Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Graphic Novel Review: Making Scents

Making Scents. Arthur Yorinks, Braden Lamb & Shelli Paroline. 108 pages, First Second Books, 2017. 

First Second Books has been one of my favorite publishers for kids graphic novels for a long time now, and their ability to find talent and draw the best stories out of them is continuing on strong. 2017's Making Scents is a good example of a book that's ideal for kids in grades 3-5, telling a great story that is equal parts funny, weird, and unexpectedly sentimental.

The book is about Mickey, a boy being raised alongside his parents' dogs. Mom and Dad have bloodhounds, which help police solve crimes. Mickey grows up with the dogs as siblings, and they're a big happy family; Mickey develops a keen sense of smell so he can play with and compete with his brothers and sisters. He spends a lot of time on all fours, he doesn't use utensils to eat...basically, he's a dog.

After a tragedy, Mickey is sent to live with an aunt and uncle. The aunt and uncle don't like pets, so Mickey is separated again, this time from his siblings. He goes through the normal stages of grief, but is also trying to figure out who he is, and what he has to contribute to this new family. Can his unique sniffing talents be used to make his aunt and uncle happy? Can he share them with the kids at his new school? What is his place in the world? Mickey asks a lot of the same questions about himself that we all do, but Yorinks uses the (admittedly odd) device of the special smelling powers to help readers see things from a different angle.

I love the artwork -- very retro, 1950s-style art. Streamlined, sparse backgrounds with cartoony characters, and only three colors per page. It works well for this story, which has elements of near-magic that might not work in a "realistic" setting.

In all, Making Scents reminded me more of a Pixar movie than other books for young readers. The elements of comedy, adventure, and tragedy are all layered with a heartfelt ability to overcome grief, to find acceptance, to find love. It's a book I don't know that I would have picked up on my own, but I'm glad I did.


This is a good book for grades 3-5, with a few frightening moments that teachers would want to be sensitive to. I'd use Making Scents as the jumping-off point for three different activities with kids:

Mickey uses his "powers" in several different ways in the story. At school, in games with friends, and for more serious things later in the book. How could he use those powers as an adult? What kind of job could he get that would let him use his talents to their fullest extent? Have students write a short story about what kind of workday Mickey would have as a grownup.

Making Scents would be a good entry point for a unit on the senses, focusing in on the science of smelling. It's one that we use all the time, but it doesn't get all the top billing that say, sight or hearing get. If kids didn't have a sense of smell at all, what would their day be like? What do our noses tell us that our other senses don't?

Some of my favorite parts of the book are with Mickey growing up alongside the dogs, and him behaving like a dog. Have students write a story about what it would be like to grow up with a different set of animals. What if the pets were cats? Birds? What if their parents raised giraffes? What if they grew up alongside a pride of lions? What kinds of skills would you learn from those animals? What would be fun? What would be difficult? What would it be like to go to school and behave like a "human" if you were raised that way?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Using the Weird World of Archie McPhee as Writing Prompts

Most of a student's school day is predictable to the point of despair. Their day is regulated by bells, they're sitting in the same classes, taught by the same people, using the same reading and math program, using the same worksheets. Sometimes as teachers we end up in PD sessions in those same classrooms, and it's torture sitting in those desks and focusing for 45 minutes, let alone seven hours. There are things about the school day we can't change for them; but where we can, let's mix it up.

A big part of Play Like a PIRATE: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics is embracing the unusual. The bizarre. The downright weird. And I don't know if there's anything weirder than the world of Archie McPhee.

Archie McPhee is headquartered in Seattle, and in the pre-internet days was best known for their catalog of bizarre products. Now that catalog is all online of course, and it's one of the most fun and funny and weird places to go for classroom ideas. One of my favorite activities to do with students (and I share in Play Like a Pirate and in workshops) is to have students design their own action figures in lieu of traditional biography reports; Archie McPhee has some very cool action figures:

Pretty cool, pretty mainstream, pretty tame. You've likely seen some of their other products too. Freakish (and terrifying) horse head masks. A "Punching Nun" puppet. Finger hands. Their catalog goes much deeper than literary action figures. And possibly, much deeper than what you'd want to see. 

There's an entire bacon oeuvre on the site. Bacon soap. Bacon band-aids. Bacon scarves. Bacon-scented mustaches. Bacon dental floss. And, what's possibly my favorite, Yodelling Bacon

For the cat lover in your life, there's a Crazy Cat Lady board Game, Inflatable Unicorn Horns that go atop your pet's head, a car air freshener that's a renaissance painting of a cat, cat paws that go on your fingers, and a dashboard cat Buddha. My favorite cat-related item (besides the set of six glow in the dark cats that I bought and are glowing Right Now) is probably the Cat Bonnet

I have a cat. Her name is Slinky Marie Mousechaser. And she hates my dog. My good, good boy. She's had this bonnet coming for a while. 

Instant underpants for those...emergencies.

