Book Review: Breaking Stalin’s Nose

“I set this story in the past, but the main issue in it transcends time and place. To this day, there are places in the world where innocent people face persecution and death for making a choice about what they believe to be right.” — Eugene Yelchin

Oh, the secrets of the old Soviet Union!

In Breaking Stalin’s Nose, Eugene Yelchin gives us an inside look at the fear that dominated the Soviet Union under Stalin’s regime, and told through the eyes of 10-year-old Sasha Zaichik, it is indeed of accusations, political maneuvering and a tragic toll taken on everyone’s lives. Other than Animal Farm, I can’t think of another novel that I have read in my life that really peels back the experiences of Stalin’s views of Communism, and with this short novel that takes place over the span of just two days, Yelchin brings the humanity of those decades to the surface.

The story begins with Sasha’s desire to become one of Stalin’s Young Pioneers, the youthful cadre of kids who will spy everywhere on Stalin’s behalf, and ends with Sasha declining the offer. What happens in-between, particularly with his father (his American mother is long gone, accused as a spy), is made all the more heart-rendering because it seems like an average kid’s life — with worries of fitting in, worries about family connections, and worries about bullies and adults. Even the title refers to an accident that happens to Sasha — while daydreaming of glory and recognition, he accidentally knocks the nose off a Stalin statue in his school. That normalcy of childhood quickly gets overrun by the politics and accusations, and everyone covering their own butts at the expense of others.

Yelchin, himself an emigrant from Russia, tells his story so insightfully and brings us right inside the head of Sasha so well, that I could not put the book down. I read it in one sitting. And I am so grateful that the ending takes a slightly positive twist, showing the humanity of people over the short-sightedness of the politicians. It’s true that fear runs throughout this story. But there is love, too.

Peace (in the cold winter of Stalin),
PS — someone made a trailer:

Supporting Youths in Youth Voices this Summer

Youth Voices Summer Program (5/10/13) from Karen Fasimpaur on Vimeo.

Youth Voices is an amazing network and community for young writers that has been nurtured over the years by a number of educators, but none so much as Paul Allison. Paul’s work in his classroom, with Teachers Teaching Teachers webcasts, with the National Writing Project, Youth Voices and more have really put many of his ideas around learning in the digital age into action in meaningful ways.

This summer, Paul and others are tapping into the crowdsourcing funding movement to sponsor a summer program for youths in new York to engage in learning with Youth Voices. They are using a new site called InciteED, which is sort of like a Kickstarter for educational projects. Your contributions will make the summer program more accessible to high school students in New York City as they spend part of the summer writing, exploring and connecting.

Check out the Youth Voices Summer Program on IncitED.

I contributed and I would ask that you consider, too.

If it helps to hear how Paul thinks, check out this screencast about his views on Youth Voices.

Peace (in the support),


The National Writing Project MOOC Opens its Doors

Making Learning Connected flowchart

I’ve been sharing some teasers for the past week or so about a MOOC that I am helping to design and facilitate this summer via the National Writing Project. The initial sign-up website is now up and running, and I am going to continue to share out some more of the teasers (some might even repeat, so bear with me) as we work to generate interest from friends and colleagues and others in our networks (and even random passersby). We hope the teasers give you a sense of the spirit that we hope to nurture over the summer with the Making Learning Connected MOOC.

If you are not sure, a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course that is free of charge and takes place in various spaces around the Internet but becomes linked together through shared activities and ideas and connections. MOOCs are a hot trend right now, so you might be intrigued about what they are and how they work. You can dip your toes into the water with us this summer, and experience it for yourself.

What’s the Making Learning Connected MOOC all about? The two main themes are: integrating the Connected Learning philosophy into practice and “making” things. Our plan is to have a series of  possible “make” activities over the summer to get folks creating things (physical things and/or non-physical things) with the idea of participants guiding their own learning as it fits their needs. You can follow our plan or come up with your own plan. We’re connecting the dots between the National Writing Project’s ideal of teachers teaching teachers, the Makers Movement, and Connected Learning.

The MOOC officially begins on June 15 and runs into August but the main website where you can sign up is now live.

Head over to the Connected Learning MOOC website for more information

I really hope you can join us on this adventure this summer. We’re having fun designing the MOOC, so that you can have fun participating.

Peace (in the MOOC),


Teachers Who Rock the Stage

At our school talent show this week, a group of us teachers learned the Philip Phillips’ song, Home, and performed it live (with bubbles!) on the stage after all of the students had performed their own magic. The kids love seeing us teachers in the lights, and in a different light, too.

Peace (in the live music),
PS — That’s me on the left side of the screen, playing guitar.

Humor: Commencement Address for Preschoolers

Over at our National Writing Project iAnthology writing space this week, our writing prompt host (Jeanne) asked us to consider Commencement Addresses, and she urged us to write what we would say if we were chosen. Well, I decided to spoof the concept, with an address to the younger set: preschoolers.

Hello preschoolers!

