Picture Book Review: The Nantucket Sea Monster (A Fake News Story)

I am at in the middle in our Digital Life unit with my sixth graders, and the one component that I am adding to and beefing up in the last few years is a “critical digital media” component, with a focus on the veracity of news. I’ve been searching for a good book that might introduce the topic in an interesting way, and came across the perfect picture book and tale: The Nantucket Sea Monster (A Fake News Story) by Darcy Pattison and Peter Willis.

This true story of fake news takes place not too too far from where I teach (Nantucket is a few hours east and then a ferry ride) but I know plenty of kids know where Nantucket is and some have even visited or vacationed there (my wife and I had our honeymoon there).

The book centers on 1937, when an elaborate spoof of the public — the newspapers, some department stores and a few locals were all in kahoots on it — unfolded in the newspapers, first locally and then nationally. It had to do with the sighting of a monster in the fishing waters of Nantucket, and the curiosity and fears that came from it. The newspapers printed “authentic” accounts of sea monster sightings and spun the story from different angles.

Finally, the collaborators let the public in on their joke — an elaborate stunt by a local balloon maker getting ready for Thanksgiving Macy’s Parade. The monster was inflatable.

The picture book story is helpful for framing a discussion about Fake News because it points to gullibility of readers, responsibilities of the media outlets, and the way businesses use these elements to market products or information. I’ll also reference the use of radio in the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 (a year after the Nantucket incident).

Cut to modern day and the political use of news items and news outlets as rhetorical arms. Our work in the classroom is to make visible as much of the fake news phenomenon as possible and give them strategies for considering source and material for what we call “news” these days.

All in all, I recommend The Nantucket Sea Monster (A Fake News Story)While its reading audience might be younger than my sixth graders, I am always bringing different picture books to the classroom, and this one is a gem.

Peace (real, not fake),

Slice of Life: Young Users in an Ad-Driven, Privacy-Invading Digital World

(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.)

I was nearing the end of a class-long lesson on issues of privacy with digital apps and websites — which included instructions on how to ensure greater privacy controls for Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and more — when a sixth grader raised her hand.

“Now I’m scared.”

She said it with a laugh but I knew she was worried, if not scared.

It’s a reaction I try to avoid, framing much of our discussion in our Digital Life unit around the positive elements of what social media can do — around connections, around sharing, around empathy and understanding, around learning. But I know all of our talk of data mining by companies like Google, web browser cookies, and targeted advertising with technology will rattle a few of my students, particularly if they have never considered the issues before.

“You don’t need to be scared,” I assured her, and the others. “You need to be wary. You need to understand that you have some control over what you share. Who you share with. Why you share. Be wary but be empowered.”

They laughed again when I noted there is a sure-fire way to avoid all of the privacy issues of the Digital Age: completely unplug and don’t use technology. The looks of disbelief on their faces told me the reality (which I already knew).

Privacy Slideshow Apps and Internet(View the presentation)

I suspect some of these insights on privacy and agency will sink in now, and some will sink in over time. I hope some rushed home to check their privacy settings (that’s what I encouraged). I hope others installed ad blocking extensions (another action I suggested). I hope some had conversations with parents and family about the issues. I hope some of them, some day, will be the ones pushing back against the large companies.

We teach with hope that change can come.

Peace (discovering it),

What Words Surfaced When Talking Augmented and Virtual Realities

VR AR Words Surfaced

I spent the weekend in New York City with a gathering of National Writing Project colleagues, talking and sharing about experiences around augmented and virtual reality, in connection to learning opportunities. The word cloud comes from my messy notepad, where I was trying to pay attention to key words that were surfacing across a day of project sharing.

Notice how the technical aspects — of how things work — is less visible than the “why we might do this” aspect, as well as the literacy components. This is not to say we didn’t talk technical at times, but mostly it was a rich discussion about how such virtual and augmented experiences might extend our definitions of literacy and composition, and how keeping an eye on the human interaction nature of technical innovation systems is a key component.

Peace (in real time),



Listening to George and Stephen: Machines, Humans and Learning

Just hanging out with George Siemens and Stephen Downes with a cup of coffee. I started yesterday morning and am continuing to view it this morning. It’s fun to listen in to these two. This video discussion is part of E-Learning 3.0. These two have a long history of nurturing open, connected platforms for learning.

