Friday, April 14, 2017

Graphic Novel Review: Steve Jobs: Insanely Great

 Steve Jobs: Insanely Great. Jessie Hartland, 224 pages, Random House Teens. 9/10 

At the end of a good biography, you want to feel a sense of loss when you finish the final chapter. Whether the person was a hero or villain, if you've truly come to know that person through the book, you've accompanied them on life's journey, and you're saying goodbye to them. Finishing Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland had that feel to it.

I came across the graphic novel last year as part of the National Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council list of Notable Trade Books for Teaching Social Studies. I had the honor of serving on that committtee for three years, and it's been a great resource for me. I may have stumbled upon Steve Jobs: Insanely Great on my own, but seeing it on that list bumped it up a notch.

Hartland structures the graphic novel chronologically, but this book is far more than a look at Jobs' life. She's able to draw out the pop culture of the period, and the technology necessary to tell the story of the Apple founder and the contributions he made to the tech world -- and our lives. Starting with his childhood in northern California and parents who encouraged his tinkering through junk-scavenging and gifts of electronic kits, we see a man whose curiosity and ambition would lead him to change the world.

I've been immersed in biographies of "creative" types lately -- Jim Henson, George Lucas, Charles Schulz, Walt Disney -- and Jobs seems to have a lot in common with them. A mastery of the status quo, but having a vision that goes higher and sees further than that narrow view. And with that mastery, sometimes comes arrogance, and a personality dismissive of anything not up to their standards. Hartland does a good job of addressing Jobs' notorious hard-to-work-withness, while still keeping his humanity intact, and getting at some of the roots of his "not good enough" rants that were legendary at Apple. Some of those roots were psychological, but others were simply that if Apple put out something substandard, they may as well not put out anything at all.

I'm not an Apple fanboy, but there are things they do well, and Hartland draws out what makes them different from other tech companies, and how much of that can be attributed to Jobs. Would those distinctions have happened without him? Will that innovation continue at Apple now that he's gone?

With any biography you make choices about how much of their personal life to include, and the author puts in enough about his relationships and children to give you the broad strokes, but the book is much more about his personality, his passion, and accomplishments than his roles at home.

The artwork is distinctive and stylized, cartoony and kind of messy, but after a few pages I was into it and enjoyed it. She uses an interesting mix of messy, cluttered pages and clean lines, which seem to explode and then narrowly focus as Jobs' ideas did themselves.

In the Classroom

If you ask most students what the most important invention of the last hundred years is, they'd probably say their phones. Of course, when they mean "phones," they're meaning the handheld computer/music player/GPS/all-in-one tool that is sometimes used to talk to someone with their voice, which is what a phone was when I was a pup. Steve Jobs: Insanely Great does a fantastic job of outlining what the state of technology was in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and how Steve Jobs intersected with the technology of those eras. Each of those two-page spreads features a dozen or more different kinds of tech. You could have students do a little bit of research on those, and then connect them to their lives today. With the resurgence of vinyl, kids might have record players in their homes again -- but a lot of them wouldn't have a VCR. Looking at inventions of the past can help inspire kids not just in our STEM and STEAM classes, but in all subject areas.

Apple's advertisements have a prominent place in the book -- everything from posters to magazine ads to the famous 1984 commercial. Having students compare the vintage ads for Apple products to IBM, and create their own ads for either vintage or current products based on that template would be a great way to connect them to the period.

Hartland includes an extensive bibliography -- kids who are interested in Steve Jobs (and a lot of them are) would be able to use this as a jumping-off point to do more extensive research. It would be interesting to follow up on some of the quotes about him that paint him as particularly saintly or particularly...particular. He was a polarizing figure who changed all of our lives. He's worth getting to know, and this book is a great place for kids or adults to start.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

5 Great Things About Sesame Street's New Character Julia

If you've read my book Play Like a PIRATE: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics, you know that I'm a big fan of Sesame Street. I like how the creators of the series were able to combine education and fun, and took a lot of those lessons into my own classroom. Another thing that I didn't touch on in Play Like a PIRATE is that Sesame Street was my first introduction to a lot of people that were different from me. That included skin color, different languages, and different abilities. I "met" Linda Bove's deaf character before I ever met a deaf person in real life. I saw both Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles perform before I had ever met a blind person. I saw Itzhak Perlman using crutches before I met anyone else who needed them.

