Tuesday, February 14, 2017

'Beautiful Minecraft' Book Review

Beautiful Minecraft, James Delaney. 112 Pages, Hardcover, 2016. No Starch Press. (8 out of 10)
I'm a relative newcomer to the world of Minecraft. My sons have played it for years now, but I really just started getting into it myself this last summer. My younger son put me through a kind of boot camp where I had to put in sixty hours of Minecraft in about ten days...and by the end of that, I loved it. I'm not a pro, in fact I'm still a "noob" according to the kids. But I dig it. (get it?!) Sometimes it takes a greater vision to see the real potential of a building tool, and that's what you get in No Starch Press's new book, Beautiful Minecraft.  
The hardcover book is a collection of dozens of different builds from James Delaney and his colleagues at BlockWorks -- a consortium of Minecraft builders that collaborate on large scale projects. They run the gamut from real world architecture to science fiction to sculpture, and each page is astounding, with details you'll be exploring for hours. There are nine chapters in Beautiful Minecraft -- 
  • Fantasy Worlds
  • The Builds of Tomorrow
  • More Than a Game
  • Sculptures
  • Building a Place in the World
  • Mechanical Marvels
  • Re-creations
  • Playful Design
  • Landscapes
Each has favorite builds for me; Mats Heiberg's "Babel" is a particular favorite. The gothic-inspired ornate island palace/cathedral/magical realm is beautiful in scope and detail. We don't get much information about the builds -- evidently "Babel" was all Heiberg working alone, and comprises 8 million blocks and took 31 days to build. Which is insane. But the results speak for themselves. 
 Minecraft Babel

Something it's difficult to get a sense of with the builds is the scale of them -- most of these aren't built on a conventional Minecraft scale (scaled to the size of Steve and the Creepers), but they use the blocks as smaller pieces to build structures of greater scope. 
The spaceships and stations are another favorite section in the book -- seeing how visions of the future could be interpreted in Minecraft is something that I hadn't even considered while building my own little worlds. Again, the scale of these is difficult to comprehend, but they're stunning in the complexity of their design. 

Minecraft Space Station

I'm not sure what I was expecting with Beautiful Minecraft -- it makes a good companion piece to some of No Starch's other books in a Beautiful LEGO series. They both bring attention to the use of these children's games and toys as a legitimate art form. Just as Nathan Sawaya's LEGO sculptures have made people see the potential in plastic bricks, the artists (and they are artists) in Beautiful Minecraft make an argument for how this highly pixelated game can be used as a medium. 

Minecraft Sculptures

My one issue with the book is that there isn't enough text from the builders. There are a few short pages explaining some of the process, but not much about the inspiration behind the projects. There aren't "artist statements" that I feel would be illuminating, especially to some of the more abstract pieces. The bits we do get are so interesting -- the difference between creating a sculpture in Minecraft (above) and sculpting in stone, for example. I would like to see more of that. 
In my own book Play Like a Pirate: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics I have a section on Minecraft with a lot of ideas for how to use it in the classroom. I never considered how it could be used as a medium for "digital sculpting." But looking at these examples, there's a lot of potential there. Even to use as a 3D render before moving on to create the sculpture in other media, but using a platform that kids are already very familiar with. Because when it comes down to it, they are. The kids in your classroom know Minecraft. If they don't, their best friend or sibling or parent does. With support from books like Beautiful Minecraft, with Minecraft EDU becoming more robust with each update, this is a tool you're going to want to learn about. This book can be a good place to start. 


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Using Star Wars to Teach Biomes and Ecosystems


A big part of "Playing Like a Pirate" is using pop culture to teach. Whether it's music, video games, movies or television, you'll get kids on board if you indulge in pop culture from time to time. Or if you're me, all the time. One of the many things I love about the Star Wars movies is the planets. With few exceptions, each world in that far away galaxy is a single biome. It's simplistic, but you've gotta admit, if you're going to be going from planet to planet in a movie, it's nice to be able to look out the window and see snow, sand, or forest and know where you are.


Using those different planets can help students understand the concept of biomes and ecosystems, and have a little fun with it at the same time. In between the movies and television series and video games, there have been dozens of planets represented on different sizes of screens.


If you need a refresher for some of the major ones that are seen most often in the movies, there are handy videos on YouTube that will help you see which planets you might want to include. Chances are very good that most of your students have seen several Star Wars movies...they can help you out too.

