Book Review: The Hunger Games


I know I am late to this party, but I finally (finally!) read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins the other day. I am not sure why it has taken me this long. Goodness knows I have had plenty of students reading the series, and I have almost been part of any number of teacher discussions about the book. My son had the book, my wife brought the book home from her school library … getting my hands on the book has not been a problem.

I guess it comes down to this: I am not a huge fan of Young Adult dystopian fiction. I tried The Maze Runner a few years ago, and lost interest after the first few chapters. And you would think that given my high interest in science fiction that I would buy into the dystopian setup with no problem and dive right in. But The Hunger Games were still out there, waiting.

Now, I understand the fuss.

I won’t need to rehash the plot, I suspect, but I do want to point out what I consider the strength of this novel: character. It’s the voice of the main character, Katniss, that stuck with me and kept drawing me back into the novel. Her development and her experiences, and her reaction to the experiences, were powerfully drawn. I cared about her early in the book (when she volunteers for her little sister, she had me) and Collins gives her flaws and strengths, and courage and doubts. Having such a strong, intelligent girl as the protagonist made for a thrilling reading.

And there is the whole media element. It’s hard not to think, as the reader, that we are really just another viewer of the mayhem and death unfolding on the Hunger Games field, and that if we could send a “tribute” gift to Katniss to allow her to survive, we probably would. Collins has a nice touch as writer, to keep that audience both invisible and make us feel like we are one of them. You can almost hear the calls for more death in your head as you read — an unsettling experience that says a lot about the ways in which media infiltrates our lives.

Which brings me to the violence. I hate to sound like a prude, and I would never advocate keeping the book out of the hands of readers, but our school has a book club for sixth graders that has been reading this series (and is organizing a trip to see the movie when it comes out this year). I kept having trouble balancing the violence and gore with our school’s theme of being Peacebuilders. In other words, I would never teach this book as a class novel. (My wife reminded me that Lord of the Flies is violent, too). Of course, I suspect the violent element is what is keeping many of the boys involved in the book, so who am I took complain?

The other day, I was reading The Hunger Games in class during quite reading time, and a lot of students were quite interested that I was finally reading it. And then, I saw a student from a few years ago in our school (he is part of a multi-grade ski club) and he was one of the biggest fans of the series (except for the third book … he didn’t like it), and kept at me all year to read The Hunger Games. When I told him that I finally was into the book, he gave me this huge smile and shouted out: “Way to go, Mr. H! It’s about time!”


Peace (in the games),
PS — I have been watching some of the small videos of Collins, talking of the book series, and this one seemed interesting. She talks about the classical inspirations for the novels.


Keyboarding Skills and the Common Core


You might not even notice it, tucked away as it is within one of the strands of the Writing elements of the Common Core, but there is a sentence in there that has me wondering. It reads, “…demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.”

The other day, I had my students type out a reading response on the computers, in part so that I could (again) remind them about how to leverage the tools of Microsoft Word (spelling, grammar, formatting) for their own writing. The response was to a standardized testing piece of reading (about siblings) and they had done a draft version the day before in their Writing Notebooks.

On this day, they began to type and I was curious to see their skills at the keyboard. It wasn’t so great. Some students took almost 45 minutes to write a single paragraph. Most were hovering over their keyboards (ergonomic alert!) with a single finger jabbing at keys, their eyes darting from paper to computer. When I asked how many had ever used any kind of keyboarding system, only a few raised their hands. Most of the programs were online games.


We don’t do our students any service by leaving out keyboarding from the school curriculum, and the ideal age is around second grade. I’ve talked about this with our principal on several occasions, and he agrees, but the money isn’t there to fit in a keyboarding class and the idea pales in comparison to the work we need to be doing around writing, reading and math (as evidence by our state scores). I try to make the point early and often, to students and parents, that keyboarding skills are helpful and for students with some writing challenges (particularly around spelling), it may open up doors to publishing that writing by hand won’t.


And there it is, in the Common Core and our own Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. In fourth grade, students should be able to produce one full page of writing in a single sitting; in fifth grade, it is two pages; from sixth grade on up, it is three pages. If our work the other day is any indication, it would take hours for my students to type out three pages of original work.

