Book Review: The Internet is a Playground

coverJesus — David Thorn must have a lot of time on his hands. Actually, he admits it. He had tons of time on his hands as he worked at a design company, so he began visiting chat rooms and created a website where he wrote for the sole purpose of enraging people and engaging them. Thorn then unleashes his own wicked sense of humor that comes at the expense of any fool who emails him or mentions him (wait a sec — that could be me) in his uproarious book The Internet is a Playground.

This collection of his actual correspondences (from his website: http://27bslash6.com/)  with nincompoops and fools willing to engage him in an email battle of wits had me laughing out loud, and then hiding the book when my older sons asked what was up.  The chapters that are “profiles” of assorted idiots weren’t as entertaining to me. Yeah, this is not a book for kids. And it may not be a book for most adults either, particularly if your radar for vulgar and non-PC writing is on high alert. You will be offended. That was fine with me, but it may not be with you.

Thorn skewers so many people, and unfolds such incredibly funny fake narratives and cutting jibes, that you just have to dive into his head and go with him. I found myself uncomfortable with what he was writing on more than one occasion, but what the hell … that’s what books are supposed to do, right?

Still, you buy this book at our own peril. And you write about him at your own peril, too. (gulp — I liked the book, David. I did.)

Peace (on the playground),
Kevin

Book Review: Rules of Play

One of the visitors to our recent Game Design Camp — Bryant Paul Johnson — lent me his copy of Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, and while I won’t say it is an “easy summer read,” I can say that it is a book worth skimming and reading the summary sections if you have any interest in the ideas of play and gaming and design. Rules of Play is more a textbook than anything, but I found it pretty fascinating to jump into the theories of how we play, and how game design can tap into those elements of our personality.

It begins with the sentence: “This book is about games; all kinds of games.” And then it digs pretty deep. I really enjoyed the handful of narratives from folks who have designed games, as they “talked us” through their iterative process that begins with an idea, is developed slowly through trial and error and game playing, and then shifting into publishing. One section around the development of a Lord of the Rings board games was pretty fascinating.

The book delves into such topics as games as systems, the mechanics of how we play, games as cultural rhetoric and more. While the cost of Rules of Play may be somewhat prohibitive (about $30), Google Books has a version of it online as an ebook that provides enough of the text to make it worth a read. I found it useful in my own exploration of game design for learning.

Peace (in the play),
Kevin

Book Review: The Throne of Fire

I’ve written before about my wonder at how in the heck Rich Riordan can write and publish so many books. And I have worried that the pace of publishing might diminish his appeal. Well, not quite yet. I just finished up the second of the Kane Chronicles series — The Throne of Fire — as a read-aloud with my son, and we both enjoyed it quite a bit. This series is not on the same scale as The Lightning Thief series, but perhaps that is because I am used to Riordan as  a writer now.

This book follows brother and sister Sadie and Carter Kane as they try to save the world from Chaos. Steeped in rich and odd Egyptian mythology, the book follows the Kanes as they try to re-awaken the Sun God, Ra, from his self-imposed slumber in order to find balance in the world as the evil spirits of Chaos begin to rise. They somewhat succeed, but at some terrible costs that set the stage for more books in the series.

As we were reading the book, I kept imagining that in Riordan’s mind, there will be a slow convergence of the stories unfolding here in the Kane Chronicles and in his new Lightning Thief spin-off — The Lost Hero, which I liked immensely, and which I see will have a sequel on the stands in October (see!) — in which the protagonists of both storylines slowly come together. I kept imagining characters here as having shadow stories in the other book, and in The Lost Hero, there are characters — including Percy Jackson — who have gone missing. Maybe they are stuck inside another cultural mythology? If it comes true, remember that I wrote it here first.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Level Up

The Secret Origins of Level Up

(click on this image to go to the comic explaining the genesis of the story, shared with Wired Magazine.)

I know it seems odd to be reading a review of a graphic novel when all I have been talking about is gaming for the last week, but Level Up takes the idea of gaming and puts it at the heart of a intriguing story. Created by writer Gene Luen Yang  and illustrator Thien Pham (Yang also did the fantastic American Born Chinese), Level Up tells the story of young man — Dennis Ouyang — whose parents dream of a future that he doesn’t want. At least, at first. What he wants to be doing is gaming. All day. All the time. What his parents want him to be doing is learning to become a doctor. All day. All the time. The conflict is there in those set of dueling expectations and lost moments of connections between parents and son, and this story has some slightly odd twists that could only be pulled off in a graphic novel, including a quartet of strange sprites who appoint themselves his guardian angels.

The conflicts of obsession and family in Level Up calls attention to both the addictive aspects of gaming as well as the notions that outsiders have about gaming that it is “a waste of time.” If we watch someone spend hours playing games, is it a productive activity? One thing that I struggle with as a parent is that when my sons play video games,  I feel as if I want to lean into their heads and hear what is going on, just to validate my saying “yes” to their request to play games. This is a similar struggle that I have as a teacher thinking through the possibilities of my classroom. How do I know there is learning going on? So much of gaming is internalized, and to be honest, we don’t quite understand the processes of the mind when kids are immersed in gaming worlds. Or at least, I don’t. Even though I see the value of gaming, my first instinct to my sons is always “no, go outside and play.”