For students studying biomes and ecosystems, there are key things they could be looking for in these single-biome worlds of Star Wars. The landforms, flora, and fauna of each world are unique to those worlds, but have distinct similarities to creatures and environments found on Earth.

Three planets I'd use as examples: Tatooine, Hoth, and Naboo. Each is well-known, and both Tatooine and Naboo are featured in several movies, showing us more of their environment than some of the other worlds. By showing video clips from the films, or links to websites (where geeks have obsessively written about the plants and animals of these fictional planets), students can get an idea of what biomes are represented.

Tatooine is a desert planet, and is prominently featured in Episodes I, II, IV, and VI of the Star Wars series. Prominent creatures include banthas, rancors, womprats, dewbacks, and the sarlaac.

Hoth is an ice planet, seen only in Episode V. We only meet two indigenous species, the tauntaun and the wampa.

Naboo is a temperate world, featured in Episode I and II. We see forests, grasslands, and even aquatic biomes here, breaking the Star Wars rule of "one planet, one biome" -- but we see fambaa, kaadu, opee sea killer, falumpaset, and other creatures.


After learning what a biome is and studying Earth's biomes and ecosystems, students can extend those skills by analyzing the fictional worlds. Some sample questions and activities:


  • What physical factors do we see on that planet? Temperature? Water? Humidity? Light? Landforms?
  • What ecosystem niches are represented in what we see of that planet? Producers? Consumers? Herbivores? Carnivores?
  • What niches are missing (simply not seen) in what we see of the planet in the movie? 
  • What Earth plants or animals could fit into those empty niches?
  • Design a Star Wars-style creature that would fit into the empty niches. 
  • How do the humans (or other sentient aliens) interact with that biome? 
  • Pick one of the Star Wars creatures and imagine what would happen if it were introduced into their equivalent ecosystem on Earth -- would it be successful here?  
  • Design a human outpost for that biome that would complement the existing ecosystem, being in harmony with the surroundings. 
  • Write a short story from the perspective of one of the Star Wars creatures, describing a day in their life. 
Pretty much every real world biome is represented by a Star Wars planet -- some other examples:

Endor - Temperate Forest
Dagobah - Swamp/Marshland
Kashyyyk - Rainforest
Yavin 4 - Jungle
Kamino - Aquatic
Jakku - An Awfully Tatooiney-Desert
Geonosis - Also Desert, But Like, Different 
Lothal - Grasslands 

...and then a few that push the envelope a little, but still have ecosystems of their own:

Mustafar - Volcanic
Bespin - Gas Planet/Cloud Ecosystem
Asteroid Field - uh...big spinny rocks in space
Coruscant - Completely Urban Planet


Incorporating any one of those into your standard science lesson about biomes and ecosystems would grab your students' attention, help them think outside the box, and (best of all) deepen their understanding of the principles, structure, and vocabulary of the real science you're teaching them. If you're looking for a lesson they'll remember, look to that faraway galaxy. Help you, it will.




Thursday, January 5, 2017

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword Graphic Novel Review

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword. Barry Deutsch. Amulet Books, 2010 142 pages




With as many comics and graphic novels as I read (according to Goodreads, 728 and counting), it surprises me when I come across one I haven't heard of before. Let alone an entire series. But that happened last week, when I stumbled upon a book that wasn't on my radar, but I love both as a teacher and as a human (those things don't always coincide).

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword manages to combine feminism, Orthodox Judaism, humor, adventure, and myth all in one graphic novel. Mirka is an eleven year old Jewish girl living in Hereville. She's got a stepmother who's always on her case, an older sister who's pushing marriage on her as hard as the opening act of Fiddler on the Roof, an annoying younger brother, and seven (count them, seven) little sisters/stepsisters. The brother Zindel is the most important one for this story, and the other siblings are just bit players. Mirka, who spends too much time knitting and debating her stepmother (who switches sides of an argument at whim to play devil's advocate) for her taste, wants to be a dragonslayer. She's told she shouldn't, she can't, she's a girl, she should be focusing on other things--but she knows what she wants to do with her life.