Handerpants, for people whose hands get cold when they're typing but need their fingers free. Very Dickensian. And very...not. 

Their now-iconic horse head masks have also been shrunk down and repurposed to be squirrel feeders, so those bushy-tailed rodents are even more terrifying:

Okay, okay. So they've got a lot of weird stuff. How would I use this in class? Essentially, as writing prompts. Students are expected to do a lot of informational writing these days. A lot of persuasive writing. And while some of that is engaging, a lot of it is...not. Here are three ways I'd use Archie McPhee as a writing prompt:

1. Have students write copy for an existing product. Give them just the photo of an Archie McPhee product, say...Emergency Inflatable Toast

And have them write the "Ad Copy" for the product. The ad copy is the text on the website or in the catalog that's convincing potential buyers that they need this product. In the case of Emergency Inflatable Toast, the existing ad copy is this:                                                                                                                                              The person who invented bread was probably heralded as a genius, but just think about the person who invented toast. I mean, the Bible calls bread the staff of life, but surely toast is the staff of awesome. It has an amazing crunch, nooks and crannies for butter and it costs almost nothing! When you want all the comfort of toast and none of the crumbs, you want Inflatable Toast. You don't even need an inflatable toaster! When you need your Inflatable Toast, pull it out of its tin, blow it up and just revel in its realistic toasty goodness. Perfect for toast emergencies of all kinds.

Ideally, you'd have a few of their actual products on hand, not just photos of them, so the kids get the full impact of how weird they are. I mean, you want the Ruth Bader Ginsburg "Dissent Mints" anyway, right? You'd want to show kids a few examples of what advertising is, watch a few commercials on YouTube, but their task would be to write a paragraph or two selling the customer on the Emergency Inflatable Toast. They should emphasize the practical nature of the (ridiculous) product, and make sure we know why we need it in our lives. I mean, look at it. Of course we do. 

2. Write a commercial for an existing product. Similar to the the first one of course, you're still advertising that weird, weird...thing. Their commercial would include ad copy, but could go even further, including dialogue between multiple characters. They could include a jingle. They could design a mascot for the product, like Admiral Toast.  Full disclosure: Admiral Toast is my friend Scott. I knew he was a hand model for Archie McPhee, but I had no idea about Admiral Toast, and I'll never stop loving this picture, ever. They could just write the commercial, but ideally they'd record it as well, or perform it for the class. 

3. Design a new product pitch. A product pitch is where you have an idea for a new product that Archie McPhee should carry, so you do a quick mock-up (in our case, probably a drawing), an argument for why this product would be a good seller, some ad copy, and a price point that you'd be able to sell the product at. You could have students connect this new product to your content. What would an Ancient Egyptian Archie McPhee catalog have in it? What kind of product would fit into a stage of the water cycle? What would Katniss Everdeen want to have on hand? The new items would be ostensibly practical (band-aids) but with a bizarre twist (they look like bacon). The product pitch needs to emphasize both of those aspects.

My rule of thumb about inserting the bizarre into traditional classroom assignments and assessments is that it's not appropriate for every assignment, but it's always memorable. These pieces of persusasive writing would be ones that students remember, but also that they're excited to share. With friends, with parents, with other teachers. Let them be weird. As my son memorably told his third grade teacher, "In my family, weird is a compliment. Weird is good." 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Graphic Novel Review Raid of No Return

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Raid of No Return 2017 Amulet Books, 128 pages. 10/10 

Since the first book in the Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales series was published in 2012, kids and adults and history teachers and comic book fans have been waiting to see how he'd tackle a favorite topic: World War II. We had to wait until last fall to get it, but Nathan Hale (author, not patriot)(I mean, I'm sure he's a patriot)(not the patriot spy though) doesn't disappoint.

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Raid of No Return doesn't attempt to tell the entire story of World War II. Towards the end of the book, narrator Nathan Hale (this one is the patriot spy) explains that this is only one story of many, and it will take many books to tell those stories. Instead, as he did with the Revolutionary War and Civil War, Hale (actually just assume it's both Hales) uses a smaller event within the war to tell the larger story. In this case, it's the Do0little Raids on Japan.

Going in, I didn't know much about the Doolittle raids, other than that they were featured in that Pearl Harbor movie (creatively titled Pearl Harbor) where Captain Jimmy Dolittle was played by Jack Donaghy Alec Baldwin. The raids were an American air strike against Japan, the first to reach the Japanese home islands. The attack was launched from aircraft carriers, and was a one-way mission; if the pilots and crews survived, they were to land in China and work their way home from there.

As with the other books in the series, Hale (uh, both) does an excellent job of providing context for the relatively limited events showcased in the book. This means laying out the increasing aggressions of the Japanese in the fifty years leading up to World War II. In the United States, we often just talk about Pearl Harbor coming out of nowhere, but in fact the Japanese had been building their power empire in a series of invasions and wars against Russia, China, French Indochina, and other nations and territories beginning in 1894. This positioned Japan with one of the most powerful navies in the world, with uncontested dominance of the eastern Pacific. They were bound to run up against Hawaii sometime.

