Thursday, August 3, 2017

Sidewalk Chalk -- Starting the School Year Right!

Most of us still have a few weeks before kids come back to school, but planning is ramping up. One of the great things about fall is that for a lot of us, fall is a last respite of good weather before snow comes in. Something I always try to do is find a way to use the outdoors while you've got it. And while the P.E. teacher in your building is probably doing that, there's no reason that you as a history, math, language arts, or music teacher can't use your school grounds too.

One of the easiest and cheapest and funnest (yeah, funnest) things to break out in the first weeks of school is some sidewalk chalk. This isn't a new or unique idea. There are a million ideas on Pinterest and edu-sites and even Crayola has a step-by-step lesson plan on Outdoor Geography. That's a good one to look at for some best practices before you take kids outside and turn them loose. I love the idea of doing this in the first few days of the school year, when you're setting the tone not just for your classes, but for the entire campus. Decorating the pavement outside your building is a bold way of doing that. We see this often with elementary schools...but if you're a secondary teacher who just wants to spring your kids from the 7 hours in their desks they're going to have in that first week of school, do it. Middle school and high school kids love doing this too.

Some of my favorite ideas for some core subjects:

Social Studies
Have students create a timeline of the span of what you'll be teaching in a history class this year. Break them up into groups, with each group finding the five most important events in that period.

Language Arts
Students create an alternate cover for their favorite book.

Have students choose a favorite scientist or invention, and not just illustrate it, but include their feelings about that invention in visual form. Be prepared for a lot of heart-eyed emojis.

For elementary kids this one is easy -- anything from simple number lines to basic arithmetic to fractions. For middle school and high school...well...that's all on y'all. My math kind of fell apart after counting mittens and slices of pie.

Have students illustrate their favorite song, or write out and decorate a favorite lyric.

You guys should have better ideas than anything I could come up with. Ya hippies.

Foreign Language
Have kids find the happiest word they can, and make word art out of it. For German (my personal favorite and most beautiful of languages) I'd go for SCHMETTERLING (butterfly).

Why not start the school year with communicable diseas--yeah, okay. That's a terrible idea. I'd start with healthy habits, and go from there.

Start the school year with positivity. With messages that welcome kids back, and get them in the mindset that it's going to be a great school year, that have some pieces of content, that are something better and more exciting than reading your class disclosure and syllabus that first day.

Principals -- most of us have those (often terrible)(not yours, if you're reading this) pre-first day of school faculty meetings. Take a 30 minute break from the paperwork and have your faculty write messages of positivity and hope and welcome. What's the thing they're most excited about this year? Have them get it on the school grounds. Remind us all that we have the best job in the world. Because we do. And it's starting up again.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

LEGO Sets of the Month: Star Wars!

School's out for most of us, so I thought I'd have some LEGO Sets of the Month that were just fun for fun's sake. Plus Quinnmas (my birthday)(yes, it's called that)(it's probably on your calendar)(I accept late gift cards)(Amazon will do) is this week and I'm feeling like I need to share the love.

With that in mind, the LEGO Sets of the Month are all from Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The sets include Battle on Takodana, Rey's Speeder, and a First Order Battle Pack. So you get some heroes, some villains, a fun vehicle, and a major setting and scene from the movie.

Here's the thing about The Force Awakens. It's not the best movie. But I loved it. More than anything, I loved the new characters. These LEGO sets have my favorites: Rey, Finn, Maz Kanata, and Kylo Ren. I don't disagree with the criticisms that too many of the plot points were recycled (yet another, bigger, Death Starry superweapon that's a little too easy to blow up)(a sandy world a lot like Tatooine, which I've seen on the big screen one too many times), but I'm intrigued at the potential of these people in that faraway galaxy.

Finn's story as a disaffected First Order Stormtrooper should go interesting places in The Last Jedi. I love the idea of little Maz Kanata as someone who's a believer in the Force, and maybe has some Force sensitivities, but isn't a Jedi herself. Kylo Ren is someone who I didn't like at first (especially sans helmet), but I'm liking more with each viewing. He feels like a failure for not living up to his parents' (Han Solo and Princess/General Leia) heroics, but also feels like the greatness of his grandfather (Darth Vader) is beyond his reach. Above and beyond all of the new characters of the movie, we have Rey.

