Graphic Novel Review: The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

What a find! I am thankful to some friends on Twitter who recently surfaced Isabel Greenberg’s mesmerizing and delightful The Encyclopedia of Early Earth. Rich in storytelling and packed with intense artwork, this graphic story within stories is steeped in layers of mythology.

The story itself revolves around the time before our own history began, when Greenberg’s imagined cultures were full of explorers and traditions, and the skies ruled by a mercurial god and his two offspring. A linking narrative thread is the roaming of a Nord man on a quest, and how the magnetic pull of love brings two worlds together, and how those two worlds also keep these lovers apart. You’ll have to read to understand.

Along the way, we have spiteful god interference (as well as helpful god interference), mad kings and kingdoms, long pages of art and no text, and a hearty stew of ancient creation myths woven together, and echoing into the present, by Greenberg, a writer and artist whose talent brims on every page. There’s also a sly narrative voice underneath this all — sort of like a winking at the reader, mostly in the form of the wise man.

Meanwhile, the illustrations and graphic design in The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is a joy to view, a pallet of mostly deep blacks and contrasting whites, thrown off now and then with splashes of color that surprise your eyes and bring you deeper into the story.

This graphic novel might be appropriate for high school, but there is some nudity here and there — nothing not in use of advancing the story — that might give a teacher pause, particularly for any students below high school age. The content itself would be accessible at an earlier age, however. And teachers could easily use sections of this book to teach about creation myths as well as the art of the graphic novel. It’s that good.

NPR has a link to read parts of the book. Check it out.

Peace (across oceans and time),
Kevin

Comic Reflection: Some Final-ish Thoughts on E-Learning 3.0

This sort-of final reflection is for E-Learning 3.0 with Stephen Downes, and the musings of my experience — here in the form of a comic — is part of what may be a final project around “community.” I say “may” because a few of us are trying to discern a path forward with the open-ended element of Stephen’s call.

This thinking all relates to the possibility of how learning and teaching might unfold in the distributed web environment, where trust and a sense of belonging to something larger (even if you are removed from the center) is a key component to the way the future of learning, mostly online learning, might yet unfold. This is why we explored Block Chain, and elements of the Distributed Web, and Identity, as well as Credentials and Badging. Plus other topics I may have already forgotten.

One path towards Stephen’s assignment, suggested by Roland, is to create reflective posts together and those words, bound as they are by a shared purpose, create a sense of community formed around the EL30 experience. Another path, suggested by Laura, is to come to a collaborative consensus to define “community.” I’m happy to explore both ideas, as Jenny notes in her reflection, although I am not sure — as neither is Matthias, I think — either creates “community.”

Either would create connections.

Is that the same thing?

El30 Reflection Comic El30 Reflection Comic El30 Reflection Comic

Peace (in the panels),
Kevin

Book Review: Towers Falling

How do write about tragedy for a young audience? This is what writers of young adult fiction often grapple with. In Towers Falling, novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes does a masterful job addressing this dilemma by having her young narrator — Deja, who lives in a homeless shelter in New York City with her family as our story unfolds — learn about the 9-11 attack just as the audience does.

Set more than a decade after the attack on the World Trade Center, the novel follows Deja and her friends as they learn more about what happened on that terrible day. It turns out that, although Deja is a New York City native, she doesn’t even know there had been an attack at one point.

She has been kept in the dark. And there is a reason for that.

I won’t give the story away except to say that the novel does not shy away from the discovery of the horror of the day itself, but  it is Rhodes compassion for Deja and her family that is the powerful guiding force, allowing the reader to be amazed, scared, compassionate and educated right alongside with Deja as her eyes are opened to the world in a new way. You may tear up at times, particularly when Deja and her friend, Ben, visit the new memorial, only to be stunned by its sadness and its beauty.

This novel is rich with character development and with the weaving of the historical record into the fabric of a family affected by the 9-11 events. There may be some references that might be a bit too much for elementary students — when Deja sneaks a viewing of the videos of 9-11, she is forever haunted by the images of those who jumped from the towers, the same as me and maybe you — but Towers Falling is a powerful book for middle school students, those who were born after the event and may wonder how New York City survived. It is through the stories of those like Deja that we grapple with the past.

