Book Review: Three Cups of Deceit

Mental note: If Jon Krakauer is investigating you, you better get the heck out of Dodge.

Three Cups of Deceit, which Krakauer turned into a thin book of powerful investigative reporting after first publishing his article as an ebook, is a stunning, unflinching and devastating examination of activist Greg Mortenson and the experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan that led to his best-selling books  — Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools — and his efforts to build schools in that region of the world.

I had heard about Krakauer’s report, and the 60 Minutes interview, and I was interested in the unfolding saga because, like many other schools, we used the young reader’s version of Three Cups of Tea to teach our students about different cultures, about making a difference in the world, and about the use of non-fiction to examine a story of significance. Two years ago, all fifth and sixth graders in our school read the book, did projects about the book and Mortenson, and raised money for Pennies for Peace at a benefit concert at our school. A group of students even personally met with Mortenson during one of his talks and handed him a check for his project.

Now, what do I think? I’m pissed off, actually.

Krakauer rips apart Mortenson’s story from the very start, showing how much “fiction” went into this non-fiction narrative that he created with Three Cups of Tea. I never held Mortenson up as a hero or anything, but still … the number of inaccuracies in his account of his experience in the region (from how he was saved by a small village to how he chose Korphe for the first school to his account of being kidnapped, and more and more and more and more …) gives me a long pause on my role as a teacher introducing the story to my students. I can’t shake the feeling that Mortenson deceived me, and that I in turn deceived my students. Most disappointing is the trail of money through Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute and the lack of schools built that are actually now schools in operation, which was the whole point of Pennies for Peace and student activism.

It comes down to character, and Krakauer (who once donated tens of thousands of dollars to Mortenson’s efforts before smelling something fishy and launching his investigation) is someone I trust as a journalist. Mortenson, through his actions and silence on where the millions are going, is now very suspect (he better watch out for the IRS  because he has lot of cash to account for). Krakauer does make clear that Mortenson had good intentions all along — helping educate children, particularly girls, in a part of the world where Americans are often seen as the enemy — but his actions on translating the collective good will and charity from the American public, including young children, into actual change is now in question.

I feel let down by Mortenson and angry at him. And I wish I had that class of students from two years back again for a final talk about the newest developments. I would make it a lesson in fiction and fraud.

Peace (in the tea leaves),


Book Review: The Lemonade War

A big and crucial push for our school around literacy is more home-school connections around reading and writing. Families have to be involved in the literacy lives of their children. With that in mind, our school decided to give every students a book to read over this summer, with helpful hints to parents on the importance of reading aloud and suggestions for how to use the book at home. The committee chose one book for the entire school. We are reading The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies, a book I had heard about before but had never opened. (My son had read it and gave it a shrug when I asked if he liked it. A shrug means he read it but would not read it again, nor recommend it much to friends).

The story of The Lemonade War unfolds around two siblings — Evan and Jessie — as they compete against each other for earning the most money. These two are locked into a sibling rivalry that neither of them really likes. The problem is that Evan, going into fourth grade, is not a strong student while Jessie, a second grader, is highly intelligent, but has some asperger’s qualities about her. And she is jumping over third grade to enter fourth grade, in the same class as her older brother.

I liked the book fine enough, I guess, but the one thing that kept gnawing at me as I reading the book — and it was something that I could not shake loose — was the believability of the ages of Evan and Jessie. There is no way these two kids are that young. The dialogue, the inner thoughts, the actions — it all pointed to kids who are older by at least a year or two. I could not buy it and that annoyed me to no end as I was reading. I know plenty of second and fourth graders (even gifted ones, like Jessie) and I am sorry — Davies did not capture the kids I know here.

But, the theme of siblings fighting and then resolving a difficult problem — coupled with a broken marriage and friendship issues — is a worthy point of talk for a school-wide book. I sort of wish we had gone with something with more adventure and exciting plot, though, so that the summer reading didn’t feel like so much of a … eh … school assignment. I wonder how my boys did with this book? I guess I will find out in a few weeks when the new year begins.

Peace (in the war),


Book Review: How Angel Peterson Got His Name

Before I give you my thoughts on Gary Paulson’s look at growing up, I want to share a story.

When I was around 12 years old or so, a bunch of friends and I created this very elaborate bicycle jump park in the woods near us. It had ramps, jumps, obstacles and all of the wild things you can do with rocks and logs and a few boards. Pretty cool. One day, a friend of mine finagled a jump that was higher than we had seen before. And he put it right at the bottom of a hill. And he dared me to jump it. Well, what I was supposed to do? I took up on that dare. I remember being at the top of the hill, looking down, and thinking: maybe this isn’t such a good idea. Too late. My friends were waving their hands, shouting. I took off, and quickly that thought of “maybe this isn’t such a good idea” came floating into my head.

