Book Review: Endling (The Last)

I admit: I’m a sucker for a fast-paced adventure story with world-building and magic at its center. Katherine Applegate’s latest book — Endling (The Last) — is a fine example for middle school and upper elementary readers, with a foot solid in the Hero’s Adventure frame and enough strangeness to captivate a reader.

A previous Applegate book, The One and Only Ivan, is still one of my all-time favorites, and while the writing here in Endling is not quite as strong as that novel (where the voice of Ivan the gorilla still sits with me, years after having read the story), the story of what may be the last creature of its kind in a strange world has a powerful draw.

This is the first book in a series (called Endling, I believe) and the characters who have banded together — the two human children and three magical creatures, plus a horse — undergo their trials and tribulations, all set up with the grief that the main character and narrator — a dog-like diarne named Byx — must deal with as she seeks to find more of her kind (after her family is slaughtered and she is the last dairne, as far she knows).

I appreciate how Applegate cleverly uses the titles of the sections and chapters to weave the narrative nearly in reverse — the first section is called “The End Begins” and the last section is called “The Beginning Ends.” The plot moves along at a nice pace as the band moves from place to place, and a map at the start of the book gives the reader a better sense of the world Applegate is building.

I’ll be looking out for the second book so that I can continue the adventure.

Peace (beyond this world),

Changing IOS Changed My RSS Reading Habits


(Note: this post was sitting in my draft bin for some time. I have only slightly updated it. My reading habits remain changed.)

Like many, when an operating software update comes along, I wait a bit for the bugs to get squished and then download and install it, figuring newer is better (not always the case). For the most part, the IOS11 update on my iPad had been OK.

Except … Apple has decided to sever many of the ties between apps and social sharing spaces like Twitter and Google (and, I guess Facebook, too, but I don’t give a darn about FB). I likely would not have really noticed or been bothered about it …

Except .. I still use RSS readers to automatically snag posts from a boatload of sites and sources, and then regularly read through what others are thinking, writing, reflecting upon in education and the arts and more. I use Mr. Reader app, which I recently found out was discontinued and no longer available (too bad .. it rocks!) and will no longer be updated (sad).

Now, with the IOS update, I no longer can share anything directly from my RSS reader into my Twitter and Google streams. It used to be a simple click of the button. Good piece? Bang. Shared. At first, I thought the loss of access was a setting that I had to reset with the new IOS. I searched and searched for a way to reset it. It’s not a setting. It’s the IOS itself.

Look, it’s not the end of the world, but I noticed something interesting … I am reading RSS different now.

RSS-Audio-Flag flickr photo by troutcolor shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I used to consume the news updates from blogs with both an eye towards my own interests as artist and teacher, AND with an eye towards sharing out any interesting tidbits and projects with my friends. Now, I am mostly just reading for myself. I’ve lost the sharing element, and I’d like to say that makes me a stronger reader for an audience of One (that’d be me) but that doesn’t seem true.

It’s as if someone cut the power wire on my amplifier, and now I am playing an electric guitar with only the tinny sound of metal strings. I miss the filter through which I actively read my RSS feeds — knowing that I was curating things of interest for others was part of my desire to dive into RSS on a regular basis. It feels presumptuous to think that people enjoyed and depended on my sharing of what I was reading, and makes me a little unsettled to imagine that such sharing might be valuable to others.

Chances are, no one will even notice the shift.

I still read my RSS, but I am bit slower to get to it, a little more likely to zoom through headlines that don’t quite interest me. Sometimes, I can use the “share” button on the raw post in my RSS but not always. I can’t tell if this withdrawal feeling is a good thing (less easy one-button sharing means more quality sharing?) or a bad thing (why was I so dependent on the concept of an audience to read what I was sharing?)

I’ll adjust. I’ll adapt. I’ll still read. It just feels different now.

(And this reflection on RSS and change reminds me that Apple itself as a company seems intent on making its closed garden of apps, IOS and more, and its influence, more and more closed off to the world, shutting doors left and right to outside influences. It gives them more control over what we are doing on its machines. That’s not necessarily a good thing, from the user standpoint, is it?)

Peace (it’s the RSS, baby),

Seven Things Noticed After Seven School Days In

new school bike racks

We are now seven days into the school year (two weeks) and I thought I would take a breather to think about Seven Things I am already noticing with my new sixth grade classes.