Peace (please),
Kevin

Community vs Network vs Affinity Space

Community vs Network vs Affinity SpaceWe are beginning to explore the concept of “community” in the E-Learning 3.0 course. That word has long been one of those rather nebulous ones, which we as open learners in various platforms and spaces use as a default to suggest a gathering of people. I’m not all that sure it is the right term to be using.

Wikipedia defines “community” as:

A community is a small or large social unit that has something in common, such as norms, religion, values, or identity. Communities often share a sense of place that is situated in a given geographical area or in virtual space through communication platforms.

So what is a network, then? (It’s a little trickier to find because there are many connotations for the word.)

A computer network, or data networkis a digital telecommunications network which allows nodes to share resources. In computer networks, computing devices exchange data with each other using connections ( data links ) between nodes.

And what about Affinity Space?

An affinity space is a place – virtual or physical – where informal learning takes place. According to James Paul Gee, affinity spaces are locations where groups of people are drawn together because of a shared, strong interest or engagement in a common activity.

I find myself using these terms rather interchangeably, even when I know I probably shouldn’t be doing so. Over the years, through my reading and learning, I feel like Gee’s concept of Affinity Space has best captured my ideas around connected learning practices across online platforms.

I bring this up because Stephen is challenging the folks in EL30 to create a “community” and then to become a member of that community. He has purposely made the whole assignment open-ended, with few details, and with little guidance from the “teacher.”

Stephen writes:

As a community, create an assignment the completion of which denotes being a member of the community. For the purposes of this task, there can only be one community. For each participant, your being a member of the community completes the task.

Huh. Ok. Let’s see where this might take us …

On Community

Roland has already started to bubble up an idea.

Peace (shared),
Kevin

 

 

 

Deconstructing the Modern Hip-Hop Song

Travis Scott Concert Collage

I’m not really all that sure where this post is going to so … hang on a sec as I meander through it …

My 14-year-old son has been deep into making beats and music with Logic software (the next level up, way up, from Garageband) and in recent weeks, he’s been exporting his work into his Soundtrap account, inviting me to collaborate with him there.

Of course, I have accepted, and I’ve been making some cool jams with him. Here’s one sample of what we are working on …

He’s also a fan of modern hip-hop, listening for hours (maybe too many hours) to artists, humming to himself as he wanders the house, walks the dog, does chores, etc. He’s a close listener, from what I can tell, and I am starting to hear that filter in through the music he is making.

Which leads us to the recent Travis Scott concert. I agreed to take him to Boston Garden the other night (and took him to Kendrick Lamar last year and to Future, the year before that). It’s an interesting experience to be an aging rock and roller/songwriter in an arena of hip hop.

Here is my simplistic deconstruction of a typical hip-hop song, with Travis Scott’s vocoder-ized auto-tuned voice still in my head. I’d take Kendrick over Scott any day (but maybe that’s because Lamar had a kicking live band backing him and a better feel for politically-charged lyrics that connect more with me and my sensibilities.)

Creating a Hip Hop Track: Notes from a Rock And Roll Observer

  1. Start with a simple beat. Maybe kick drum on the beat or on the off beat. Keep it pounding until your feel it in your skull.
  2. Add piano or organ over it. Do this for about four measures. Just enough to establish the melody.
  3. Drop the drum and transform the opening melody part to synth after the first few measures. Come in strong with a big kick drum sound (think: John Bonham from Led Zep. That’s the sound you want. Bigger than your head.).
  4. Make sure the bass is deep enough, rich enough, to reach into your esophagus. Deep in sound, but not too complicated in parts. The bass will become the thread that holds this whole thing together. Modern bass is the river on which the melody floats.
  5. Shout out “yeah” on the offbeat until you create synergy off the beat. Wave your hands in the air if you care. Get hangers-on in the studio to the mic, and have them join in.
  6. Name-check yourself. Maybe a few times. Don’t let the listener forget who you are.
  7. If your lyrics are a mostly meaningless flow about nothing much to talk about, pump up the effects to bury the meaning beneath your voice. Also, do this, too, if you can’t really sing. If your lyrics have meaning, push the voice up over the beat during verses. Make it known.
  8. If your partner(s) are the DJ at the mix machine, have them interject a few odds and ends now and then. Maybe during live performances tell the crowd to make some noise, but with a slew of profanity. Say it at least a dozen times. Keep their microphone volume lower than yours, though.
  9. Have a famous friend? Invite them into the track for some verses or a line of words or two. Guest overdubs are the rage right now. If you are a male rapper, having a female singer take over the chorus seems like a good bet to get heard.
  10. Bury the words of the chorus with layered overdubs of voice and effects. Ideally, you do this in stages, so that by the end of the track, the chorus is bigger than a building. Unless you can’t sing. Then, bring in a guest (see #8) or add more effects (see #6)
  11. End by either reversing the flow — ending back on simple opening beat and keyboards — or by taking the track in another direction, and the come to a full stop. A big boom blast — cannon shots are popular — with tons of reverb will end the track with a slow-fading tail. Add lights and fire during live shows.
  12. Start over again until you find your groove and your audience.