We mostly see the attack on Pearl Harbor from the side of the Japanese, and Hale (whoever) does a great job of laying out the purpose, events, and success of the attack. For being the worst attack on American soil in the twentieth century, Hale manages to tell the tale with his now-patented balance of exposition, excitement, suspense, and even humor--somehow while maintaining a reverence and respect for lives lost on both sides of the battle.

As a history teacher, I appreciate the way he uses maps and diagrams to help explain the strategic and tactical side of these battles; as a comics reader and dad, I love that he's able to bring the personality of the individuals involved to life. There are a lot of graphic novels out there about World War II, but many of them have the cold distance of a textbook with illustrations added; Hale truly marries the text and pictures, so that each supports the other.

The bulk of the book is about the Doolittle raids themselves; we see the technical problems of launching sixteen B-25 bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier, the secrecy of the mission, even to the pilots and crews who were flying to Japan. In this age of GPS-guided missiles and drone strikes, it's jarring to see men flying in tin cans and dropping bombs with gadgets that are only a few steps removed from line-of-sight opening a door and throwing it out the window. Hale explains all of this in a concise but thorough way, building more context for the heroism of these soldiers as he goes.

One of the things that's rarely explained in the history books is what happened to the pilots and crews after their successful mission. Some escaped to safety with the help of the Chinese; others were captured by Japanese and held in P.O.W. camps until the end of the war. A few managed to land and trek across the Himalayas to India (!!!) where they were able to make their way home. And several of them die, either in the immediate aftermath of the raids or executed as prisoners of the enemy. Each of these stories would make a book in their own right, but Hale gives us more about the lives of these men than I've ever seen before.

As Hale wraps up this Hazardous Tale, he explains that the Doolittle Raids were successful, but their significance wasn't the strategic win, it was the emotional win. The boost to morale that it brought to the Pacific Theater, which had seen nothing but losses to the Japanese navy for all of 1942. The realization that the Japanese weren't invulnerable, and the renewed motivation for the crews of the ships and planes that would be needed to keep fighting. Hale lists twenty-one other battles over the next three years, ending with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hale is able to give an overview of a significant historic event while still giving us a very personal story about how the individuals of history made a difference. It's not always the "big names," but the everyday guy, the pilot, the crewman, the soldier, the mechanic who make history. The end of the book includes a coda about the men of the Doolittle Raids; only one was still living as of 2017. This reminder that the Greatest Generation is nearly gone is sobering. Hale gives us insight into the writing of the book, including his bibliography, his experience learning how to draw B-25s, and where readers can get more information about World War II and the raids themselves. We're also left with a tease -- we have seven books in the Hazardous Tales series so far...what's next? My 13 year old and I are hoping for the Civil Rights Movement, but whatever Hale delivers next, we'll devour. He's making history cool, and we've got a front row seat.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

LEGO Set of the Month: World Fun

It's the 60th anniversary of the LEGO brick this year, which should serve to either make you feel like "wow, LEGO has been around since my great-great-great-grandparents were born" or "huh, I'm old." I fall somewhere in between. The more handsome side, whatever that is.

As part of their big 6-0, LEGO is releasing a series of sets simply called "Building Better Thinking." Which could be the title of a keynote address that I could give. Anytime. Really. Call my people. The idea behind these sets is to give kids a set of a variety of bricks and slopes and plates and pieces that aren't oriented toward any one thing, but showing them the infinite possibilities that LEGO provides. 

This is similar to the existing "Classic" line that I give away in my workshops (call my people), but with a few more specialized pieces, loosely clustered around a theme. The set I'm focusing on is the mid-sized set, World Fun. Essentially 300 pieces that can be used to build just about anything, the set does include instructions for a seahorse, a frog (complete with extended tongue and a freshly caught fly), and a helicopter. There's an "Atlantis" style underwater temple, and a pink ice cream sundae pictured on the box, but there are no instructions for them. I built the Atlantis temple based on looking at the picture, and there were enough pink pieces left over that the sundae is buildable too. 

This sets it apart from other "Creator" sets, where there are three different models pictured on the box, but you need to disassemble Model 1 to build Model 2, etc. There are also two minifigures, a girl in purple and blue, and a boy in orange and brown. 

As much as I love the Star Wars and superhero LEGO sets, there's something to be said for a box of colorful bricks that can be used to build just about anything. That's what the Building Better Thinking sets are all about. If you're looking for a way to start a classroom or grade level LEGO collection, this is a great place to start. 


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 January LEGO Set of the Month will be at 11 AM MST on Saturday, January 27. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Some Thoughts on The Last Jedi

This isn't my typical Play Like a Pirate blog post, but I've had enough people ask me, and I've thought about it long enough now that I guess I'll write something here.

This isn't quite a review of The Last Jedi, but some thoughts about some of the characters and situations in the movie. 