And yet … gaming brings something to the table. Something creative, and something inventive, and something different, too. That’s the exploration I am doing — trying to figure that out.

LevelUp-300rgb

A similar struggle emerges in Level Up on a larger and more complex scale that also deals with the immigrant experience and Asian family dynamics. In the end, Dennis is able to use his fine-motor skills honed by years of gaming to make his own entry into the medical world, fulfilling both his parents’ dream for him and finding his own satisfaction. If only every gamer found that kind of calling in the world of adults ….

Peace (in the games),
Kevin

Book Reviews: Ship Breaker and The Wind-up Girl

Novelist Paulo Bacigalupi sees chaos in the future, with the seeds of that chaos planted in the decisions we are making — or rather, not making — around environmental issues right now. Two of Bacigalupi’s books that I have recently read — Ship Breaker and The Wind-up Girl — swirl around a future in which the world has been altered forever in a dystopian way by environmental neglect and powerful climate change. Both books have you wondering anew about what kind of world our grandchildren will inhabit, and if not a world as bleak as Bacigalupi lays out, will it be anything close?

Of the two books, I found Ship Breaker to be much more engaging in both character and story. The book is also for young adult readers, so I was reading it in class this spring. The story set in the future revolves around a boy named Nailer trying to survive in a world where oil rigs and ships lay scattered along the Gulf Coast as a result of a failed energy policy of the past (or, rather, our present), and ship breakers are teams who scavenge the hulls for precious metals and other re-useable parts. Honor and betrayal are part of life. Huge storms come in with very little notice. The work environmental is brutal. And a distinct class system has set in. I liked the pacing of the narrative, and also the development of the main character, who is dealing with a violent father while still laying out some hope for a future that will have Nailer sailing on the massive Clipper Ships he sees in the distance.  When opportunity arises, Nailor jumps into the unknown, and sets things in motion that ultimately pay off for him. (See Amazon video of Bacigalupi talking about the story development)

The Wind-Up Girl is for adults (with violence and sex), and is slightly different in its narrative tone. Here, the future is shaped by geopolitical events that have decimated many of the countries of the world, leaving only a few to survive on wits and science and the hoarding of environmental know-how. Bacigalupi weaves in the narratives of a handful of characters as a tightly-knit and controlled society of Thailand that slowly careens apart, and comes completely undone. One of the main prizes being sought is a seed bank, a massive archive of pure genetic seeds for food that won’t be riven with disease. The wind-up girl in the title of this novel is a robotic humanoid whose desire for freedom, after becoming the source for depravity by the powerful elite, becomes an all-consuming thing. Her quest for a better life, however, leads her into violence that unwittingly dismantles the entire society, and shakes the world at its foundation. Morality, technology, politics, revenge and the environment are all at the heart of this story.

Both books certainly make you ponder the future of our planet, and the stories did have me thinking of how much we take for granted that the government knows what it is doing. We place a lot of trust in those who are power to be foresighted in what they are doing. But sometimes, the most innocuous decisions are the ones that have the most far-reaching impact. (Inaction on climate change?) You just don’t always know it at the time. Bacigalupi takes that premise and runs with it, creating stark picture of the possible future to come. His writing is crisp, his characters are interesting and his settings are eerily familiar scenes of what-might-come.

Peace (in a better world than this),
Kevin

“Meet the Book Characters” with iPod Podcasting


Yesterday, I pulled out our suitcase of iPod touches for the first time in my class (although it is not the first time they have used them — they did an interesting science project on cell mitosis with the touches) But I wanted to see if we could do some podcasting with the devices, using Cinch as our app. (It’s free!)

I have to say — it mostly worked like a charm. Even though I had to first “talk” through what they needed to do, since I could not connect the device to my board, they were on the app in minutes and podcasting around the room with ease. And the only glitch, which I realized later, is that some kids turned off the iPod before Cinch had a chance to finish its upload of files online, and it seems like a few of the files may be gone now (I had hoped they would sit in “pending mode” on the device until it powered up again but I guess not.)

I had them use an entry from their independent reading journals, in which they introduced a character from their book to me. Here, though, the audience changed — from me, to the world. They changed the introduction to “Dear Listener” and adapted the writing to fit the podcast of their piece.

We now have an “album” of character sketches at our class Cinch Page, and I have downloaded some of the podcasts into my Box account for easier sharing as a folder. I am pretty impressed by the audio quality, and by the confidence of my students to jump right into the technology.

The activity yesterday was to prepare them for tomorrow, when we will be doing more podcasting of their Poems for Two Voices with a partner which they have been working on in class. It’s going to be a bit tricky because I was hoping to find a way to connect two headphone/microphone sets to one iPod, but that didn’t work. So, we will have them huddle around a single microphone and go from there. They are surprisingly resilient when it comes to Mr. H’s Workaround Magic.