When she comes across a witch's house, she sees her chance to use some magic and some luck to take her further along the path of becoming a dragonslayer. The book does a good job of introducing the fantastic without it seeming outlandish. That there's a witch in Hereville, that there are dragons and demons, seems ordinary to the characters, so it's ordinary to us. That doesn't mean they're not frightening.

I've seen Mirka described as a feminist, which is a loaded term these days. Actually, has it never not been a loaded term? In this case, it seems to mean three things: first, that her older sister's obsession with marriage comes across as silly to Mirka. She knows it's important, but it will come along if it comes along -- it's not the highest thing on her agenda. The second is that Mirka stands up to bullies. She does it for herself, she does it for Zindel. She's strong enough and self-assured enough to take a stand. The third is seen in those arguments with her stepmother -- she's quick-witted, and even though she feels frustrated and shut-down sometimes, she's learning to speak up for herself, and not be cowed by the authoritarian figures in her life. I don't necessarily see those three things as being exclusively "feminist," but I do think in "traditional" households, they're traits that are encouraged more in our sons than our daughters. And traditional in this case can mean an Orthodox Jewish household, but could just as easily be Catholic or Muslim or Mormon or Evangelical Christian.

The traditions of Orthodox Judaism take center stage in Mirka's story, and author/artist Barry Deutsch does a good job of explaining these traditions to the gentiles in the reading audience. The dialogue has frequent yiddish words and phrases, and while most of them are understandable in context, there are footnoted definitions of each of them as they're introduced. There's a Shabbos/sabbath celebration midway through the book, and each of the parts of the preparation for and celebration of the day are lovingly introduced. There are a few elements I'd classify as "supernatural" in different parts of the book, and I don't know if they're part of Jewish tradition or are just inserted by Deutsch as part of Mirka's adventure. In either case, they add an element of the mystical, of something larger than our day-to-day life at work. What I liked best about the traditions included in the book is how Mirka approaches them. So many books telling similar stories have the teen/tweenaged child resenting religious tradition, rebelling against their parents, hating religion, discounting spirituality. Mirka, though irritated at some of the chores involved in preparing for Shabbos, finds joy in the traditions and celebration. I loved seeing that. It's refreshing to see the other side of that story, and (again) whether Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, it gives the religious kid something to identify with.

All told, this was a fun book, appropriate and enjoyable for elementary and middle school students. Mirka's a new kind of heroine, and even though this book was first published in 2010, it's readily available online and in bookstores, and should be part of every school library. There are two sequels I haven't read yet (How Mirka Met a Meteorite and How Mirka Caught a Fish), but they're high on my to-read list now. I want to see what happens next.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir Graphic Novel Review

Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir by Stan Lee and Peter David, art by Colleen Doran. Touchstone Publishing, 2015. 

Thanks to the domination of Marvel's superheroes at the box office, Stan Lee has become a household name. More than that, thanks to his cameos in those movies, he's become a household face. The mustache, the salt and pepper hair, the dark glasses -- he's become an icon in his own right. And yet...most of us don't know much about him. Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir is his attempt to let us get to know him. The guy behind the masks. Lee guided Marvel Comics through a revolution of sorts in the 1960s, helping create Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Hulk...along with updating older characters and making them relevant. Essentially he did this by making them human, by amplifying their angst, by making them whiners just like us. 

His memoir is (appropriately) in graphic novel format, allowing Lee to be the narrator of his own life story, with frequent breaks through the fourth wall (sometimes through the paper panels themselves) to address the reader. He's an observer of himself as a bookish kid growing up, of a young adult dating his soon-to-be wife, of his early collaborations, failures, and successes before becoming the Big Deal at Marvel. 
Lee's voice is unmistakable, with superlatives as subtle as a tsunami. That's part of his charm, somehow. Even though he's brash, he doesn't come across arrogant. He brags about the characters and the innovations he introduces, but isn't always the hero of his own story. He admits to some mistakes, and questions the fallout between him and Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby (co-creators of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, among others)...which comes across as disingenuous. But including those black marks at all is admirable. 

The book is an interesting look into the creative process of a guy who most kids know by name and by face, but don't know much about. That hook -- the movies they love and the heroes they believe in -- is enough to have them pick up the book The fast-paced race through the pages with both the words and the dynamic artwork is enough to keep them reading. 

