Saturday, January 19, 2019

March Madness and More Basketball in the Classroom

We're smack in the middle of the college and NBA basketball seasons, and a lot of us wish our teams were doing better. With March Madness and the NBA playoffs around the corner, a lot of our kids are going to be excited about basketball over the next month or two. And if there's one thing I love, it's taking what kids are into and turning it against them, educationwise. But in a fun, delightful way. Here are three ways to use basketball in your classroom this spring:


I don't watch a whole lot of sports. Shocking, I know. Part of it may be that growing up in Salt Lake City, we didn't have Major League Baseball, we didn't have an NFL team...but we did have the Utah Jazz. Like every team, they've had new uniforms every few years, so that Nike can make a buck and so we can complain about how the New Uniforms Aren't As Good As The Old Ones. Because we're human, and we have an internet.

Last winter though, something entirely different happened -- Nike decided to put out some City Jerseys. Every NBA team got the chance to reimagine their uniforms in a tribute to the city that they're in. For some, it was about the geography of their community: the Brooklyn Nets are still black with white lettering, but there was a subtle pattern in the black mimicking the lines of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Washington Wizards had the Washington Monument built into the script of their team name, with a marble pattern on the sides of the jersey. Other teams paid tribute to the team history itself: the new Lakers jersey had a black snakeskin pattern, giving props to Kobe's "Black Mamba" nickname. The Celtics jersey had a pattern reminiscent of their parquet court. The Utah Jazz (I'll get more to the awkwardness of that team name in a bit) wanted to do something that represents not Salt Lake City (where the team plays), but the entire state of Utah. So we ended up with sandstone-inspired jerseys, complete with a rocky cliff built into one side. At first glance I hated them, but they're growing on me.

The teams put together videos explaining their design choices, and reflecting on the history of their community, team, and culture. Being a longtime Utah resident, the one for my own team was a tearjerker.

The jerseys have inspired a lot of controversy, and every possible sports blogger has their take on the good, the bad, and the ugly of each of them. And no one agrees on much, except that the Philadelphia 76ers probably win with their parchment-colored, old-timey cursive jerseys that remind us of the Declaration of Independence. I mean, for reals.

I wrote the paragraphs above last winter, with the 2017-2018 jerseys -- this season (2018-2019) several teams have come out with even more newerer ones, and you can see those here. Some of my favorites -- Oklahoma City Thunder paying tribute to their Native American history, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors drawing on their Chinese heritage, the Bulls have the Chicago city flag, and the Minnesota Timberwolves to Prince. Yeah. Prince.

What if we had students design their own jerseys to represent their communities? Would they want to stick with something subtle, or go more outrageous? Would they pay tribute to an individual player? To their state? To their neighborhood? And why would they make those choices? I love watching students go through the design process, and seeing what they put of themselves into their products. A few examples I showed the students:

Genghis Khan/Mongol Empire

Design elements include "fur lined" armhole-not-sleeves-I-don't-know-what-those-are-even-called, a stylized Genghis Khan, horses and yurts, a globe representing world domination, and some of Khan's 600+ wives-and-consorts.

This uniform is based on "Hamlet," because you can do these with Not Social Studies content too. So you've got the giant "H" for Hamlet, Yorick's skull, and knives and swords and poison for the various ways people die in the play. The red and white represent blood and the Danish flag, and the teardrop shapes at the bottom of the shorts are both drops of blood and meant to mimic the puffy pant-things of the Elizabethan era.

And then their own work, based on the New Deal of the 1930s -- we talked about what the New Deal program was, learned something about eight of the most important ones, and then they chose one of the eight to focus on. If you're using a strategy like this, it typically works best when there are several different things that are all related to choose from. As with most "fun" strategies (HEY BUY MY BOOK FOR LOTS MORE STRATEGIES), it's also great to use with content that might not be as interesting to students as a way to hook them. I mean I think the Great Depression and New Deal are incredibly engaging on their own, but uhhhh that's why I became a history teacher.  The teachers down the hall from me are trying this with "forms of government" this week. But here are some of my kids' New Deal jerseys:

As with other design strategies, it's important to have students be able to explain why they made the choices they did. There's often more thinking happening than is evident to me as the dumb adult, so whether it's through writing, or verbally, or in a presentation pitching the design to others, make sure that's in the mix somewhere.