I admire those artists and producers who play with this genre (as seen from my middle-age white man’s world), and the lyricists who understand how internal rhymes and rhythmic play with words and syllables can take songs to a new level. Like any musical genre, there are those who are artists, pushing the limits to make something interesting, and those who leverage the formula to make money.

Take a guess who gets the more plays and more profit?

I’d be remiss not to say that every genre seems to fall into its own patterns. Rock and pop music is all about verse/chorus/break and Jazz is mostly about head/solo/head (unless you’re Ornette Coleman, and then all bets are off) and so on.

Deconstructing what we love is a form of play, and a way to think about where the limits are and how we might push those limits to transform what we love. Go on and do it.

Peace (old man blues),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: When Families Come Together to Code Together

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

Last year, we had about a dozen people — parents with children — attend our Family Coding Night for the Hour of Code. Last night, more than 30 signed up and nearly double that number showed up, including a troop of Girl Scouts whose young members worked to earn coding badges. We had first grader students right through sixth graders in the room, with moms and dads in tow.

Family Hour of Code Night

Our school library could barely contain the large number of parents and students who arrived to learn more about the Hour of Code — it seemed we kept bringing in new chairs and clearing off more table space — and to spend an hour doing logic puzzles and dipping into the basics of programming.

We prefaced the night with discussions about what programming is, what coding looks like, the influence of technology on many aspects of our lives, the potential job markets on the horizon, and the magic of collaborative work.

It was interesting, assisting folks and watching team of adults and children work together, talk through the puzzle challenges, wonder about how to get a character to work on the screen. It was those conversations that the real learning took place, and between the assorted and rather random fist-pumping “whoops” of success, the school district technology coordinator – Kim, who planned the event — and I wandered about, checking in.

The hour ended, and we awarded certificates for the night, and encouraged families to keep the conversations going at home, either with the Hour of Code or in some other fashion.

Peace (under the hood),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Sci-Fu (Kick It Off)

So, strange title, right? Sci-Fu. But Yehudi Mercado’s new series — Sci-Fu — is a fun ride into the hip hop world of Brooklyn, with a slight detour into a world of battling robots. Plus, there’s an ice cream truck.

So, you know, weird title captures the strange book that this is, and that’s perfectly OK because Sci-Fi is a fun read, with lots of visual elements, likable protagonists, and a Sunday Morning sugar-cereal feel to the narrative.

I really enjoyed how Mercado captures the love of hip hop and rapping here, as the main hero — Wax — and his buddy are emerging street rappers, and throughout the story, this hip hop element is consistent, right down to the main conflict as Wax faces a huge robot in order to save Earth.

This book — Sci-Fu: Kick It Off — is the first in a series, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of the story (one of the character got left behind in another world, when she discovers her true identity as a hero).

This graphic novel is completely appropriate for elementary students, and is aimed at middle school readers. It’s fun, entertaining and comes with a Spotify hip hop playlist with some old school rappers so young readers have a bumping soundtrack to listen to while enjoying the story.

Peace (on the page),
Kevin

Algorithms Ate My Homework: Thinking on Machines and Assessment

Algorithms Ate My Homework

I really appreciate how reading other people’s blog posts in the E-Learning 3.0 community sparks my thinking. A piece by Matthias in reference to Stephen Downes’ exploration of badging as possible tracking system or as an outcome of automated assessments in a decentralized Internet made me pause.

Matthias writes:

I think, for the final summative assessments deciding about the future life of a human, such algorithms are not acceptable. By contrast, for the formative assessments throughout the study, they might be perfect. With human teachers, both types of assessments are equally costly, therefore we have too few of the latter and too many of the former.