In the classroom, I'd use Amazing Fantastic Incredible working with students on memoir projects. The idea of inserting themselves as an older, wiser narrator in their younger lives is a new one to me, and would be able to get them to more complex, more nuanced ideas than a straightforward retelling of childhood events. Lee makes these interjections and words to the reader (and sometimes his younger self) impossible to miss -- it's easy to use those pages as an example of how to do that in students' own writing. 

If students are interested in the origins of comic book characters, I always recommend Marc Tyler Nobleman's books Boys of Steel (about Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, creators of Superman) and Bill the Boy Wonder (about Bill Finger, the long-uncredited co-creator (but mostly, creator) of Batman). Both are great for elementary through high school, and get to the complicated topics of copyright and the rights of the artist versus a corporation while still being "about" superheroes. 



Friday, October 7, 2016

Funko Pop! As Biography

Over the last ten years, the Funko toy company has taken the pop culture toy world by storm. Their flagship line is Funko Pop! ...vinyl big-headed dolls about six inches tall, with big black eyes, a tiny nose, and no mouth. The first time I saw them, I thought they were weird-looking. Then the more I saw them, the more I thought they were cute. Then I bought one. I think WALL-E from Pixar was my first. Then Kermit the Frog. Then some Sesame Street characters. I thought "I don't need to collect these," and then a friend started giving me Star Wars Funko Pops. As of this writing, I have about twenty-five of these little dolls figures, from Star Wars and Peanuts and Pixar and Muppets and DC Comics.

Whatever you're into, there's probably a Funko Pop! series dedicated to it. Harry Potter, Star Trek, Doctor Who, NFL, Golden Girls, NBA, NHL, Ghostbusters, Adventure Time, Indiana Jones...look, just go here and see for yourself. It's astounding how many there are. And at $10.00 (or less) a piece, they're incredibly easy to indulge in. It's kind of a problem.

With as ubiquitous as Funko Pop! has become, for me it was an easy enough jump from the action figure strategy I explain in Play Like a PIRATE to having students design Funko Pop! figures as simple biographies of characters they're learning about in class. Historic figures, great inventors, characters in novels -- anything in your curriculum that has a human in it would work. Or sometimes not human... In any case. Not as much research is required for the Funko Pop! figures as the other action figure strategy, and the Funko Pop! style is stylized and simplified enough that even young students can design characters they're proud of.

Like my action figure template (see sidebar), the Funko Pop! template has a front side and back side of the packaging. The front side has the main character in a large window. The back side has a space for a short biography of the character -- a summary of their life, their role in your curriculum, etc. There are also two smaller characters pictured on the back of the box, for two additional people who would play a role in that character's life, contemporaries of the character, people in a related field, etc.

Funko Pop! is one of the biggest toy lines around, and your students have seen them. Most of your kids probably have a few of them. You might have a few looking you with their creepy-cute dead eyes RIGHT NOW.  Find a way to take that appealing toy and make it work with kids. They'll love it.

The template for the Funko Pop! assignment is free, under my Action Figure Templates in the sidebar.

Some examples of student work: 








Just in case you thought I was kidding about the Golden Girls...





If you like this idea, check out a hundred more ways to use toys in the classroom in my book Play Like a Pirate: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics -- available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. It's fun. It's funny. It will change your life. It will make me a few bucks. To go spend on more toys. It's the circle of life. And now that song is in your head. 






Tuesday, October 4, 2016

'Through the Woods' Graphic Novel Review

"Through the Woods" Emily Carroll, 2014. 208 pages softcover graphic novel, Margaret K. McElderry Books.




Even though "Through the Woods" was published in 2014, it didn't come onto my radar until about a recently. This graphic novel by Emily Carroll is perfect for this time of year, as the horror stories wind their way through woods in fall and winter. Horror stories are hit and miss with me, either they're not scary enough or they're too gory, not leaving enough to the imagination. Carroll finds the perfect balance of suspense and blood in this volume, and I absolutely loved it.


Through the Woods pages"Through the Woods" is an anthology of seven short stories, with the first and last being a very short introduction and conclusion. All of the stories are set in the past, with only one (the longest) being set in the twentieth century. That said, the really terrifying stories seem to be timeless. Poe set most of his tales in the past, but still chill us today. "The Shining" was made in 1980, but still scares the hell out of me. Carroll's stories are similarly timeless. They're unnerving, they're disgusting, they're truly terrifying. But you know, with pictures and stuff.

