Book Review: The Marvels

Recently, I wrote of receiving The Marvels, the newest book by Brian Selznick, in the mail and being taken aback by its physical presence. It’s a beautiful book, with golden pages and an delightful cover. The book has the weight of words and drawings. I couldn’t wait to read it with my son.

I did, and I have to admit: The Marvels, though it has lots of charm, does not quite hold up to Selznick’s previous books — The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. Those books showed intricate storytelling, fusing the image elements of his books (which shine in The Marvels, too) with the text. Both were like literary puzzles for the reader to wonder about, as he brought the fictional ends together to tell a single story.

Here, in The Marvels, there is again a mystery, and things are not what they seem, but my son and I were less taken in by the story itself, for whatever reason. I won’t give the plot away, but the novel is loosely based on a real event and people, and their story of an unusual life. I was interested but not intrigued. That’s all the difference in the world, right?

I can sing long praises for his drawings, of course, because they are an art form unto itself, but I wish the story text had been stronger to hold it all together. It’s still a book worth checking out, as is anything Selznick does. It’s not bad. It’s good. But it’s not great. Given his past few books, this one just didn’t rise to my expectation level. Maybe that is me, the reader, more than him, the writer.

Until next book …

Peace (on the pages),

Slice of Life: A Little Bit Goes a Long Way

(This is a piece for Slice of Life, a weekly community writing adventure with Two Writing Teachers.)


I found this in my email bin this morning, and I was quite happy. You see, I have started to contribute each month to support a few artists that I like via Patreon, which is a crowdsourcing site that puts into practice something I like to believe in: your audience will not only find you if you do creative things, but they will also help support you in order to support your art. (I did a book review last week on Cory Doctorow’s book — Information Doesn’t Want to be Free — in which this idea was a central tenet of how artists can survive, and thrive, in the digital age.)

At Patreon, I pitch in a dollar each month to support a few folk — including Audrey Watters and her insightful pieces about education and technology; David Finkle, and his work on creating comics about teaching called Mr. Fitz; and Dave Kellett, whose Sheldon comics I love to read every day for their wit and humor. It was Dave who sent out some free ebook gifts as thanks to his supporters. Audrey and David Finkle often send out material that we get to see first, or works in progress.

A dollar doesn’t sound like much, but if a lot of people pitch in a dollar, it can make the difference between an artist making art or flipping pancakes for a living. Kellett, for example, wanted to remove advertising from his website for Sheldon, and so the Patreon campaign is designed to replace the income from ads through direct support from fans.

I was happy to support Sheldon Comics even without the ebooks but now … now, I need to get these on my iPad for pleasure reading …

Peace (in the giving and in the receiving),


Lunar Eclipses and Short Attention Spans

Japanese Lantern: Savor the Moon

We huddled our kids outside last night, just after 9 p.m. It was clear skies, beautiful clarity, here in New England, and the Super Blood Moon Eclipse was underway.

I don’t know what my kids were expecting, but the slow-mo effect — which my wife and I found fascinating — was a bit too slo in the mo for them, particularly the youngest child.

“This is so boring!” he moaned, from his spot on the pavement, sitting there in his pajamas. Another of our boys was running up and down the street with our dog, teasing the creature with a banana peel. “Why are we out here?”

He knew why, because not only had I explained an eclipse (“Imagine you are the moon, and I am Earth, and that light is the sun …”) but I had also mentioned he would be in his 30s when this kind of natural event would occur again. However, unlike the apps and games he likes to play, this event unfolded slowly, and required patience.

A little quiet would have helped, too.

“Why are we out here?” he asked again, but I did notice he kept his eyes up on the moon, which by now was being taken over by the expanding black sliver to its left, a section disappearing even as we were talking. Ten minutes later or so, the partial eclipse was clearly underway.

I mentioned the need to read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which led to a discussion about Mark Twain, and scientific knowledge. The moon and the Earth and the sun kept working. More of the moon was now in shadow.

Finally, after hearing more than our share of groaning about the pace of the event, we sent the kids inside. They had seen enough. They had experienced the eclipse, at least. And we had heard enough. In the house, they went, leaving the movie to unspool by itself.

Upstairs, getting ready for bed, my wife and I raised the curtains on our window, and gazed up at the sky. The window framed the moon, perfectly. The eclipse continued.