Seven Things I Have Learned

  1. My students love stories. There was a real excitement in the air as I started a read-aloud of Rikki Tikki Tavi by Rudyard Kiping. I stretched it over three days, stopping at cliffhangers. They feigned anger at me, and then asked eagerly each next day if we would be reading more. Next week, I will see how well they shift into writing about stories. We also started a short story prompt that is inspired by an adventure map of an imaginary world … and the quiet hum of young writers diving into a story was magical.
  2. My students are insightful. I stopped often in the Rikki Tikki story, asking probing questions about literary elements and plot design. This sets the stage for the year ahead. There were many rich discussions about story-writing that emerged from those informal talks.
  3. My students love to doodle. I introduced the concept of sketchnoting — or visual notetaking — and as I read the story, their task was to do “active listening” while doodling. We used the doodles to summarize the story each day. They chuckled when they saw my own doodles, which are worth chuckling at. But they know they don’t need to be “artists” to sketchnote. Just look at me.
  4. Many of my students are struggling learners. I know this from documentation, of course, but I am also starting to see it in the first days of school. This means I need to be sure to use the various teaching practices I have gathered and learned — multiple entries to new vocabulary, visualize information, use collaborative learning techniques, think through different tiers of words and concepts before teaching, etc. — and be sure that no students are getting lost.
  5. My students are social. There are groups of boys who are definitely still settling into the school year. I try to balance tough rules with patient compassion, and provide time for social interactions. Eleven-year-olds are social creatures.
  6. My students are kind. I am seeing this every day in different ways. From helping neighbors with initial technology log-in snafus to holding the door for others to lending highlighters to noticing others’ kindness, these kids are keepers with hearts.
  7. My students will push and challenge my teaching. I can’t be complacent. I’ll need new tools and new approaches and new ways of thinking, of reaching my students. And I will be learning along with them.

Welcome to the school year.

Peace (open doors wide),

Bringing Digital Annotation into a Workshop Experience

Marginal Annotation Workshop Session

At an upcoming October 13 conference for our Western Massachusetts Writing Project, I am facilitating a workshop session around digital annotation, with technology like Hypothesis and NowComment and with sites like Marginal Syllabus and Educator Innovator in the mix. My aim with my session — Conversations from the Digital Margins — is going to be to work sequentially on a single article — moving from single copy/pencil notes, to workshop wall copy/sticky notes, to online annotation.

So, from solo to group to crowd.

I’m still thinking through the way I envision the workshop unfolding and am mulling over which article from last year’s Writing Our Civic Futures project that I want to pull into my workshop. What I find interesting is that the participants of my session will be in “conversation” in the margins with participants of the annotation event from last year. The discussion will continue ….

If you are a Western Massachusetts educator, we invite you to register for the Saturday October 13 conference, which features many workshops from WMWP teacher-consultants and a keynote address by a WMWP alumni, Kelly Norris, whose book — Too White: A Journey into the Racial Divide — has just come out.

Last year, we had Sydney Chaffee, a teacher of the year, as our speaker.

Peace (beyond the margins),

Graphic Novel Review: The Cardboard Kingdom

There’s a poignant moment in Chad Sell’s The Cardboard Kingdom, a graphic novel collaboration between Sell and writing friends, in which the father of a character in the book (about the imaginary adventures of a neighborhood of kids) sits down on the bed and admits to an error of judgement.

“Sometimes, it is hard to accept what you don’t understand,” the father tells his son, as an apology.

While this graphic novel, perfect for elementary and middle school students, is a bit heavy-handed at time with its stories of diversity and acceptance, The Cardboard Kingdom has a huge heart, capturing the way kids can invent worlds and accept others into those spaces of play (although sometimes, the path can be a little rough.)

The kingdom of The Cardboard Kingdom is the neighborhood, and Sell uses the art of the graphic novel to transform the kids (the book is broken up into chapters showing different character perspectives) into heroes and villains, with help of discarded cardboard boxes and other items that are refashioned by imagination.

Sell worked with ten other writers to tell the stories, and this range of voices shows. We meet a boy who is drawn to dress in women’s clothes as part of his character, and see his mother grapple with asking questions of sexual orientation (done gracefully). We see a girl struggling against her grandmother’s view of what a girl is expected to be (demure and polite). We see a boy whose father and mother are divorcing and fighting, as he struggles to understand why. We see a bully who is himself being bullied.

There’s a lot going on here in The Cardboard Kingdom but it is all done with grace and love.

Peace (beyond the box),

Account Activation Day: Success is One Login Away

Solve the puzzle to see place flickr photo by Ellen5e shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

We’ve sort of settled into the first days of school, shifting into more content instruction in my ELA class.

The other day, I spent the full periods with my four classes of sixth graders, talking them through the steps to activate their school Google accounts, setting up new passwords (quick lesson on password protection), joining their Google Classroom space, and working on a vocabulary-themed slideshow connecting images to words.

Although I have the entire system down pretty well by now, these “login days” are always chaotic and hectic, particularly if it is just me and 20 kids. Each task has a few steps. Some finish early (I recruit them as helpers, which they take on readily). Some have trouble typing (particularly the passwords, where you can’t see the characters). Others click somewhere other than we need to be and stare at the screen, confused.

But .. but … by the end of each class period, we had 100 percent success with activating all accounts, joining Classroom and working on the slideshow. Phew. Add in the excitement they were all having about using technology (there is not much done in the grades below me other than research projects) and we were all starting off on the right footing for the new school year.

