re moving through some awkward times
always on but we feel so disconnected
yet here we are, reaching for the stars
making friends and sharing out reflections

Don’t you know we’re talking about a Nerdlution
Found on Twitter
Don’t you know we’re talking about a Nerdlution
Found on Twitter

Peace (in the collaborations),
Kevin
PS — if you want to see the writing in real-time, check out this link.
PSS — I recorded this in Garageband, with a drum loop track. The guitar and keys are me, playing.

Lost Notes, Memory Tricks and the Discomfort Factor

 

The other night, at practice with my band (Duke Rushmore), we did something unusual. We’ve been working on some new songs for the past few weeks and as such, have ignored some of the old ones that we have always played. It’s part of learning, I guess, that we focus our energies on the present. But at practice, we decided to go back to some old songs that we used to know by heart. As the drummer kicked off the beat to the first one, I realized in a panic that I didn’t know what my first note was or how the song even began.

It was incredibly uncomfortable to feel so lost in the music.

The interesting thing is that I was not alone that night. In just about all of the old “chestnuts” that we pulled out, someone in the band — or more than one of us — didn’t know this note, or that chord, or where the break happened, or how to make the transition, or the order of the solos. We kept looking around at each other, asking: how could we have forgotten? Someone please help!

And we laughed.

But as a teacher, it reminded me something important. We take it for granted that our students are accumulating knowledge and experience, and that at any moment, they should be able to tap into the past work for the present assignment. Except, that doesn’t always happen, and we teachers get frustrated. Didn’t we already cover this? we wonder. The reality, though, is that without exposure and reminders, things get lost.

It was a humbling experience, floundering in a setting where I can usually thrive. I didn’t like that feeling, even in the company of friends who were not judging me for my missed notes, or wrong notes. My brain was working harder at retrieving information than it usually does acquiring it. I made a mental note about that process, and then got back to work re-learning my saxophone solos.

I’m still learning.

Peace (in reflection),
Kevin

Digital Composition: The Marriage of Image and Words


Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app for iPad

(Note of honest disclosure: I’m not sure where I am going with this post, so bear with me.)

Yesterday, I shared out the Haiku Deck of six word stories that were shared as part of the #nerdlution effort. I had asked folks to write and then wanted to celebrate their writing beyond the impermanence of the Twitter Stream. I turned to Haiku Deck, which I use quite a lot and really enjoy. As I was working throughout Sunday, though, I started to think about what I was doing, how I was composing with borrowed words of others.

This is one of the central underpinnings of composing digitally these days — how do we make decisions about the look and feel and overall design of our writing? In some ways, Haiku Deck — like so many sites — makes that process easier than ever. Built for short pieces of writing in a presentation mode, Haiku Deck is an interesting platform to consider choices around image and words. You only have two lines for writing and words get smaller as you write, so you start running into the distant horizon event — words become too small to read.

But for an activity like Six Word Memoirs, Haiku Deck is perfectly suited as a platform. The stories started flowing on Twitter early in the day and just kept right on rolling throughout the late afternoon. I had about 50 stories to work with when all was said and done. You should have seen me, reading the tweets on my computer while balancing my iPad on my lap, tapping away furiously to keep up (I know, Haiku Deck now has web platform but I haven’t had time to check it out).

This is where things get interesting.

In Haiku Deck, you access data bases of images for the backgrounds. It begins by using the text of each slide as a keyword search, but you can change or adapt as necessary. Now, when I do my own writing, I know what “feel” and mental image I am going for. It’s internalized and when I go public, I understand that I need to externalize what I am trying to convey. I won’t say I am an ardent stickler for the exact right image, but I am very conscious of how the image works in partnership with the words. I’m often tweaking the keywords and scrolling down pretty far through the bank of images to find the right fit.

But here, I was working with the words of others, not just my own. I felt a little uncomfortable, to be honest, as I were hijacking someone’s loved ones, even if I were doing it for all the right and good reasons. Words have value. Words have meaning, and sometimes, in online spaces, the inferred meaning of the writer can become very different from the meaning understood by the reader (particularly when you only have six words to play with — there’s a lot left unsaid.) I was conscious of the fact that my friends had placed an implicit trust in me, as their curator. And most didn’t even know I was creating a collection of stories.