“Why did we even go outside with the kids?” my wife joked, as we watched the magic of the skies in the peaceful, warm house. She started to hum “If Moon Were Cookie” from days of listening to Sesame Street songs on the van.

“We could just show them the time-lapse video in the morning,” I joked back. We both know that being “in the moment” of the natural beauty of the world is what was important and that even with the complaints, it was worth it.

Interestingly, the theme of our church service that morning was all about connecting and reconnecting back to the Earth and the environment. The guest speaker talked about the firebrand preacher, Jonathan Edwards (whose home church was our very own church), and his writing about seeing wonder in the world around him. The guest speaker connected Edwards’ writing to the Pope’s visit and the recent papal environmental report on Climate Change.

Earth, and its future, was on our minds for much of the day. The skies, too.

In the middle of the night, I woke up, thinking someone was turning on the lights in the house. But it was just the moon, coming back from darkness, filling the skies with a brilliant glow, as if announcing, Here I am.

There it was. Welcome back, moon.

Peace (on moonbeams),

My (Teaching) Writing Goals and the Start of Digital Portfolios

My sixth students are in the midst of developing some writing goals for themselves for the school year. They’re doing this work as their very first pieces of writing in Google Apps in Education system, which we activated last week for them, by first brainstorming in Google Docs and then moving into Google Slides to create a “writing goals” presentation.

All of this goal-setting is the start of a digital portfolio system I am piloting this year with our sixth graders (which is connected to an inquiry project that came out of the Making Learning Connected MOOC this past summer), and I am spending the year putting things into place for what this will look like. I’m learning as I go, to be frank. I still don’t have a clear picture of the “finished project” and am working on the best way to have them collect work and reflect on their own writing in a meaningful way.

Luckily, I have a few upcoming conferences in October (at our Western Massachusetts Writing Project site and at the online 4C Digital Writing Conference event) where student writing portfolios are topics of sessions. I am hoping to gather some insights and ideas from other teachers.

At our Curriculum Night last week, parents were very intrigued by the concept of digital writing portfolios, particularly when I explained how these pieces of writing in our sixth grade would follow them up to the regional middle/high schools, with the hope that other teachers in our system will have students add to them, creating a six-year portfolio of writing and reflections. I’m not saying that will happen, but I would love for that to happen.

As usual, since I had my students working on some goals for writing class, I worked on some of my own goals, too, as (teaching) writing goals, which I shared out with them on Friday as they began work. It also gave me a chance to show how Slides works (and to realize that only five out of nearly 80 sixth graders have ever created a Powerpoint or slideshow before …. interesting, right?) My goals here are slightly different than my SMART goals for our school administration (which both center around instituting digital portfolios as reflective writing spaces).

Peace (that’s our goal, right?),

When the Focus on Form Takes Away from Focus on Function

Fish form function

I’m going to skirt around the specifics of an issue here because, to be honest, I don’t want to get my bosses mad at me for writing publicly about an issue even as they continue to work behind the scenes to revise and update what I am referring to here. I also remain hopeful that this issue that has been bothering me the last few days will be resolved in a thoughtful way.

It has to do with the idea of form and function.

I know there is plenty of design theory out there around the ways in which the format of a thing shapes the content of the thing, or how the medium is the message and all that. I see it and I understand it, and I even often work as a writer in those very confines, even as I seek to push at the edges of the possible within forms.

But there are times when, well, the function has to influence the form of the thing. That is, if the structure of the container takes so much away from the content and message of what goes into the container, then you probably need a new container, not a new bag o’ content. Not if the content is important enough, anyway, or not if you are so passionate about what is being said that you can’t fit that fish in that fishbowl, you know what I mean?

Get a new fishbowl.

In this particular case, I have made some suggestions about some content being proposed in a sort of new container but I haven’t been able to articulate this perception (and I am not alone in this) that the design goal of the container itself is greatly impacting the content that will go into the container.

We seem to be wrestling cats into a box, and the cats refuse to fit. You don’t cut the tails off the cats to make them fit in the box. You get a bigger box. Or something other than the box you had in mind. Maybe a mobile home or something.