I hit the jump perfectly, as it turned out. The air below me was incredible. What I didn’t count on was my front tire of the bike coming off in mid-air. Time really does slow down, did you know that? I could see the tire falling and thought, Shoot (well, take away the o‘s and add an i and you get the idea), and the bike came crashing down, skidding to a sudden stop as the front forks dug into the sand. My head kept moving, though, thanks to Newton’s Laws of Accidental Physics, and my mouth slammed into the handlebars. Blood flowed. And part of my front tooth was now gone. I staggered back home with a broken bike, a broken tooth and … a story to tell for the next few years.

I bring this bit of personal history up because while I was laughing out loud as I was reading How Angel Peterson Got His Name, I was also nodding my head and thinking: yep, I can see that happening. Getting trapped in a pickle barrel that you want to send over a small waterfall? Yep. Putting on skis and tying rope to a fast car to beat a world record? Yep. Making a glider out of an old WWII Army kite and trying to fly? Yep. In my mind, those narratives (which are true stories of Paulson’s childhood) are all plausible. Kids, particularly boys, are pretty dumb when it comes to impulsive “what if” events, and are aleways ready to do anything for a thrill. It helps that Paulson and his crew had no television and very little other entertainment in their lives. They were on their own (we were, too, although I am not as old as Paulson) and made their own fun. Sometimes, that was dangerous.

I have to admit: it’s hard for me to see my own kids doing some of the things that go on in this book, although my middle son loved this collection of stories. I don’t know if that worries me or not, you know? He hasn’t come home with a chipped tooth yet. But he and his friends are so … safe. As a parent, I like that. I want them as safe as possible. As a fellow boy, well, I want to build him a giant ramp and dare him to go down it at top speed … just to see what happens.

How Angel Peterson Got His Name is a wonderful collection and a fairly quick read, and it would be be perfect for the upper elementary or middle school boy who might be a bit reluctant to read non-fictional text.  (I am already thinking how to use a chapter here for some narrative writing). Paulson will surely draw those readers in (maybe drag them in) with his hilarious adventures and character sketches of his childhood friends.

I have no idea if girls would even find it funny.

Peace (in the daring adventures of childhood),


Youth Voices: The Hangout from TTT

Paul Allison (quickly) released the Google+ hangout conversation from Wednesday night over at Teachers Teaching Teachers, where topics ranged from school gardening and local food projects to the use of the Youth Voices social networking space for writing. Here is the video of the night’s conversations.

Peace (in the sharing),


Hanging Out in my first G+ Hangout

Google Hangout

Last night, I participated with Paul Allison and a bunch of other interesting folks in my very first Google+ Hangout space, which is the videoconferencing component to Google+. We were on Teachers Teaching Teachers, talking about issues ranging from the Maker’s movement (DYI activities with students) to creating school gardens to using the Youth Voices online space for the upcoming school year to developing an environmental focus for the year (or, that is my direction anyway). It was an interesting experience to be in a video chat room with Hangout with these folks.

Here are a few day-after observations:

  • There were a lot of us in the video room. I think we reached the limit (was it nine people?) and when you have that many people, it gets a little confusing about when to jump into the conversation. We were all trying to be polite and trying to get our points made. Paul did a nice job of circus ringmaster, though.
  • It was a different experience from the usual Teachers Teaching Teachers conversation. The addition of video — in being able to see the other guests — was fun and interesting. You could read expressions, and put a face to a name. It was great to see my friends Gail Desler, and Voices on the Gulf colleague Margaret Simon, and of course, Paul Allison. But I also felt a bit self-conscious about what I was doing when it was not my turn to talk, you know?
  • At one point, I had the chat room open in Google+ and the other chat room open at EdTechTalk (which is where TTT is hosted) and I felt a little dizzy as I read one chat, then the other chat (meaning: two different conversations), as I tried to keep my eyes and ears listening to the video discussions on the main screen. It would be nice to integrate the two chat rooms into one space, which I know Paul was complaining about before the show began.
  • Although we didn’t do it in our session, you can share YouTube videos in the hangout itself. That seems like an interesting component, particularly if you are brainstorming or working with a small group of people. (And I had this vision of Mystery Science Theater — making snarky comments about videos).
  • I think the video component of Google+ gives Skype a real run for its money. The quality was pretty decent and the ease of use was pretty intuitive, too. Although it was Paul’s Hangout, it seemed like it was fairly easy to manage. (ie, I have to give it a shot one of these days myself).

Not sure about how Google+ might be used in an educational setting? Check out Tom Barrett’s Interesting Ways to Use Google+ collaborative slideshow. There are some interesting ideas developing on that slideshow, including how to possibly use Hangout for conferencing and making connections with other learners and teachers, and virtual field trips.

Peace (in the hanging out),




Remembering my Webcomic Classes

I am starting to do a little work to get ready for the upcoming school year. One of my tasks is to “archive” the four spaces on our BitStrips community where my students last year did various webcomics. Bitstrips does a neat thing: it creates a “class photo” of all of the users, with their webcomic avatars. I was checking out the four classes the other day, laughing at the ways in which young people ‘create and show’ themselves with webcomic creators.

Here are my four classes, just before I put them into the archive bin to make way for this coming year’s crop of students.