Some Scattered Collected Words and Observations:

  • “What’s the future like?” — Stephen
  • George: We are at a funny point in the field, with technology explosion, innovation and moocs. There was a wave of ideas that emerged and then …  “The last five years, we’ve been in the wilderness ..” — George, and the potential “structural different” possibilities of learning is still in flux. He refers to AI and other ideas.
  • “The human end is critical” (George) as the wave of AI and data comes into play. “What should our school systems do to prepare people for” that future? Me: this is always the question, always on the minds of educators.
  • Stephen’s pointed question: What is the thing that is uniquely human?
  • George: Connecting the idea of machine learning to human learning. Is there such a connection? “What’s left (for human) is the definition of purpose …” — Stephen.
  • “Maybe we’re (humans) destined to be that voice in the computer’s head … that’s an important role …” — George
  • “Why are we teaching in a way that is counter-intuitive and not personally satisfying to students?” — George
  • Trustworthiness of the system is important — George, but he notes that the problem (fake news, platform manipulation, politicizing technology, etc.) has long been there, but the US presidential election brought it to the public surface
  • Fragmenting a narrative via digital to cloud the meaning of an event is a new corporate/political approach to control news cycles — George, talking about Occupy Wall Street, President Trump, Turkey, etc.

Listening to these two grapple with the impact of AI and Machine Learning in a human world, and in schools that are still driven by older models of learning, is interesting.

Like them, many of us are struggling to retain what it means to retain a humanizing approach in a data digital world, which feels more and more as if it is overwhelming us. This same topic of “being human in a digital world” also came up during a day-long meeting yesterday I was part of about technology and education, and I loved how theat important topic spilled over from me, watching this video, and us, in the room.

As a teacher, thinking about the role that education will play for my students in navigating such a world is a constant overarching theme. My students won’t be in that world for another ten years or so. Can you even imagine that world? How do you educate someone now for what you can’t yet envision?

Peace (learning),

PS — it occurs to me now that I should have popped this into Vialogues for collaborative viewing and commenting. Next time, perhaps …

Graphic Novel Review: The Brain (The Ultimate Thinking Machine)

This is the third or fourth book in the Science Comics collection from FirstSecond Publishing, and all of them have been fun, informative and densely packed with scientific information. For the casual youth reader, it might be too much information. For those readers interested in any of the topics (such as dogs, dinosaurs, coral reefs, etc.), the Science Comics collection is a gold mine.

This latest — The Brain: The Ultimate Thinking Machine by Tory Woollcott and Alex Graudins — is a prime example. (Note: I received this as an advance copy). Built around a story framework (Fahama, our young female protagonist, has been kidnapped by a mad scientist and she buys time asking questions about how the brain works), the book is jammed with fascinating intricacies of how our brains function and work, with quite complex vocabulary and concepts assisted by interesting comic work.

I really liked that the writer/illustrator chose a young Muslim girl (and her younger sister, Nour) without making a big deal about it, incorporating her as a character as if it were common to have someone like Fahama a main character. It’s not. Or not enough. It works like a charm here, since Fahama’s curiosity and humor and Nour’s bossiness and feistiness bring them to life.

Still, for some readers, seeing characters who look and act like them in a graphic novel will be a big deal, and one that we readers (particularly we teachers, who can bring these books to our classroom) should celebrate. And the book holds up on its own, with story and science.

This graphic novel is aimed at middle and high school students, although elementary students might find it interesting if a bit of complex reading. It’s the vocabulary and science concepts that push it towards older readers, in my mind.

Peace (reading it),


I Am Reading This

dogs welcome flickr photo by djg0333 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

The first line of the invite to Stephen Downe’s newest adventure — E-Learning 3.0 — says:

If you’re reading this, then this course is for you.”

I guess I’m in!

Short Intro: I teach emerging adolescents. I am a writer. Those two passions often intersect. As such, I am always looking for places where educators and writers can connect about learning through digital spaces and immersive experiences. I learned about Stephen’s course through friends’ sharing out on Mastodon, so in some ways, following the trails from those posts and toots (what you post on Mastodon) to the course overview by Stephen (with its first lines of welcome) is a rather natural pathway. This blog post is my first foray into the exploration, and gives me something to feed the RSS Dragon.

Course Site: https://el30.mooc.ca 

Peace (dogs allowed),

Locating Yourself: The Internet Mapping Project

Internet Mapping Project 2018

This is the second year I have tapped into Kevin Kelly’s The Internet Mapping Project to have my sixth grade students metaphorically connect their lives to their technology, and the Internet. I always worry the concept will be too obtuse for them and each time, they remind me of how capable they are in using art and reflection to understand the world (or at least, try to).

This presentation has assorted student maps, after a few videos that I share with them to spark initial conversations about what the Internet is, and what its origins are. Most don’t know.