Here's a link to a Word version of the template (easy to edit yay) or a PDF if you're satisfied with this one. Aaaand to the very short and simple PowerPoint that I used to introduce the activity.

UPDATE 2/11/19 -- At the request of several teachers in the Twitterverse, here are additional templates for football, soccer, baseball, and hockey. 

 Jersey Templates


I'm a fan of using the bracket system to put competing ideas against each other. It's exciting to see who gets eliminated, who stays in the race. My weird friends even have a Muppet Madness tournament every March. In the classroom,kids get to advocate for their own side to win, and as in March Madness, soon your class will devolve into a betting pool that will have children auctioning their mother's pearls for a piece of the action. Just what you always wanted.

Instead of writing something new up and saying look how handsome awesome I am, here are some of the ones I've found online that have some clear classroom implementation:

From the New York Times: Using Tournament Brackets to Debate Academic Questions  

From We Are Teachers: Book Bracket 

From Nuskool (really? come on.) : March Mathness: Using Probability to Creat the Perfect Bracket (taking away points for spelling it "Nuskool," but they make up for it with "Mathness.) 

From my friend/colleague/exemplar of historic costuming Mr. Barry: 20th Century President March Madness  (Spoilers, Teddy Roosevelt won. Badassery pays off.) 

From Sadlier: Vocabulary March Madness  

Cool ideas, and each is a relatively easy set-up for a long term project that kids will get excited about.


As a social studies teacher, one of the things that fascinates me about the NBA in particular are the names of the teams with specific geographic connotations. The Denver Nuggets, named after the gold and silver rushes; the Chicago Bulls, since it was the meat capital of the world; Boston Celtics for the Irish, New York Knicks for the "knickerbocker" pants worn by the Dutch in the area. What's even better, though, are the teams that started in one city with a geographic nickname that made sense, and then moved to a new city, but kept the same name. Which now makes...less sense. The Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis, where grizzlies haven't been seen...well, maybe ever. The Minneapolis Lakers moved from the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes to Los Angeles, Land of...they may have Land O' Lakes Margarine. I don't know. My favorite example of course is the aforementioned New Orleans Jazz, who moved to one of the non-jazziest places in the country, Salt Lake City, Utah. There's a great article on how the NBA teams got their names over at Mental Floss.

Major League Baseball and the NFL both have their own team names with history and some with quirks -- the Los Angeles Dodgers started out the Brooklyn (streetcar) Dodgers, for example.

Having the kids do research about where teams got their names and why is great, and would be a relatively easy reach for most students. Taking it a step further, how could you rename a local team to more accurately reflect the history of the community, or a different part of history? Salt Lake City's minor league baseball team is the Bees, because Utah is the Beehive State and blah blah, but other iterations of that team have been the Trappers and the Gulls, both based on other parts of Utah's history and state symbols. Having students come up with  new name for a sports franchise, and being able to support the reasons for that choice, would be an engaging way to get them doing research and writing during the basketballiest time of year.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Graphic Novel Review: Illegal

Graphic Novel: ILLEGAL. Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin, Giovanni Rigano. 144 pages. 2018. Sourcebook Jabberwocky, publisher. 

My good friend and geography teachin' superstar Chris Heffernan recommended this book to me last month when he got to meet author Eoin Colfer at a book talk near his home in Illinoisville or something. I'm not the geography teacher, don't ask. There's been a wave of YA books and graphic novels using the global refugee crises as a setting to both tell emotional stories and inspire action, and it seemed like Illegal was going to be one of those books.

I don't know that I was prepared for just how emotional the book was going to be.

Illegal tells the story of Ebo, a boy from Ghana who's trying to get to a better life in Europe. He has an older brother, Kwame, and an older sister, Sisi. Sisi made the journey some time ago, leaving her brothers behind; Kwame left more recently, and Ebo is desperate to be reunited with him. The path Ebo needs to take will take him across two vast wastes--the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea, each fraught with the possibility of death at any time.