Peace (on the device),
Kevin

Some final thoughts on Because Digital Writing Matters

We’re wrapping up our online discussion of the book Because Digital Writing Matters, collecting some final thoughts and mulling over where digital composition is going in the future. The discussions at our closed iAnthology site have been deep, probing and wonderfully illuminating as we teachers in the National Writing Project think about where we are and where we may be headed.

I used Cinch to record my own ideas as a podcast.

Peace (in the thinking),
Kevin

Discussion “Because Digital Writing Matters”

We’ve been having a great discussion about the book Because Digital Writing Matters on a closed social networking space for National Writing Project teachers. Our session leader is Mary, of the Prairie Lands Writing Project, and her experience with the book has been quite helpful in guiding our inquiry.
I’ve been trying to use podcasts as my own reflections, via Cinchcast. This is what I have been thinking about in our online forum when it comes to the book (which is great), our concepts of digital composition and the elements of professional development. We’re only on Chapter Three right now.
Defining Digital Writing:

Using Technology for Writing Revision/Editing

The ecology of the classroom

Peace (in the talk),
Kevin

Book Review: Practical Poetry (across the curriculum)

Just in time for the push of Common Core curriculum alignment by our state, and many other states, Sara Holbrook’s Practical Poetry: A Nonstandard Approach to Meeting Content-Area Standards is, well, practical and useful and full of interesting ways to merge poetry with math, science and social studies. I was lucky enough to receive this book from Lisa, thanks to a poetry contest she held at her blog (Effective Teaching Solutions), and the other night, as my son was in basketball practice, I dove in.

Holbrook is a poet who has gone into many classrooms to work with students, and her insights are valuable around the ways that poetry can engage and connect writers with various elements of curriculum, without making it boring. This is creative learning.

She notes that poetry is one of those topics that seem to be left out of discussions around curriculum change, particularly as we move into more expository writing (ie, the Common Core) and leave more narrative writing behind. But she lays out a strong case for keeping poetry alive and well in our schools.

She argues that writing poetry:

  • jogs the memory
  • demands keen observation
  • requires precise language
  • stimulates good communication skills
  • encourages good organizational skills
  • encourages reading fluency
  • helps us learn about ourselves and our world
  • is a powerful language all of its own

While she begins with a look at the Language Arts classroom, she then shifts gears into how to bring poetry ideas into math, science and social studies in meaningful ways. While she acknowledges that some might scratch their head on these connections, she patiently lays out her rationale for each subject area, gives specific lesson plans and provides many student and her own exemplars.

When it comes to math, for example, she notes that both mathematicians and poets have similar intent: “We look for patterns in the world. We attempt to find a pattern that we can apply in order to define the unknown. We first look at nature as a whole and then attempt to break it down into parts. We use symbols to represent the unknown while we are in the process of defining terms, and we use comparative techniques to communicate with one another (58).”

I love that.

In science, she does something similar, but with physics. “Poetry’s mission is to understand the universe — physics’ mission is the same. Both condition the mind to search for an answer, to stimulate imagination, to look beyond the status quo. The arts and sciences are intertwined more than either side seems to want to admit (92).”

Again, I love that.

And in the field of social studies, she notes that the lens at which we make sense of the social and political and geographical contours of our lives and the lives of others also connects with poetry.

“And nothing gets a poet’s pen twitching quite as quickly as a good controversy. At the heart of every change or conflict in the written history of the world has been some bothersome poet spouting off on one side or another. The personal quality of a poem makes all those dates and events not only more interesting but more memorable. Poems are letters and snapshots from the past – ‘original source documents’ ; they’re like reading someone else’s mail versus reading a telephone directory. And memorable is definitely an advantage when test time comes around. (128)”

Yes, she hovers around our testing society and what that often means for creative writing, and again, she strongly makes the case that poetry is another way to help students achieve on standardized testing by moving beyond the drill-kill methods. There are ways to meet curriculum standards AND still spark creativity in our students. We need to remember that.

My sixth  class will soon be moving into poetry and I am going to have Holbrook’s book of ideas right on my desk. I also will be bringing it to meetings I am sure we are going to be having next year as we re-configure our district’s curriculum map to align with Common Core. I don’t want to lose poetry, and Holbrook’s Practical Poetry may help me make my case.

Peace (in the poetry),

Kevin

March Book Madness Ends; Now, Read

And so, I end the March Book Madness feature, where I have been trying to highlight both books that my students have been reading and the projects they created in an independent book unit. (and I tossed in a few of my own reviews here and there). Most of my students used Glogster; some went a more traditional poster route. All worked hard to show their understanding of the books and to create a visual recommendation of the book they had read.

Here are all of the Glogster Projects again. I hope you enjoyed it all. Now, go read.
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Peace (in the pages),
Kevin