Wednesday, October 18, 2017

LEGO Announces the Women of NASA

This morning LEGO fans woke up to a surprise: LEGO is launching (heh) the Women of NASA set. Part of the LEGO Ideas crowdsourcing initiative, it follows the Research Institute set from a few years ago (included a female astronomer, chemist, and paleontologist).

This new set is remarkable for a few reasons.

First, it's one of the rare sets that has LEGO minifigures based on actual, nonfictional, real people. There have been NBA players and race car drivers (NASCAR and others), Abraham Lincoln got one out of The LEGO Movie...but it's rare to see. And these may be the first LEGO minfigures of actual, nonfictional, real women.

It's notable because the women it's celebrating are scientists and astronauts. LEGO has a problematic history with female characters, but in the last five years, it has progressed leaps and bounds. Representation of women in regular minifigure form used to be a ratio of 14: 1 male to female figures, they've narrowed that gap to about 4: 1. Possibly more remarkable, the female characters they're including in the mix include police officers, firefighters, construction workers, explorers, and ninjas. This is in addition to the LEGO Friends line, which has a different kind of minifigure (mini-dolls) and which opinion is split on, but it's selling gangbusters and has some really excellent toys. Adding an astronomer, astronauts, and computer scientist to the toybox sends a wonderful message to kids and adult collectors.

The Women of NASA set includes:

Margaret Hamilton, an Apollo-era computer scientist. Without her, we may not have gotten to the moon.
Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.
Nancy Roman, an astronomer who was much of the brains behind the Hubble Telescope.
Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space (and also a transporter/teleporter engineer on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation). I'm not even kidding. I never kid.

The way this set was first proposed by designer Maia Weinstock, it also included Katherine Johnson, the heroine of the recent book and movie Hidden Figures.  Evidently LEGO was "unable to secure permission from key people" to make that minifigure, so she was excluded from the set. Which is a shame, but I'm pretty sure I'll be making my own version to complete the set.

Each of the women comes with a tiny vignette, built more to display them than to actually play with. Hamilton with a stack of notebooks and chalkboard, Roman with a model of the Hubble Telescope, Ride and Jemison with a space shuttle. Each is a fantastic microbuild.

The set debuts on November 1st. If you're interested, BUY IT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. The Research Institute set sold out quickly in its initial run, and became very hard to find. I mean, you can get it on eBay for about $40, but you won't find it in stores at its original price. I'm assuming this set will also be in high demand, so pick it up while you can. One for your classroom, one for you, one for your niece, another for your nephew. And possibly one for my mom, because Nancy Roman is looking a LOT like her there. We all need heroes. I'm delighted that LEGO is putting these women on a tiny, brick-built pedestal.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Do Re Mi: Fräulein Maria as a Great Teacher.

Growing up there were a few televised movies that we watched every year. Mostly I remembered that they were incredibly long. Like…they felt like they were six hours long. But I enjoyed them. One of them was The Sound of Music. I don’t remember the first time I watched it, because it’s just always been part of my life. It’s got singing, dancing, Nazis, nuns, nuns sabotaging Nazis, hiking – it’s got it all. Mostly singing.

Much of the movie is about Fräulein Maria’s relationship with the Von Trapp children. She’s hired as their governess, and having never been a teacher of seven children ranging in age from five to sixteen, quickly feels over her head. She decides the way to reach them is through music. By following Maria’s tutelage through four songs, we see the development of a great teacher, and how she helped her students to achieve more than they thought possible.

My Favorite Things: during a thunderstorm, the children gather in Maria’s room to find comfort. All except Liesl, who’s out in the gazebo with Rolf the Evil Nazi Messenger Who May Not Be Evil He May Just Be Conflicted But He Blows That Whistle So He’s On My List. The other six children gather, and Maria comforts them by singing a song that now has somehow become a
Christmas classic – “Raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens…” You’ve heard it. Half of you have it in your head now. We’re just getting started. The kids don’t sing any part of this song with her. She’s singing for them, she’s comforting them, they recognize that she cares about them, and they care about her for the first time. She’s building a relationship so that they can move forward together. In her bedroom. Which is weird, and not recommended.