Peace (in the remembering),


A small supply of Days in a Sentence

Maybe it was a busy week, or maybe the metaphor theme threw people off, but we had only three Days in a Sentence contributed this week. Wait. “Only” is the wrong way to phrase that. I am always happy to get contributors. So, to rephrase, I found three wonderful Days in a Sentence in the bin this week. Thanks to Bonnie, Rita and Tracy.

Here they are, using metaphor for their sentences:

  • I’m enjoying this morning, sitting on my front porch feeling the breeze that is a wave of cool water, refreshing after the oven the summer has been so far. — Tracy
  • Returning from the Farmer’s Market with Jersey Tomatoes, Sweet Corn, and Green Vegetables to create a colorful countertop collage of summer’s healthy invitational. – Rita
  • Give me a 7-year-old, a bag of Half-Naked popcorn and we are walking with Harry in his Deathly Hollows. Cheering right to the end! – Bonnie

See you later this week for another call for reflective words!

Peace (in the sharing),


The Path of a Conversation: from Blog post to Twitter to Google+

Path of a Conversation
One of the more fascinating elements of being part of a network is that interesting discussions can emerge suddenly. This the journey of one particular thread that begin on one platform, moved into another, and then had a slight echo on a third. The experience had me thinking about how ideas “move” and also, how temporary they can be.

It began with my RSS. I get the increasing sense that more and more people are dropping out of their RSS readers for other ways to gathering content (just as I get the sense that blogging is now falling by the wayside for many people). But I still regularly read my RSS feeds, and yesterday, I found a post from Bill Ferriter, whose work and whose writing at The Tempered Radical I greatly admire. I am always interested in what he has to say.

His piece — entitled “Wondering (Worrying) about Graphic Novels” — certainly caught my eye. In it, Bill reflects on the possibility that graphic novels should not necessary be put into the vein as serious literature, and that despite the push by many (myself, included) to bring graphic novels into the classroom, he wondered if they really helped students as readers. He was questioning, more than criticizing, and so I ventured over to his blog.

There was already a very long queue of comments (it probably didn’t help that Bill ends his post by comparing graphic novels to The Jersey Shore in terms of substance), and I added my own thought about it being helpful to question everything we bring into the classroom, and that there are bad graphic novels, just as there are bad novels. And there are great graphic novels, just as there are great novels. What graphic novels bring to the table is a form of visual literacy, nuance, inferential thinking, etc, that many of the commentators noted.

As I usually do with posts that pique my interest, I shared Bill’s post on Twitter and on Google+, figuring I had some book-friendly friends who might be interested. They sure were.

Within minutes, a fast-moving, passionate defense of graphic novels was underway, and Bill himself jumped into the mix. I had trouble keeping up with the conversation but what I sensed was that here was the reason that I use Twitter — for sharing of ideas, for questioning of ideas, for passionate talk about things that matter. It was as if we were hanging out in the coffee shop. I felt bad because I had to leave the conversation early for a family thing but the talk continued long after I left.

Over on Google+, meanwhile, only Paul Hankins and I were briefly chatting it up, and in some ways, Google+ became a slight backchannel to the Twitter conversation that began as a blog post in my RSS feed. I find that amazing. You could argue that that is way too much media/tech for any conversation, but I find it a rich path of dialogue with each medium bringing something different to the texture of the discussion:

  • Blog post: gives Bill a chance to articulate his ideas
  • RSS: presents Bill’s ideas to the world
  • Blog Comments: gives reader a chance to respond to Bill
  • Twitter: engages many writers in a flow of conversation inspired by Bill’s writing
  • Google+: provides backchannel, post-Twitter reflective space

Peace (in the reflective thought),


Tryin’ 2B Funny: The ‘Clean Your Room’ App

Trying 2B Funny Icon
(From time to time,  I try to get my funny bone working and crank out a few posts that are intended to be funny. Hilarious, even. They don’t usually work as funny material to anyone but me but that doesn’t stop me from writing them. I’m sorry you have to read them. My condolences. — the editor)

Mobile App Development Lab
Date: July 2011

The Pitch: Come up with an app that forces kids to clean their room. But makes the task so fun they will want to do it again and again! Also, provide incentive for parent to be “involved” with their child with this app (see, taser). And make sure there are plenty of embedded advertisements.

The Name: Clean Your Room or Die Trying

How it Works: A parent or parent figure buries a gold doubloon inside of a dirty sock on the floor of the room. The teenager has one minute to clean up all of the dirty clothes from the floor and find the gold doubloon before time expires. The app shows a video of the room, so that the player is working in “virtual reality” and uses the GPS transponder to find lost socks (worth five points), underwear (10 points), assorted shoes (10 points) and shirts and pants (15 points). The taser is used to ensure the game does not end before the goal is accomplished. Liberal use of the zapper is allowed.

Reward: The gold doubloon is really a piece of chocolate wrapped in cheap gold foil. The “winner” gets the chocolate. But any foil left on the floor is suitable grounds for an additional zap from the taser.

Playbility: Hours of fun, and the taser is adaptable for many parenting moments.

Cost: Free version (no taser); $19.99 (with taser). Embedded advertising for home medical kits and legal services is recommended.

Peace (in a clean room),