Book Review: NERDS

 

book cover of National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society (N.E.R.D.S., book 1) by Michael Buckley

NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue and Defense Society. Now, that’s a good acronym. Writer Michael Buckley’s series about a super spy group of odd characters with strange, nerdy powers is an action-filled romp that feels like a kid version of James Bond. There are now three books in the series, and I finally got around to reading the first one (after being pressed by a student, who assured me I would like it. Do they see me as a Nerd?)

The story is about Jackson Jones, a former athlete and cool kid, who becomes part of a group of spies, made up of all the kids he used to pick on and bully when he was cool. Buckley keeps the pedal to the metal in this story, although we do get the predictable story of Jackson earning the trust of his fellow Nerdians (it helps when you save the world and rescue them from the clutches of the evil nemesis). What I liked most is the mix of adventure and humor that Buckley injects into the story. It is quite witty, and you can see how Buckley set up the entire series in this first novel.

And it’s nice that Buckley has carved out a cool zone for the nerds of the world. But we all know, nerds now rule, right? All technological innovation is coming from the heads and skills of the same kids we used to ostracize as geeks and outcasts. Here, they emerge as saviors of the entire world and the last best hope for mankind.

I love this quote from one of the characters, as they explain this shift to Jackson:

“The dorks, the dweebs, goobers and spazzes that you picked on are the ones who will grow up to discover the vaccines, write the great novels, push the boundaries of science and technology, and invent things that makes people healthier and happier. Nerds change the world.” (p. 190)

That says it all. NERDS is fun reading.

Peace (in the shift),
Kevin

 

Comic Book Review: Not Invented Here/Runtime Error

Not Invented Here strip for 12/1/2011

If you have a geek on your list (and who doesn’t these days?), you might want to consider the collection from the “Not Invented Here” comic by Bill Barnes and Paul Southworth. The setting for this very funny comic is inside a software development firm where terms like “kernals” and “code” and”interface” form the backbone vocabulary of a funny group of programmers, marketing folks and others. I’m no programmer yet even I had plenty of chuckling moments, particularly as technology goes astray.

Check out the back page description:

Behind every great piece of software is a talented, conscientious team of hardworking individuals dedicated to producing the highest quality product using internationally accepted best practices and industry standards.

And then, there are these guys.

One particularly storyline around a social networking site called “MySpice” that seeks to add a fragance element to connecting with friends had me laughing so loud that my sons needed to see over my shoulder what I was reading. That the storyline ends with a tragic accident involving a user and a perfume spray in the eye, not to mention the mangling of some programming code, made it delightful to read as a parody of the direction of sites like MySpace and Facebook (although I think the Spice Girls should had a cameo).

The characters in Not Invented Here are nicely fleshed out — from Desmond, the overweight programmer whose need to improve every line of code he comes across is a fixation of comedy of errors (so to speak); to Owen, a sofware design guy who has no clue what he is doing most of the time and whose stumbling around in the world is a fine comedic relief; Marketroid, the robotic head of marketing whose fingers are all over every product, and not in a good way; and more.

I’m tempted to send my copy of Runtime Error to my programming friend but that would mean getting rid of the book. Nope. I might have to buy a second copy to send him for the holidays.

Runtime Error: Not Invented Here Book 1

Peace (on the funny pages),
Kevin

 

Introducing Literary Characters: A student podcast project

We’ve been working hard on character traits with our independent reading, pushing into different ways to view the characters in the novels they have chosen to read. One activity is have students introduce a character to an audience. In this case, the audience is the world, as we used our iPods and Cinch to podcast their piece of writing about a character. I gave them a basic framework and an example of my own, and then they worked on the writing and then recorded their introductions.

Here is a sample mix of some of the student voices:

 

Our podcasts can be found over at our classroom home at Cinch.

Visit the Norris student at Cinch

Peace (in the sharing),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Cabin Fever

Diary Wimpy Kid Cabin Fever

On the day I handed my 11 year old son the release of the newest Diary of a Wimpy Kid series — Cabin Fever — he was done within an hour and had passed it to his older brother, who was done with the book within 45 minutes.  My youngest son took it up and told me he was “just reading the comics.” Well, I asked the older boys? Is it any good?

“There’s no story. Or at least, not until the end,” one boy complained.

“It had some funny bits. But I already forget what it was about,” the other added.

And so it goes. The excitement over the recent installment of a popular series inevitably leads to the eventual let-down of reality. Or it may be that my older boys have “aged out” of the mis-adventures of Greg Heffley.

I have long enjoyed Jeff Kinney’s work with the Wimpy Kid series (although I thought the movie was just dumb) and certainly, his success flooded the market with so many knock-offs that book shelves in book stores (the ones that still exist) are weighed down with text/illustration humor novels aimed at elementary and middle school readers. I have even used part of the “blank” book he put out a few years ago with various writing and drawing prompts for his readers. There’s some fun activities in there.

This latest edition to the series is, as my boys note, sort of a bit too much fluff and not enough story to hold the thing together. My students who ordered the book early and then devoured it … had similar reviews. And they were disappointed, particularly given the build-up within Scholastic (order now! wait five weeks!).