Throughout the book, we see Ebo getting to take two steps forward, and then a step back. Sometimes several steps back. His perseverance through these incredibly harsh conditions is admirable, and he shows a strength that I honestly hope I'll never need to have. Along the way, Ebo is given assistance by strangers who become fast friends, but usually only after Ebo does something for them out of kindness or necessity. Using his wits, hard work, and a beautiful singing voice, he's able to keep going onto the next step of his journey.

The artwork by Giovanni Rigano is beautiful, although some of the images are hard to look at. Seeing the cruelty of humanity on one page, the vastness of the obstacles Ebo faces on others, you wonder how anyone can make these journeys at all. Was their life back home so bad that they'd take this risk? Is this their only hope?

The answer is often yes. With the conditions of war, poverty, disease, and political instability creating crises in multiple locations around the world on large scales, it seems like the refugees trying to find a safe harbor are more desperate and more numerous than ever. We (the United States) only take in a fraction of what we could, leaving "the problem" to be solved by countries closer to the crisis. Illegal makes these ideas clear, and being written and illustrated by an Irishman and Italian, the United States is never mentioned, but my feelings of responsibility were palpable.

The other recurring thought was about my students. Many of them have these same stories, either in their own life or in the lives of their parents or grandparents. Be sensitive to this when it comes to assignments that center on refugees and immigration; some of these kids are comfortable sharing these stories, for others there's a very real trauma that's still fresh, renewed when the topics come up. Don't treat them lightly.

This is a book everyone needs to read.


This is a great book to read within an immigration unit for a social studies class, or as part of a current events class of any kind where you're looking at modern day crises and attempts to fix them. I'd say this is most appopriate for grades five and up as far as the language goes, but the frightening themes may move it up a grade or two. Ideally, I'd teach it with two companion picture books: Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant's Tale and The Journey.

Pancho Rabbit softens the story of a boy traveling in his missing father's footsteps: Papa Rabbit went north a year ago, and the family hadn't heard from him since. Pancho enlists the help of a coyote (the nickname for these "helpers" getting people across the border, often through ruthless, mercenary means is coyote), and goes through many trials on his way. Definitely a US/Mexico border story, although as with Ebo's there are going to be similar themes throughout.


The Journey is a simpler, quieter story than either Illegal or Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote. It's a family fleeing the Middle East after their father is taken from them, and they're heading to Europe. They get help along the way, but the obstacles are still great. Francesca Sanna's artwork is beautiful and makes the story almost lyrical, again, softening some of the true horrors this family faces along the way. Either of these would be fine for younger grades, and the three books together would engage different students for different reasons.

Bringing in real world stories, statistics and maps from the migration of displaced persons (refugees) around the world, both historic and modern, would help bring the point home -- that this is an ongoing crisis that impacts groups of people for various reasons. Race, religion, war, famine, poverty, government can be unbearably depressing. It's important to point out in each of these stories the protagonists are helped along the way by people trying to do good. These books can inspire us to step up and do the same.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Potential and Power of a New Classroom

This year I'm back in the classroom, for the first time in six years. You can read all about it here. I'm excited about it. It's where I belong. And then I saw my classroom. It's in a building that was formerly a junior high, and has been absorbed into a high school campus. The building I'm in was built in 1950, and is full of interesting spaces and/or smells. I came expecting a traditional classroom with 40-ish desks in neat little rows.What I got was this:

But uh...the panoramic fisheye version of it. When this building was a junior high, this was the band room. It has those risers built into the floor, and the steps are too narrow for desks of any kind. There are 44 chairs (turns out my largest class is 45), and the guy before me loved this setup because he taught public speaking and a film class. I've inherited the film class, and it's awesome...but the majority of my teaching schedule is a traditional US History class for juniors. Which 1) I've never taught before, and 2) the history classes I have taught have been with, you know, desks. 

That said, I Twitter-know and Instagram-know a lot of you who have adapted your classrooms with flexible seating and other options for your students that have worked well for you and your kids. So...maybe what's scary to me has some potential. My administration has been understanding of the unique space I've got, and has offered to buy whatever we need to make the space work for us. My district has some limits on things like bean bag chairs or other fabric-covered seating -- in between fire codes and potential hygiene issues, administration wants to avoid them. So while it would be ideal to look like the inside of Jeannie's Bottle, that's not going to happen. 