...if you're planning on seeing it sometime, I'd say don't read this now. But come back and read it sometime. There are some education-related elements here, so it's not completely out of the Play Like a Pirate wheelhouse, plus, my user name on everything is "JediKermit," so doyyyy. I can write about Star Wars anytime I want. 









First off, I've gotta say that I've only seen the movie once so far. That will change over the coming days and weeks as I have more time over winter break, and as some of the pressure of preparing for the holidays passes. As the closing credits rolled, I was kind of in shock. Not just the events and tone of the movie, which are vastly different from The Force Awakens, but...there were so many unexpected twists and turns. Part of the appeal of Star Wars for many people is they kind of know what they're going to get. A popcorn movie, a safe movie where they know the end from the beginning before even sitting down to watch it. That wasn't this movie. It didn't start like I expected it to, it didn't middle like I expected it to, it didn't end like I expected it to. And while that threw me for a loop last Saturday, the more I think about it, the more I love it. That doesn't mean it was perfect for me, but wow. It got so much right.

In no particular order, some thoughts:

I love Rey. I loved her in The Force Awakens, I love her here. One of the big mysteries about her from The Force Awakens was her parentage. There were a million fan theories, most often that she was a Skywalker somehow--through either Han-and-Leia or Luke-and-Mystery-Woman-But-Not -Leia-They-Just-Kissed-a-Few-Times. I also read that she may be a Kenobi (somehow?) a Palpatine (no please) or a Jabba. None of those were the answer I wanted. I wanted, I almost needed, Rey to be...a nobody. She calls herself a nobody in The Force Awakens, and that seems to be the answer that she got in The Last Jedi. In the "mirror cave" on Ahch-To, she's granted her great desire--to see who her parents are, and only sees herself. Later on, Kylo Ren tries to break her spirit by telling her the truth--that her parents were junk dealers on Jakku who sold her for a few credits. That truth is meant to destroy her; instead it lets her let go of her past and move forward. There is a possibility that Kylo Ren is lying to her, simply to be cruel...but I hope that this story about her parents is the truth. Not because she wasn't loved, but because it opens the door to all of us. Even though I don't have the blood of a Skywalker in me, I can still be a Jedi. I can access the Force. So can you. So can a little stable boy on Canto Bight. The Jedi (and Sith) don't have a monopoly on the greatness, the ability to touch the divine nature of the universe--to paraphrase Luke in both Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens trailer--we have that power too. And I love that. I need that.

I really like the character of Finn. I like his backstory of a Stormtrooper Gone Good, he's funny, he's got enough courage that he gets the job done, but is scared enough of the situations that he gets into that I relate to him. Because I am a coward when it comes to blowing stuff up. I want to see more of what makes him tick. After two movies, he still feels like an unfinished character. I enjoyed him here, but would have liked to have seen him teamed up with Rey for more than a few seconds. Their friendship is one of my favorite things about these new films, and we didn't see that here. Which brings us to 

She's a new character for this movie, and...I can't think of any new character that I love more. I love that she's an engineer working down in the bowels of the Resistance Cruiser, she (like Rey?) thinks of herself as a nobody. She's not a Hero of the Resistance. But rebounding from her sister's death, she first stops Finn from escaping, and then helps him on a mission that ends up giving the heroes a chance to escape. She has courage, she's funny, she ends up summing up the point of the movie (and possibly all of Star Wars) towards the end when she says "That's how we're going to win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love." ...or something like that. I've only seen it once. In a movie that crushes the Resistance into powder, that line gave us hope. 

In the opening scene, we see Poe Dameron as the badass pilot that he's rumored to be, and although that run was implausible, hey. We've seen pilots do implausible things in Star Wars before. From that point on, Poe is frustrated that he doesn't get to fight. Doesn't get to do what he was built to do. He butts heads with General Leia Organa, and then Admiral Holdo. I like Poe. He's charismatic, he rubs BB-8's tummy like a dog when they're reunited, he's willing to sacrifice all for the Resistance. I dig him.

Ohhhhhh this is rough. I love Leia so much. And with Carrie Fisher gone...there were parts of this that were heartbreaking. You have to wonder where they would have gone with her character in Episode IX...we saw her overtly (but possibly unconsciously) using Jedi powers for the first time ever, in a scene that some people didn't like, and I would have handled differently, but ultimately liked...because if Rian Johnson had killed her off like that (like Admiral Ackbar, now Frozen Fish Sticks for the Cosmos)(it wasn't even a trap, just a FWOOSH), I would have completely lost it. As it is, she and her leadership got showcased here, even under the most bleak of circumstances. I will never not love Princess-General Leia Organa. And never not be sad about losing Carrie Fisher the way we did. I loved her in The Last Jedi, and thought this was a beautiful ending to her story.

Maz Kanata
There was simply not enough of her. One of my favorite small (ha!) characters in The Force Awakens, just getting to talk to her via holo-Skype for a few minutes was not nearly enough. Rocketpack though, so hey.