Do Re Mi: This is where we see the most immediate effects of Maria’s teaching. She starts out singing a simple scale to the seven children, and they all look at her with a look that I know for a fact we’ve all seen from our students. They don’t get it. She doesn’t move forward with her lesson, she
goes back to the beginning, starting where they’re at instead of where she wants them to be. She establishes a mnemonic device – “Do: a deer, a female deer; Re: a drop of golden sun…” After the kids have mastered this part, she explains how “you can sing a million different tunes by mixing them up.” This goes a little too far for the kids, and one of them (let’s say Brigitte) says “but it doesn’t mean anything.” She then goes on to explain how you can put one word with each note—getting rid of saying “do re mi” and replacing it with actual lyrics. The kids catch on quickly. Which is good, because they’re in a musical. She continues singing with them, riding, prancing, and dancing across Salzburg in clothing she made out of some old nasty curtains. 

 The Lonely Goatherd: The next step in Maria’s plans for the Von Trapp children is a performance for an authentic but friendly audience. So they pull out the slightly creepy marionettes and stage a song for Captain Von Trapp and the Baroness. Not the Baroness from G.I. Joe, but a love interest for the good Captain who won’t last much longer. The marionette play has sex, alcohol, and judgy in-laws. Like all good school performances. Also a tuba. And obviously, goats. Maria is there alongside the kids, she’s singing the lead, but the kids are singing the chorus and get key lines in the song. Most important is that the work of the students is on display and able to be evaluated by someone who isn’t their teacher.

So Long, Farewell: The final step for the Von Trapp children’s music learnin’ is that they’re able to compose and perform a song on their own, without Fräulein Maria’s help. The event is a boring adult dinner in the Von Trapp mansion with fancy people, and the kids surprise Maria and the Captain with their performance of “So long, farewell; au revoir, auf wiedersehen...” Maria didn’t know about the song, and the kids have evidently come up with this song all on their own, including complex choreography and an
incredibly high note that Kurt hits. Well done, Kurt. Unless you’re Friederich. I don’t even know. The point is, the students have mastered the material. They would be able to help other children learn how to sing and dance and turn curtains into lederhosen. 

This pattern would be a good one for any teacher, teaching any subject. The movie is The Sound of Music, but it could as easily be The Sound of ELA or The Sound of AP Biology. So many of us stop after we’ve taught them the rote “Do Re Mi,” because that’s what’s on the tests. We don’t feel like we have the time to carry them forward to stages where they’re creating themselves, sometimes we don’t have the expertise to do it, and we’re afraid to ask for help from colleagues who may be able to help us.

By the end of the movie, Maria has married her World War I Austrian U-Boat captain, and is fleeing for her life across the Alps. Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves and our students? 

Friday, September 29, 2017

Graphic Novel Review: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast, 228 pages, 2014. (10 out of 10) 

In most families, death is a taboo topic. I'm in my mid-forties, my parents are almost eighty...and unlike other families, my parents have been preparing us for their deaths for the last twenty years or so. Morbid, but true. They update us on their "Plans," on how their savings are holding up, on Every Last Detail of their health. It's good to know these things. Right up until they're passing colonoscopy photos around the dinner table. We can draw a line somewhere before that. 

That doesn't mean we're ready for death. 

In Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant, Roz Chast gives us an incredibly intimate look at her experience with her parents' dying. Starting out more than a decade before they actually pass away, Chast details what it's like to see her parents go through their "golden years," with an increasing lack of independence and a corresponding increase in her worrying about them. As an only child, she has to make all of the hard decisions: When they're too unhealthy to stay in their Brooklyn apartment on their own, when they're in need of moving into a retirement community, when they need to move on to a full-time care facility. 
As she tells the story of their decline, she also tells the story of growing up with them, of her parents' relationship with each other. Parts of her story would be familiar to any child of aging parents, but parts of it rang especially true to me and my own family. The refusal to talk about some things (my parents, while remarkably open about many things, are tight-lipped about others), the friction between them, the at once warm and distant relationship with their daughter. I often compare my parents to the Costanzas on Seinfeld, with all of the love and aggravation that this entails. 

The graphic memoir leads, inevitably, to the death of Roz's parents. It's beautifully told, and even through the irritation and the fears that Roz is going through as a daughter trying to be dutiful but worried about the costs (financial and emotional) that she's experienced across the course of the years -- it's heartbreaking. Like Roz, we're relieved when her parents do pass, and like Roz, we're a little ashamed at the relief we feel. It's a beautifully told book, unusual in its examination of gerontology and death.

That's one of the reasons I like it so much -- it's an unusual story to tell, and one that is too often untold because it's so uncomfortable. We don't like to think about death, we don't like to think about our inevitable fate. This graphic memoir uses the comic book format well, with some pages of hand-written prose interspersed with traditional illustrations and speech bubbles. There are some family photographs in the mix, and even a middle section that has photos of her parents' apartment as she's cleaning it out. It makes it all more real, more warm, more sad. 

There are other graphic novels that deal with gerentology -- two of the best are Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer's, My Mother, and Me by Sarah Leavitt, and Wrinkles by Paco Roca. The first is nonfiction, the second fiction and the subject of an animated adaptation starring Martin Sheen and Matthew Modine. So if you like your books...animated...check that out.

One of my favorite pages, in a morbid way...The Wheel of Doom. Enjoy? 

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Monday, September 25, 2017

The Inktober Challenge

In late October 2015 I stumbled across a drawing challenge issued by artist Jake Parker. It was "Inktober." A set of 31 drawing prompts that could be used by artists and budding artists and people who don't consider themselves artists at all to stretch their creative muscle. You look at the drawing prompts, you draw (ideally in ink, since it's "Inktober") and then you share it on social media with #Inktober. I liked the idea, but thought it was too late in the month to really participate. Last year, I was ready for #Inktober2016.

Or...I thought I was. As is the case with many of these things, I was excited for the first week, and then ran out of time, and then got all perfectionist-y and not wanting to share what I was drawing. Here are three of mine, with the prompts "Noisy," "Collect," and "Sad."

The challenge isn't meant to make us all perfect artists. It's to get us drawing. You won't become an artist if you don't draw. Much like the NaNoWriMo challenge (writing a novel in a month in the month of November), you won't become a writer if you don't write. I love the idea of the challenge, even if I need some help getting the challenge completed.

Here are the prompts for #Inktober2017 -- the challenge has been issued.


 Art Teachers: This was made for y'all. Depending on where you are in your curriculum, pen-and-ink might not be the kind of exercise you'd do as a formal classroom assignment, but it could still be a great way to stretch your students. I know some artists who design a character (an alien? a pumpkin?) or pick a character to draw doing all of the #Inktober prompts. How would you have your alien doing "Swift?" "Squeak?" "Cloud?" "Mysterious?" ...or have them pick a favorite universe to draw in. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Adventure Time -- and have them still do the #Inktober prompts

 Not-Art-Teachers: First of all, you should be. I should be. Finding ways to bring art into the classroom is a great way to engage kids who aren't engaged with some of our other go-to tools. But if you're so hooked on your curriculum that the #Inktober list of prompts seems like it would be inappropriate for what you're doing, come up with a list of 31 prompts that are within your curriculum. Connect it to the Bill of Rights. States of Matter. Digestive System. I don't know. Maybe look at the #Inktober list for inspiration, and then find a side door from those prompts into your own content. If 31 days seems excessive, just do it for one week -- see what your students come up with.