One of the first features I realized I wanted to find a way to use is the four small practice rooms. There's one on one side of the room, and three on the other. Each is about ten feet by ten feet. In this room's previous life, they were used as practice rooms for instruments, and one of them was used as the office for the teacher. I'm a believer in having students do collaborative work, so they've been repurposed as small meeting rooms where kids can go in groups of 4-6 and work on projects. There are windows, I can still see into them and know if they're on task or not, but they have a bit of privacy and a bit of independence. These guys are sixteen years old--they can handle it. I've also rebranded the rooms: one is a Star Wars-themed room "The Porg's Nest," one is Rick and Morty "Rick's Lab," one is Aquaman-themed "Atlantis," and the fourth is Black Panther's "Wakanda." There's some nerdy stuff in each room that helps establish the vibe I want, and so far the kids seem to dig it and pick up on that vibe too. Photos from this point on are what I've done with the room; you'll also see photos of the room and some of the activities we do on my new classroom Instagram feed

Another benefit of this new room is that, as a former band room, it has an enormous storage space. And...I need a lot. Play-Doh, LEGO, graphic takes up a bunch of space. And now that I'm moved in, I really appreciate that storage space. We're building a new high school in four years, and I'm pre-missing that storage space, and resenting the new shiny classroom I'll end up with.

I'm always a fan of sharing your passion with students, whatever that happens to be. So yeah, I have things about Muppets and LEGO and superheroes, and I have my Aquaman Shrine (because he is The Best)...a few teachers have said "aren't you afraid they're going to steal ____?" and truthfully, no. I'm not. If they love the thing enough to take it from me, I hope they get some joy out of it. And guilt. Sweet, sweet guilt.

I'm only in my second week with students, and while there are a few hiccups (some students would rather have a traditional desk when they're doing things like using Chromebooks or doing some kind of paper-based assignment), most of them seem happier with the differentness of the space. I have a set of clipboards they can use on their laps when they're taking paper notes, and when they're doing either independent or group work, I release them to use whatever space in the classroom is most comfortable for them. I've used LEGO with them already, which isn't really a lap-top activity (neither is Play-Doh), but we'll figure out how to do that together. I have a small LEGO wall that may expand over time; we'll see how much weight this first iteration can take before the 3M strips separate from the wall and I can do LEGO wall 2.0. 

What it comes down to is that the kids are more flexible, more resilient, than I am. Things that I thought would be a difficulty for them, or for me, just haven't been. In the first few days, I told them "the principal says if this room doesn't work for us, we can move to a regular classroom," and they were unanimous in wanting to stay with this one. I do think the setup, and especially the proximity of the students to each other, makes them a bit more chatty...but they also know that in any given class period, they'll be released from those seats to do other things. 

As I put more of myself into my room, it became more my space, a happier place for me to be in every day, and hopefully a memorable and happy and effective space for my students. Room 630 will be different from the other rooms in the school. It turns out that's the way I want it, and more importantly, the way the kids want it.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

LEGO Set of the Month: BrickHeadz Go Brick Me!

Last year LEGO introduced a new kind of building toy aimed at kid and adult collectors: BrickHeadz. BrickHeadz can be seen as a brick-built cousin to the enormously popular Funko Pop! figures (see my post about using Funko Pop! in the classroom here), in that they have big ol' noggins and creepy dead eyes, and they're just damn cute. Can I say damn in here?

Another part of the appeal of LEGO BrickHeadz is that they're releasing them in pretty much every license that LEGO has:

...that's just in the first two years. Knowing LEGO and how much of my wallet they want, they're just getting started.

Each BrickHeadz figure has the same internal structure, with variations in the outside details. Aw, just like us! Seeing that they were on to something, and that the point of LEGO is really to experiment creatively with your own spin on their original models, LEGO just came out with a set called "BrickHeadz Go Brick Me!" And that's my LEGO Set of the Month this month. Details for how to be entered to win it are below. This is a set you want.

The Go Brick Me! set has everything you need to build a BrickHeadz figure of yourself. Different skin tones, hair colors, clothing pieces, accessories, decals -- there's a rainbow of colors and shapes that you can use to get as close to a BrickHeadz version of you that you can make.