The maps that my students create lead to small group discussions about what we noticed among our collective maps. Topics include the prevalence of YouTube in their lives, the ways we are still at the center of the Internet universe, the influx of mobile devices as the way to interface with technology, the social aspects of the Web in their lives. (Interestingly, Kelly shares a link to a taxonomy project about the Internet Map Project.)

What would be on your map? Download, make and share.

Peace (in charts),



Comics … On Kids, Technology, Algorithms, and Openness

Kids today .. it’s all perspectiveI’ve continued to make comics as a sort of reflective response to some of the discussions going on in the Equity Unbound course, where I pop in an open participant from time to time, mostly via Twitter. The comic above was my attempt to think of the confidence that my students have with technology and then, how overwhelmed some of them become with the choices and the possibilities. Who’s in control of our tech use? For adults, it’s difficult. For kids, it’s even trickier.

Hiding Behind Words

This comic was from some frustration of the limitations of online endeavors — where sometimes we use big words as a way to grapple with difficult topics, and the words water down our actions. This is not pointed to anything in particular, just a critique of academic spaces (including my own).

Occupy the Algorithm

Someone in the #unboundeq hashtag used the phrase of “occupy the algorithm” and something about that resonated with me. It’s about taking ownership of your own experience, of knowing where your data is being used (or trying to grapple with it), of pushing back on the Googles, the Facebooks, the Twitters of the world. It’s not yet clear if that is a losing battle.

Where you at?This comic also stems from watching a discussion unfold, where the idea of “country of origin” seems to juxtaposition against the “place where we are.” I was also attuned to a reference to Facebook, asking the question of “country where you were born” and using that information to geo-locate you in the platform. I find this unsettling, for a lot of reasons (privacy, location data, advertising, etc.)

Knock knockFinally, for now anyway, I was paying attention to the tension that happens when any open networked project works to keep an open door but sometimes ends up closing the door. I think any of us who run open learning networks know the difficulty of this balancing act, of how to protect a space for conversation while also inviting more voices into the mix.

Peace (in the open),



Google’s Reach into Classrooms (via NYT)

Piece from New York Times

It’s a strange bit of circumstance but the shift in discussions for Equity Unbound this week — in the form of a slow Twitter chat, unfolding over days — is about technology’s reach and impact into our lives. The odd part is that I had just been interviewed last week by a science/technology/education reporter at The New York Times about Google’s reach into the classroom through its “Be Internet Awesome” site.

The reporter had seen something I had written way back when the program was first announced and asked if I could talk. I did, explaining that while the site has some solid potential for teaching about technology use, the branding of it by Google clearly is a business strategy to hook kids into the Google ecosystem, early and often. I suggested that teachers use more than just the Awesome campaign when teaching about digital life. (I use elements of the CommonSense Media Digital Citizenship resources, for example.)

The issue is complicated further in that we are a Google Apps for Education school district, and we use our Google accounts regularly for writing and for media making and more. It’s a valuable addition to our writing and technology and research work. I find the Google accounts more than handy … yet …. yet … I know that GAFE and cheap Chromebooks are all ways to get more schools to use Google’s infrastructure (even with privacy protections on GAFE accounts, if we believe it). More schools, more kids, more users.

And the more we use Google, the more ads they sell. (To be clear, there are no ads directed at students within GAFE itself.)

As it happens, I am right now in the midst of teaching my sixth graders in a Digital Life unit, where we discuss and explore issues of privacy, identity, choices, and the ways corporations like Google are using our browsing histories and data to target us with advertising. You won’t find mention of that state of the modern day technology world in Be Internet Awesome.

Here is the link to the piece in the New York Times.

I am quoted about halfway down, and then again at the very end. It’s interesting to see myself in The New York Times — when I was a reporter (before I became a teacher), I often wondered if my career would ever take me to the Times (it didn’t and I am glad for where I am as a teacher, and I don’t think I ever had the skills or talent for the NYT, anyway.) Now I find myself in there, in the newspaper itself.

I’m going to get a paper copy today and share it with my students.

Peace (in the ink),


Slice of Life: Just Saying Hello

(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.


I was shuffling papers, trying to find something. I had a meeting in an hour.

“Mr. H.”

I held up a give-me-a-sec gesture. The paper seemed important in that moment. The voice, a distraction.

“Mr. H?”

I stopped, looked up. She had come in from recess, all smiles. She bounced on the heels of her feet.




“I just wanted to say hello. Hi!”

She added a wave. I chuckled.

“Thank you. Hi!”

“Thank you! You’re welcome!”

She scooted off, skipping a bit, and I started to go back to my task of paper-finding, smiling to myself about the curious nature of kids, and the impact of kindness.

Peace (in the moment),

PS — a version of this was also shared as a small story in another space.