And, and-and, I can't overemphasize this: do it with them. Even if you don't feel like you're an artist, maybe especially if you don't feel like you're an artist. Show them your efforts, whether you feel like they're good or bad. You'll be connecting with kids who will get to see you in a whole new light.

For more inspiration, check out the #Inktober2017 hashtag on Instagram and Twitter, and follow both Jake Parker and Inktober on Instagram. If you're on Twitter, more great follows are #K12ArtChat (both the hashtag and the account) and Laura Grundler and Matthew Grundler.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Graphic Novel Review: Ghosts

Ghosts, Raina Telgemeier. 256 pages, 2016.

As a fan of graphic novels in general, but a new fan of “all-ages” graphic novels in particular, I had seen Raina Telgemeier on all of the “best for school libraries” lists for a few years now. She’s won Eisner Awards (achievement in comic books), she’s in all the Scholastic Book Fairs – and yet, I hadn’t picked one up yet. In moving a shelf of books last week, I came across my copy of last year’s Ghosts again, and figured it was time to read it. About 45 minutes later, I was done…and in love.

Ghosts follows Catrina and her family as they move to a cold, foggy Northern California town. She doesn’t want to be that moody teenager, but her back is up against the wall—she does not like Bahia de la Luna. She does like her younger sister Maya, and feels defensive of her. Maya has cystic fibrosis, and Catrina ends up her caregiver sometimes, and protector all the time. But is also a sibling, so…you know. It’s complicated.

A cute neighbor boy takes the sisters on a “ghost tour,” showing them all the (wiggly fingers) spooooky places in town, and Catrina is unimpressed. Until they reach the ruins of an old mission, pop open some orange soda bottles, and…ghosts appear. A ring of ghosts, encircling the three kids. Delighting Maya, and terrifying Catrina. After the cold evening out, Maya’s CF worsens, and she ends up needing an oxygen tank and is in bed for much of the rest of the book.

Catrina’s guilt and her fears about Maya’s death are a shadow over much of the book, but Telgemeier keeps things light enough that kids are going to keep reading. They want to know how the mystery of the ghosts resolves, and it does in a delightful way. We also see the traditions of the Day of the Dead celebration in Bahia de la Luna, and how culture and religion and tradition all interact to create a unique sense of place in the town. Catrina’s acceptance of her own fears about Maya, about losing her, are something that even adults struggle with, and they’re written (and drawn) beautifully here. 
Where a prose book might be frightening following these same themes, Ghosts’ cartoony (but strong) illustrations keep things safe instead of horrific, sweet instead of harrowing. It’s just an outstanding read in every way. Now that I’ve met My First Telgemeier…I’ve got some catching up to do. 

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

LEGO Set of the Month: Skylines

In addition to the many other kinds of nerd I am, I'm an architecture nerd. So when LEGO started up their Architecture line a few years ago, I was all in. While most of their sets have focused on national and international landmarks, they've started something new that seems like it has a nice classroom application -- Skylines.

The LEGO Architecture Skylines have included New York City, Berlin, Venice, Sydney, Chicago, and London -- and there are rumors of Shanghai and Las Vegas for 2018. Instead of a single building, the Skylines series pick five or so landmark buildings that represent the architecture, history, and culture of that city. So it may not be the five tallest buildings (the actual "skyline" of the city), but some skyscrapers, some historic buildings, some monuments.

As an example, the London Skyline set includes St Paul's Cathedral, Nelson's Column, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, and the London Eye. Not the tallest buildings in the city, but each significant in its own right. Part of the fun in the Skylines set is in the innovative building techniques that attempt to get buildings recognizable at a tiny scale. So there are bricks turned on their side with special brackets, and curves that seem impossible to make with LEGO, and rare pieces that you might not find in other sets, but come in handy reproducing these instantly recognizable landmarks.

I'm giving away the London Skyline LEGO set -- see how to enter to win below!