What this all means is, I had a responsibility to the whole, as community; and to the individuals, as writers; and to myself, as curator. I worked very hard to find the right images, and that included thinking along lines of colors of images, so that the words would stand out, and to balance the implicit and explicit meaning of the image as part of the message of the slide. More than once, I came back to a slide, shook my head and began another search query. Sometimes, I visited a story multiple times.

So, for example, look at Michelle’s story slide. At first glance, it seems like a typical outdoor scene. But look closer, and you can see that I focused on her word “cornerstone” as the metaphor in her writing. This picture, with the view looking up, shows the power of cornerstones in holding things up.

michelle 6words

Or here is Kay’s. This is one that I revised a number of times, never quite happy with the results. I wanted to project movement, but with a static image, that can be difficult. I finally came to this image, which is colorfully kinetic in nature, and attuned to Kay’s words.

kay 6words

Finally, I grappled with Julia’s story, which she composed as a list. I focused so much on the breathing that I lost track of the message of peacefulness. One too many images of someone’s lips breathing out steam (or smoke, as most of them were) had me frustrated for quite some time. Then, as I toyed around with keywords, I saw this image of the statue, and I was hit with that feeling of “this is it.” The image is perfect partner to the words, in my opinion.

Julia 6words

So, why write this post? I knew you’d ask.

It’s because we need to make sure we are being purposeful in our digital composing. So many cool sites, like Haiku Deck, automate our decision-making processes in way that strips us of much of our agency as writers, and we need to continue to inject ourselves — as writer, as composers — into the process. It requires both effort and a step back from the technology.

We should use the tools out there — Haiku Deck is a beautiful platform — and we should tap into them as we see fit, but be sure to observe them as merely tools to our own vision. I could have quickly gone through and randomly chosen images to with the six word stories. In doing so, though, I would have cheated those writers in way that is difficult to articulate, and I would have cheated myself. Let’s teach our students and emerging writers in the digital age to be the ones in charge of the technology that surround them, not the other way around. Move beyond cool. Move into composing with agency.

Peace (in the meandering about),
Kevin

There’s Beauty in Brevity: Six Words from the #Nerdlution

Unlike Saturday, when encouraging folks to write haiku poetry was an impromptu thing, yesterday was a deliberate effort to encourage folks who are participating in the #nerdlution to write a six word memoir update on Twitter. You never know what to expect when you toss out a writing prompt, but it wasn’t long before the words were flowing. All through the day, more and more six word memoirs were published in the #nerdlution Twitter stream, and they were just beautiful examples of how teachers writing together can create a powerful experience.

Early on, I realized: I can’t just let these words go into the invisible ether of the Internet. So, I began grabbing the six word memoirs and put them into this (now quite large) Haiku Deck presentation, hoping to add a layer of imagery to the participants’ words, and showcase the writing. There are more than 50 six word stories here and each is a gem worth savoring over. I hope I did justice to everyone’s words and ideas.

Enjoy.

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app for iPad

Peace (in the deck),
Kevin

The Right Poems for the Right Time in the Right Space

Untitled
It’s not as if I woke yesterday morning and thought, you know, today will be filled with haikus. But it was, and I think it all began with a #nerdlution friend’s tweet as a haiku, which led me to write one, and then I thought, why not invite other #nerdlution friends to come along for the writing fun. Soon enough, the feed filled up with three line haiku poetry. It was the right writing for the right time in the right space, and throughout the day, more and more poems kept filtering in. I guess we were all in a Haiku-ish kind of mood.

I collected as many as I could through the day in this Storify, and if I missed yours, I humbly apologize.

Peace (in the poems),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

http://books.5minutesformom.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/escape-from-mr.-lemoncellos-library.jpg

Ok, all you book nerds (that includes me). Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is the read aloud just for you. A high-spirited tale of a mysterious game designer (Mr. Lemoncello) and his new public library in his hometown, and a group of 12 years locked inside the library for the weekend with a game of “who can find the way out,” this book references more books than you could shake a stick at. It almost calls for some sort of literary bingo game as you read it aloud.