I kept my patience. I stayed calm as I moved through the rooms dealing with issues. They did, too. Small victories. We’ll take them.

(Side Note: this kind of day also gives me an informal view into the ability to process sequential steps and information by my students. I can quickly see who will have difficulty with some complex information and who is facile with technology and following directions. It’s a window into how the year might unfold.)

Peace (in tech),

Slice of Life: These Days of Discombobulation

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

It’s easy to forget what creatures of habit we are … until something disrupts our routines. For the past few years, my teaching schedule has been fairly stable. Most of my classes began on the hour, so I knew as the minute hand approached the 12 that we had better start getting ready to switch classes. The visual cue was my friend.

This year, all that has changed. We’ve added a new intervention block into our day, and our specials (art, music, etc.) got shifted later into the morning, and then our lunch got moved ten minutes later (our sixth graders don’t eat until 1:15 p.m.). This has meant that the flow of day is always in flux, and I am constantly relying on my paper schedule to figure out where we are in the block and how much time we have left.

discombobulation flickr photo by TheoJunior shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I’m discombobulated. (And a cool word to say out loud. Go ahead.)

Which I suppose is par for the course at the start of the year for students, too, and so my sixth graders and I are in this together. I’ve told them, be patient — we’ll all be where we need to be when we get there.

So far, so good.

Peace (starting),


Book Review: The Card Catalog (Books, Cards and Literary Treasures)

Let me admit up front: other than the introductions, I didn’t read much of this book. I perused the images of the cards from books in the Library of Congress catalog system. It sort of seems appropriate that I would do that, given the nature of the book.

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures is published by the Library of Congress, and while I am sure the text for each chapter is a dive into history, I found myself enjoying the flipping of pages so I could “read” the notecards on all sorts of books. Seeing the handwritten notes and the typed information was a sort of Wayback Machine. Most libraries are now searched digitally, but this book reminds us of the long period where the art of curation was found in little notecards of information.

Here you will find replicas of the original notecards in the LoC catalog for books like W. E. DeBois (Souls of Black Folks), James Joyce (Ulysses), Orville Wright (Stability of Airplanes), and Edward Lear (The Complete Nonsense Book). In many cases, we see the original cover art of the books situated next to the card from the catalog. It’s fascinating.

Another interesting area of the book is the design pages, showing how the physical aspects of a catalog works, and was engineered, complete with schematic drawings. This is real library geekiness, but even a breezy read of The Card Catalog will spur appreciation for the work of librarians, even in this digital age.

Get thee to your public library and breathe in the air of books!

Peace (page after page),

What Clocks Do to Us: Only Time Will Tell

Martinskirchen: strange clock at the church tower. flickr photo by fchmksfkcb shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

My friend, Charlene, wrote an interesting piece yesterday about some “unintended consequences” of our digital lives. Her story has to do with helping young students in the first days of school, and her observation that some students struggle with alphabetization perhaps because they never spent time exploring the dictionary, and its sequential patterns.

She writes:

This disconcerting realization caused me to consider the ramifications of a generation(s) of students who haven’t learned and practiced alphabetization skills. The literature is rife with studies where memory system capacities, especially working memory, are measured and analyzed using span tasks which appraise the subjects’ ability to recall and sequence information.

Read Charlene’s piece here.

Her post connects to another activity a handful of us did last week, in which we were annotating an article from The Guardian about how digital reading was impacting the comprehension skills of young readers, and how brain scientists are studying the impact of screens on how we interpret text.

Check out the annotation activity for Skim Reading is the New Normal by Maryanne Wolf

And I was reminded about something else, too, along Charlene’s observational lines, in my first days with my new sixth graders when some students had to sign out to use the bathroom. Many stare at the huge analog clock on the wall, sometimes for extended moments (I guess the bathroom break is never all that critical), trying to figure out the time. Some even turn and ask me for help. Others give up, and either scan the projector screen for the digital time or ask someone else.

This is not a new observation. I’ve noticed it for years now. And wondered about it. We’ve talked about it as teachers, too. You should see students when I give them some “clock” math work to do, using the hands and face of clocks to calculate basic math skills. It’s like a foreign object.

Stereo clock flickr photo by cbcastro shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

It occurs to me that something might be lost with this shift of how we tell time. It’s true that a digital clock is quick and accurate. But being able to see the movement of the seconds hand, and then the movement of the minutes and hour hands … these things give you a “sense” of time’s movement in a given day. You “see” the rhythm of your experiences.

I’m not suggesting all clocks in our lives need be digital. But like Charlene, who wonders about what gets lost when we don’t use the physical dictionary, I sometimes wonder what gets lost when we don’t teach basic analog clock skills. What are the unintended consequences?

Ever step forward seems to leave something behind — for good and for ill.

Peace (in the new school year),