Monday, February 29, 2016

Graphic Novel Review: Cardboard

"Cardboard" Doug TenNapel. 286 pages, softcover. Scholastic, 2012. 9 out of 10. 
As a teacher and as a geek parent, it's one of my jobs to find graphic novels that appeal to kids that are also readable and enjoyable for adults. It seems like that should be easy enough, but too many of the "adult" books indulge in over-the-top violence, sex, or language that we all use whilst driving, but you wouldn't recommend to young readers. One of the more reliable authors and artists for "all ages" comics has been Doug TenNapel. Most famous for his creation Earthworm Jim, I've also enjoyed three of his recent books, Ghostopolis, Bad Island, and now Cardboard
Like the others, Cardboard features a young protagonist with a family in turmoil. Cam's dad is unemployed, and his mom died a few years ago. It's been a rough patch for his dad , who's so broke that Cam's birthday present is...a box. An empty cardboard box. Now, growing up, we had some lean times, and goodness knows I've had my fun with empty cardboard boxes...but this sucks. Cam makes the best of it, and he and his Awfully Handy dad build a boxer out of the box. Bill the Boxer, standing in the living room...until he comes to life. Seems that the cardboard that Dad bought from the odd man on the side of the road will bring to life whatever you build out of it. In this case, a boxer. Bill's friendly, and eager, and wants to become a "real man" like Cam and Dad. 

Dad buying the cardboard

From this point the story expands. If you can build anything out of cardboard and have it become a living thing, what are the limits? They start by building smaller things with the scraps, but quickly run out of cardboard. They come up with an ingenious solution, one that puts them on the road to unlimited possibilities. If they're able to make anything, are there ethical constraints? Can they build an army of Bill the Boxers? Cam builds a miniature version of his dad--could they build his (dead) mom? Should they? 
These are great conversation starters with students, and strong prompts for argumentative writing or debates. There are also connections to STEM, STEAM, and Makerspaces; actually building some projects out of recycled cardboard, writing about what would happen if what they built came to life?  

This is another graphic novel where I've seen how my own son (at times a reluctant reader) latched onto a book and has re-read it many times. If a book can hook him, it will hook other students who don't consider themselves "readers." 
There are villains, like the rich neighbor kid who wants to get his hands on the magic cardboard, and legions of monsters who want to destroy not only Cam, but their entire neighborhood. It's an adventure story, but it's also a story about a kid finding acceptance, and a dad finding some self-esteem despite his miserable situation. It's even a love story. Kids might find themselves attracted to the adventure, while adults will enjoy the deeper ideas within the book, and appreciate the artistry involved in telling the story. 

Marcus running from monsters

Visually, the book is striking. TenNapel has a distinctive style,and he continues it here. Heavy lines, cartoony figures, and stark contrasts are the hallmarks of his artwork, and it works well for this story. I love comics and graphic novels where artists get to cut loose with anything their imagination throws at them, and the cardboard creations of Cam and others provide that opportunity for TenNapel. If you've been looking for a graphic novel that you could enjoy yourself and enjoy teaching to students, Cardboard is a great pick. 

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

LEGO Minifigures for the Classroom

Minifigures via LEGO Education

Even though most of the activities I do with students (and teachers) don't use minifigures, for some
projects you do want the little guys. There are a few ways to get them at a relatively decent price.

There are small "starter sets"that typically come with four minifigures for about $10.00. They usually also have a small vehicle or building with them, and the ones out right now include Police, Fire, Construction, and Space sets. (I was wondering about the wisdom of them putting out a set called "Fire Starter Set," but hey. LEGO does no wrong.) That's more minifigures than you get in many LEGO sets--even the largest sets only have about six characters in them these days. So going small in this case may be better.