While there are definitive echoes of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka and a host of other classic stories, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library holds its own, if only for the sheer fun of reading the story. I enjoyed how board games and game design were baked right into the plot itself. And what book nerd (again, like me) isn’t drawn in when a new library is the setting for a mystery and adventure, and where the characters learn teamwork and wits are the key to winning the game set in motion by Lemoncello. Plus, add all the cool technology inside the library (and not at the expense of the books), and you have a solid read from start to finish.

Get out your bingo boards and read Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. You won’t be disappointed.

Peace (in the game),
Kevin

An Inside Tour of Student-created/Science-based Video Games

My current group of sixth graders is at the starting point of our video game design unit, and next week, they will be fully immersed in the making of games. But this week, as they brainstormed the science concept and story ideas that will form the narrative and informational frame of their video games, I shared with them this collection of looks inside projects from last year. The video captures a lot of the elements of the project.

Peace (in the game),
Kevin
PS — if you want more information about our game design project, visit our website resource: http://gaming4schools.yolasite.com/

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the #Nerdlution

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Here I am, in day six of the Nerdlution effort of mine to leave 50 comments on 50 blogs over 50 days. I’m doing fine, and am making an effort to avoid bloggers I know (sorry, friends) in order to read and write on blogs that are new to me. I’m finding a wealth of words just off the #nerdlution twitter feed. It’s a been a great way to connect.

Untitled

And a funny a thing has happened on the way to the Nerdlution.

Although my goal was just a single comment a day on a blog, once I have left that first one, I find myself seeking a few more bloggers each day, and adding more comments during my morning writing. On average, I am doing about four comments per day. Plus a few responses on Twitter. It’s interesting how a single goal can morph into something larger, and small accomplishments move into a larger shift in how we view our days and how we view our lives. Suddenly, commenting is what I am doing, a natural part of my writing experience.

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I chose the 50 comment idea because I found myself slipping back into the mode of “I wish more people would comment on my writing” until I realized “I’m not commenting on anyone else’s writing, so why would they comment on mine?” This harkens back to a 30 day challenge from a few years ago, overseen by Sue Waters at Edublogs (if I remember correctly) to go out of your comfort zone, and out of your usual echo chamber circles, to add ideas and questions and reflections on the posts of others. (Although some of the same concerns remain for me — how do I best track where I have left comments so that I can return to read and respond to what others have written? I have not yet figured out a good system. I am using Diigo to bookmark my trail and Storify to collect the stories of my Nerdlution effort. Neither is seamless and a natural fit to the commenting idea, though)

Untitled

If we truly believe that we are in the age of the Read/Write Web, or whatever term we want to give it, then we have a certain responsibility to engage in the writing part. Blogging is not a one-way street, at least in the way I see it. The reason to use a blog is to write and share, and instill the ethos of conversations and discussions. We should be engaging our communities in thinking an struggling with ideas.

Maybe that’s too much to ask of a comment on a blog, but it’s a start. It’s a start.

Peace (in the challenge),
Kevin

PS — yes. I created memes. Trying to keep the mood light in the #nerdlution twitter feed.

Tinkering with Tynker for Hour of Code

Tynker for Schools from Tynker on Vimeo.

I am going to use Tynker with my sixth grade students as part of the Hour of Code next week, just to see how they do and if any of my sixth graders get the coding bug (good bug — interest). I’ve been playing around with the site a bit, and I like it builds off the Logos Programming tool and Tynker might be a way into Scratch later on. The lesson plans built into Tynker seem have an easy entry point, too.
Here is a screenshot from a level I was playing, pretending to be a student.
tynker
You can see the Lego-style programming and the hints/tutorials were in kid-friendly language. Plus, they have baked a story into the programming activity. I haven’t gotten too far but I like what I see so far. And there is a whole section where kids can make their own stories, too, with a lot of different options for characters, scenes, sound and more. It’s nicely done. We won’t get to the “create your own animation” elements next week but I suspect I might have some intrepid students who will be intrigued by the possibilities. I am thinking I might have to put some voluntary challenge out there (connected to our game design unit underway right now).

Peace (in the tinkering),
Kevin