Rey is the center of the movie, and Daisy Ridley carries that weight well. The budding Jedi of unknown parentage is compassionate, is brave, and may be the galaxy's last hope. A strong heroine who doesn't need saving (don't try to hold her hand, dude), this character we've known for a scant 18 months is inspiring girls and women (and boys, and men) around the world.

The LEGO sets I'm giving away are good, and even though they're ones I wouldn't normally recommend for classroom use, it's the Quinnmas season, and I want to share. That said, here are a few ways I'd use The Force Awakens (or other Star Wars movies) with students.


One of the mysteries in The Force Awakens is the location of Luke Skywalker. In the final scene of the movie, Rey has ascended eight thousand stone steps to reach the Jedi, and we're left with her holding out his lightsaber to him. Roll credits. We as the audience don't get to see what happens next, so we're left with a cliffhanger. Have students write a dialogue between the two heroes -- what would Luke say when confronted with this stranger holding his lightsaber? R2-D2 and Chewbacca are parked at the bottom of those stairs with the Millennium Falcon -- what would their reunion be like? Why did Luke exile himself in the first place? How would Rey tell him about (spoilers) the death of his friend Han Solo?

The tiny yellow Maz Kanata is one of my favorite characters. Not just in this movie, but of all time. With a few lines of dialogue, this aged little alien won my heart. We see her in her castle, where she runs a bar of sorts, with questionable clientele. She's lived there for "hundreds of years," and she's got a lot of stories to tell. Have students choose an alien from the castle and tell their story. How did they end up coming to Takodana? How long will they stay? What would their interactions with Maz be like?

Finn is trained as a First Order Stormtrooper, and was taken from his family so young that he doesn't even have his own name -- "FN 2187" was his ID number with the First Order, and it's pilot Poe Dameron who gives him the (awesome) name Finn. He's been trained to be a killer, but when it comes down to it, can't kill the innocent villagers in the opening scenes of the movie. Have students put themselves in his shoes, telling his story. Has he always had these doubts about being in that armor? What were his interactions with Captain Phasma like before the events of the movie? In the scene featured in the LEGO set, Finn is called out as a traitor by one of his former comrades. Why is that particular Stormtrooper so angry at Finn? Are they former friends? Enemies? Have students explore these ideas.

Again, The Force Awakens isn't a perfect movie, but as with most of the Star Wars movies, the characters become more important than the events of the movie itself. Let your students explore these characters with writing, with art, with music. With The Last Jedi coming this December, it's going to be on their minds.

For more Star Wars lesson plans and ideas, be sure to check out Star Wars in the Classroom -- they're adding new stuff all the time, and you're sure to find something your students will love. Because they are nerds. And you love it.


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 right now. The drawing for the June LEGO Set of the Month will be at 6 PM MST on Saturday, June 17. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Celebrate Wonder Woman Day!

This Saturday June 3rd is Wonder Woman Day. It was announced by DC Comics last month, in conjunction with the first ever Wonder Woman live action film, coming out June 2nd. I have a few thoughts on how to celebrate Wonder Woman Day, and the character herself. There are some classroom tips at the end of this article for those of you who are teachers, and some other tips for everyone else. 

I'm excited for the new movie for a lot of reasons. The World War I setting is one of my favorite time periods as a history teacher, and even though I don't necessarily like war, I don't specialize in military history...understanding World War I helps us understand the rest of the twentieth century. And well into the twenty-first. Gal Gadot was one of the highlights of the Batman v Superman movie last year, so I'm excited to see her again. Chris Pine is always good, so him as Steve Trevor? Sure. The bits of sidekick/comic relief Etta Candy we got in the trailer made me laugh. I'm down with all of it. A few days ago in Target I saw a display that had current DC Comics DVDs/Blu-rays with "8.00 off Wonder Woman tickets with purchase" on if you're looking at buying Supergirl, Batman v Superman, the original Batman or Superman movies, Suicide Squad, can basically get a free Wonder Woman ticket. So yeah. The best way to celebrate Wonder Woman Day -- go to the movie. I will be.