I haven’t entered this particular design fray discussion because it has taken me a few days to mull over what has been bugging me about it so much, and I realize, we were never really asked for input over design. The shape of the container seemed to have been decided already, in advance. So, we might have tail-less cats and dead goldfish on our hands (if you take my comedic, metaphorical thinking to a tragic conclusion here).

I realize, as you read this, you may be scratching your head as I dance around the specifics here on the page, wondering what the hell I am talking about. Fish? Cats? No. Neither. Sorry. Again, I am hopeful this issue all gets resolved through a process now underway, but I found I needed to get down on the page some of my thinking about form and function, and which trumps the other, and when.

Thank you for the reader therapy session … I’ll pay my fee on the way out the door. If I can fit through the door. Maybe you need a new door. It seems a bit too small ….

Peace (that fits in all boxes of all sizes everywhere),

On Connected Learning: Student Expertise

Connected Learning TV hangout

I had the great fortune to be asked to join Kim Jaxson (a professor at California State University in Chico, California and a colleague in the National Writing Project) as a guest on one of her series of Connected Learning TV programs the other night as she explores Connected Learning principles in context of “back to school.

Our topic on our night was all about recognizing and nurturing the concept of “students as experts” in our classrooms. Other guests included Laura Gibbs (whom I know from various online communities) and Jarret Krone (whom I didn’t know but now do). As representatives across the grade levels, we chatted about ways to empower students and surface expertise in our classrooms.

You can view the Google Hangout here as well as link to some resources. Or listen to the podcast on Soundcloud.

I liked how the freeform conversation hit on a lot of great topics, and while we acknowledged that there are constraints in place from educational dictates (or at least, I feel them in my situation), there is always room for students to become experts.

One funny aside is when Jarret was talking about assigning some digital writing to his university students, and how some of them self-identify as “not Internet people” to the idea of using social media for a university class. This sparked a series of memes and tweets after the Google Hangout had ended.

Here’s one of mine:

Internet people

Peace (expertise, included),



At Middleweb: Forging Partnerships

in it together cover 150

My latest column over at Middleweb is an interview with my Western Massachusetts Writing Project (and musician) colleague, Michael Silverstone, and his writing partner, Debbie Zacarian, about their new book, In It Together, that looks how to establish and build school partnerships with families and organizations in order to enrich the learning lives of all students.

Here are a few quotes that I think speak to what they are talking about:

… expending energy in the direction of collaboration leaves you with more energy than you started with. It’s kind of a paradox. I’ve come to know that isolation depletes my energy sooner or later. I’ve had supremely satisfying times in my own little classroom world, but after a while, going solo gets draining. — Michael Silverstone

Tapping into the experiences of our families greatly helps us in building these connections, and the possibilities for doing this are wonderfully endless. For example, some students might have a parent or sibling who is deployed, and others might have a family member who fled their home country. Both groups have depth of knowledge on this topic of study and can greatly help our instruction to come alive. — Debbie Zacarian

I think the Q&A format brought out some interesting insights from Michael and Debbie that is worth a read as the school year begins and we look to the community of our classroom and beyond for support and inspiration.

Check out the piece at Middleweb.

Peace (making connections),

Book Review: Information Doesn’t Want to be Free

Information cover final web

I realize the irony here, that I paid top dollar for Cory Doctorow’s book — Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age — when I probably could, with just a bit of searching and tinkering, find a free and pirated version of the book somewhere and be reading Doctorow’s engaging missive about copyright law and information flow in mere minutes of a search.

I could of done that, but I didn’t.

Here’s why:

  • First off, I want to support McSweeney’s, Dave Egger’s publishing arm that also supports youth writing programs around the country with its 826 Valencia network.
  • Second, I want to support Doctorow as a writer, although I suspect he is doing just fine without my meager money … this is a principle thing about supporting artists at work.
  • Third, I like the tangible feel of a book in my hands (and this one traveled with me from my sons’ baseball games, as its short chapters were perfectly tuned into the breaks between innings.)

And it turns out that my move to avoid the free, pirated copy of the book is right in line with Doctorow’s ideas around the Information Age, and how artists can still find and reach an audience that is willing to pay for art, even if it is freely available elsewhere. This is part of his point: in the age of the Copy, how do musicians and writers and artists still make art that is meaningful and make a living at it, too?