Which is not to say there are not funny moments in this book. Kinney’s too good to be a complete let-down. Topics such as playground safety in schools (Result? removing all playground structures), anti-bullying workshops (Greg feels sorry for the bully), gaming (the use of Net Kritterz is pretty funny satire at the state of gaming and commerce), nut-free cafeteria zones (leads to crowded tables for everyone else), nutrition in schools and the inclusion of graphic novels in the library.

But I wonder if Kinney needs another outlet for his humor and whether the Wimpy Kid has run its course. I am certain that Kinney will find his footing, though, and I remain a fan of his as a writer and humorous dude.

Peace (with the Kid),
Kevin

PS — by the way, did you see this great parody of President Obama and the Wimpy KId series in the Boston Globe? Check it out. It had me laughing so hard …. in a painful political way.

 

Podcasting Activity: Introducing … Literary Characters

As we are on the middle of a six week independent reading unit, one topic of discussion is character analysis and character traits. Yesterday, I had my students writing an “introduction” to a character from the book they are reading. On Monday, we will be using our Ipod Touch devices and the Cinch app to record a podcast version of their writing. It’s a nice way to share out what they are reading and keep pushing them to go beyond just writing summaries of what they are reading. (We do everything but summaries for this unit).

 

out_of_the_dust

I am reading and writing along with them, and the other day, I finished Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Man, what a book! I know I am late to the game with this novel, which has rightly received a slew of accolades over the years. I loved its use of poetry, and setting, and first person narrative. And the connection to music as a sort of lifeline to the world, and the inner music inside of all of us … wow. There is just so much that is good with this book, even if it is sad and emotional. I guess that’s what makes it so great — its heart is not fake.

Anyway, here is my podcast of my writing, in which I introduced the narrator — Billy Jo — to my class.

 

Peace (in the book),
Kevin
PS — here are some of the podcasts from last year

 

Book Review: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

 

For years now, I have been using Chris Van Allsburg’s wonderful The Mysteries of Harris Burdick picture book (the portfolio edition is best) for creative writing prompts and projects. It’s an ingenious collection of illustrations and captions from a “lost writer” whose stories are “missing,” leaving us only with the strange pictures and odd bits of writing beneath them that create many questions. My sixth graders love using Harris Burdick for writing because the illustrations spark incredible curiosity … about the missing stories and about the mystery behind the writer, Harris Burdick. They always want to know if Harris Burdick was real, and I dodge that question with all the expertise I can muster.

Now comes along The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, a new collection of short stories inspired by the picture book, but here, famous authors such as Stephen King (and his wife, Tabitha), Kate DiCamillo, Jon Scieszka, M.T. Anderson, Corey Doctorow and a handful of others take a stab at the 14 tales, too. Plus, Lemony Snicket provides his own brand of humorous introduction, casting forth a marvelous conspiracy theory about Harris Burdick and the writers featured in the book. What these novelists spin it out here is just as magical as what my students come up with (although, I still like my students’ stories better but you can put me down as biased on that point.)

What’s interesting to me is how many different directions a single story can go, even if they are all based on a similar illustration. We all have different perceptions and different insights, even if we start or end with the same idea. I’ve noticed this in class, too, but here, these professional writers take the stories on such interesting journeys that even as I was reading them, I was remembering some of the stories that I have written over the years using the same pictures (I write with my students all the time … you should, too). I kept pausing, thinking of the twists and turns on display.

And here’s the thing: Since I had used similar illustrations for similar story writing, it made their writing more visible to me. I was an active thinker the whole way through, noticing a sleight feint of hand here or a quirk in a character that I predicted might come in handy later on in the story or a hint early on that would move us closer to the scene in the picture. It was a pretty fascinating experience.

When my students saw me reading The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, they perked up. They’re curious, too. The day I finished the book in class during our quiet reading time, I had a line of students waiting to read it next. I have only one copy of the book, but the eagerness on their faces to see what other writers have done was priceless.  The girl who got it first was smiling wide and there was reading envy on the others’ faces. I think I might be making a trip to our photocopy machine one of these days and maybe share a story or two with everyone ….

Peace (in the mystery),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out

On the second day of school this year, two of my sixth graders came up to me, incredibly excited. These two bous asked if I would watch their latest video on Youtube. It was a video that captured them and their friends on scooters, on our school grounds, doing all sorts of neat tricks, set to pounding music. They were doubly-excited when I allowed them to share the video with the rest of the class, and now give me regular updates on their video exploits. The proud look on their faces was priceless, particularly that early in the year.

I mention this episode because these boys were on the back of my mind as I was reading through Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media, a collection of ethnographic research studies out of MIT around youth and media and technology that are pulled together in a collective voice around themes such as friendship, family, intimacy, gaming, work, and more. What stands out for me here is how the authors so successfully captured the voices of youth through their various interviews with their subjects. We “hear” the kids talking through the use of social networking, and video gaming, and video production. It’s a fascinating look at what young people are doing, and why they are doing what they are doing in these various ecologies of connections. The sections around gaming and video use was particularly insightful as a teacher, and the sections on the disconnect between parents and their children was eye-opening as well.