Beyond the excitement over the new movie, I simply love the character Wonder Woman. Part of it is that I'm a child of the 70s, and Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman wasn't just beautiful, she was brave and smart and strong and did not put up with your crap. Plus the jet. Plus the spinning. Plus sometimes when she needed a different Wonder Suit, she got one. Even a special skateboarding suit. For reals. And that's awesome. I "met" Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman about the same time I discovered Adam West's Batman and Christopher Reeve's Superman, and the three of them still have a special place in my heart. Upper ventricle. Over...over...there. That's it.

After Lynda Carter, and Wonder Woman in Super Friends, I finally discovered her in the comic books. I found out more about her origins, which were a mixture of mythology and personal heroism and risking everything from her old life to become a hero in our world. I learned about why her magic lasso was magic, why sometimes she had a secret identity and sometimes not, and that unlike her television appearances, she can fly. No Invisible Jet required. Although she still had one in the garage anyway. Just in case. She's been in comic books consistently since 1941 -- the only female superhero to make that accomplishment. I like her alongside the Justice League, but her solo stories have a different quality to them. A power that's larger than life, and a different feel than other heroes. Comixology has an incredible sale on digital Wonder Woman comics right now -- if you've got a tablet, this might be the way to go. My primary recommendation would be Wonder Woman: A Celebration of 75 Years for $9.99 instead of $29.99. Most of the books on that site are in the $5.00 range, and most of them are very well done. It's a curated collection of the best of the best, and it's hard to go wrong. I prefer print comic books that I can put on a shelf, but man. These prices are hard to pass up.

I like that Wonder Woman is her own hero -- not a sidekick or female analogue to a male hero. I like that she's not "_____girl." Don't get me wrong. I love Supergirl and Batgirl and Hawkgirl. Even though each began as a simple knockoff to a better-known male hero, over the years they've become complex heroes in their own right. But decades later, each of them is still tied to their male counterpart. Wonder Woman doesn't have that baggage. She has tons of other baggage, believe me. But not that.

The real world backstory behind Wonder Woman is as crazy as any comic book origin -- her creator, William Moulton Marston was also the inventor of the lie detector. Thus, her lasso compels people to tell the truth. (complete truth be told, he was one of several inventors of the polygraph, and was really a more successful promoter of the device than the "inventor.") Marston's relationship with women was complex. He was a bigamist, he was the nephew-in-law of suffragist and women's health pioneer Margaret Sanger, and his stories were a combination of empowerment for women and kinky bondage and mythology and feminism and -- there was some bonkers stuff in there. And I love it. Learning about the creators of our favorite characters always sheds light on the characters themselves -- and learning about Marston made me appreciate the complexities in Wonder Woman's early stories. More than a straight-on masked-and-caped superhero, more than a damsel, although she was both of those things sometimes. She was nearly a goddess (and in later stories, was).

A character born in time of war to bring peace. To bring peace through love if possible, with bullet-deflecting bracelets if not.

About a year ago I hosted a Twitter chat where we talked about superheroes, and one of the questions was just taking a survey -- who was your favorite superhero? The 56 heroes listed weren't a comprehensive sample, but I was happy to see Wonder Woman come out on top.

Three ways to celebrate Wonder Woman in the classroom:

First -- there was a program that came out in 2013. Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines looks at female heroes in pop culture. Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- it was before the current Supergirl series on CW (which is great and you should watch it and season two just got added to Netflix), but she'd be included now too. Possibly better for our purposes: there's a fantastic curriculum guide that goes with the program. 39 pages, middle school level, but easy fixes to bring it up or down to high school or elementary. In 2015, Junior Scholastic had an issue about Wonder Woman and superheroes, and it's still available online in a handy PDF, so if you're looking for something more elementary-ey, this could be for you.

Second -- seemingly more than any other superhero, we care about Wonder Woman's costume. How revealing it is, how many stars are on those shorts, is it an eagle or a W on her chest...okay, mostly how revealing it is. Check out the changes from 1941 until now in this infographic. I'm a big fan of having students design their own superheroes to represent different core concepts. You can read all about that in my book. And you totally should. Why not have students redesign Wonder Woman's costume? Brainstorm the qualities about Wonder Woman that make her a hero, and then have students design a new costume for her based on those qualities. I've got free superhero templates here; go nuts. As inspiration, look at some fan art and choose some that could be shared with students (as a middle school teacher, there are definitely some of those costumes I wouldn't share with my kids...because have you MET middle school kids??)...there are some great alternative looks for Wonder Woman that still manage to bring home her strength and symbolism.

Third -- have students research how their own favorite hero was created. Learn more about who creates the media they consume. It could be superheroes or video game characters or cartoon characters -- there's a story somewhere behind every character. The story behind Wonder Woman is very "grown up," what with bigamy and bondage and all -- but there are more kid-friendly stories behind Batman and Superman and picture books that tell those stories. It might be an interesting exercise to retell Wonder Woman's origin in a kid-friendly manner that would still pass the lasso of truth test.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

LEGO Sets of the Month: Mighty Micros!!

Up until now, the Play Like a Pirate LEGO Set of the Month has been one set, that I thought was particularly appropriate for classroom use. This month, the Set of the Month is actually three different sets -- that would still be good for classroom use, but I mainly picked because they're so much fun. The Sets of the Month for May are Mighty Micros. They're small, single person vehicles that have a lot of personality. I picked the three DC Comics sets because I'm more of a DC fan than Marvel, and hey. I'm the one giving them away. For free-like.

The sets represent the "big three" of DC Comics: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. They're going up against some fierce enemies: Bizarro, Killer Moth, and Doomsday. Bizarro is well-known as the backwards duplicate of Superman; Killer Moth a somewhat ridiculous villain who's most famous as the first villain that Batgirl defeated; Doomsday is famous for killing Superman in 1992. ...he got better. LEGO loses points for not having Wonder Woman go up against her own supervillains -- ideally I would have pitted her against Cheetah, but I would also accept Ares, a major villain from the movie (coming in two weeks!)

The charm of these sets is in the modified minifigures and their vehicles. The minifigures are smaller than standard LEGO people, with stubby legs that aren't jointed and cartoony faces. In the first series I didn't like the aesthetic, but the more characters I see in that style, the more I dig it. Their costumes are less detailed than regular minifigures, and their faces are over the top. Perfect for the Mario Kart/Wacky Races that could ensue from the vehicles themselves.

The vehicles are a lot of fun -- Wonder Woman's is a tiny version of her Invisible Jet, and her rival Doomsday has what I'll politely call a "bone-mobile" even though I taught junior high and I know exactly what I'm saying there. Doomsday himself has grotesque bone spurs growing out of his shoulders and arms and face, so his car does too. Batman's in a Batcopter that owes a lot to the domed version in the 1966 Batman movie (with the Bat-Shark Repellent!), and Killer Moth's car has a proboscis and a moths even have stingers? Wow, I hope not. Killer Moth just got a lot scarier.

My favorite of the vehicle pairs are Superman and Bizarro. Superman's is based on the Supermobile, a vehicle that was in a few issues of a comic book in 1978. Superman lost his powers and needed some transportation, so got a little spaceship that flies, but also had robot fists on the front of it that could extend out and pop a villain in the face. It was an excuse to sell toys, and both Corgi and Kenner came out with versions of it at some point. Now LEGO is commemorating that ridiculous vehicle with one of its own, complete with tiny silver fists. The part that makes me love this more? Bizarro's car is exactly the same as the Supermobile, but built backwards and in darker colors. Because...Bizarro.

