Graphic Novel Review: Secret Coders (Secrets and Sequences)

It’s the third book in the Secret Coders graphic novel series by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes, and I admit: I am pretty well hooked. I was slow to start with this series, even with Gene Luen Yang at the helm, for some reason — maybe the interjection of coding into the story felt a bit forced at the time.

Not anymore. As the story of our young female protagonist/coder — Hopper — and her friends uncover more and more strangeness in their school, and their school’s history, the narrative behind Secret Coders: Secrets and Sequences starts to kick into gear.

Sure, there are still interesting moments when the Luen Yang and Holmes stop the reader, ask them to mentally solve some coding puzzle, but I found myself enjoying those moments more than in the first book (and the second book started to really draw me in). I think it is me, not them, that is finally getting used to being pulled into the story from time to time as a programmer.

Here, in this third book, we meet a character who seems to be the main antagonist – Dr. One-Zero, a green man who was a brilliant student long ago but underwent a personal transformation of sorts (echoes of Dr. Strange here) — and we learn a bit more about Hopper’s missing father (part of the overarching narrative), as well as the strange connection to the school (Stately Academy) itself as a former place of innovation.

The coding gets more complex here, too, as the writers’ underlying mission to show young readers the ways that coding and programming through storytelling can be used to accomplish goals is extended out even further than the first two books. The kids at the heart of this graphic story use what they have learned about coding to escape from predicaments.

There is also a neat coding puzzle left for readers at the end of the book, as a sort of challenge for readers to uncover. You need Logo to solve it but the website connection to the book gives all of the information you might need to dive into programming. And the Fun with Coding page has some downloadable activities for use.

All in all, this series is a nice fit for upper elementary and some middle school students, particularly those with an interest in computers and programming. But the inclusion of a strong and fiesty female protagonist, ample amounts of humor, and a series of challenges for the reader to consider broaden the appeal for a wider audience with the Secret Coders series.

Peace (all ones and zeroes for action and adventure),


Engaging Students (and Educators) as Citizens of the Digital Age

Jacqueline Vickery Keynote

There’s a term kicking around the new Networked Narratives course that I keep referring to and which I am curious to get to in the coming weeks: Civic Imagination. Mia Zamora hints at this a bit with her posts over at DML about the Networked Narratives course that is a hybrid between a university class and an open course (with Alan Levine), with the theme of digital storytelling.

Mia’s terminology was on my mind yesterday as I listened to a keynote presentation by Jacqueline Vickery, a professor and researcher out of Texas, during a local technology conference that I attended. Vickery’s focus in her talk was about engaging students as citizens in the Digital Age, and how adults often thwart those moves by teenagers to engage with the world through fear and intimidation. Vickery’s talk reminded me of the deep work by danah boyd, too, and how we need to pay attention to the “stories” of our young people, and help them find ways to positively engage with the world through social media and other technology/communication avenues.

Vickery (who has a book coming out called Worried about the Wrong Things: Youth, Risk and Opportunity in the Digital Age) noted that her research comes from observing young people interacting with technology. Many adults — parents and teachers and public policy makers — often react without taking the time to understand the underlying issues, or what is really taking place between youths when they connect.

“This narrative (of young people not in control and falling prey to the dangers lurking everywhere) … ignores what they are doing with technology,” Vickery said. “We often hear young people’s technology use pathologized .. (ie, web junkies, addiction, etc.) … as if they have no sense of agency of what they are doing, as if they are just passive users of technology.”

TIE Conference

Vickery laid out some tenets of helping young people see themselves as Citizens of the Digital Age (see image above), where social interaction across the technology is a vital component for participatory media and connections, for the betterment of the world.

She asked, rather rhetorically, if schools were doing enough to teach students about use of technology, from the standpoint of:

  • Civic Engagement
  • Emotional Growth
  • Social Justice
  • Equity

Probably not, in my estimation.

And this brings me back around to Mia’s reference to the term of Civic Imagination, and it has me wondering how we help students envision a better world ahead of them, and then how to turn that imaginative yearning into reality through awareness, information, agency and engagement with the world. This is the whole underlying premise of Connected Learning, by the way.

Vickery didn’t dispute that there are places where young people need help and oversight from adults to navigate the tricky waters of technology, but overall, she remains positive about the choices and the actions of young people.

“There are many ways to connect students with digital media, to see themselves as agents of change and active citizens,” she said, near the end of her talk. “If we view young people as agents of change, then we as adults can help them.”

Peace (here and into there),


TIE Proposal: Making Interactive Fiction

I am pitching this idea on Interactive Fiction Writing at the Technology in Education Conference in Western Massachusetts as part of the “unconference” part of the, eh, conference today. So, if my ideas gets accepted, you are probably here. If not accepted, you are still here. Welcome. Now, how about making a playable story?

There are many posts here about Interactive Fiction and digital writing, if you are interested.

Peace (in every direction),


#NetNarr: Can Data Help Us Tell a Story?

Data Storytelling

Terry Elliott shared this Ted Talk out, via Vialogues for annotation, and I really appreciated the ways that Ben Wellington uses storytelling as the frame for using data in meaningful ways. I am following Terry into an online course about data storytelling for journalism (he is in there, to learn more about teaching his university students and I am in there … because I am curious about data as the means for crafting stories), in hopes it might dovetail into the concurrent open course around Networked Narratives.

I have no idea how those two ideas will merge together, and yet, it seems like there might a fit for finding ways to use information around us in the real world to craft stories about or in the digital world, with all of the nooks and crannies of collaboration and creativity that #NetNarr might provide (it’s hard to say, since the course has only just sort of started).

One of the central tasks in the first post for #NetNarr is to define storytelling, since #NetNarr is hovering over the concept of Digital Storytelling, in the vein of DS106. My initial, non-Google-it, response is that storytelling is the act of making sense of the known and unknown world through layered compositional practices (talking, writing, using media, etc.) That sounds awfully academic to my ears as I read it quietly. Or, how about this: A good story entertains while also informs the reader/listener/player about the larger workings of the world.

Still working it out. Meanwhile, check out Ben Wellington.

Here is Terry’s Vialogue version, and he invites you to join in an annotated conversation about this juxtaposition of data collection and storytelling as a means to make sense of the world. Daniel Bassill, Wendy Taleo, others and I have already jumped in with Terry. You come, too.

Peace (make sense of it),

Slice of Life: Rally at the Rally

(This is a post for Slice of Life, a regular writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write about the small moments. You are invited. Come write with us.)

There’s something powerful being in the midst of thousands of people, rallying for a cause. This weekend, my wife, older son (on his way back to college) and I joined in with about 6,000 other people on the public space of Boston’s Fanueil Hall, beneath the statue of Samuel Adams, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren fired up the public fight to try to save health care from the Republicans now in power in Washington DC.

Rally in Boston

It was my son’s first political rally as an adult, I think, although his campus is surely a hotbed of political activity these days. He has always been more Libertarian/contrarian than Democrat, so I am not sure what he got out of it. But he was yelling and clapping, too. For me, listening to Warren, and other guests at the podium, had an energizing effect, and there is a feeling that this anger and distrust of the GOP is not an isolated activity.

“Repeal and Run is for Cowards.” — Elizabeth Warren, on the GOP’s move to repeal with no known plan to replace health care coverage for millions of people.

Rally in Boston

Whether it becomes a movement of resistance will be seen, I guess, but I was heartened by Warren’s rhetoric and I know, from watching her from afar as my senator, that she is and will be a thorn in the side of Trump. Just being a thorn is OK, for now, but I also hope that something constructive can emerge that brings us together, and not more deeply apart, as a country.

Rally in Boston

Peace (mixed with resistance),

Flocabulary Gets It Right: Civil Rights Hip-Hop Resource

(This is a post from the past that seems worth re-sharing today. — Kevin)
MLK Day Dream

Flocabulary has a great musical resource available for remember Martin Luther King Jr. and honoring the Civil Rights movement. Along with the hip hop song that brings in words and imagery into the flow, the group provides a set of lyrics you can print out. Whenever I use Flocabulary and their mad rhymes, my students pay attention. The site even has a classroom view, allowing the video to come into center focus. You can’t embed the video in other sites because Flocabulary sells subscriptions (and periodically, makes resources like this one free).

Check it out.

And remember and honor the man whose voice continues to ring out and resonate with much of the country.

Peace (on this day),

Student Interactive Showcase: Playing Hero’s Journey Video Games

Game Design 2016

My sixth grade students are just now finishing up their Hero’s Journey video game projects in Gamestar Mechanic — they worked hard on design and story narrative and peer review and publishing — and many of the games have the elements that show solid learning.

A few rise up as exemplar video games, in my opinion, so I want to showcase a few. I used ThingLink to create a jumping off point (the links to lead to embedded games at our classroom weblog site) for you to play, if you care to try your hand at student-developed video game projects.

Peace (play it and win it),

Book Review: The Innovator’s Mindset

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my reading of The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros became a “wicked slow read.” I don’t normally do “slow reads,” particularly with books about education. I zip. I devour. I readreadread. I write.

But since George was co-hosting the Innovator’s Mindset MOOC last fall (think of the IMOOC like a large book study, with the author co-leading discussions), I figured I would take my time with his book, which is fashioned for an audience of mostly school administrators (which I am not) on the theme of expanding notions of how to “innovate” schools for today’s students. “Taking my time” became nearly three months of reading one book.

The IMMOOC ended more than a few weeks ago (actually, the end took me by surprise .. I’m not sure why .. did I expect the MOOC to keep going? I blinked, and it was over) and it was some time before I now finished the book, on my Kindle app, and even more time to post this review (it was in my draft bin for a stretch).

My take?

I’m still juggling the jargon in the book and discussions. Words like “innovation” and “mindset” make my eyes go blurry. That said, George and IMOOOC co-facilitator Katie Martin tried to bring many people into the conversation about what it means to innovate our school system. That was helpful, even if some still slipped into edu-talk.

What is innovati0n? George defines it as “a way of thinking that creates something new and better” (which is still a bit too broad for my brain but I don’t have anything better to offer in replacement) and he wisely reminds readers that technology, while perhaps useful, is not a defining factor in innovative thinking.

The Innovator’s Mindset book itself provides a solid number of stories of schools, administrators and teachers pushing against the constraints of our school system constraints, and George writes in a very positive, upbeat manner — giving readers the push they need to take chances on ideas and, in an important stance, to support teachers in the classrooms to try ideas to meet the needs of their students.

I appreciated how George taps into Sylvia Duckworth’s visual notes as a complement to his text — she really does an outstanding job visualizing ideas — and George’s move to make lists and bullet points will no doubt be helpful for harried school administrators. George weaves his own stories as an educator-turned-administrator into narratives of how change can happen, and how sometimes change doesn’t quite happen. That doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying.

If nothing else, the book reminds us of the drawbacks of being isolated — as a teacher or as an administrator — and not being supported by those with the means to make things happen. I refer to superintendents, curriculum coordinators and principals. Again and again, George tells his readers to find ways to make things happen, even on small scale. Celebrate each step. Reflect. Keep pushing forward.

Innovation doesn’t emerge suddenly — it’s a gradual shift forward, spurred and powered by a shared vision of how things might be. The Innovator’s Mindset book, and the accompanying IMMOOC that took place last fall, is another compass on the journey. It’s a read worth your time, particularly if you are a school administrator. Speaking as a teacher, I hope you dive in.

Peace (pages of it),

Book Review: Infomocracy

This book, despite a somewhat convoluted start, is nicely in tune with the current state of affairs: the entire crazy election process. Infomocracy by Malka Older is set in the future, and is in the William Gibson-ish science fiction realm of immersive technologies and how such innovation impacts our social fabric.

In Older’s fictional future, the world has shifted away from governments established by geographical borders, and instead, elections for political leaders are undertaken on the global scale, with “centenals” of people voting in small clusters for various government options. An organization called Information, politically neutral but extremely powerful, keeps all data flowing to people on a scale one can imagine if you believe in Moore’s Law.

The story comes down to one of political intrigue — which electoral group is trying to tip the scales, through violence and other means, in their favor to win what is known as the Supermajority, the designation of winning the most centenals, and therefore, playing a more prominent role in shaping the global landscape. We follow a handful of characters through the story as events unfold.

I nearly gave up on Infomocracy at the start because I had trouble keeping track of what was going on. Characters came and left, locations shifted, organizations (like Information and political ones like Heritage, Liberty, Policy1st, etc.) were mentioned. But a third into the novel, Older finds a groove, and the story starts to come together.

Good science fiction gives us another perspective from which to view the present, and Infomocracy does that. You notice how the narrowing of political views, away from the center, is creating pockets of like-minded voters with a shared agenda. When the middle ground decreases, voters’ views become more extreme. And given the shape of the geopolitical world, the removal of borders as defining political structures might be a possibility.

As an NPR reviewer noted,:

Older makes vital points about the disconnect between participatory government and representative government, not to mention the increasing corporate influence on public policy. During an election year as nail-biting as 2016, it couldn’t be more penetrating or relevant.

Peace (it’s political),

#NetNarr: Neil Stephenson’s Illustrated Primer of Interactive Wonder

I admit, I can’t quite remember where I came across a recent reference to A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer: a Propædeutic Enchiridion, the imaginary book at the center of Neil Stephenson’s novel, The Diamond Age. But I found myself diving into Wikipedia to refresh my memory because it seems like the book might connect somehow to the Networked Narratives digital storytelling course about to start up with Mia Zamora and Alan Levine (see his open invite here).


Hugh’s Reviews —


The Illustrated Primer is one of Stephenson’s vision of the future of books and texts that adapt to the reader, changing to meet the needs of the life of the reader in a society of stratus, status and privilege. It has been years since I read The Diamond Age, so I don’t rightly remember all of the plot or the role of the primer itself.

Still (I did the bold of text here):

The Primer is intended to steer its reader intellectually toward a more interesting life, as defined by “Equity Lord” Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, and growing up to be an effective member of society. The most important quality to achieving an “interesting life” is deemed to be a subversive attitude towards the status quo. The Primer is designed to react to its owners’ environment and teach them what they need to know to survive and develop.Wikipedia

It occurs to me that one of the themes that Mia has talked about when designing the NetNarr course has been the idea of our “civic imagination,” which I intend to dive into more thoroughly in the coming weeks. As I understand it, the concept of civic imagination is meant to provide us with a way to transform our stories into action.

In The Diamond Age, this theme also seems to run through the story, but in a darker way.

Although The Diamond Age explores the role of technology and personal relationships in child development, its deeper and darker themes also probe the relative values of cultures (which Stephenson explores in his other novels as well) and the shortcomings in communication between them. — from Steampunk Wiki

I suspect the course itself — open to anyone, although there is a university component that will be playing/learning along — will explore the ways in which literature and interactive fiction is both the source of agency for us, as writers and readers, and a source of concern of the loss of agency, via technology advancements. Someone is bound to go down the dark path of exploration, I hope, and not leave the course to all of the techno-evangelists (as I often am) viewing the world through rosy glasses.

Peace (it’s written in my primer),