Sesame Street hasn't ever shied away from challenges, and they've just introduced a new Muppet character, Julia. Julia is autistic, and as an educator and father, I don't think there's a better time to introduce someone new to our students and children. While there's a media blitz this week about Julia (she was on CBS' 60 Minutes last Sunday)(and you've probably seen multiple news stories about her), the need for a character with autism and the way to handle her has been a process that's taken years to develop. She was introduced in books and animated media about a year ago, but is making her formal debut on an episode of Sesame Street on April 10 on HBO.

You can already see several different sketches featuring Julia on YouTube:

Here are five great things about Julia:
1. They've made Julia "one of the gang." She's most often seen with Abby Cadabby, and it seems like they're becoming fast friends...but we also see her with Elmo and Big Bird and Alan and other characters. She's not in isolation, but one of many different friends on the Street. She may be "on the spectrum," but she's also one of us. She's only in two episodes this season, but will be in more next season.

2. They're not sugar coating it. Autism disorders are in a spectrum from mild to severe. As a teacher, I've had many students with autism, generally at the more mild end of the spectrum, but still needing some intervention, some patience, some understanding. The show creators and performers have given Julia several traits that are common with many autistic children, including repeating phrases, some sensitivity to loud noises, sometimes flapping her arms or hands. Some of the other characters are confused or worried about Julia's behavior, feeling like Julia doesn't like them, or doesn't want to be friends. Other characters who know her (Elmo in an animated segment, Abby Cadabby in live action) act as a bridge, helping explain some of her actions to her other new friends. Introducing a character with autism isn't just to benefit the viewer with autism, but to help kids who aren't autistic recognize ways that they can be friends to those who are.

3. Julia is "Amazing." Sometimes children (and adults) with autism will hone in on one particular idea or talent, and focus on it to the exclusion of other things. I've had students who have been focused on numbers, on books, on history, on animals...for Julia, she has a particular talent for art. She likes art, but also has an extraordinary talent for it. As with the Itzhak Perlman episodes I remember from the 1980s, where Julia may have a disability in one area, she has a lot to offer in others. She also has an ear for music and for words -- but her art is where she really shines. They do use the word "autism" and "autistic" with Julia, but they also call her "amazing," with the idea that all kids can do amazing things, and they're using that adjective to highlight their work for autistic children.

4. Behind the scenes with Julia. Every character and every storyline on Sesame Street is backed up by hundreds of hours of research and development, but I can't think of many who have gone through such a thorough process as Julia's character has. The puppeteer performing Julia (and present through the creation of the character) is Stacey Gordon, whose son also has autism. Having that first-hand insight into how the character will be portrayed goes beyond the research that led them to this point, and bring new life to Julia with a sensitivity that's key to the character's success.

5. Beyond Julia. Besides all of the great things that will be happening with Julia on television, in books, and online, there are resources that Sesame Street has been developing for years at  . They include videos for kids with Sesame Street characters, storybooks, routine cards, but also extensive resources for parents (and teachers) who are looking for support or strategies to help them teach and love these kids. Julia is in these resources...but they go way beyond what they can do on the show itself. Sesame Street often has "offscreen" initiatives that you don't know about do. Work for military families, for grieving families, for communities in need. I'm glad that they've taken their autism initiative from these back pages and onto the mainstream Sesame Street...but they do more good off the Street than most people realize.

In our classrooms, we need to do more to understand and try do serve the needs of all students. With autistic students, the barriers may be harder to overcome than others. It may not be me (the teacher) who struggles to understand that student, it may be their peers. My hope is that with initiatives like introducing Julia onto Sesame Street, kids will become less frightened of students who are different from them, and more eager to reach out, to help, to love them. It will be interesting to see what comes of this new character.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

LEGO Set of the Month: Fun in the Park

Starting this month, I'll be reviewing a LEGO set each month, and you (yes YOU) get a chance to win it. More on how to enter towards the bottom of this blog post. This month's set is LEGO City: Fun in the Park - City People Pack. It retails for $39.99*, but is well worth the price because of a few extras that are new to the world of LEGO, and some others that are just downright fun.