The other option, and one I recommend to classroom teachers, is to buy the sets offered through LEGO Education. They've got two different sets: Fairytale and Historic Minifigures and Community Minifigures. Each comes with 22 characters; "Fairytale and Historic" includes kings and queens and knights and soldiers and bandits and pirates and witches and mermaids and uh, a snake charmer. One of these things is really really not like the others. "Community" means the people in your neighborhood, so police, firefighters, EMTs, mechanics, postal workers...those kinda people. Both sets have a lot of pieces and accessories to make those worlds come to life, so besides the minifigures you're getting tiny castles and swords and treasure chests and skateboards and pizzas and gold mines. If you want an instant classroom set of minifigures, buy one of each of those, and you're done. Sadly, Hot Dog Suit Guy seen above is *not* one of the LEGO Education Minifigures. Ah, I love him.

Beware the LEGO knockoffs that you find on Amazon or eBay; the ones I see most often are sets offering 20 LEGO minifigures for six bucks. Seems too good to be true? Well, it is. It bothers me enough that they're violating LEGO's proprietary rights by making them in China for pennies and then selling them here...but having bought a set to see if they're the same as LEGO...they're not. Cheap plastic, legs that fall off, arms that don't move, heads that are loose and get lost, with hairpieces/hats that don't fit. So...if you're tempted, because you've got a tight budget and think "hey, this will make all my students happy!" ...they won't. They'll be frustrated at the minifigures breaking and ruining whatever Big Plans the kids had. So don't bother. 

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Graphic Novel Review: T-Minus: The Race to the Moon

T-Minus: The Race to the Moon. (9 out of 10) Jim Ottaviani, Art by Kevin and Zander Cannon. Graphic Novel Paperback, 128 pages, black and white. 2009, Aladdin.
I recently read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, which was an interesting, nearly-fictionalized retelling of the story of the Mercury 7 astronauts--the first Americans to go into space. I haven't ever seen the movie...I should get around to that. 
John F KennedyI guess I'm in a Space Race kind of mood, because I just finished Jim Ottaviani's T-Minus: The Race to the Moon. The graphic novel-format book has art by Zander and Kevin Cannon, and is Ottaviani at his best. His graphic novels usually focus on science or scientists, and have classroom connections on every page. Where The Right Stuff focused nearly exclusively on the astronauts, T-Minus is more about the scientists--the brains behind (underneath?) the rockets that were carrying mankind into space. Most Americans just tell the American side of the story. Instead, Ottaviani masterfully interweaves the story of the Space Race between the USA and USSR--treating the competition to get to the moon as another facet of the Cold War, which it of course was. He makes sure we know it really was a race--not just the United States' destiny to be the first ones to the moon.
Each new section of the book is chaptered with a date and "T-Minus..."the amount of time between that date and the day and time that Neil Armstrong's foot touched the moon's surface. It's an interesting way to countdown what was a twelve-year period of time, for the United States spanning several presidencies from Eisenhower to JFK to LBJ to Nixon; for the USSR, from Khrushchev to Brezhnev. We get flashbacks to the visions of Russian Tsiolkovsky, who took Jules Verne's ideas about rocket travel and first tried to apply science to them; to Operation Paperclip, which had the United States snagging German scientists after World War II, bringing Werner von Braun to the US to work for our rocketry program. Those are diversions, and most of the book is in chronological order, moving forward to the June 1969 moon landing.
Control RoomOttaviani and the artists include some features that I loved in the book. When dialogue is spoken in Russian, the Rs are printed backwards, and all As are in lower case, mimicking Cyrillic writing. There were times in the black and white book that it was confusing, remembering which group of rocket scientists we were looking at. The "Cyrillic" helped differentiate that. The other feature is a series of drawings and statistics in the margins of many pages. Each time a rocket went up, from either Russia or the United States, it gets an illustration of the rocket, the name of the mission, duration of the mission, and animals, satellites, cargo or astronauts/cosmonauts on board. There's a tiny image of a map of the US or Russia at the bottom, and if the mission failed, "UNSUCCESSFUL" in a banner at the top of the page, often with an illustration of what went wrong. It demonstrates visually how neck-and-neck the Space Race really was, and the victories and failures on either side of the Iron Curtain.
Eventually, the book does transition from the scientists to the astronauts, and we do get a good idea of what it was like to be with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on the Apollo 11 mission. Despite knowing the end of the story, Ottaviani is able to craft a script with tension and surprise, and Zander and Kevin Cannon's artwork carries that tale beautifully. 
With the loss of NASA funding, and the failure to replace the space shuttle program, it can be a discouraging time to be a real world space exploration geek. Remember the achievements of the past, and the exciting things like the unmanned probes exploring the solar system. We have a great history in space, and we'll have a great future there as well. It takes the courage showcased in T-Minus: The Race to the Moon to get there. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