Kylo Ren
...I'm still thinking about this one. I liked him so much more here than in The Force Awakens, he got to be more complex, got to move past being a Vader wannabe, and the conflict that we see tearing him apart in the first movie just got deeper in this one. His connection with Rey was fascinating, his relationship with Snoke terrifying, and the rivalry with Hux still made me laugh. But I'm still thinking about the many ways that Kylo Ren and his actions could be interpreted from this movie. I may revisit this paragraph after seeing the movie again.

Also I want him to make hisself a new helmet for Episode IX. I know it probably won't happen, and I liked his reasons for destroying his old one...but man. I like cool helmets okay?

I love seeing my old friends again. They were probably in this movie enough, but I always feel like I want more of them. Chewbacca roasting a Porg, and then unable to eat it while the other Porgs look on? That's my favorite thing. My. Favorite. Thing.

I love him. An even more adorabler version of R2-D2, and packed with more gadgets, and can evidently be used like a slot machine. Any time something implausible happened with him, I'd think "okay, would I accept R2-D2 doing that?" and the answer was always yes. So it works. And as said before, when he's reunited with Poe and gets his tummy (technically I guess he's ALL tummy) scratched, I love it. Cuz dogs.

I was impressed with the animation, I was impressed with Andy Serkis' performance, I was impressed with the pure sadism and malice in his character. I liked his gold robes, I liked his sweet throne room, I liked his sleek and sexy Praetorian Guard. Also, I liked-and-was-shocked that they just sliced him half and he toppled to the floor. Holy crap. If they were going for a Palpatine/Vader relationship with Snoke/Kylo....they just ended that. And I love that. His entire world burned down around his corpse, and while it may be the most violent scene in Star Wars history (not counting the billions of lives snuffed out by various superweapons), wow it was pretty. Speaking of pretty, check out those eyebrows. It's like he and I are twins. Snoke was deliciously evil. And I hope we never find out who he was beyond that. I'm satisfied. 

With as plugged in as I am to both Star Wars and Muppets...I'm surprised I didn't hear about his appearance beforehand. So when he did appear...I was overwhelmed. I mean, I do everything I can to avoid spoilers for any more, but double down on that with Star Wars movies. So he was a complete surprise, and I was completely delighted. He was the funny Yoda. He was kind of a jerk to Luke. But he also loved and kept teaching Luke. I liked that he's spent 30-something years in a Jedi afterlife continuing to reflect on his life and realizing the ways that he (and the Jedi) had gone wrong. I loved that it was Puppet Yoda, not CGI, and it was still Frank Oz, and I still heard Grover and Miss Piggy and Fozzie in the mix. As a teacher, I've always thought about Yoda when teaching...and Yoda's final lesson, "The greatest teacher, failure is"...is something that resonates with me. I believe in Yoda.

Luke Frigging Skywalker
With The Force Awakens ending with a sweeping shot of Rey handing Luke his long lost lightsaber, and with that movie being all about finding Luke...I'd been speculating about his life on Ahch-To more than maybe anything else. Would he be training Rey the way he was trained on Dagobah? Would he climb in a li'l backpack and Rey would carry him around? The answer, as with many other things in The Last Jedi, is more complicated. Luke has been punishing himself since Ben Solo turned to the Dark Side and became Kylo Ren. We see the events that led up to that from both Kylo Ren's and Luke's perspectives, which I thought was interesting...as with many things in Star Wars, it brought to mind ancient stories--this time of Abraham and Isaac, with the father prepared to sacrifice the son, then turning away. This had more disastrous consequences. His guilt about his nephew, his anger at himself...I can relate to all of that. As a teacher, as a son, as a brother, as a father. How many things would I do differently if I could do them again? But we can't. We need to move forward, not look back. I loved Luke's explanation of the Force to Rey, opening the door that the Jedi didn't have the monopoly on the Force (see above), and with the realization that what he had done wasn't the only way. His final confrontation with Kylo Ren, his final reunion with Leia, his relationship with Rey...they were all completely unexpected takes on the character, and wow. I loved every note. If this is Mark Hamill's last performance as Luke Skywalker, it was perfect. 

The planet Luke and Rey were on (also Chewbacca, R2-D2, and Porgs and Caretakers and Whatever-the-hell-Luke-milked-to-get-that-green-milk) was completely beautiful and charming and the kind of place that sets my imagination spinning. I want to go to there. I love that it was filmed on location (until disrupting the native puffin population, when they moved to built sets, but hey I can't tell the difference), and is a green, earthy setting but completely different from Star Wars worlds we've seen before. It seems like it would be rich with the Force...and smell better than Dagobah. I'm in. The mysterious things like that Force Tree and the Dark Side Pit and Cave of Mirrors...yes. All of that, yes. 