The LEGO Skylines are a great opportunity for students to look at their own community and decide which parts of the built environment (buildings, bridges, monuments) represent their community best.  Using the London set as an example, should the designers have included the Shard skyscrapter? Globe Theater? Buckingham Palace?

If your school is in a suburb of a larger city, do you choose buildings from their immediate neighborhood, or the better-known ones in the big city? Are there natural features in the community that would be one of the Top Five structures for their skyline? Living in Utah, most cities have mountains as a prominent backdrop to them--do those have a place in a "skyline?"

That debate is what the LEGO designers go through as they decide what should go into a city's skyline set, and it's one that your students would be able to have. That critical thinking, rationalization, and decision making all happens before any actual hands-on LEGO building. When that comes, kids can try to make the scale work as much as possible with your classroom LEGO, but they don't need to focus on that to the point that it becomes impossible to build. The London set isn't to true scale, but is a sort of sketch of what the scale would be.

The final step would be to have students write a brief introduction to each of the buildings in their skyline -- LEGO does that with a high-quality booklet that gets into the history and architecture (sometimes the engineering) of each landmark; each structure gets just one page, so it's concise, well-written, and informative.

There are many ways to use LEGO and architecture in the classroom -- I've got a bunch in Play Like a Pirate, which you should buy and love and use and then buy ten more.

My friend John Dalgety did a great project in his middle school social studies classroom last year that highlighted the connection to their local community in upstate New York. You can read about his lesson plan and see examples of what kids came up with here -- he's got some great insight into how to make a project like this work.


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 September LEGO Set of the Month will be at 6 PM MST on Sunday, September 10. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.

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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Book Review: Wonder Woman Psychology: Lassoing the Truth

Wonder Woman Psychology: Lassoing the Truth. Travis Langley and Mara Wood, 334 pages, 2017.

I’m a fan of superheroes, and have more than a passing interest in psychology and psychiatry. So when I see pop culture books like Wonder Woman Psychology, of course I’m going to pick them up. I’ve read similar books connecting Star Wars and Superman and Batman to psychology and philosophy and history, so I was hoping for more essays from nerds establishing tenuous links between “serious academia” and my favorite characters. This one was more substantial than I expected, but still using the Amazing Amazon to explore the real world around us.

The book is an anthology, with twenty short chapters from psychologists, therapists, and comic book historians, among others. Their expertise shows throughout, but the writing is never technical or boring, and showcases themes from across Wonder Woman’s 76-year history. Many of them focus on Wonder Woman’s earliest years, when she was being written by creator William Moulton Marston. That makes sense, because William Moulton Marston was himself a psychologist, one with interesting beliefs about women, gender roles, and the power of feminism. To a degree.

He was an advocate of a particular kind of psychology that looked at personal and societal development that followed a pattern of “Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance,” and that theme runs throughout the book. These ideas are part of Wonder Woman’s history and are found in pretty much every comic book story that (pen name) Charles Moulton writes – that Wonder Woman is physically stronger than any man, but more often she uses her DISC skills to win the bad guys over. Sometimes she herself breaks those rules in order to succeed or one-up her allies; it’s how she convinced her mother Queen Hippolyta to leave Paradise Island (later, Themyscira) in the first place.

Chapters include “Paradise Island and Utopian Communities,” “The Heroine and the Hero’s Journey,” “Multiple Identities, Multiple Selves? Diana’s Actual, Ideal, and Ought Selves,” and “Compassion is My Superpower.” Some ideas come back several times – most of the chapters involve gender roles at some point, and how Wonder Woman is either smashing them or (sometimes) giving into them. We see her fictional and real interactions with the real world, including the comic book scare of the 1950s with Dr. Frederic Wertham, being on the cover of Ms. Magazine from Gloria Steinem, and the recent debacle with her being appointed the UN Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls.

With Wonder Woman being the number one superhero movie of the year, available on Blu-Ray September 19 just go ahead and buy it right now through this link it's so easy just do it, and with her appearance in the Justice League movie later this year (please don’t suck) ,she’s become a pop culture touchstone that nearly every student will be familiar with.  This book is rife with ways to connect her story to not just psychology, but also history and civics and gender roles and ethics. Some of the chapters are just five pages long, others are more substantial – but there are many there are tailor-made for classroom use. Many of us teach “The Hero’s Journey” when we teach Homer’s Odyssey; why not flip that and use “The Heroine’s Journey” instead? Using Wonder Woman as a point of reference alongside other superheroes is a step forward that William Moulton Marston first took in 1941 – it’s about time we took the next step ourselves. 

Check out other classroom activities and ideas in my Wonder Woman Day post from last June -- there are some great ones there. 

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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Superman's Neverending Battle Against Hate

One of the things I love about superheroes is their ability to inspire us to be better. We may not be from Krypton, or Themyscira, we may not have a billionaire's budget, hopefully we're not subject to lightning strikes or gamma radiation. But we can be better.

In 1949 DC Comics released a brown paper textbook cover (the kind some of us used to wrap textbooks in so they could be pristine as long as possible)(those were the days)(oldness sucks is awesome). It featured art with Superman and a bunch of kids, and these words:

...and remember, boys and girls, your school -- like our country -- is made up of Americans of many diffrerent races, religions and national origins. So if YOU hear anybody talk against a schoolmate or anyone else because of his religion, race or national origin -- don't wait: tell him THAT KIND OF TALK IS UN-AMERICAN. 

In the last few years, I've seen the image in color as a kind of classroom poster, but always with poor reproductions, torn, faded, but always wanted one for my classroom anyway. This week, DC Comics did just that. Kind of. They published a blog post that not only tells the story of that original 1949 work, but also a stunning remastered version of the same poster. They didn't update the language or art, so it's still old-timey...but it also reminds us that this character has stood for "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" for 79 years.

There are some who twist the idea of being "American" into statements like "America First." Which, as it was in the 1930s, is also code for racism, for intolerance, for promoting hate. Superman, with his own take on this, is giving a definitive response to this. Anti-racism, pro-tolerance, pushing back against hate with a message that being patriotic is important, and that tolerance of those who are different from us and standing up for those who are being bullied is the most American thing there is.

In 2015, I read Rick Bowers' Superman vs the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of how the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate. It's a great read, and middle school appropriate. I wrote a whole review on it for Big Shiny Robot. The short version is that the producers of the Superman radio serials in the 1940s decided to take on the Klan. They, with the courageous support of their sponsors (Kelloggs, if I recall correctly) produced two different storylines that had Superman going up against the Ku Klux Klan: The Hate Mongers Organization (a kind of test balloon) and then a sixteen episode arc, The Clan of the Fiery Cross. Hard to miss who they're calling out there. You can listen to all sixteen episodes on YouTube.

The final paragraph of my review of the book is one I never thought would be prescient. I hoped it would never be anything other than the end of a book review for a nerdy website. Unfortunately, it seems to be relevant to us in the current climate.

This was a great book, a quick easy read for adults, but also an interesting one.  Even though there wasn't much about the Superman side of things I didn't already know, the history of the KKK was fairly new to me.  It was gratifying to see the creators of the Superman radio series invigorated with their new mission. Do corporations today have the same courage to stand up to bigotry? It's interesting to see how some things have changed over the last 75 years, and how some have sadly stayed the same.

As teachers, we all have different political leanings, we come from different backgrounds, we have different ideas about what's best for the country. But we also have a mandate to protect and teach all of our students. No matter their race, religion, national origin (or all of the many other ways our kids are beautifully diverse). I would love to see DC Comics release that Superman poster at cost for schools across the country to have in their classrooms. Not to get people to buy comic books, but to get Americans to realize the duty I have to stand up for you. Especially if you're different from me. For now, you can get a decent letter-sized print of the poster by going to DC's blog post and just printing it...but how great would it be to have it in a poster size?

Come on DC Comics, how about it?

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Graphic Novel Review: Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir. Liz Prince, 256 pages, 2014. 

I saw Tomboy a few months ago on some kind of “Best Graphic Novels Blah Blah” list, and added it to my “to read” stack. My “to read” stack probably has about two hundred books in it, but something about this one made it work its way to the top. I didn’t know much about it, but even quickly flipping through the pages, I knew I had found a great graphic novel.

We meet Liz when she’s four years old in Boston, screaming bloody murder that she doesn’t want to wear a dress that was gifted from her grandma. Her parents (especially her mom, who ends up a hero in the story) decide it’s not worth the fight, that they really don’t care – so they tell grandma “no more dresses as gifts,” and they’re cool. So we get an annotated “Liz Prince, Age 4” drawing, with her red baseball cap, a gray blazer, and sneakers. And that’s pretty much the gear we see her in for the first chapters of the book.

Early on, Liz tries to get at the definition of what a “tomboy” is – that she has nothing against pink and frilly and dainty, but it just doesn’t describe her. Is a tomboy an athletic girl? A girl with a short haircut? A construction worker? For Liz, it goes beyond clothing or extra-curricular activities, it was a defining part of her. Liking Battle Beast and Ghostbusters action figures, wrestling with boys, pretending to be Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones instead of Princess Leia and Marion Ravenwood. We follow Liz through the rest of her school years, moving to Santa Fe and trying to find friends to hang out with, acceptance, and love.

Along the way, she finds pieces of herself in other friends. People she meets along the way who help her reinforce her feelings about her “tomboyishness” realize it’s okay to be comfortable in her own skin. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, she has sad moments, but overall, this is a happy book about traditional gender roles and self-acceptance. Starting the book, and having read several LGBT memoirs, I kind of assumed (see? always assumptions about gender roles.) that she’d realize she likes girls at some point before the end of the book. By the time you’re halfway through though, you realize that Liz is heterosexual, and probably going to stay that way. And yeah, by the end, she’s still into guys, just…she’s not a “girly” girl. And she’s cool with it. We are too.

Tomboy reminded me of friends I had growing up, but reminded me of several of my students, too. Some of the kids we see pushing gender norms are LGBT, but there are some who aren’t (or that I know, or they know, or their friends/family know, or it’s none of my business I’m not prying I was just wondering geez), and our classrooms and schools need to be a safe place for those kids.

The graphic novel is thematically appropriate for secondary students, but the sprinkling of “f-bombs” in a few sections would move it up to high school pretty fast for many communities. I like that Tomboy is about gender without being about sex, that it approaches the topic in a completely unique way, and that Prince’s strong sense of self is reflected in her voice and art. As memoirs go, this is a new favorite. 

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Some New Graphic Novel Resources from Play Like a Pirate!

 Edutopia Graphic Novels
At the national ASCD conference last spring, I had the good fortune to meet an Edutopia editor. She was in my graphic novels session and asked if I'd be interested in writing for them. And of course I am. So my first article, Powerful Graphic Novels for Middle School, was published today. I'm proud of it. But not quite arrogant. Give me time. If you're interested, check it out -- many of them are ones I recommend in my conference sessions and workshops. I look forward to writing more for Edutopia, we've already discussed doing some things on student engagement and social studies, in addition to graphic novels and comics. I'm excited.

 School Comics

The other new resource I've got for graphic novels is a new Instagram account, School Comics. The goal with School Comics is simply to give a quick synopsis, star rating, and thumbs up/thumbs down for graphic novels and comics. Some of them have a suggested lesson plan, but most of them are just a straightforward review, what grades I'd recommend them for, etc. It's a mix of nonfiction and fiction, and so far it's been a lot of fun. If you're the Instagrammy sort, be sure to check it out.

Hopefully your school year is starting out great -- those human children need us!

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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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