I know you are jumping over the seats and crawling under chairs, but if you could just take a moment to listen, I’d appreciate it, because I have important things to say, and you won’t get to the snack table until I am done. Thank you. Parents! That goes for you, too.

Preschoolers, I am honored to be here tonight, dressed up as Big Bird, in order to give you some advice on your journey into kindergarten. No doubt you have had a delightful year here. You’ve had snack times, nap times, read aloud times, play time, and plenty of time to build towers, knock them down, just like David did a few minutes ago — we all saw you, kid — and build them up again. This rebuilding of your ideas is going to be important in the long run. You’re going to fail a lot. It’s OK. You don’t need to cry about it. Instead, see the crumpled blocks as potential for building something even better.

I understand you used a lot of crayons this year. That’s good. Your vision for the future is going to be important. In fact, your parents and teachers and I all expect you to save the world. I know, it’s a lot to ask of a four year old. But we have faith in what you will be able to do. Those crayons make you visionaries, and I urge you to move beyond the colors of the rainbow when you create the world. Don’t be afraid of the names you can’t pronounce. Sometimes, the most unimaginable ideas are the most wonderful. So, grab that Maize and Raw Umber and draw, draw, draw!

Now, I know, you’re thinking: why is Big Bird here, talking to us? One reason is that we wanted to get your undivided attention during this Commencement Address. But, also, can you find a more gentler, kinder soul than Big Bird? I don’t think so, unless you happen to catch re-runs of Mister Rogers on YouTube. Which brings me to another point, preschoolers. Don’t spend all of your time staring at a screen. Oh sure, your parents’ iPads and iPhones and other devices make nifty sounds and have interesting animation. And what your little fingers can do — other than smudging the screen with crumbs from snacktime – is pretty amazing.

But you need to live life first, in the moment. Preschoolers, the one thing I can give you is this: imagination. Invent new worlds. Imagine new places. Create invisible friends and head off on adventures. Talk to yourself. Don’t be afraid of taking chances, because just like that tower we built earlier that David kicked over, there are always ways to improve upon what we’ve done, and sometimes, it takes a setback to move forward.

Now, I know you are all a little antsy, so I will end by saying this. Believe in yourself and find strength in your family. And leave at least one brownie for me, will you? Thanks, and good luck in Kindergarten.

And you can even listen to the address:

Online recording software >>

Peace (in the Big Speech to Little People),

Teach the Web: Empowering Student Agency and Creativity

Webmaker Project Student Agency Ideas

Over at the Teach the Web MOOC, the task this week (week four) is to create a resource that will push our thinking around the work we have done so far with remixing, creating and more into the realm of education. This is a crucial step forward for those of us playing around with the Mozilla Webmaker tools and others.

As the Teach the Web folks put it:

“Our aim is to continue strengthening this community, sharing experiences and make some hackable, shareable resources that push the boundaries of participatory, collaborative, learner-centric learning.”

The task includes a hackable Thimble activity page that allows you to use a template to build and share a resource of ideas.

Here is Mine, which I called “Not So Secret Agents.”

What I was exploring in this resource is a push to give students and young people more agency in the world of digital media, and thinking about how tools such as XRay Goggles, Thimble, Popcorn Maker might engage them in the work and play of understanding the digital media world. In making not just the web more visible but also the intent of media producers, my hope is that young people become more active participants and creators, instead of passive consumers.

This thinking is valuable to me, not just now with my sixth graders, but also for this summer, when I am slated to teach a digital literacy workshop for five weeks with high school students in a nearby urban center. The program, which the Western Massachusetts Writing Project is a partner to, aims for English Language Learners. My workshop with students will be centered around hacking literacies and video game design, and all this work with Teach the Web is really informing my thinking and helping me put the pieces together for the summer.

This particular activity — the resource I am sharing here — gave me room to frame some of the larger ideas around using technology and digital tools to empower students. That’s an important message for me to remember, and nurture, and build lesson and activities off of.

Peace (in the agency),


Making Learning Connected Teaser: The MOOC Song

Here is another teaser for the coming Making Learning Connected MOOC that we are launching this summer. We’ll soon be sharing more information about sign-ups, etc., but for now, we are working to spark interest in what we have planned for the summer.

I wrote and recorded this song, and used an image from Chad (Mookle!).
Peace (in the teaser),

From Slice of Life to Six Word Stories: Teachers With Students

This weekend, as part of a professional development session I was co-facilitating, I asked the teachers into the room to ‘write into the day’ with a Slice of Life prompt — find a moment in which in you interacted with a student, and write about it. Almost everyone shared their Slice of Life out, and it was a wonderful range of stories — from inspiring, to discoveries, to frustrations.

Next, I asked them to focus even further — and narrow down their Slice to a Six Word Memoir. Many expressed difficulty with this task, and yet, they did an amazing job. We used Padlet (formerly Wallwisher) to post their six word stories. As I explained, not only were they learning about a new technology tool, they were publishing AND gaining some ideas for how to get their students to write in a variety of formats and technologies (from pen to the web).

Check it out:

Peace (on the wall),