Monday, December 4, 2017

Graphic Novel Review The Flintstones Vol. 1

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

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

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

Some of those social issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 1, 2017

LEGO Set of the Month: City Advent Calendar

This is going to be the fastest turnaround I've ever done on a giveaway, because of the timely nature of the LEGO set. Because for December, the LEGO Set of the Month is the City Advent Calendar. The set is actually 24 micro-builds or minifigures that celebrate the month of December leading up to Christmas. So instead of one big set, there are things like a Christmas Tree, a hearth, an ice sculpture of an Ice Demon of Vengeance angel, a helicopter drone, gingerbread house -- each build is on a minifigure scale, which means they're tiny, but impressively detailed. By the time the month is done, you'll also have Santa Claus, a kid on a sowboard, skiier, chainsaw sculptor of the aforementioned Ice Demon of Vengeance angel, and several others.


I love advent calendars. My dad lived in Germany for several years, where it's more a tradition than it is in the U.S., and then I lived in Germany for a few years in the 1990s and that just reinforced my love for it. We always had an advent calendar when I was a pup, and we've done it for our own sons every year. Sometimes to excess -- I think the maximum was a year where they had four different small gifts each day. We're back down to a reasonable one per day.

Because it's already December 1st, I'll be throwing in a bonus set that the LEGO Store had available for a limited time but you can't purchase now: a 24-in-1 set Christmas Build-Up. It has the pieces to build 24 additional small sets; the catch with that one is I think you can't build all 24 at once. You need to disassemble the peacock to build the owl, or the hot chocolate mug to build the snowplow. I think. Last year was the first time they did one of these, and this year is the first time I acquired one, AND I'M GIVING IT AWAY INSTEAD OF KEEPING IT FOR MYSELF. That's how much I love you guys. 

So. Because it's already like 5 AM on December 1st where I live, we'll give you a gentlemanly 27 hours to enter to win the Advent Calendar and City Buildup. So the day you receive it, you'll get to build a few of the sets (because I didn't think ahead and do this contest last week), and then space out the rest of the sets Advent-Style leading up to Christmas.  If they had similar countdowns for Hanukkah or Ramadan or other holidays/celebrations, I'd give those away. Butttttt this is what we've got.

SO HOW DO I ENTER TO WIN THIS AMAZING SET?? 

I knew you were wondering. There are three ways to enter:

1. Comment on this post. You do that below at the very end of this post. Lower...lower...there.

2. Subscribe to the monthly Play Like a PIRATE newsletter. It comes out once a month, with ideas for the classroom, a graphic novel review, and a review and chance to win the new LEGO Set of the Month. No spamming (beyond once a month), no selling your emails to anyone. I don't even know who I would sell them to. It may be worth investigating.

3. Follow @jedikermit on Twitter and retweet this tweet. If you're not on The Twitter, you really should be. Sign up just for this entry. And follow me. So worth it. You can follow the #PlayLAP hashtag to see what other people are doing with Play Like a PIRATE. A book you should totally buy.

So you can enter up to three times. Don't try and cheat. Teachers always know.

Some fine print: the LEGO Set of the Month will only be available to U.S. residents. Even though I love everyone on the planet, international shipping is beyond my reach. The drawing for the December LEGO Set of the Month will be at 9 AM MST on Saturday, December 2. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Power of Edu-Twitter

I'm a fan of Twitter. Despite the abuse and misuse and the ridiculousness of Certain Leaders of the Free World, I like the instant reach that Twitter can have for good. I was reminded of this just yesterday.

Last week I was facilitating a workshop with elementary teachers -- how to use picture books to teach social studies. We were dipping into dozens of picture books, mostly from the National Council for the Social Studies list of Notable Trade Books. If you're looking for resources to teach K12 social studies, go there.