The instruction manual that comes with the set is kind of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" format -- if you want to see how to make different hairstyles, turn to page 19. You need a dress, page 28. A beard, page 33. I build a lot with LEGO (a lot), but this particular style of building was new to me. I've built a few Justice Leaguers, but I wasn't confident in my BrickHeadz selfie skillz. It took some trial and error, but with the booklet and the pieces, I was able to come up with something that's reasonably Quinnish:

I stuck with the colors that came with the set, otherwise I may have given myself a yellow shirt -- as it is, they had an anchor that seemed suitably piratey for the shirt, and the little yellow brick I'm holding could either be a copy of PLAY LIKE A  PIRATE: ENGAGE STUDENTS WITH TOYS, GAMES, AND COMICS or my Rubber Duckie, or...hey this works: a LEGO.

Despite minor things, I think it's a passable likeness. My hair's not necessarily orange. Kind of dirty blond/brown/red/grey/white/bald. So orange was as close as we could get.

Got some bald in there tho. :/

If nothing else, building yourself as a BrickHeadz figure lets you be alongside some of your favorite characters -- I finally get to be a Super Friend!

The set includes everything you need to make two different BrickHeadz, although if you've got the same skin tone and hair color as your second figure, you'll have to get creative. It's back to school time, I wanted to do something fun. It's a great set, with 708 colorful pieces that can be used to supplement any classroom LEGO set.

My friend Ryan Read, always up for engaging kids with LEGO and Perler Beads and other pixelated goodness, even created a template that can be used for kids to design a BrickHeadz figure on paper:


I knew you were wondering. There are three ways to enter:

1. Comment on this post. You do that below at the very end of this post. Lower...lower...there.

2. Subscribe to the monthly Play Like a PIRATE newsletter. It comes out once a month, with ideas for the classroom, a graphic novel review, and a review and chance to win the new LEGO Set of the Month. No spamming (beyond once a month), no selling your emails to anyone. I don't even know who I would sell them to. It may be worth investigating.

3. Follow @jedikermit on Twitter and retweet this tweet. If you're not on The Twitter, you really should be. Sign up just for this entry. And follow me. So worth it. You can follow the #PlayLAP hashtag to see what other people are doing with Play Like a PIRATE. A book you should totally buy.

So you can enter up to three times. Don't try and cheat. Teachers always know.

Some fine print: the LEGO Set of the Month will only be available to U.S. residents. Even though I love everyone on the planet, international shipping is beyond my reach. The drawing for the August LEGO Set of the Month will be at 8 PM MST on Wednesday, August 8. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.

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Friday, June 1, 2018

Graphic Novel Review: Be Prepared

Be Prepared. Vera Brosgol. 265 pages, First Second Books, 2018. (10/10)

I've been a fan of author/artist Vera Brosgol's work since I read Anya's Ghost a few years ago. Her clean lines and cartoony style disguises surprisingly emotional stories about growing up and feeling different from the people around you. are different from the people around you.

Her most recent book is Be Prepared, and is an autobiographical-ish look at her first experience at a summer camp. Monthlong summer camp is a kind of east coast phenomenon that we don't have as much of out west--we have weeklong scout camps, high adventure camps, and in my part of the country (Utaaaaaah) we're basically one step away from camping at any given time anyway, doesn't seem to happen as much. I know about "real" summer camps from movies and tv. Vera's experience seems to be very much like the kind of experience I would have.

Vera's growing up in the city, a Russian immigrant with a single mom and little brother. Mom does her best, but doesn't quite get American culture yet. In between that and the economic hardship of being a first generation immigrant, Vera doesn't quite fit in with the other girls in her class. She goes to some sleepovers and birthday parties, but her gifts don't measure up to the other gifts, her own birthday party isn't as upscale as other other girls' parties are.

When summer comes, all of the kids in her class go away to their own summer camps, and when the chance comes up for Vera and her brother to go to one, she's excited about finally being able to take part in the same ritual all of the other kids do. The camp she's going to is a Russian Orthodox summer camp, and the small pieces of that culture we get in the book made me feel like I was experiencing something different: the religious services that were a part of camp life; the borscht and other Russian dishes; pieces of Russian language and traditional songs that I don't know the tune to, but helped us understand Vera's balancing act between her two worlds.