A grisly mealCarroll's illustration style reminds me of Kate Beaton, with very two-dimensional figures inhabiting settings that tend towards the abstract. Most remarkable is her use of light and darkness, with many pages entirely black save a character being consumed by darkness. The word balloons are also used stylistically, with streams of words sighing from ghosts or screams being pulled from the living. They kind of remind of me political cartoons from the 1700s - 1800s, but that's probably my history teacher showing. It's different from what we usually see in comics and graphic novels. I dig it. 

Words chasing a woman

If you grew up reading "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," this will remind you of that. Even though these are short stories, they'll stick with you. Perfect in time for Halloween -- but do some pre-reading to see if they'd be appropriate for the age of students you teach. If you're already teaching something a little bit eerie, some Poe, some James, some Seuss, some Dahl, some urban legends, some folklore, some cryptozoology, this could liven up the mix. 


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Play-Doh on the First Day of School - An Alternative to "What Did I Do This Summer?"

Like most teachers, I have a love/hate relationship with the first day of school. I love getting back into my job/calling/mission. Teaching really completes me as a person. But then it's also like...I have a job again, and summer's over, and I can't go running , hike, watch Netflix all day.

Then there's always the question of what to do on that first day. At the secondary level many teachers feel obligated somehow to spend the class period reading every word in their disclosure, reading all the classroom rules, basically...making the students' first exposure to their class one of the most boring days they'll have all year in that class.

A lot of teachers have students write or present something about "What I did this summer"...which is better, but can also take up a lot of time. If I have 25 students, hearing or reading about all that they did running, hiking, Netflixing -- that eventually becomes nearly as boring as devoting the entire class period to your rules.

I prefer to get a little bit of fun in the mix, while still serving the needs that we have as teachers. Truthfully, I do want my students to get some of my disclosure statement (and depending on your admin, you may be required to read every word of that document in that first week of school at some point), I want them to know my personal classroom rules...but I also want to start establishing classroom climate, and I want to start them on my content. My content is important, I love it, I want them to love it.

 One of the ways I engage students on the first day of school is with Play-Doh. I know a lot of teachers (even secondary teachers) use Play-Doh already, including Teach Like a PIRATE Captain Dave Burgess. A chapter in my own book Play Like a PIRATE: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics is about Play-Doh. And you should buy it and read it. Buy ten copies even. One hundred. I won't even be mad.

Specifically for the first day of school, this is what I'd do with Play-Doh:

Have students seated in groups of four, and each with a chunk of Play-Doh. They don't need a full-sized can, just enough to work with. Seated in groups, they'll be watching what the other kids at their table are making, asking questions about it, being interested in their creations, much more than if you were having them all take turns reading their statements about what they did over the summer. It will be an ice-breaker for them, which you want as much as an ice-breaker for you.

The beauty of Play-Doh, besides the smell, texture, flavor, and color, is the quick and easy sculptability of it. You don't want them to spend thirty minutes on a beautiful creation, you want them to spend three minutes. Not just a single prompt, but ten. You want the sculpting prompts to be a mix of what you want them to get that first day in your class: some classroom rules, some content, some classroom climate, some get-to-know-you. Here are ten that I've used on the first day of school:


  • What were you doing one week ago today?
  • If you could have any animal as a pet, what would it be?
  • What was the best day of your summer?
  • What's one rule every student should follow?
  • What does leadership look like?
  • What's the most important invention of the last one hundred years?
  • If you were going to eat one food for every meal for a month, what would it be?
  • If you could have one super power, what would it be?
  • What's a right you have as an American?
  • What's one thing you would change about the United States?
That's it. Two or three minutes per question, they share at their tables, you have a few kids share their answers out to the whole class. I'm a history teacher, so a few of the questions start them thinking about rights, leadership, the current state of things in the United States. If I taught language arts, music, science, psychology, I'd put different prompts in there. It gives kids a chance to express themselves, it lets them get to know each other, and it helps ease the transition from their running a marathon Netflix summer to the classroom. 

If you're looking for more ideas about using Play-Doh, LEGO, Action Figures, Superheroes...a lot of other stuff in the classroom, check out Play Like a Pirate: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics. It's at Barnes and Noble, it's at Amazon, it's Everywhere Fine Books Are Sold. But mostly Barnes and Noble and Amazon.