He-Man: The Hero's Journey in 60 Seconds

Many of us use the idea of heroes in our curriculum. It may be looking for the heroes in history, it may be looking at the classical concept of a hero and Joseph Campbell's idea of the Hero's Journey. One of my favorite TED-Ed presentations is about that Hero's Journey, and Matthew Winkler does a masterful job of explaining that journey using Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, and Frodo Baggins as examples. And you should go watch that. Alongside those characters, I'd also place Luke Skywalker as a prime candidate for a Classical Hero.

There's another hero that those of us Of A Certain Age (read: kids of the 80s) remember fondly, and that's He-Man. Even if kids today aren't growing up with him, they have an idea of who he is through memes and parodies. The great thing about He-Man's Classical Hero-ness is that you can get most of it from his opening credits, shown at the beginning of every episode: that one minute, we get that he's just an ordinary guy, called on to do extraordinary things. We find the source of his power, we meet his allies, we see his mentor, and the enemies he'll need to defeat to complete his hero's journey. 

And in case you forgot, we also have He-Man's twin sister She-Ra, who has her own introduction sequence, nearly identical to her brother:

Both characters can be additional examples of the Classical Hero and be used in the classroom. Honestly, I'd use Matthew Winkler's examples as the core of a curriculum unit about the Hero's Journey, but these sidebar comparisons can be used to great effect. By simply sharing these two video clips with them, you're explaining how you found out about heroes in the 1980s. You're also making a connection between them and their parents, and you're encouraging them to find the elements of the Hero's Journey in their own pop culture, right now in 2016. Help them explore how their own heroes may be doing the Hero's Journey better than He-Man and She-Ra did. Can they find it in Adventure Time? Yes. Steven Universe? Heck yes. Family Guy? I hope not. Bob's Burgers? We're back to yes. I clearly have cartoon biases.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Randall Munroe's "Thing Explainer" and how to use it in the Classroom

I'm a big fan of Randall Munroe's work. His webcomic xkcd is more than just funny, more than just ironic, it's frequently a good source of explaining how things work. Sometimes those "things" are science, sometimes politics, sometimes relationships. And they are frequently funny, but Munroe helps us make sense of the world around us using simple diagrams and big ideas.

 He does the same thing in his latest book Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. The oversized hardcover book takes about fifty very complicated ideas, objects, and events and explains them using only the thousand words that are used most in the English language. He explains why in his foreword page before the book starts:

"I've spent a lot of my life worried that people will think I don't know enough. Sometimes, that worry has made me use big words when I don't need to... Sometimes I would use those big words because they were different from the small words in an important way. But a lot of the time, I was really just worried that if I used the small words, someone might think I didn't know the big ones."  

Raise your hand if you've felt that way. Whether as a teacher, a student, a parent, or a child, we're put in these positions where our vocabulary determines our knowledge. We send the message that if you don't know the word for it, you clearly don't understand it--and vice versa--if you know the vocabulary word, you know the bigger concept that it represents. Both may be untrue.

In Thing Explainer, Munroe demonstrates how even the most complicated concepts, processes, and inventions can be explained using very simple words...especially when accompanied by complex drawings. That whole "a picture tells a thousand words" idea comes in handy here.