Vera goes through most of camp surrounded by people who understand her culturally, but she still doesn't fit in. Her two tentmates are both named Sasha, are both infatuated with the same boy, and have both been going to the same camp for years. Vera is a newcomer, she's younger, and she's beneath their notice. Vera doesn't know the camp traditions, the songs, the routine...and doesn't really want to. The latrines are nightmares, the bugs are everywhere, and she doesn't know if she'll be able to make it two weeks until Mom comes to pick her up again.

Who of us hasn't been there? Brosgol channels her pre-teen angst and pours feelings into this book. We feel miserable alongside Young Vera, but we have older Vera as a narrator explaining things and maintaining some perspective. We also have bright moments of humor (including some gross latrine humor)(hey, it's camp!), and get to see Vera overcome some of her personal fears, her bullies, and find ways to make friends that will serve her well after camp ends.

This book is fun, funny, and even exciting--but more than anything, it reminds us what it's like to be a kid in this situation. Being a little bit different, trying to fit in, but also wanting to maintain your uniqueness. Vera Brosgol did an amazing job with Anya's Ghost -- Be Prepared is even better. I loved this book.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Decision to "Boldly Go" Back to the Classroom

Six years ago I made the jump from the classroom to a position in our district office. As the social studies curriculum specialist, I got to work with teachers from kindergarten through twelfth grade, across 63 elementary schools, 15 junior highs, and 9 high schools. 67,000 students or something. And I liked it. I liked being able to help teachers with curriculum problems, help find resources for them, be an advocate for them at the district level, be a liaison between the schools and the state…there are things I liked about that job and (I think) did well.

There are other things I didn’t. Two hour meetings where my job was to sit and not say anything (I doodled soooo much great stuff), being tasked with districtwide initiatives for 87 schools with no resources or support. Putting together standardized tests that I don’t think are the best way to measure student growth or achievement. Mountains of paperwork (and thank goodness for my incredible secretary who…she’s amazing) that I never quite appreciated.

The bigger issue is that pretty much every day I missed the students. I didn’t go into education to be a quasi-administrator, I didn’t go into education to sit through endless meetings. I went into education to teach kids. Like, actual human children. And I missed it. When you’re working with kids, you see impact. You see things that work, things that don’t work. You see kids who are struggling, and kids who do more than you could have ever imagined them capable of. Sometimes in the same kid. I've been feeling like I needed to be back with those students for the last two years or so. So I'm heading back into the classroom.

When I think about my past, present, and future jobs in the context of my larger career, I keep coming back to Captain Kirk. Or, more specifically, Admiral Kirk. You see, when James T. Kirk finished his five year mission, he was promoted to the position of admiral. He took a desk job. Dr. McCoy told him not to do it, Spock told him not to do it, Scotty told him not to do it. But he did it anyway. And he regretted it pretty much every day. In Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture, he ended up taking temporary command of the Enterprise, and saved Earth. Also, he basically got to spend the entire movie in PJs, so it wasn't a total loss.

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he again took temporary command of the Enterprise, this time to stop a madman. In the scene where he takes command (this time from Spock), he keeps protesting, saying "no no no I couldn't possibly, nooooo please no not the briar patch" and then Spock is like "STFU bro, I don't have feelings to bruise, even though I'm slowly dying inside, I'll let you take this one bc we're bros" ...these may be paraphrased. I don't need Paramount suits coming after me.

In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, he stole the Enterprise and blew it up to save a friend. I'll probably skip that part. Fire codes,'s gotta be a headache.

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, he was on his way to his own court martial, ended up picking up some humpback whales from 1986, and again saved Life As We Know It. He was Admiral Kirk in all four of those movies. At the end of the fourth movie, his punishment for breaking all kinds of Starfleet laws was being busted down from the rank of admiral to captain, and being put back in command of a starship. The Enterprise. Of course. He was told it was the job that he always should have had, and why weren't you doing it all along, your friends told you so, you keep sneaking back onto the bridge of starships every chance you get -- just go do the job that you're actually good at.