In the Classroom 
I do see possibilities for the mindset behind these vehicles. The personality that goes into the cars--especially the villains, with the moth details, the backwards-driving, and the bony protrusions--are similar to the Hot Wheels strategies that I talk about in Play Like a Pirate. The LEGO vehicles are very small, built out of about 40 pieces each. That makes them easy enough to build in a short amount of time. Students could also sketch out the cars (although building them is more fun) and explain the features of the cars. Have the cars represent something from a unit you're teaching; a key concept, a character, an event.

The wheel base of the LEGO cars is too wide for an orange Hot Wheels track, but designing a track with obstacles for the characters to overcome would be another good activity -- having students explain what the obstacles represent for the character, and then see if they can overcome it.

When it comes down to it, it's May. These are fun. Have fun with your students.


Congratulations to Toby Price -- you won the May LEGO Sets of the Month!! 

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 right now. The drawing for the April LEGO Set of the Month will be at 10 AM MST on Friday, April 28. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

5 Ways Kermit the Frog is a Great Teacher

It's no secret that Kermit the Frog is one of my heroes. My Twitter handle is @jedikermit, my car's license plate is KERMIT, my desk toys, framed photos and magazine covers and artwork--I'm a fan of the frog. This week is Kermit the Frog's birthday (a matter of some dispute, but May 9 is cited most often these days), and it has me thinking about him. Like I wasn't anyway.

Part of the reason I've loved him -- and many of you have -- is that he's a great teacher. I first met him as a character on Sesame Street, not The Muppet Show or Muppet movies. And on Sesame Street, he was often the role of a grownup among more juvenile characters (you could argue the same for The Muppet Show, actually), teaching other characters and even real actual human children. There are five things in particular I love about How Kermit Teaches, that I think we can all learn from:

First and foremost may be Kermit's Vision. It's inclusive, it's optimistic, it's about using entertainment  and education to lift people up and make them happy. It's a good vision. As teachers, if we don't have an inclusive, optimistic vision, it's difficult to do what's best for our students...or ourselves. Kermit's own vision is summarized best in the final confrontation between the frog and Doc Hopper in The Muppet Movie:

The second thing Kermit did as a teacher that impressed me is best demonstrated in the Sesame Street News Flash sketches - taking well-known stories and using them to teach. But not without twisting them. Sesame Street has always done this with fairy tales and pop culture, most recently with Cookie Monster's Crumby Pictures. My personal favorite is the Sesame Street News Flash with Pinocchio:

Kermit has come to be identified with diversity and tolerance, thanks to the song "Bein' Green." It's an interesting song, because he goes from feeling isolated and down on himself because of his color to finding pride and self-acceptance in it. There are other strong messages of inclusion throughout Sesame Street, Muppet, Fraggle Rock, and other Jim Henson-produced series and movies. But that all started with Kermit. 

The fourth thing Kermit did was embrace technology. In the early 1970s, seeing Kermit draw in the air with his spindly little finger -- I knew that Kermit wasn't really drawing in the air with his finger, that it was some kind of technology I didn't understand. But he did. And used it. For something as low-tech as a hand puppet (yes I know he's a puppet)(I mostly know that), Kermit and his colleagues helping him out have embraced technology and how to use it with both education and entertainment.

The final reason I love Kermit as a teacher is that he's not perfect. We think of him as sweet, kind, patient -- and he is. But as a teacher, patience has its limits. With Kermit, patience had its limits. A beloved classic Sesame Street clip has him singing the ABCs with a little girl named Joey: 

It's adorable. Because look at that kid. And her giggles. And that little ghostly Cookie Monster. But that moment when he's had it and leaves -- we've all been there as teachers. Kermit (like most of us at some point) has had enough, and leaves. But then he comes back. He forgives her, she forgives him, and they move on. Here Kermit is able to give us a great example of how to lose your patience, and does it without burning any bridges. There are plenty of other times, where, not playing opposite an actual little kid, he takes it further. The frog loses his cool with Cookie Monster, Grover, Miss Piggy, Miss Piggy, ...pretty much every character played by Frank Oz, I guess. Maybe they were having issues. In any case, sometimes Kermit loses his cool. But he always comes back to his friends. I like that he has flaws, but he doesn't let them define him. Sure, he's not infinitely patient. Neither am I. But I can still be a good teacher. 

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Friday, May 5, 2017

Graphic Novel Review: Snow White

Snow White. Matt Phelan, author and illustrator. Candlewick Press, 2016. 

This has been on my radar since I read reviews of it last year, but you know. Life is busy. I'm glad I finally picked up a copy, and even more glad that I loved it so very much. Fairy Tales were part of my childhood, both the Disney versions and more traditional versions. If you want to know how old I am, I listened to records with ginormous headphones on that were Let's Pretend radio shows. Like...from 1934-1954, according to Wikipedia. Which is always right. So I grew up listening to things older than my parents. Which is kind of mind-bending.

I love the Disney versions of these stories. They're beautiful, they're part of our culture and history. But I also love the non-Disney version. Stories older than Disney, told with new voices. Matt Phelan's Snow White is somehow both old and new -- a beautifully drawn and painted graphic novel with some digital effects -- but set in Depression Era New York City instead of the dark forests of medieval Europe.

A young mother is walking with her toddler through a snowy day in Central Park. The child's name is Samantha White, but when she doesn't return to her lovely mother, Mom calls her by her nickname, "Snow." A while later, the mother is overcome with wracking coughs, and sees her blood spatter the snow. Soon Snow and her father lose the mother, and a new woman enters the picture. Instead of an evil queen, we get a star of the Ziegfeld Follies -- a queen of Broadway, as it were. Rich, famous, and glamorous, Snow's stepmother soon sends her away to boarding school. After the sudden death of the father, and the inheritance going to Snow, we know her days are numbered, and the real intentions of the stepmother become clear.

All of the pieces of the classic Snow White story are here, but transported into a different era. When Snow White flees "Mr. Hunt," she runs not into an enchanted forest, but a Hooverville. Instead of consulting a Magic Mirror, the stepmother reads a ticker tape. The other royalty that visit the family home include Rockefellers. Instead of dwarves, it's orphaned children who help Snow White when she needs them. At every turn, we get delightful tweaks on the classic story, using a period in history that I not only find fascinating, but love teaching. Mr. Phelan's black and white artwork conveys the gorgeous Art Deco styling of the period, but also the despair that afflicted so many. Bits of red punctuate the pages -- the mother's blood, Snow's lips, the poisoned apple. Every page has something new to drink in.


Three thoughts came to mind while reading Snow White

First, is that while many of our students still grow up with fairy tales, many of them do not. They're likely to have encountered the Disney version of these stories, but a lot of them probably assume that (The Little Mermaid was written by Walt Disney. They wouldn't know Hans Christian Andersen, they wouldn't know that in the non-Disney version, she turns into sea foam at the end. Dying. For a man. Typical. I use fairy tales in the classroom. Disneyfied and not. When I teach students about perspective, I use a video clip from Cinderella that has the stepmother locking Cinderella in the tower, and have kids write statements going through the heads of Cinderella or the stepmother, and then comparing the two. From there, we'd move on to doing the same thing with historic characters and their own thoughts. When I introduce American Indians and stereotypes, we watch the song "What Makes the Red Man Red?" from Peter Pan, and use that as a jumping-off point to see what's good, what's bad, and what's just historically awkward. Fairy tales aren't the common currency they used to be for kids, but can still be used, and used well.

A second idea is that while Matt Phelan took the Great Depression as the backdrop for this story (and wow I'm glad he did), the same story could be told using the French Revolution. Or Ancient Egypt. Or 2017 North Korea. get the idea. Taking the elements of a classic story and reconfiguring it in a world that students research -- this is a relatively simple story. A girl, a jealous parent figure, some diminuitive assistants. You could tell the Snow White story anywhere in the world, at any point in history. Why not use it? Give students a four page template, give them the requirements of the story, and have them briefly tell the Snow White story. Or Rapunzel. Or Aladdin. Or Little Red Riding Hood. The stories are out there.