Some of the more beautifully complicated "things" explained:

  • "tiny bags of water you're made of" (animal cells)
  • "boxes that make clothes smell better" (washer and dryer)
  • "The US's laws of the land" (US Constitution)
  • "The US's Laws of the Land" (USS Constitution)(the ship)(I'm still laughing)
  • "shape checker" (padlock)
  • "big tiny thing hitter" (Large Hadron Collider)
  • "the pieces everything is made of" (periodic table)
  • "tree of life" (life's family tree)
  • "hand computer" (cell phones)
...and about forty others. Besides being a solid informational book, it's Funny. There are arrows at the bottom of rocket engines saying "these should be pointing toward the ground if you want to go into space." He manages to do these things without being condescending, and possibly poking fun at traditional textbooks and teaching now and then too. 

Where each page is incredibly detailed, dense with both words and drawings, this isn't the kind of book you would sit down and read in one sitting. It's also not the kind of book you'd have kids sit down and read.  But it has some great classroom application.  Here are some ways to use it:

  1. At the beginning of a unit, use a page relevant to what you're teaching as a primer for what you're going to be learning together.
  2. At the end of a unit that covers that material, have students go through and assign the "big words" (correct vocabulary) to the pieces or processes that Munroe used in his book.
  3. Using Munroe's style of "thing explaining" as a template, have students create their own page that could be added to his book, explaining an important concept that you've learned about in class.
  4. Discuss the importance (or non-importance) of academic vocabulary -- does it make really understanding what you're learning about easier or more difficult? What role should academic vocabulary play?
  5. As a class parse out Munroe's explanation of one thing, and analyze it -- does he really explain what he's claiming to? What would need to be added to his book to make it more helpful to people wanting to understand that "thing?" 

This is a book I love as a non-teacher who's just interested in geeky things like how things work. With my teacher hat back on, I think there's a lot we can learn from this book. I'm a history teacher, so I wish there were more social studies-related topics in the book, but just the page on the Constitution (founding document, not the sailing ship) presents some great opportunities for the classroom. If you like xkcd, you should check out Randall Munroe's Thing Explainer. You'll be glad you did. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

PEZ as a Writing Prompt

Many teachers start informal writing activities with a writing prompt about some kind of ambiguous character. "Your character is lost in the woods, "Your character is writing a note to their Valentine," "Your character is inventing," ...without giving the students an idea of who that character could be. Often it's the student themselves, which is good...other times we want our students to be able to put themselves in someone else's position, to get in someone else's head. For many students, this is a challenge without being assigned a specific character.

A good way to help some of these students with this challenge is by using PEZ. Yes, PEZ. Specifically PEZ dispensers, since the PEZ candy itself...well, it's not my favorite. With over 1500 different characters over the years, and about 100 available at any given time, and at about a dollar per PEZ, it's a cheap way to get a bunch of characters together all at once. And really, what better way to get into someone's head than by using a toy that's just...a head?

Have students take a PEZ blind, from a bag/bowl/bin they can't see into. Whichever character they get that go-round, that's who they've got. Since most PEZ these days are from different parts of pop culture, chances are good they're going to get a character they know a little bit about. That doesn't mean they need to be constrained by that character's onscreen life. So they pull out a PEZ of Rapunzel from Tangled -- they can complete the writing assignment from the perspective of Rapunzel, or another woman who would fit that description. They pull out a PEZ Optimus Prime, they could write from the point of view of the leader of the Autobots, or as some kind of other robot. The Hulk? Superhero or green monster (or green really sweet and misunderstood guy).