Thaaaat’s how I feel right now. I did some good things in my district office job, but the job I'm most suited for is a classroom teacher. I’m excited to be going back. I’m heading to a high school, and it’s the first time I’ve taught high school. I’ve worked with high school teachers in my own district and across the country, and my sons are both in high school now—I think I get it. I’m a little intimidated, I’m a little nervous, but only realistically so.

Despite my six year hiatus, I’m more connected now to other teachers than I’ve ever been. I’ve spent six years seeing the amazing things you are all doing in your classrooms, and I want to bring some of that to my own school. I’ve got a great department, great administration, and the best kids in the district. All of those ideas have me excited.

The district office has been good for me. It’s opened doors. I’ve had the luxury of more time to reflect on practice than a classroom teacher gets. I’ve had more time to explore different pedagogy, different resources than you typically have when you’re rushing from class to class day by day. I’m grateful to my colleagues there, but going back to the classroom is like going back home. It’s where I belong. As Captain Kirk himself said, I'll "boldly go" where I haven't been before. And where my heart has always been. And I'm gonna rock it.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Graphic Novel Review: Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery

Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery. Darryl Cunningham, 264 pages, 2017.

Even though I'm a history teacher, I'm a big fan of science. I mean, who isn't? Part of history and change over time is invention and innovation, technology and progress. The story of science is the story of humanity's understanding of the world around us, so...what's not to love? The stories of the scientists behind the science are equally fascinating, and some of my favorite nonfiction graphic novels have been about these people and their discoveries.

Darryl Cunningham has become one of my favorite graphic novel authors and artists, with books like Psychiatric Tales, Science Tales, Supercrash, and How to Fake a Moon Landing. He specializes in nonfiction, and his heavily stylized art is a complement for the stories he tells.

Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery is Cunningham's latest book, and the anthology is an outstanding collection of stories I hadn't heard before, and scientists I hadn't met.

Cunningham chooses seven scientists who often get overlooked for one reason or another, in favor of "larger lights" of history. But without these seven, our lives and understanding of the universe would be vastly different. The seven profiled:
  • Antoine LaVoisier
  • Mary Anning
  • George Washington Carver
  • Alfred Wegener
  • Nikola Tesla
  • Jocelyn Bell-Burnell
  • Fred Hoyle

Some of these I had heard of (Carver and Tesla), but most of them were unknowns. They weren't Darwin or Einstein or Newton...and that's Cunningham's goal. Introducing readers to these scientists who "for reasons of gender, race, mental health, poverty -- excessive wealth, even -- have not won the recognition they deserve. Overlooked, sidelined, excluded, discredited: key figures in scientific discovery take a bow in this alternative Nobel prize gallery." 

As with the best graphic novels about science, Cunningham balances the personal lives of the scientists with their discoveries and inventions. LaVoisier, who proved the Law of the Conservation of Mass (matter can neither be created nor destroyed), discovered that the classical elements (air, water, fire) were actually comprised of discrete atoms, and gave us the forerunner of the periodic table...was executed in the Terror in 1793 in Paris. Mary Anning became a self-trained paleontologist partially to survive -- she was selling the fossils she found in the chalk cliffs near her home on the English coast. She was never allowed to receive formal training as either a geologist (women weren't allowed yet) or paleontologist (it didn't exist as a field of study), but became the preeminent expert in the field...but lived in poverty her entire life. 

There are issues of race and gender -- George Washington Carver was probably gay, although there isn't much in the way of concrete evidence to support the notion; Tesla was likely asexual, but again, people weren't tweeting their gender identity to the world back then, so private matters of these scientists stayed awfully private. 

Some of the most interesting stories were about the biggest ideas possible: how do we know about plate tectonics, and the concept of Pangea? I suppose the biggest idea ever is the big bang theory...where that came from is included in this book. Both stories are fascinating, both about scientists whose lives were touched by tragedy. 

After reading these seven stories, you come away with a new respect for the work that goes into science. The careful observation, the patience, the experimentation...leading to dead ends every time...until it doesn't. That spark of excitement that disrupts the world as we know it is in every story, and Cunningham captures that beautifully here. Whether you're a science teacher or a fan of inclusion and social justice, or just someone interested in how we understand the world around us, you'll find a lot to love in Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery.