Book Review: Horton Halfpott

I’ll be the first to admit that it took me about halfway through Tom Angleberger’s humorous novel to really get the flow of it. But I didn’t give up — partially because my son (whom I was reading it to) needed to know what would happen to Horton Halfpott and partially because, well, I was having fun reading it out loud (even though the Old English inflections and difficult vocabularly at times made me stop to explain a few things to my son). I should probably pause here, dear reader, to give the full title of this book, since it says so much about the tone of the book:

Horton Halfpott: Or, The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; or, The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset

Horton Halfpott himself is a kitchen boy in a castle who falls in love with an heiress, and all sorts of mischief abounds — from the above-mentioned “loosening of the corset” to a world famous detective come to find some missing objects to shipless pirates caught up in a kidnapping, and more and more craziness. But the story is told in a very formal tone, with addresses to the reader at times, and other odd narrative twists that take some getting used to.

But stick with it.

The book kicks into full gear about halfway through and steams right to the end, complete with a scene involving pickle eclairs that will do doubt have you laughing as hard we were. What more can you ask of a book than that?

Peace (in the mire),
PS — this is an odd book trailer.


Multimedia Companions to Student Short Stories

I’m getting ready to dive into the adventure short stories that my students have written but I want to share out their use of for creating “companion pieces” to their stories. This assignment was to learn about how to use the digital poster site and how to create a multimedia project that is an extension of their stories. I guided them on summary writing, setting, and protagonist/antagonist, and on the elements of design.

It’s been interesting to see their posters come together, particularly since I have not yet read most of the stories. Of course, I know a little of each story from our work in class, but not everything. The posters give intriguing hints. Now, I am thinking: what if the stories began on paper but then finished on a digital poster? (sort of like what Patrick Carmen has been doing with connecting his novels to media). The glog would be a final chapter of their short story, or the story might leave off in a cliffhanger to be resolved online?

Intriguing possibilities for next time ..

Here are some of the projects that have come to be completed. A fair number are almost done.
You need Flash plugin!

Peace (in the posters),

PS — They also completed a bridge engineering project with Glogster, which I will share out tomorrow or Monday. They did a fine job on that assignment, too.


Book Review: Best Music Writing of 2011

Alex Ross is the guest editor for the 2011 version of Best Music Writing, which collects and highlights some of the most interesting magazine and journal articles about the music scene. The Best Music Writing of 2011 is a fantastic look at music from multiple angles, and (give Ross’s involvement and his role in writing about classical music for the New Yorker) the focus shifts from classical to jazz to heavy metal and beyond. Topics from Lady Gaga to the use of the vocoder device in music (from its origins in the spy services) to the plight of making a living as a wedding singer in the days of the DJ are like touchstones of the music world. These pieces move beyond our expectations of what music is and how music affects us. Ross has done a nice job of culling out intriguing topics.

This genre-jumping is right up my alley, and although I find some articles I just skim, I am always apt to stumble into interesting pieces that I would have otherwise missed. The article in here that remains fresh in my mind is one that explores one night at the Fillmore when Miles Davis and Neil Young performed on the same stage, on the same night (not together, though, but Davis opened for Young). Both artist were in the midst of change, and exploration, and I just had that “wow” reaction to thinking what it must have been like to hear Davis just as Bitches Brew was to be released and Young with the original incarnation of Crazy Horse on the same stage.

If you like music, and if you like reading about music, this collection is a keeper.

Peace (in the music),

PS — I am reading now that the publisher of the series has pulled the plug. But series editor Daphne Carr is pushing ahead with a plan to raise money and publish next year’s collection independently. I’m in!


Shifting Student Identities in Online Spaces

online offline identity
(Taken from the CommonSense Media handout: Offline/Online Me)

We spent our second day in our Digital Lives unit talking about identity. For my 11 and 12 year old students, this can be a pretty complex concept, particularly when we are thinking about how we make shifts in our personality and the way we want to the world to perceive us based on where we are. Once again, the CommonSense Media site curriculum around digital citizenship has been a rich trove to pull from, including an interesting video about how kids represent themselves (and not always for the good) and a useful handout that breaks down how one student represents themselves online and offline.

The video and the handout led to interesting conversations in my classroom throughout the day, leading to an activity around the creation of avatars for their Glogster accounts. Their mission: create a visual representation of themselves so that if I, or anyone else, were to ask why an avatar was chosen or created, they could make a clear connection to some interest or hobby or facet of themselves. It can’t be that the avatar is cool. It has to be there for a reason.

But back to our discussions for a minute. Here are some vignettes that stayed with me.

  • Many students who are gamers talked about the choices they make around usernames in gaming communities, like World of Warcraft and the like. They mentioned how they try to choose a name that represents the qualities of a hero or an adventurer. They like that part of a creation of an account, it turns out, probably because they can slip outside of their own name and identity.
  • One student noted that he plays an app game on the family iPod, but that his father first created the account. For a while, both son and dad were playing, and sharing the account, but now dad doesn’t play nearly as much. The son, of course, still does. The gaming community for that app, however, must assume (and why wouldn’t they?) that it is just one player — the dad. So sometimes, messages come from other players directed at dad, but received by the son. Nothing inappropriate, but my student noted how “strange” it was to be perceived as someone other than himself, and as an adult, too. A real adult — his dad.
  • A small number of girls are passionate about horses, and apparently there is a pretty popular equine social networking site that many of them are part of. They noted how they enjoyed how everything there is all about horses, and one student made the comment that in the network, she feels like an expert about horses and admitted to a certain confidence she doesn’t always feel outside of her equine community.
  • I asked how many students have ever not given their real ages when signing up for an online site, and many raised their hands. Most choose older, not younger. Some have done this with Facebook in order to skirt the 13 year old age regulation. When I asked why they would create an identity that was older, most could not really explain. But one student did note that if felt that they could seem cooler if they were older.

Peace (in the shift),

PS — Here is a good resource collection from National Writing Project’s Digital Is about identity.



Book Review: Steve Jobs the book vs Steve Jobs the comic book

At the holidays, I received the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. And while the story was familiar — I already knew much of Jobs’ history from other books and profiles — I still found it pretty fascinating. Let’s face it: if Jobs were our boss, we would have strangled him. If Jobs were our principal, we might have revolved against him. His temperament and lack of emotional connections, and drive to create his vision or else, made his companies at least very interesting to watch. But I would have hated to work under him.

The bio does a nice job of peeling the outer layer off Jobs, though, and allows us to understanding him a bit more through the very personal interviews that Jobs granted Isaacson. For me, I was most fascinated by his intense desire for design, and how that need for intuitive design elements shaped all of the products he would be putting into the market — from the devices that hold music to the stores that sell machines, and even in the layout of the Pixar offices. Design considerations also went into the insides of devices — things most people would never see. So much of what we see is so ugly, but not Apple products.

Isaacson nicely explores this area of Jobs’ life, and how that need for perfect design affected his dealings with other people. (And it is also so intriguing the parts where we see Jobs and Bill Gates interacting, and how different their approaches were to technology – particularly around design: Gates could not understand the fuss and Jobs could not comprehend how one could not fuss over it. That dichotomy could be a whole book in itself. I’d love to see a bio on Gates that goes as deep as Isaacson goes here, but somehow, I doubt that will ever happen. He’s not that kind of person, as far as I can tell.).

Two weeks ago, I got a comic book biography of Jobs. Needless to say, Steve Jobs: Co-founder of Apple by Bluewater Productions was a lot thinner. But the comic book bio touched on some important moments of Jobs’ life, and accomplishments, and does not quite skirt his explosive personality, but doesn’t dwell on it much, either. Reading the comic book version after Isaacson’s version was like watching a highlights real. I suppose if you have students interested in Steve Jobs, and the biography is just too much, the comic book version might be worth putting into their hands. You can tell, though, that the publisher rushed to get it onto the market to ride the wave of interest following Jobs’ death and Isaacson’s book. I found a few proofreading errors, and the writing is weak at times.

Both of these books give a view of Jobs as someone who has made a mark on modern life, and you can’t argue against that.

Peace (in the bio),



My Students and their Digital Footprints

tfk tech
We just launched into a unit (a new one for me) around Digital Lives, which will cover such topics as safety, personal information, social networking, passwords and more. I am mostly adapting a great curriculum developed by CommonSense Media, which has some interesting videos, lesson plans and activities. Yesterday, I began by posting a huge icon with the words “digital footprint” on the interactive board, and then we began to chat about what that meant.

Most had no idea. And once we began discussing the digital debris they leave behind at websites, I could already see some eyes opening up. Clearly, they don’t think much about their digital identity when they are online, and they are online a lot. Facebook, Youtube, and many other sites form the basis of what they do when they are on the computer. Very little computer time is offline.

As it turns out, this week’s Time for Kids magazine was perfectly tailored to begin our discussion. The topic of the main article was about how schools are starting to use tablet computers and technology in order to replace textbooks and inform instruction. They were quite interested in the programs where students get iPads for the year. We then went over the results of a survey I gave them two weeks ago about their own habits of technology. I paused at places where I have seen changes this year (more mobile devices, more confidence in their technical savvy, more viewing of videos online, etc.) and we had a long discussion about Facebook and password protection (to be continued another day).

We ended up talking about avatars, and how one represents oneself in an online space. They have some work to do around brainstorming an avatar for themselves, and then we will be doing some work around avatar creation on Wednesday, using our Glogster community as a place to experiment with representing themselves in an online environment.

Here are some of my notes from our far-ranging conversations during the classes yesterday:

  • They immediately noticed that school districts that are providing iPads seem to be in places that are well-off, which led to a discussion around the issue of the “digital divide” in which the “haves” get access, and the “have-nots” don’t. I was happy to talk about this problem, but it was the students who observed this and who worry about it;
  • We talked a lot about advertising, and how “free” sites aren’t really free. They were startled to learn that YouTube gets 2 billion hits a day, and that Google owns Youtube, and makes money off it by embedding advertising into sidebars and now, more and more, into videos themselves. One student said he took the time to read some of the new privacy policy by Google (praise for him!) so that he could understand what might happen to his skateboarding videos;
  • Protecting reputations was a central focus, and will continue to be, as we talked about the relative permanence of what you put online in sites like Facebook. I reminded them that in a few years, they will be applying for college or seeking a job. It may seem like that is far in the distance, but it is not when it comes to your online digital footprint. It follows you. I could tell that got the attention of a number of students;
  • The Time for Kids article sparked a long discussion (guided by me) around the pros and cons of iPads and tablets in the classroom. The pros included embedded media, cost savings, interactive learning and connection to the outside world. The cons included possibilities of theft, distractions, and the need for constant upgrades.

I’m really impressed by their insights, and thinking, and I look forward to more of these discussions. At ages 11 and 12, this is the time we want them to be thinking along these lines. I want them to be critical thinkers, and critical users of technology. However, as I stressed many times, this is also not to freak them out, and make them so nervous they don’t want to go online anytime. It’s all about managing their identity and my aim is show them some tools to do that.

Peace (in the footprints),