Amanda Palmer’s foreword (coupled with her husband, Neil Gaiman’s companion forward) continues to resonate with me in context to Doctorow’s ideas around copyright and publishing, and how innovation is always bound to upend the status quo, and the status quo is always going to fight that change with lawyers and money and political influence.

Palmer writes about her time as a street performer in Boston (she was one of those lovely painted statue people that we gawk at) and her observations of passersby, and how while many would ignore her, the few that observed and appreciated her art, and put some money into her collection bin, was more than enough to sustain her with a regular income.

“Like clockwork, people were generous. Nobody asked them to be. I just stood there, literally silent, waiting for them to tip me out for the weird, loving act of randomness I was making to humankind …. People actually like supporting the artists whose work they like. It makes them feel happy. You don’t have to force them. And if you force them, they don’t feel as good.” (Palmer, page xiii)

Doctorow not only shows how the current system of stifling customers from access on their own terms to the art they love is stifling art creation itself, he also shows how a revamping of copyright law might be one of the fixes. He also freely and open admits that not every artist will find a niche and that there is no real “fix it” for all of the disruption. But a closed system of art, he argues, is bound to fail on many levels and leave media industries crumbling.

Instead, he argues for the idea of “blanket licenses” (such as are used in bars and music establishments for the use of playing copyrighted music by cover bands and the jukebox and karaoke machines) that would compensate artists and publishers for media on the Internet while broadening reach to different audiences. He notes that while the publishing industry has traditionally taken advantage of the complex analytics to pad their own pockets, this age of information is also the age of data analysis, and that there should be a way to determine fair use of media, set up a payment system with ISP providers and provide compensation for the creators of art.

Will this work? I have no idea. It sounds good on paper, if I understand it right. Reality might be different. Remember hwo has the money and power right now. It’s not you and I, alas. But Doctorow has a phrase of words that has stuck with me since finishing the book.

“Think like a Dandelion.” (Doctorow, page 142)

What he means that since there is no turning back the clock on copying — and in fact, copying movies and music and more will only get easier as time moves on — an artist needs to find a new way to think about distribution. Instead, he suggests, think of art as the dandelion, which produces thousands of seeds that it lets loose into the world, in hopes one or two or a few will find a nurturing bit of soil on which to plant itself.

“There are lots of people out there who might want to buy your work or compensate you in some other way — the more places your work finds itself, the greater the likelihood that it will find one of those would-be customers in some unsuspected crack in the metaphorical pavement.” (Doctorow, page 143).

Of course, the publishing companies would see the dandelion in another way: as a weed that needs to be eradicated or controlled, right? Such is the world right now. Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free (title reference is to the idea that information doesn’t want to be free — it’s data — but people want to be free to make their own choices about technology and art) is another way forward.

Peace (taking root),

Typing with My Voice: A Poem Constructed on the Fly

(This is for Slice of Life, a writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers)

Using Speech to Text tool

I wanted to try out the new feature in Google Docs that allows you to speak so that the computer will type for you. (See the Google site for more information). I have to say, speech recognition has sure come a long way, and now I am wondering how I can bring this into my classroom for struggling writers once we get into our Google Apps for Education accounts this year.

The Voice tool wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough for me to write this poem on the fly and then do some quick editing on it. I wrote a poem, inspired by flowers on the table. I realized later that you can add in some simple commands for line breaks and punctuation. I’ll remember that for next time.

Peace (you hear me?),


Of Bugs and Boats and Other Things

I guess I was busy over this weekend, making stuff.

Night Iights

First, as part of a new cMOOC (an offshoot of sorts from the Making Learning Connected MOOC) about science and writing (and bugs), I crafted a poem layered on top of a filtered image with clip art. The task was to take a night picture of a light, with bugs.

The sound of writing

Second, Terry Elliott took one of my poems and a few others from other folks left as comments at his blog site and he made podcasts of them, noting how voice (and another’s voice, to boot) adds a new element to writing. I tried to capture this in a comic, but my first version failed until Stephanie Loomis came along and handed me a word cloud of the poem via Twitter, and suggested layering that into the comic. I did, and the comic suddenly worked.

Four on a Boat

Third, Terry was gathering together responses to a post he wrote the other day (my poem that he recorded was one of them), and he called his reflection post “Four Friends on a Boat” or something (it references Wind in the Willows), and that got me thinking of the boat and the friends.

Peace (in frames),