Stephen writes:

We are in the process of building society-wide automated competency recognition systems. These are already being developed for training, for compliance, for civic justice, and for credit and insurance assessment.

So far – as Matthias Melcher suggests – the only people not benefiting are the learners themselves, with their own data. And that’s what can and must change.

I am reminded of the debates still raging in my own teaching field about machine-based scoring of writing, where a software program analyzes a text and scores it. My Western Massachusetts Writing Project colleagues (and mentors and former professors) Anne Herrington and the late Charlie Moran explored this notion of computerized grading of writing, and found it incredible lacking on many fronts. I think their research still holds true today.

You can see the collection of pieces they curated for the National Writing Project.

And there is the part of the statement by the National Council of Teachers of English, which concludes:

“Writing-to-a-machine violates the essential nature of writing.”

This all came to mind as I read and then re-read Matthias reflection, in which his position is to separate out the formative work from the summative work, and to consider whether machine learning and algorithmic software might help in the formative stages, but would come into conflict with our understanding of teaching and learning in the summative. And, he suggests, if machine learning helps fill the gaps in the formative stages, an educator might have more time and energy for the summative work.

Note: I am focusing my reflections on the teaching of writing here, which may twist Matthias’ own focus a bit. I think he had a different lens in mind.

Perhaps this idea of machines for formative assessment would be helpful in some academic fields or in the larger concept of life’s learning experiences. In particular, when learning is happening and unfolding across multiple platforms and different spaces, the machine program might do a better job of tracking progress than us people do. (I think this is one of Stephen’s points — that the Decentralized Web makes it more difficult to curate your learning experiences and that algorithms might help solve this problem. Is this where block chain comes in?)

But I am a writer and a teacher of young writers, so this conversation took me in another, not unrelated, direction of thought. In writing, the formative path to a finished piece is actually where the learning and the teaching takes place. It is in the brainstorming, the drafting, the revision for mechanics and audience, the reworking … this is where the “writing happens.” And it is mostly formative, made deeper and richer when the teacher confers with the writer. It’s not a task best left for isolation.

I’d resisting having a software program tracking the path of writing like this, with word counts, and syntax reviews, and whatever else the criteria might be to evaluate a text. I’ll admit that the AI component of technology has made intriguing advancements in this field, but not enough for me to jump on board. So would one argue that it might be better for summative assessment? Um. Nope. Thinking of the machine as your audience in a final piece of writing goes against the grain of the power and intent of writing, if writing is to be authentic.

Which is not say this is not already happening. Look to many standardized testing platforms now in use across the board, in student assessments and in teacher training programs, and the shift is decidedly towards machine scoring. This is more cost-saving than quality assessment (you don’t have to pay human scorers), meaning the shift towards computers as scorer is being done for all the wrong reasons: to cut costs, not to increase learning.

At least, this seems true in the field of writing.

Peace (program it),
Kevin

When You Give Yourself a Badge …

EL30 Badge site

This week’s task over at E-Learning 3.0 is to create and award a badge to yourself, and then reflect on the process. I am still very mixed on the use and effectiveness of digital badging.

I’ve had experiences in open learning spaces like CLMOOC and WriteOut (where we designed a Playlist format with badging as documentation). I still wonder about whether the intent behind badges (documenting learning) is in sync with reality (how are badges really used or they just forgotten afterwards?).

But I climbed aboard the EL30 badge bus and ventured back into Badge List, which is site we used for CLMOOC in the past. I created a new “group” for EL30 and then created a new badge for those who are making comics as critique or questioning or just sharing out learning.

EL30 badge

This is a Badge of One, I suspect, since I think I am the only person doing comics in the mix (see my collection over at Flickr). That’s OK. I am still enjoying it. I went through the process of creating the Comic Critic badge and the criteria, and set it all up. It only took a few minutes.

Then, I went through the process of uploading evidence (a comic) and submitting it for feedback and review.

EL30 Badge Comic

Then, I (as administrator) reviewed what I submitted (as participant), and awarded myself the badge. I was very generous with myself.

EL30 Badge Award

Now what? Well, I did move the new badge into my Badge Backpack. It’s another place I put things to remember, only to forget.

Open Badge Backpack

Peace (wear it proudly),
Kevin