The final scenes of The Last Jedi take place on the mineral world of Crait. White salt flats with red minerals underneath. It's visually breathtaking, and as with Ahch-To, it fires up my imagination. I loved the vulptex (crystal fox things) and appreciate that they were built puppets, not just CGI creations (at least for the close-ups). I love that they filmed parts of that on actual salt flats in Bolivia, and while the final confrontation between the First Order and the Resistance didn't end in triumph...it was impressive. 

A few things that Did Not Work For Me

I love Captain Phasma. I love Gwendolyn Christie. I love the mystery of Captain Phasma. I'm fine with her only being in a few minutes of both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. But I want her to be more badass. She's capable of it. When she got shot by a blaster and it just ricocheted off that chrome armor? Yeaaaaahhhh!!! But then she got beaten too fast. I loved that we just saw the perfect blue of her eye as her helmet cracked...and then she fell into the flames of...hell, basically. Still. I would like to see her come back. Terminator-style, as this unkillable force of nature. We thought she died in a trash compactor two years ago...maybe she's still around. 

Resistance Cruiser Plot Device
Throughout the movie, the Resistance Cruiser is limping along toward Crait. It's running out of fuel, it can't jump to hyperspace because the First Order has a hyperspace tracker on it. The First Order Dreadnought is picking off the support ships one by one, and the shields of the Cruiser are holding. All of this works as a plot device, but it's so...it doesn't work for me. Why wouldn't the First Order launch all of their TIE Fighters, which can catch up with the Cruiser and start attacking it there? Why not hyperjump to right in front of the Cruiser and start beating the heck out of it? Why not go to Crait ahead of them and ambush them there? The slow burn of the pursuit builds tension the way submarine movies do...but it left me scratching my head. For these particular characters and these particular events...it doesn't make sense. I'll just keep my head down and enjoy the movie. I can do that. And I like that a hell of a lot more than (another) superweapon ala the Death Star. 

That's all of my thoughts. 

Trust me, it's better to read them than have a conversation with me about them. Because if you thought that was long...

You can see my other blog posts on Star Wars and how to use it with students here:

William Shakespeare's Star Wars

The Force Awakens

Using Star Wars to Teach Biomes and Ecosystems

Teach Me, You Did

Yoda was Wrong

For other ways to use Star Wars in the Classroom, as always, check out my friends at...Star Wars in the Classroom. They've got incredible resources, and they're always looking for new and exciting ways to teach using Star Wars and other pop culture.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

5 Tips for Going Strong into Winter Break

The winter break in my district is short this year. It's short every year. Probably so we get out of school at Memorial Day instead of going well into the month of June. Which is good, because Quinnmas is June 12th, and we don't want to be stuck in school for THAT. Because our winter break is short, we go right up until December 21st. It leaves less time for shopping, less time for travel, and makes some things more stressful around the holidays themselves. This last week of teaching kids, I know a lot of us are in survival mode. If we can tread water long enough, we'll make it. I get that feeling. I feel that feeling. But I also want to go into the break feeling good. Here are five tips to go strong into Winter Break. These would also apply to Spring Break, and Summer Break, and a Compound Fracture. Actually, avoid that last one.

1. Keep Teaching. 
This one seems pretty obvious. Like, it's our job. But with all of the other disruptions -- assemblies, dances, student body officers stopping by with singing telegrams and candy canes -- it can be easy to kind of throw up your hands and do Five Days of Christmas Movies between now and when you go on break. There are teachers that do. Personally, I hate classroom parties. I didn't like them as a student, I didn't like them as a teacher. If your students have seven classes, there's a good chance they'll have parties in at least four of them next week. I love the idea of being the teacher that they get a break from the partying and they actually get to do, like, school stuff. That doesn't mean you don't have fun. It doesn't mean you don't do something winter-themed or holiday-themed. You can mix it up with clips from Elf or A Muppet Christmas Carol or The Tale of the Merry Chupacabra. But get your content in there. Keep teaching. You'll have students complain, but also have as many be relieved that they get to do something.

2. Clean Your Room.
ZOMG this is the worst Play Like a PIRATE post ever. I heard that. Winter Break is nearly halfway through the school year. You've been teaching at least eighty days by now. Which, if you're like me (some of you aren't, and are completely tidy all the time, and God bless you, every one), you have...accrued...stacks of things. Graded papers. Ungraded papers. Projects. Post-It Notes. Books. Over the next week, do the kind of cleaning that you do at the end of the school year. A purge of the archaeological layers of schoolness that have already built up between September and now. Get the graded things back to students, finish the grading of the ones that you haven't. Get it out of the way so that when you come back in January, it's to a clean classroom. I know for a fact that I won't be losing weight over the holidays, but I can move a metric ton of stuff out of my classroom and feel good about it.