The question of why that standard is there is not quite obvious, but I suppose we can make the assumption that whatever assessment (PARCC or whatever) coming down the road will have some sort of extended writing pieces in which students will have to spend a considerable amount of time at their keyboard. Maybe even hours. Be ready for it!

Peace (in the keys),


Book Review: I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar

I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar
Just bought this book; it’s hilarious!  Quite a few of the photos are of inappropriate apostrophe usage; aaaaargh!
Buy on Amazon or join the facebook group

This is one of those stocking stuffer books that gets passed around the family for laughs. For us, with two English teacher parents who have traveled to other countries and poked fun at English translations, I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar is a riot of misspellings, errors in punctuation and odd meanings and word choices that will have you scratching your head. The book evolved from a Facebook group in which users sent in photographs of signs using bad grammar and spelling, and the editor — Sharon Eliza Nichols — uses sarcasm to showcase the very-public errors.

In here, you will see signs for things like “no pakring” and “personnel watermelons” and there is even an entire section on how learning institutions, on their own signs, have more than their share of errors. Talk about publishing to the world! Most of the errors are due to that old friend, the apostrophe, which seems to float all over the place, making mischief with phrases (“Put Trash In It’s Place” and “Please Tuck You’re Laces In!”.

Listen, I made plenty of my own errors in my writing, so I understand the signmaker’s dilemma well enough. But it reminds us that proofreader’s work is never done.

Peace (in the grammar),

A Podcast: Apps, Ads and Kids

(Note: I wrote this for our local newspaper, hoping they might run it as a column around the holidays, but I never heard back from them. Oh well. I still have other publishing spaces, right? — Kevin)

My seven year old is looking at my classroom book order form from Scholastic.
“Ohhh, dad, can you get the Angry Birds book? Pleasssssse?”
I noticed that there is indeed an Angry Birds Poster Book. It says I can decorate my classroom with Angry Birds.
“No. Definitely not.”
“Why not?”
This podcast and column is why not, but I explained it in a different way to him before we both sat down to read a book together.

Listen to the Podcast


Is it just me or am I the only one getting more and more tired with those Angry Birds?

This frustration began simmering this summer when the fun little game app moved off of our mobile devices and into Hollywood (Angry Birds Rio, anyone?), then into plush toys ($18 for a stuffed animal, are you kidding me?). Now, I notice, the video game has morphed into a no-tech board game that came out just in time for the holidays and there’s even a webcomic that tells the backstory of … something.

Forget the birds. Rovio Entertainment has itself a real cash cow.

What worries me most is that gaming apps like Angry Birds are fast becoming prominent places for blatant advertising and options to buy with in-app purchases popping up everywhere, coupled with tie-ins for all sorts of other products.

It’s not just those birds, either.

The whole resurgence of the blue-skinned Smurfs this past year has spawned not only a movie but also a series of online game sites, networking spaces for children like Smurf Village, and mobile device apps that are completely loaded with ways for kids to buy, buy, buy …. with their parents’ credit card accounts, of course.  You may have missed the lawsuits that finally led to some changes with how in-app purchases take place after bills of hundreds of dollars started showing up, but I didn’t.

As an educator who fervently believes in the possibilities of technology to transform the ways we write and interact with the world, this commercialization of technology is incredibly frustrating, particularly when you consider the audience.

I can’t say I am surprised by the corporate world’s push to make new games a touchstone of commercialism.  If nothing else, they know the compulsive tendency of their young audience. Every innovation that eventually attracts a mass of consumers (radio, television, the Internet, etc.) is also bound to attract companies seeking ways to leverage that audience for profit.

But can we please collectively agree to leave the kids alone? Target me all you want. I can take it. I can turn it off. I can buy your product and regret it later.

Our youngest citizens, however, are bombarded enough with the commercialism of our culture. They don’t need their world of play tainted with advertising, too.

Recent news items that have alarmed me included some schools now offering up the doors of lockers (Minnesota), the sides of school buses (Utah), and even the front pages of their report cards (Colorado) for businesses willing to pay up to hawk their goods to an unsuspecting audience. These schools do it because they are strapped for cash. I understand that. I just can’t stomach the idea of the captive audience.

I recently came across some push-back recently that gave me some hope.

It’s a petition for folks and organizations and families who want to send a clear message to gaming companies and the vast entertainment complex to consider the audience for their products, and to please tread lightly on their childhood.

As far as I can tell, the petition has no advertising. I take that as a good sign. And there is not a bird or Smurf in sight. Even better.

Peace (in the ad-free play),

Book Review: Summerland



It’s not quite baseball season, but a few months from now, our home will be all about the ballfields as all three boys play baseball. My youngest son and I just finished up Summerland by Michael Chabon. I’ve read this long book about baseball and magic and mythology with all three boys now, and while there are times when I think Chabon has set off on a direction he never resolves, I love the ideas and the writing and the way baseball’s wondrous qualities form the center of this story.

“A baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day” (p.332)

The plot is complicated: a boy, Ethan Feld, must set off on a journey into parallel worlds not only to save his father from Coyote, that trickster who seems to pop in all sorts of forms in all cultural mythologies, and to save the entire Worlds (there are four, each of them attached to the other through thin bonds of connections that some beings can “scamper” into from one world to the next) from Coyote’s plan to destroy everything, and start all over again. Baseball is the underpinning narrative device, as Ethan and his friends (some human, most not) must travel through the Summerlands, playing ball against teams of odd creatures (including giants, ferishers and more), and trying to make their way to the Murmury Well, where the tree of life is found and on the verge of destruction.

Chabon skillfully captures the lazy magic of baseball, with all of its slow-moving plays and the sense that anything can happen at any moment when you are standing at bat or in the field. The characters are rich (even Coyote seems likeable at times), and the settings are so oddly created by Chabon, that it does make for a nice read-aloud, particularly to an audience that enjoys baseball (ie, my sons). And one of the underlying themes of loss, and the unexplainable pain that comes with living a life (Ethan’s mother has died and he hopes the magic of the journey will bring her back. It doesn’t.)

Since this is my third time reading this book out loud at home (plus another time I read it to my class), you might think I would be bored with the story and the characters and the many varied looks at the game of baseball as a metaphor for life. But I wasn’t. Chabon has created a rich story, although its complicated elements might make it difficult reading for some readers not versed in baseball and mythology and Tall Tales (oh yeah, Paul Bunyan and Annie Christmas and others play an important role in the story). This is not a book you can put into just anyone’s hands, and sometimes Chabon goes off a little far into his narrative tangents.

Still, consider this passage, which sums up so much about the book:

“Mr. Feld was right: life was like baseball, filled with loss and error, with bad hops and wild pitches, a game in which champions lost almost as much as they won, and even the best hitters were put out seventy percent of the time.” (p. 444)

I feel a bit sad now that Summerland is done. Luckily, the boys’ baseball season is coming around the bend. Our own version of Summerlands — that place of beautiful skies, green grass and endless possibilities just before the first pitch and the swing of the first bat — is something we should never give up. There’s something in that moment of pause that Chabon captures here that is worth considering, no matter the season.

Peace (in the summer),


Book Review: A Nest for Celeste


A Nest for Celeste

What a beautiful little book. A Nest for Celeste: A Story about Art, Inspiration and the Meaning of Home by Henry Cole reminds me in some ways of The Rats of NIHM for its main mousy main character whose survival instincts and sheer luck and pluck shine through and of The Invention of Hugo Cabret for the lovely illustrations by Cole that become part of the story (although not quite in the same fashion as Brian Selznick, whose pictures are the story itself, not just a companion piece).

Most of all, A Nest for Celeste stands tall as its own story about a little mouse who survives, just barely, through the help of friends. The outside narrative arc of naturalist James John Audubon, and his work to document birds of America in illustrations, provides the reader with a little window into the world of the animals that Audubon and his assistant, Joseph, find and capture in order to draw them.

Celeste, a timid little thing, is drawn so perfectly by Cole, whose own illustration work peppers a lot of other books, that you can’t help but lose your heart to her, and wish her well on her journey of survival. Her encounters with other animals, including a pair of mean rats who get tehir due and some daring birds, provides just enough action and momentum that the story flows nicely forward. Her friendship with the boy, Joseph, is quite touching, as he finally finds a small friend he can confide in and Celeste finds a human protector she can rely upon and care for.

This is a wonderful little book that is certainly worth a read. Slip it into the hands of one of your more thoughtful readers. They won’t be disappointed.

Peace (in the quest for home),



Considering Mentor Texts 6: Reflections and Observations


(Note: this blog post and a few more this week is part of a series around mentor texts and digital composition. The blog posts are all being collected over at Mentor Texts in the Digital Writing Workshop)

It’s been quite a week as I joined some friends in the Blogosphere — Bill and Franki and Troy and Katie and Tony — around considering how mentor texts can help with digital composition and I have thoroughly enjoyed not only writing my own posts, but reading the rest of the tribe as they shared their experiences. I found it fascinating that as the week progressed, more and more us began to reference the work of the others — so that our work become mentor texts for each other.

Could that have happened in a traditional writing environment? Perhaps. But not in a week’s time. If we were writing a book together, instead of creating an RSS-fed site that collected our posts, we might slip our writing into the mail, wait for a response, and then revise and add references to our work, and then — no doubt, weeks or months later — ship our writing off to a publisher, wait for the editors to tear it apart, revise for a few months, and then a year or two later, a book might emerge. And much of the technology would have changed, right? That’s the textbook industry and all of its problems in a nutshell, isn’t it?

It also demonstrates how digital tools are changing the way we write and publish. Some of our posts, no doubt, could use more revision and more thought. But in this format of RSS-collected archived, that is less important than our ideas coming together and coalescing around the issue of Mentor Texts in the Digital Writing Workshop. Our ideas bounce off each other. We seek out resonance with each other’s thoughts, and validate or question what we are doing. We improve our own instruction by joining the conversation. It’s all good.

I’ve tried to pay attention to some common themes that have emerged among us, too.

Here is what comes to mind:

  • Many of us picked apart a digital composition from the inside-out, in order to deconstruct it and make the intent of the creator visible, so that a blueprint could be made available to our students. This requires a certain way of looking at things, particularly if you are dealing with video or other multimedia tools’
  • I started off my posts by talking about how teachers should be building a repertoire of digital mentor texts for students, and others also picked up on that concept. I think we recognize that not only do we need to be doing what we are asking our students to be doing, but we need to be reflecting on experiences in honest ways (the pros and the cons) with them, too;
  • Digital composition engages students in many non-traditional ways and that is one of the powers of technology. The question is how to guide the learning so that the tools are just that — tools — and their use is not the goal. The goal is a specific learning goal that the tool supports. Mentor texts help keep this learning visible;
  • Design elements matter, perhaps more than ever. Use of color, and media, and more influence the compositional skills in ways that rarely impacted traditional writing. This thread emerged lots of times in our posts, I think;
  • Assessment is still a difficult area for many of us. I tried to explore this a bit, but not too many of us explored how assessment tools can be created from mentor texts. I think this lack of discussion is emblematic of the difficulty that many of us educators have of how to best evaluate and critique digital compositions. They may look polished and professional, but what is going on in there beyond the flash? As teachers, we need to be addressing this lack of good tools more (me, included);

Although all of our posts are being collected at the RSS site set up by Bill, I wanted to draw your attention to some writing by my colleagues that really stood out with me this week, and will be worth a visit (and a revisit by myself). These are my mentor texts, in a way, that are inspire me to think about the issue of mentor texts in a new way.

  • Franki reminded me about “teaching the writer, not the writing” and how that holds even more true in the digital age. Since so much of technology is new, we can easily get sidetracked into teaching the tool itself. Franki draws a nice connection back to strong writing ideas around the writer/creator as the center of our activities.
  • Troy has been doing great analysis of professional videos as mentor texts. His ability to really dive deep into the concepts and production and construction of video projects is worth checking out. Touching up some complex elements of parody and emulation, Troy makes visible so much that at first seems hidden. His use of the “Dove Evolution” video was quite interesting.
  • Tony’s post about students using design principles to create, revise, and recreate a project was intriguing, and his ability to show us that work in stages was priceless. That’s what we need: more examples of student work in process. And that’s what our students need, too, so that they don’t feel overwhelmed when they encounter a piece of digital composition and think: I could never do that. Pulling back the curtain opens more doors.
  • Katie shares her journey into blogging with her students, revealing the rationale of why moving writing online has power for her young students. I noted in a comment that her post can become a mentor text for other teachers. Her references to authentic publishing and motivation of writers is an argument for other teachers to consider.
  • Bill’s post about how one video idea spurred on another, and then created a sort of resonance loop, was interesting, and it reminded me of how much of that is going on with my students outside of school, particularly around video. More and more of my students have their own YouTube accounts, and when they share what they are doing with me (and I ask them “why did you do that kind of video?”), they often answer with “I saw it on …” I suppose this was always the case — we saw something on TV and tried to replicate it — but now the tools for composition are in the hands of more young people, and they are unafraid to make a ripple in the world.

I thank my friends for all of their hard work, and hope our writing has caused some ripples of their own out there in the world. If you have been following this work, thank you. Another element of online digital composition? It remains archived forever. So, come on back when you get a moment and explore. Then, create.

Peace (in the sharing),


Considering Mentor Texts 5: The Emulation Issue


(Note: this blog post and a few more this week is part of a series around mentor texts and digital composition. The blog posts are all being collected over at Mentor Texts in the Digital Writing Workshop)

I’ll start with a little story.

Remember this? This was a commercial created by Google for the Superbowl one year, and the video itself went viral, partly because of it storytelling (as an advertisement, of course).

Two years ago, as we were discussing the concept of “inference,” we watched the Parisian Love video and talked about what we saw. We talked about what was missing and who the typist might be. I then brought my students up to Google Search Stories — a digital storytelling tool by Google that lets you create a short digital video using only search engine tools. The inferential part of it is that the viewer has to fill in the narrative gaps between the search criteria to understand the bigger story. As is usual, I had created a search story myself, and shared the video and my own reflective analysis, with my students. Then, I set them loose on the site.

The result?

About a quarter of the class created search videos that looked and sounded and “read” almost identical to mine. I hesitate to call them remixes but it was if my idea for my story had gotten lodged into their brains and could only be shaken free by creating a replica of what they saw the teacher doing. This problem of how we can bring students into something new, share an example of our own making, and hope for original work is one is that not confined by digital tools — but it seems to be made easier with technology. Visually, the digital stories were appealing (it is a Google template after all), and the student work seemed polished, almost professional. This is something a digital tool can bring to the table, right?

But underneath the hood, many of them had not gone off in their own directions, as I had hoped. They had closely stuck to what they saw in the Mentor Text and followed that line as closely as possible. I understand the reasons why this is, as they were no doubt thinking “if the teacher shares out a piece work with X, Y, Z elements, my project must have X, Y, Z elements to get a good grade”) but I wish it weren’t so. I always try to remain open for students taking a piece of work in a new direction, and actively encourage it.

For example, here is what I shared with students:

Here is just one example of a student video that echoed mine:

Sometimes, Mentor Texts hem them in.

And sometimes, given the affordances of a tool of technology (like the Search Stories, with its limit on search queries and its format), a user can still feel stuck and confined. I didn’t regret the use of my own Mentor Text for this kind of video project, but I did wish I had found more ways to encourage students to push beyond what they see, instead of just creating a bunch of “Mini-Me” replicas.

So, the next year, when we did Search Stories, I took a different tact. I had them create a digital search story based on a short story they were already writing — this gave them some of their own content to pull from to use as the narrative frame of their video, and allowed the Mentor Text to become a way to talk about format and technique, but not content, since my own story that I was writing with them was different from their own. The result was a much wider array of interesting videos.


Peace (in the story),

PS: Also blogging about Mentor Texts and Digital Composition this week are:

Bill Bass, Technology Integration Specialist in Missouri and author of the upcoming ISTE book on Film Festivals tentatively titled, “Authentic Learning Through a Digital Lens” will be blogging on his blog MR. BASS ONLINE.