Batman. Hello Kitty. Ninja Turtles. Disney Princesses. PEZ can open creative floodgates for these students. Having them select blindly does a few things -- first, it inserts some randomness. The kid (me) who loves Star Wars might end up having to stretch himself to write about My Little Pony. Girls may have to write from a male perspective, boys from female. Chances are good that your students are human -- they might have to write as a duck (Donald), bunny (Bugs) or cat (Tom). If I were left to myself to choose the perspective to write from, it would usually be a Jedi or a Muppet. Forcing me out of my comfort zone isn't a bad thing. Second, if only for a moment, it creates some suspense. Anticipation. Not knowing who you're going to pull out of the bag,'s Velma from Scooby-Doo! Hope she doesn't lose her glasses. She'll totally lose her glasses. We don't use suspense as a tool enough in our classes. It gets them interested, gets them excited. The third advantage is the most simple, and the most obvious. It's silly. It's fun. It will have them talking at recess and at home about the weird thing their teacher had them do today. And they'll want to do it again. Write more. Write different. Write better. Because it's fun.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Graphic Novel Review: Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy (10 out of 10 stars) Nathan Hale. Hardcover graphic novel, 128 pages. Published by Amulet Books, 2012.
I’ve been a fan of Nathan Hale for a while.  Nathan Hale the author and illustrator, not the patriot, although you could be pardoned the confusion.  I loved his illustrations for the graphic novels Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack, and his picture book Yellowbelly and Plum was one of my sons’ favorites.  Hale’s current series has moved him to the top of my list.  
In 2012 Nathan Hale and Amulet Books started a series of graphic novels based on American History, under the banner (literally) Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales.  The first book in the series is One Dead Spy, and it and the following books are interesting, easy to follow, and downright entertaining. I’m buying every one of them.  
One Dead Spy is about Nathan Hale (the patriot, not the author), executed in 1776, at the very beginning of the American Revolution.  The 128-page hardcover comic begins with Manhattan in flames, and a whistling Hangman bringing a noose to a gallows.  He shoos a bald eagle away, and prepares Nathan Hale to be hanged.  They’re soon joined by a British Officer, and these three will be the narrators for the rest of the book.  Given an omniscient overview of American History, Hale sees what the destiny of the country is, and even though things look grim for the colonists (and more especially for Hale personally) in September 1776, he knows that there’s a brighter future.  He proceeds to tell the Hangman and British Officer all about the American Revolution, focusing on the first year, and Hale’s role in it.  
Nathan Hale makes a good narrator for the years 1775-76, and his path crosses with the likes of George Washington, Henry Knox, Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, General Howe and other notable heroes and villains of American History.  The author uses these interactions to tell the key events of the revolution, including the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, the Battle of Bunker Hill (and Breed Hill), the Boston Massacre, and the Declaration of Independence.  He leaves a lot of things untold, telling more of his tales in future volumes, but gives us enough information to make this book a solid read. 
 As a history teacher, parent, geek, and promoter of graphic novels, I love this series. I enjoy the humor and the menace in One Dead Spy—even as the Hangman provides comic relief, you can’t forget that the real narrator, Nathan Hale, was executed.  Some of the humor is in asides, some is in telling the truths of history that are often left out of the dry history books. The illustrations are cartoony but excellent, with no confusion about who's who in the course of the story. Hale (the author) also doesn’t shy away from telling us when people suffered and died, making this more mature reading than you might expect.  I loved it. 
In the Classroom
This whole series is one that kids from 4th-8th grade seem to really connect with. I've seen it with my own sons, and I've seen it with students and their teachers. I love how by telling a relatively small story (of Nathan Hale), Hale (the author)(confusing) is also telling the larger story of the American Revolution, and how it meant different things to different groups of people. It makes a good template for research projects, including Wax Museums, History Fairs, and National History Day competitions. Hale includes a bibliography and research notes at the end of each book, and you're able to see how he made the connections found in the text itself. When teaching a graphic novel, don't forget to use the visual elements of the book -- why are certain characters drawn the way they are, what symbolism is in the artwork, and how do the art and words combine to tell a fuller story than either would on their own? If you're looking for a way to ease graphic novels and comic books into an upper elementary or middle school classroom, this series is a great place to jump in.