3. Let Them Have a Break, Let You Have a Break.
I have my students do a long-term project every quarter. It's the only "homework" thing I ever have them do. Even then, we do a lot of that in class. And I  have it due the week before Winter Break. I don't want my project (which I think is valuable and important and good) to ruin the holidays for my students and their families. I want to build goodwill with those families, not cause contention within them. So anything big, I'd have due before the break. The other piece of this is that you, yourself, deserve a break. I used to bring home those 210 (yeah. Utah. Big classes.) middle school projects, and would spend days grading them. I'd wait until after Christmas, but it would be a big, stressful chunk of my own holidays. When you lock your classroom door, do everything you can to leave that classroom behind you until January. It's not easy, because even when I'm not teaching, I'm a teacher. I'm always thinking about it. And that's cool. But take a break. You need it.

4. Be Healthy.
(He said, while caffeinating at 6:34 AM) we've already had one wave of flu hit us this season, things are a little congesty, it's cold and smoggy outside, it's dark and somewhat depressing. Find something each day of winter break that will improve your health. Your physical health, your emotional health. For some of us, that's doing things with family. But. For some of us, it's saying no to a family member asking us to do one more thing. Maybe it's only spending six hours with family instead of ten. (It sounds like I have more family issues than I actually do.) Sleep in. Get up early. Go to the gym. Go on a hike. Play with your dog. Eat some fruit and nuts instead of candy. There are as many ways to make healthy choices as there are to completely bottom out during the Winter Break...do what you can to make that break restful, but also rejuvenating. Taking a break doesn't mean going on a sugar bender for ten days.

5. Get Yourself Something Completely Unnecessary.
Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, they all have an element of gift-giving. Of generosity, of fun. If you don't celebrate any of those things you probably have fewer family issues than I do, you can do this too. Find something you want to do, and do it. That may mean buying a LEGO set for yourself. It may mean going to see The Last Jedi 27 times. It may mean planning a trip for later in the year (or going on one now). Teachers by nature give a lot. Time, energy, work, thought, love. Our careers are built on those things. Leading up to Christmas, I see my students and others who have great need, and I think I'm generous in donating to Sub for Santa and Toys for Tots and Angel Tree and Food Bank and all of the many ways I know families are hurting in December. I'm guessing you do too. And we should. I've been that kid, I've been blessed by the generosity of others. Don't forget yourself. I know some people only want practical gifts, and I'mma let you finish, but there is a time for something frivolous, something fun, something that will make you laugh. It doesn't have to be big, doesn't have to be expensive...but do something for you.

All of the images in this post are from P.J. McQuade, who has the most geektastic Christmas cards and ornaments you've ever seen. P.J.'s Etsy site is the place to buy them. I don't know P.J. But dang. Good stuff.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Graphic Novel Review The Flintstones Vol. 1

Over the last year or so, DC Comics has launched new comic book versions of classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The best of these, and the most classroom-relevant is The Flintstones. The others so far in descending order include the Jetsons (just started last month, but I really enjoyed the first issue) Scooby-Doo Apocalypse (which...I wasn't a fan; I prefer pulling a rubber mask off of Old Man Withers to actual mass killing of zombies) and Wacky Racers, which I couldn't make it through because it was terrible. My opinion only, but as is usually the case, I'm right. But hey, positivity, so here we go: 

The Flintstones got great reviews from the get-go. Writer Mark Russell and artist Steve Pugh have taken the town of Bedrock and its citizens and brought it into the twenty-first century while keeping it in the stone age. The original cartoon series was the first-ever animated series in prime time, running for six seasons starting in 1960. It was groundbreaking for the time in its connections to twentieth century life; the new comic is a little more biting. I was a fan of the cartoon when I was a pup (in reruns) and a lot of the things about the tv show that I found charming have made their way into the book.

Volume 1 of the series collects the first five issues of the comic books in a single 168-page book.  paperback." Instead of Fred, Wilma, Barney and Betty being punchlines for corny jokes, they're now the arbiters of brilliant satire that skewers (and sometimes celebrates) the world around us. The stories end up being a lens to view our own civilization, and our lack of civility. Which makes it an incredible resource for helping students see multiple sides of controversial modern day issues.

Some of those social issues:

Consumerism: one of the things I loved about both the old TV series and the comics is people living side-by-side with dinosaurs and mammoths. Paleontologically inaccurate, but fun. Those dinosaurs and mammoths become the machines, appliances, and playthings for the residents of Bedrock. So Fred's quarry is equipped with dinosaurs, their vacuum cleaner is a young mammoth, and the lamp is some kind of prehistoric bird. When the people aren't around, the appliances talk among themselves; an ongoing subplot is the new vacuum cleaner getting to know the other creatures in the broom closet, confessing his anxieties and befriending the rather terse armadillo-bowling-ball. A favorite pastime of Fred, Wilma, and their teenage daughter Pebbles is going to the local mall and buying more stuff...seemingly just to buy more stuff. When an appliance is considered outdated (even if it's still functional) it's surplused and turned into some kind of meat byproduct pet chow, and replaced with the newer model...which looks identical to us as the reader, and not really cared about or valued by even the "good" characters in the book. The wastefulness and frivolity of consumerism is on display, and sometimes shocking.