Katie DiCesare, a primary teacher in Dublin who runs an incredible writing workshop will be blogging at her blog, CREATIVE LITERACY.


Tony Keefer, an amazing 4th grade teacher in Dublin, Ohio will be blogging at at ATYCHIPHOBIA.

Franki Sibberson, a librarian of many skills and knowledge, and also from Ohio, over at A YEAR OF READING


Mentor Texts: The Search is On

I have been honored to be taking part this week in a blogging series around mentor texts and digital composition. The blog posts are all being collected over at Mentor Texts in the Digital Writing Workshop. For a post I am writing tomorrow, I am exploring some issues that include my students using Google Search Stories. I thought I might have some fun and create a Search Story that features the six of us bloggers.

Peace (in the search),


Considering Mentor Texts 4: Collaborative Rubric Development

(Note: this blog post and a few more this week is part of a series around mentor texts and digital composition. The blog posts are all being collected over at Mentor Texts in the Digital Writing Workshop)
One of the most difficult parts of using technology and digital media with students remains with how best to assess a piece of student work. Given that there are not enough mentor texts with which we can use to showcase exemplar projects (see my post about teachers needing to be creators), we need to engage students more in the development of assessment tools. I’ll be honest: this guided collaborative thinking between teacher and students takes time and I owe a lot of work I do around to a fellow Western Massachusetts Writing Project friend, Mary Farrin, whose workshop on rubric development opened my eyes.

The way this works is that the teacher presents a piece of work — in this case, a digital text — and together, the students and the teacher identify areas that should be part of a final assessment. The broad topics then get broken down into categories. The role of the teacher is to guide the discussion and focus the students on elements of importance. As Mary used to say, it is the process of developing the tool that gets students focused on meeting our expectations for their best work. After the brainstorming by students, the teacher then takes those ideas and develops a scoring tool that makes sense for a project. The students feel as if their voices are part of the mix.

Last year, I used this process for a Digital Poster Project that was a companion piece to an environmental essay project. We were using Glogster, which is a great site with many tools and possibilities but it is also is a site that has so many tools that some students get caught up in the flash and forget the content. So, we worked together on developing a rubric.

First,we examined a few Glog projects from the classes from the year before. We were just “looking” at elements that seemed worth “noticing” and discussing why something like design might play a role in the way a teacher might assess a digital poster.

Next, I created my own Glog about the topic that I was writing about (just ahead of them) around Fuel Cell Technology.

Finally, I pulled up a blank rubric and together, we talked about what someone would be looking at when they looked at my glog. We decided that the four main areas would be: scientific content, design elements, and multimedia. (Later, I added in the usual Grammar/Mechanics, which they conveniently left out). We then began to break down each category with the question: what would a writer need to do to meet our expectations? This where I again guided discussions. (Depending on the project, you might need more than just “meets expectations” and “does not meet expectations” but this was part of a larger project and these designations met our needs. I could have also used the input from students at this level, and then extended out the rest of the rubric myself along these same lines.)

Here is what we came up with:
Environmental Project Brainstorm Rubric
And then, they were off on their projects, with our collaborative rubric on the whiteboard while they were working. As I wandered and helped students, I kept referring conversations back to the board. (“Does that dancing penguin really help your design?”) The result was a pretty strong crop of projects, including this one about Rainforests:

Peace (in the assessment),

PS: Also blogging about Mentor Texts and Digital Composition this week are:

Bill Bass, Technology Integration Specialist in Missouri and author of the upcoming ISTE book on Film Festivals tentatively titled, “Authentic Learning Through a Digital Lens” will be blogging on his blog MR. BASS ONLINE.

Katie DiCesare, a primary teacher in Dublin who runs an incredible writing workshop will be blogging at her blog, CREATIVE LITERACY.


Tony Keefer, an amazing 4th grade teacher in Dublin, Ohio will be blogging at at ATYCHIPHOBIA.

Franki Sibberson, a librarian of many skills and knowledge, and also from Ohio, over at A YEAR OF READING