My third idea -- have students explore the non-Disney, and non-European versions of these tales. Cinderella Stories Around the World: 4 Beloved Tales is an excellent picture book introduction to how the same story has been told in different cultures. It's not always a glass slipper. It's not always Prince Charming. But the heart of the story is there. Other books in that series include Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Snow White, and Beauty and the Beast. Our classrooms aren't as homogenous as they used to be -- help your students see themselves in these stories.

My final thought was actually just how much I like apples and eating apples of many varieties, but that I'm a teacher, and I kind of hate how the apple is the symbol of our profession. Like...I know a lot of you reading this have apples appliqued on your cardigans, and apples on your ties, and a few of you have apple tattoos. And that's good. So do I. Uh...the tie thing. But really, I wish the symbol of teaching was a brain. A quivering, wet, brai--actually, yeah. The apple's good. Apples. They're great.

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Monday, May 1, 2017

Happy Batman Day!

Today is "Batman Day." Batman's first appearance was in May 1939, in Detective Comics #27. So...May 1st is Batman Day. To celebrate, I'm telling you about My Favorite Batman. He's also yours. Don't deny it. 
With a character that's been around for nearly 80 years in mainstream media, Batman has seen more iterations than most. My favorite -- the best and longest-lasting version was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm in Batman: The Animated Series. It launched in 1992, following on the heels of Batman Returns. That movie seems to have darkened the tone of the cartoon, making it more a psychological exploration of Batman than previously seen. That's a depth that's always been in the comic books, but is hard to capture with a limited amount of screen time. 
They plumbed those depths even further with Batman's rogues, making previously laughable villains like Mr. Freeze into tragic figures. Villains and allies who hadn't been seen in animation before, but were essential to giving Batman the depth he needed to sustain years of a cartoon series. Poison Ivy, Clayface, Ra's Al Ghul, Two-Face, Bane, Nightwing and a new Robin. None had been included in a cartoon before Batman: The Animated Series. They gave Alfred Pennyworth life and personality, and finally got the relationship between Commissioner Gordon and Batman right. Paul Dini even created a few new characters, most notably Harley Quinn. She started out being a sidekick for the Joker, but ended up with a life of her own that’s made her a favorite in the comic books and video games, and even helped the recent Suicide Squad movie. Didn't help it enough, but... 

Batman Villains

Much of the credit for the success and life of these characters comes thanks to Andrea Romano, who cast the voice actors for the series. Kevin Conroy as Batman became my Batman. For all that I liked about Christian Bale’s Batman, every time he talked I winced. Not just because I felt sympathy for his larynx, but because it wasn’t Kevin Conroy. He brought a billionaire playboy’s lightness to Bruce Wayne, and a badassitude to Batman that I hadn’t seen before. More surprising was a Joker voiced by Mark Hamill, who became our new standard to measure Jokers. Looking at the extensive voice cast, from Bob Hastings’ Commissioner Gordon to Richard Moll’s Two-Face and Diane Pershing’s Poison Ivy, they’ve all become the voices of the characters for me. If I’m reading a comic book that has Penguin in it, it’s Paul Williams I hear. Not the “Waugh-waugh!” of Burgess Meredith. Not the growl of Danny Devito. Paul Williams. 
The writers and producers of Batman: The Animated Series had character arcs not just for Batman, but for the other heroes and villains on the show. They introduced Harvey Dent as the district attorney and a friend of Bruce Wayne. We saw a dark side to his character well before he was ever scarred with acid, becoming Two-Face. We see the pain that Bruce Wayne has at losing his friend, along with the superheroing that Batman needs to do to stop him. In the early 1990s, it was unthinkable to spend that much time developing a villain, but in order to have it be a Two-Face that we care about, it was vital that we knew him. I’ve always found it funny that Batman Forever had a Two-Face more cartoony than the actual cartoon. If Joel Schumacher had turned to Batman: The Animated Series for inspiration instead of…wherever he found it, maybe his two Batman movies wouldn’t have sucked so hard. After you’ve seen and heard Michael Ansara’s Mr. Freeze, Arnold Schwarzenegger is an insult to the character. 
The visuals for the series were also groundbreaking. Using the 1940s Max Fleischer Superman cartoons as a touchstone, they made a series that will end up being timeless. There’s a mishmash of time periods that somehow worked. Gotham City is patrolled by police blimps, and the cars on the street are Studebakers. They have computers and sophisticated technology, but they watch black and white television. The visual tone of the series had animators working against backgrounds painted on black boards, instead of the usual white. Going back and rewatching “Batman: The Animated Series” now, there’s a slowness to the animation, but also a film-like fluidity that other TV cartoons lacked. 
There were spinoffs headed up by the same creative teams, including another Batman series, a Superman, and Justice League series. That run of cartoons, from 1992 until 2007, has become my measure of what makes for a good DC Universe movie or television show. The various CW series on right now, including The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow -- they're coming close. WB and DC Comics have an impressive slate of films in the works, but I know that even with my high hopes, I’ll come away disappointed. For Marvel fans and casual fans, the Cinematic Universe is becoming their definitive version of those characters. For me and others of my generation, we’ll watch a DC Comics movie on the big screen and then think, "well, it's okay, but not as good as Batman: The Animated Series." Is it comparing apples and oranges? Sure. But those are some damn good apples. 