PTSD and the Morality of War: In the cartoon, Fred and Barney were both members of a fraternal lodge, the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes. It's headed up by the Grand Poobah, but you're never really told what exactly that lodge is, or why these men are all gathered together. In the comic, it's explained. And it's pretty horrific. It turns out these are all veterans of a war. A war in which this civilization wiped out the Neanderthals. So...genocide. In conversations among themselves, they at times are disturbed by what they did...but outside of the lodge, go about their lives just like everyone else. One character in particular is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it's all just much more complex and tragic than you'd expect from a Flintstones comic book. In a more recent comic (collected in Volume 2) the army is called up to go to war again, and the morality of that war (spoilers: when they get to where their enemies are camped, they're not there, so you don't actually see a battle or anything) is also debated.

Marriage Equality: It turns out that Fred and Wilma Flinstone and their neighbors Barney and Betty Rubble are seen as kind of freaks in their community because of their (to us) traditional marriage. The other people in Bedrock just go to the Sex Cave. Which is never fully explained, and you don't see much of how other families raise kids or anything, but...it's a Sex Cave. I'm sure you can figure it out. In town meetings and churches, Bedrock debates the nature of marriage and family and relationships, clearly mirroring our current debates about all of those same things. The setting, removed from us, softens some of the controversy in these issues, while still allowing the conversation to happen. It makes both the Flintstones and the Rubbles reexamine their own marriages, making the story personal and poignant. The way the issue is framed makes it safe for discussion; I'd even use it in my (pretty dang) conservative schools in Utah. 

Elections and Governing: There are a few different elections that happen in the course of the book: Pebbles is involved in an election at her middle school, and Bedrock needs to elect a new mayor. We see debates, we see how qualified or unqualified the candidates are, their platforms--but in a way that's funny and relevant and disconnected from our recent election (thank goodness, I can't relive that quite yet), but still raising issues that are ripe for student discussion. As with the other controversial topics, they're made more safe by using the Stone Age setting, and more funny, too. 

Religion and Science: Bedrock is in a transitional period from prehistoric religion to something much more recognizable. Their religious leader starts up his own church (eventually called the Church of Geraldo Gerald) and draws in parishioners who end up being an ongoing vocal group that we see from time to time. The leader tweaks the doctrine of the Church of Gerald from week to week, seeing what will fit best with his flock; sometimes experimenting during the worship services themselves. In a more recent issue (also collected in Volume 2) they even look at the idea of Indulgences, a sixteenth century practice of paying money to the church to erase your sins, that ticked a dude named Martin Luther King Jr off enough to nail a list of his beefs with the church to the door. Aaaaand has some parallels to for-profit-churches that will be recognizable to kids today. Good fodder for thought and maybe classroom discussion if you want to go there. Science and "science" end up with the same kind of debate, with Pebbles volunteering at the Bedrock Science Center and asking some pretty pointed questions about the nature of knowledge and experimentation.

In all, this is a fascinating and entertaining read, coming close to preachy at times, but more often leaving the reader asking questions that the comic doesn't fully answer. If you're a fan of the old television series, you'll recognize the characters and scenarios here, and for me, that's part of the fun of the book. The characters are more complex than they used to be, with Wilma on an ongoing search for fulfillment as an artist; many of the episodes of the cartoon had Wilma and Betty deceiving their husbands (and Fred and Barney doing the same) to get what they wanted -- a very Lucy and Desi model -- you don't see much of that at all in the book. Fred and Wilma don't always understand each other, but their relationship is more healthy than it was in the 1960s. 

I'd start out using the book by showing the animated introduction and theme song to the series (and probably closing class with the closing credits)(because I really like Fred trying to put the saber-tooth cat out for the night and getting locked out). It'll be in your head all day, but it will help frame the comic for kids who probably have seen the characters on cereal boxes or vitamin bottles, but haven't ever watched the cartoon themselves. 

It can be difficult to acquire classroom sets of comic books or graphic novels, but in this book in particular, there are individual pages or even panels that open the door for deep discussion. Take a page or two from the book and use it as a text set with other texts (a nonfiction reading passage, a poem, an opinion piece) and have students incorporate the debate points from The Flintstones in an argument. 

You could even get all STEMy with it and have them design their own prehistoric machines that would make their lives easier. Tangent: Pebbles and Bam-Bam both have cell phones. That are clearly made of rock, but still function. Like...how? I'm able to understand and appreciate the pterosaur airplane, but the phones? Also their televisions. I mean...yeah. Okay. Sorry. 

You could have students do the research and make clear the connections in the comic to the current state of those debates. Have the debates been settled? What are the "punctuation marks" in history where these debates have been most...debated? 

I'd say the comic is appropriate at least in excerpts for middle school, but high school is where I really see kids getting into the social issues raised. At the price point for the first volume, if you've seen anything at all in this review that made you stop and think, you should get a copy and delve into it. I had heard good things about the book from friends, but it was better and more complex and more funny than I had imagined. I've been a fan of The Flintstones since I was a kid...but this made me love them all over again.