*as of March 7, it's on sale at Amazon for $30.97, which is totally a good price and worth buying just in case you don't win the drawing, even though, knowing you, you probably will. 

In my book Play Like a PIRATE, I mention that I don't usually use minifigures for classroom use. Minifigures and specialty pieces like wheels and wings are the things that students are most likely to fight over. Probably not a knock-down, drag out fight. Probably the kind of fight that happens in the back seat of my car on road trips AND I SWEAR I WILL TURN THIS CAR AROUND IF YOU D-- where was I? Oh yeah. LEGO. Where I usually am, to be honest.

So I don't usually use minifigures, but they do come in handy for certain projects. Fun in the Park gives you fourteen minifigures. Seven male, seven female. Plus, for the first time ever, a minifigure baby of indeterminate gender. And it's the cutest thing you've ever seen, you guys. Plus, a little disturbing. Oversized head, tiny arms, huge eyes. a regular human baby, I suppose. So you get fifteen little plastic souls in this set. Plus a dog. Dogs have souls. So we're up to sixteen.

The baby is cool. The baby is legit. But the other brand new piece that makes me even happier is a wheelchair. How LEGO, a pretty progressive company, has made it until 2016 without producing a special wheelchair piece is beyond me. Yes, you could build your own, if  you have the right pieces and skills. But I've played with my share of LEGO, and I'm guessing I have around 300,000 pieces and no I'm not kidding I have a problem please send help. But I've tried to make a wheelchair on several occasions. For DC Comics' Oracle, for Marvel Comics Professor Charles Xavier, for freaking FDR. But every attempt has fallen short of some reason or another. And if I struggle to make a good wheelchair, so would a lot of kids. Adding a wheelchair to the world of LEGO is a huge step forward (roll forward?) and it's going to let thousands of kids see themselves or their family members in the world that they spend a lot of time in. The wheelchair is also included in a Ciy set coming later in 2017, which features a wheelchair accessible bus.

Among the fourteen minifigures are four kids (with shorter leg pieces than the usual minifigures), an elderly couple (the grandmother looks a lot like my mom)(go Mom!), a businesswoman, and a hot dog vendor. Besides the minifigures, there are several small builds: a bus stop, a merry-go-round-of-the-sort-that-is-no-longer-considered-safe, the hot dog cart, soccer goal, and a picnic table. And then accessories like trees, a bike, lawn mower, and stroller for the Baby Of Indeterminate Gender.

This is a great set. For home, for school, for adding to the population of my LEGO Room. I like the 1:1 ratio of male to female, I like that women are shown in occupations, I like that the kid in the wheelchair looks happy and cool and his hoodie looks like the one I'm wearing RIGHT NOW.

In the Classroom

There are a lot of ways to use minifigures in the classroom beyond their obvious use of populating LEGO builds and dioramas. Here are three:

1. Use minifigures to study statistics. If you have a critical mass of say, thirty minifigures, use them as a census. Have students each select a minifigure and write down certain characteristics for their character. Gender, age, political affiliation, religion, occupation, race (if you want to go there), household income. After they have that information down, have the students compile the data and find ways to represent it in tables and graphs, and make predictions about the needs of that community. What are their needs today? What would their needs be twenty years from now?

2. Who's missing? Looking at the Fun in the Park set, we see that there are certain groups represented for the first time: infants and disabled. Although he may not be "disabled." He could be differently-abled, or just in the wheelchair for an injury, like when I broke my foot in summer of 2015 THE DAY BEFORE GOING TO LEGOLAND. In any case, he's got wheels for now. The elderly couple is also relatively new to the LEGO world, just appearing in the last ten years of sets -- and the short legs on the kids have only been around since 2002. Which is about how long my own kids have had short legs. So considering those characters -- who's missing? Have students assess the minifigures in the classroom, and come up with one recommendation for a character that should be made in minifigure form to more accurately reflect their community. Would it be a different gender? Race? Ability? Age? Occupation? Students could come up with an evidence-supported argument for why that minifigure should be included in a future LEGO set, and how it would represent that community. They could use the simple minifigure template to design what that minifigure would look like, and make a presentation about their character.