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

LEGO Set of the Month: Mighty Dinosaurs!

Yes, the Play Like a PIRATE LEGO Set of the Month is being revealed the last week in April. But hey, it's still April, and you've still got a chance to win. Details are at the bottom of this blog post.

The set I've chosen for this month is 31058 Mighty Dinosaurs. This is part of the LEGO Creator line. Many of these sets (including Mighty Dinosaurs) have the pieces and instructions to build three different models. So you can build the Tyrannosaurus Rex, disassemble it, build a Triceratops, and tear that down for a Pterodactyl (I'm not even looking that up to see if I spelled it right, it's the flying one). Dammit I'm checking anyway HEY I SPELLED IT RIGHT! Even though I usually collect sets that are minifigure-scaled, coming with little dudes and dudettes, I love the versatility and creativity that come with these sets.

LEGO has a long history of building dinosaurs; my favorites were from the year 2000, which might as well be as far back as the Jurassic Period as far as trying to find them online. In more recent years there have been sets with Jurassic Park movies, but these rely more on pre-molded pieces that kids play with, but don't actually construct. The Mighty Dinosaurs sets are things that kids actually build out of LEGO, meaning that those pieces can be reused in other builds as well.

The last few years have seen a boom in new types of joints for LEGO, including some smaller hinges, ball-and-socket joints, and "click joints" that hold in place even with weight put on them. So these dinosaurs have great articulation and posability, so you're able to wreak mayhem wherever you want to. In addition to the three sets of instructions that come in the package, there are additional "secret" Brachiosaur instructions available free as a PDF on LEGO's site. For the record, almost all LEGO instructions are available on that site, so if you lose your booklet (or don't want to keep all of them around) you can find them there.


Part the charm of the Mighty Dinosaurs and other Creator sets is that you're using the same pieces to build very different models. With only 174 pieces, you can build any of the three (okay four) models. That's easy with instructions, but students have a bigger imagination than the booklets do.

A great activity with students is a LEGO challenge, where they have a set of LEGO, and a limited amount of time to build something after a certain theme. So choosing a theme from your curriculum (the water cycle, Mesopotamia, distributive property, the nervous system) give each child or group 150 LEGO pieces, and ten minutes to build their best representation of that thing. Give them specific parameters, or leave it completely up to them. They'll surprise you with the good things they can come up with.

Even though my go-to advice with LEGO is keep the pieces as simple as possible (the standard bricks and plates), keeping some of the specialized pieces showcased in Mighty Dinosaurs, including hinges and joints, will open up the possibilities for your students, with new angles and moving parts and things you just can't do easily with the "regular" pieces.


UPDATE: Congratulations to Chris Heffernan -- you won the Mighty Dinosaurs! 

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 right now. The drawing for the April LEGO Set of the Month will be at 10 AM MST on Friday, April 28. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.

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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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