It also reminds me that we need to have more of these conversations with our young people in our own spaces, whether that is our classroom or our homes.

It’s clear that the learning going on in traditional classrooms is not reaching many of these media-saturated youths, who see school only as another place to network and not necessarily as a place to learn skills around media production and technology use. After-school clubs and spaces fill that gap, to some degree, but mostly, it is youth turning to other youth for mentorship and collective knowledge around these ideas. They are driven by passions that we don’t always acknowledge or cherish in our schools. What the authors rightfully note, though, is that this horizontal learning of friend-to-friend can also leave a lot of kids out, adding to the difficulties of the digital divide/app gap/whateveryouwanttocallit. Access to technology remains a huge hurdle for many communities of kids.

Although much of the networking chapters revolve around MySpace, I just substituted Facebook in my head and it was fine (although the elements of MySpace that kids liked — such as completely designing your homepage yourself with hacks — doesn’t quite pertain to Facebook, and that lack of personaluty makes me wonder if another site will come along to drain young people away from Facebook now that MySpace is just about dead and gone.) I also imagined that the networking elements described in the studies, now a few years old, has magnified and intensified dramatically for many kids.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who teaches young people, or who has children growing up in this age of media and technology. The collection here is very scholarly in tone, as befits these enthnographic studies, but don’t let that academic tone turn you off. It’s worth diving through all of that to get to the heart of the matter: the fact that the ways in which  kids are learning is changing and most of that learning is being done outside of school. The book certainly made me think of my own boys, and my students, in a different sort of light.

As I was reading Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out, I was using Goodreads as a place to stop and reflect at various points in the book. Here is a copy of that page, which you need to read in reverse order if you want to follow my thinking from the start of the book until the end.
Reviews of Hanging Out

Peace (in the inquiry),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Middle School – The Worst Years of My Life

Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life

What is it about middle school? It seems like every book down the pike these days with “middle school” in its title or theme is focused on how terrible, awful, horrendous the experience is (ie, Wimpy Kid series, How to Survive Middle School, etc.). OK, so I admit that my sixth graders have to navigate some difficult social and cultural changes that come as they hit adolescence, and our expectations of them as students is pretty high. But I just put down James Patterson’s Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life and I am thankful I am not a character in Patterson’s book nor that I teach in the kind of school that Patterson portrays.

Seriously.

His main character, Rafe Khatchadorian, is a sixth grade mess who tries to stake out some ground by systematically breaking every rule in the book to earn points for his own “game” of points. His family is a mess, too. I wish I could say I liked Rafe a bit more than I did (because I wanted to), but I felt so removed from his character by his attitudes and his voice that I had trouble connecting sympathetically with him. Which is not to say this book is not without its humor. Told in illustrations and text, the novel nicely navigates the inner mind of a character in turmoil (with the stereotypical bully, and both caring and evil teachers, etc.)

What saved the book, for me, is the emotional twists put in towards the end, when we realize a few things about Rafe (which I won’t give away here) and which gives us a more complex character to root for. That element came a little too late for me, but I was glad Patterson did so anyway. I put down the book  hoping Rafe’s future had suddenly gotten a bit brighter, thanks in part to one of his teachers.

Peace (in the muddle),
Kevin

 

 

Comic Book Review: Best Apocalypse Ever (The Underfold)

http://profile.ak.fbcdn.net/hprofile-ak-snc4/276891_50338399858_8283111_n.jpg

Most comic collections are just that: collections of some of the better comics from a series as chosen by the writer. This collection of The Underfold webcomic entitled Best Apocalypse Ever is sort of like that, with one outstanding difference. Brian Russell brings us right to the start of his comic — right back to the days when he began writing subversive yet funny comics in the underside of folded paper at his job serving coffee at a church. I know, sounds strange, right?

But if you want to see the genesis of an idea for a comic slowly taking shape, and then transforming over time, this collection — with various written narrative insights by Russell — is the real deal. Which is not say The Underfold isn’t one of the oddest, wackiest comics I have come across in some time (compliment). Between the talking eyeball, the tentacles-instead-of-hands, the breaking of the wall with the reader, and the paper-bag-over-the-face character, The Underfold is an odd assortment of imagination.

From the standpoint of a writer, though, I loved Russell’s ongoing commentary in Best Apocalypse Ever about where his comic started and where it ended up going, and the decisions (sometimes last-minute decisions) that shaped the various narrative and artistic arcs of The Underfold. I felt like we were in a room, drinking beers, and he was giving me an inside look at his creative process, sometimes slipping me a joke on the underside of a napkin.

Peace (in the process),
Kevin

 

What We’re Reading Right Now …

Books 2011
We’ve moved into a choice, independent book unit and yesterday, we went around the room in each of my four classes and shared out what we are now reading (I was just finishing up Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson). Since I want many titles in our classroom as possibilities for other readers, I made a list of all of the various books (there was a few common texts: 39 Clues, The Hunger Games, various books from the Percy Jackson series, etc.) and created this Wordle.

I recognized a lot of the titles, but not all. That always makes me curious and sparks some good discussions with students.

Peace (in the tomes),
Kevin