3. Story starters. Have students draw two minifigures blind out of a bag (hat, boot, boa constrictor) and come up with a story about the two characters meeting for the first time. Or going on an epic quest. Or opening a new business together. Or founding a cult. Or coming up with a new two-person sport. Or founding a cult. I know I said that one twice, but I really want to see some fourth graders starting a cult. You know you do too. In any case, having just two minifigures is enough to get kids thinking about a story that would bring those two characters together.


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 started this month, and will come 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 right now. The drawing for the March LEGO Set of the Month will be at 10 AM MST on Friday, March 17. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.


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Friday, March 3, 2017

Graphic Novel Review: Filmish

Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film. Edward Ross Graphic Novel, 200 pp softcover. Self Made Hero, 2015. (10 out of 10)
Like many of you reading this, I'm a fan of pop culture, and of movies in particular...but I'm not a "film historian." I like movies from various eras and genres, but when it comes down to it, I'm probably more popcorn than avant garde. Too often card-carrying film historians treat the rest of us like so much rabble, that we don't have anything to offer beyond lining up like sheep for the newest superhero movie. They don't bother to interact with the masses, because we don't deserve their splendor. So when I find someone who's able to introduce some of the big ideas of film history in an easy to digest, even pleasant format, I take it. 

A Man in the Moon illustration

Cartoonist Edward Ross achieves that with his 2015 graphic novel-format collection of essays, Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film. Using more than three hundred films ranging from the artsiest to the popcorniest, Ross presents the history of cinema in a way that doesn't talk down to readers, but packs each page with information ranging from the tenchical to the philosophical. 
The seven chapters present the range of ideas you'll encounterThe Eye, The Body, Sets and Architecture, Time, Voice and Language, Power and Ideology, Technology and Technophobia. Using the chapter Sets and Architecture as an example, Ross uses the urban settings of Taxi Driver, Breathless, and City of God to introduce the idea that a setting is loaded with meaning, before moving on to the worlds of the Star Wars movies, and the over-the-top sets of 1916's Intolerance and 1997's Titanic, with 1914's Cabiria as a note. In two pages, he uses examples from seven different movies (twice that, if you split Star Wars into multiple films). I'm embarrassed to say that even though I know the cinematic significance of Taxi Driver, I've never actually seen it. So of the movies used in those pages, I'd only seen Star Wars and Titanic. I looked up the Babylonian scenes of "Intolerance" on YouTube (and you should, right now) and they're staggering. Following pages develop the idea of sets and settings further, departing from the realistic to the symbolic, with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Black Narcissus. He takes us to haunted houses, to science fiction settings, to "real world" locales even more real than the real world. In this single chapter he either specifically cites or takes inspiration from more than thirty movies. Some of these are direct quotes, others are visual cues that he includes in his drawn artwork. For those of us (me) who miss those cues, he includes endnotes for almost every panel at the end of the book. 

Star Wars Planets

His artwork is clean and cartoony, with the black and white line drawings a good fit for the many different cinematic styles he's going to be visiting throughout the book. One of the things I liked best was how Ross inserts himself (bespectacled film nerd) into many iconic movie scenes. He's the "chestburster" exploding onto the table in Alien. He's piloting H.G. Wells' Time Machine. He's Danny, riding up and down the hallways of the Overlook Hotel. Ross addresses the reader directly, with an omniscience that never comes across as a lecture, and a wit that makes you feel like it's your friend telling you the story of cinema.  
The biggest problem with "Filmish" is simply that it's good enough that it makes me want to watch (and in many cases rewatch) about three hundred movies. If you're looking to get a broad view of the history of the movies, and get a closer look at some of the themes that are repeated in those movies, you should check this book out. If you already know everything about the movies, you'll still get something out of it. It's a charming read, no matter what your expertise level is, but it doesn't focus on any one film or director long enough to get the depth you may be craving. For me and my nerdy needs, this was pretty much perfect. 
In the Classroom, if you're teaching a unit on filmmaking or film history, this is a no-brainer. Use this book. But even if you're not -- if you're teaching a history or ELA class that's about a specific time period (especially twentieth century history), use Filmish to find movies that connect to the time and curriculum you're teaching. And then don't show the whole movie. A five minute video clip of Buster Keaton will do more to engage kids than showing them the entire movie. They'll get it, and get enough of it, to make them want to see more--but it will hook them into your lesson. And that's what you want. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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