At the end of the workshop, a fifth grade teacher stayed behind and asked me if I knew of any picture books about grieving. One of her students lost a parent this month, and she was looking for ways to approach it with the child. I know I've read picture books about loss, but couldn't remember titles, and an Amazon search didn't bring up what I was really looking for. Yesterday afternoon, I sent out a tweet:



Within minutes, I heard from my friend Anthony (a school librarian in Minnesota) and John Schu, an expert in children's books. Within the hour, I had heard from a few other teachers and librarians. And then School Library Journal retweeted it to their network of 74,000 librarians and teachers. By this morning, I had 25 solid recommendations for books, several I've read and forgotten, but others I haven't seen before. There are five or so that were recommended multiple times, and I figure I'll purchase those, send them to the teacher, and she can see what works best for that particular student. She can gift the copy to the kid, and then I can replace that one if the teacher would like.

And that's the power of Twitter. So often teaching is an exercise in isolation and survival. If you're a teacher who doesn't feel like they have the support or connections at your school or local community, Twitter can help with that. If you're the only music or art teacher in your building and you need to bounce ideas off of other teachers, Twitter can help with that. If you have a great accomplishment you want to celebrate, Twitter will celebrate with you.

It took me a few tries to really understand Twitter and how it could be used professionally; I was introduced to it at a state tech conference a long time ago, and then introduced to the idea of Twitter chats at a national social studies conference. Since then I've figured it out, and I use it professionally and frivolously and everything in between. Because of the gradual way I grew into Twitter, I don't have a separate education account and personal account, which probably isn't recommended, but hey. I'm me. Good, bad, weird, thoughtful, messy. And that's okay. My engagement with other teachers on Twitter is probably what got my book Play Like a Pirate: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics published, so I'll always be grateful to it for that.

If you're new to Twitter or old to Twitter, it's worth checking out. There's more on there than you'd expect. Sometimes the answers to your education questions are just a few clicks away. A great intro to Twitter in education is the book 140 Twitter Tips for Educators; these guys can teach you everything you need to know to get you started.

If you're already on Twitter, but haven't dipped into the Twitter Chats yet, here are some quick tips from Whitney Kilgore:



This is part of her brief introduction to what exactly Twitter chats are on Slideshare.

There's a list of education Twitter chats here -- I've participated in dozens of them, and get something good out of each. It may not be an answer to a question. It may be a reminder of something I already knew. It's usually a solid connection with educators who are inspired and energized and willing to put in time "off the clock" to find new ways to reach their students. If you've taken the time to read this far? You're one of those teachers.

Here's the list of books on grieving that were recommended by the teachers and librarians; the starred books were the ones recommended multiple times. Below that are the Twitter handles of those who have responded so far. Thank you for your help.

·         *** The Scar Charlotte Moundlic
·         The Next Place Warren Hanson
·         Tear Soup:A Recipe for Healing After Loss Pat Schwiebert
·         *** Boats for Papa Jessixa Bagley
·         Grief is the Thing with Feathers Max Porter
·        ***  The Sad Book Michael Rosen
·         *** The Heart and the Bottle Oliver Jeffers
·         Badger’s Parting Gifts Susan Varley
·         Goodbye Mog Judith Kerr
·         Missing Mummy: A Book About Bereavement Rebecca Cobb
·         *** Ida, Always Caron Lewis
·         Cry, Heart, But Never Break Glenn Ringtved
·         Granddad’s Island Benji Davis
·         Always Remember Cece Meng
·         What Happens When a Loved One Dies Dr. Jillian Roberts
·        ***  The Invisible String Patrice Karst
·         The Goodbye Book Todd Parr
·         I Love YouForever Robert Munsch 
·         Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3 Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan
·         The Old Lady Who Named Things Cynthia Rylant
·         Death is Stupid Anastasia Higginbotham
·        ***  After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again Dan Santat 
·         Cardboard Doug TenNapel 

Monday, November 13, 2017

LEGO Set of the Month: Justice League Battle of Atlantis

So the Justice League movie is set to come out this coming weekend, and I'm trying to be cautiously optimistic. With the exception of Wonder Woman (glorious Wonder Woman)(lesson ideas here) the DC Comics movies have been pretty terrible since Man of Steel came out in 2013. In my humble opinion, the biggest part of the problem has been the "vision" of Man of Steel/Batman V Superman/Justice League director Zack Snyder. He's missing the warmth, the fun, the color that's at the heart of these characters. Anyone who can make frigging Superman a dour hero doesn't have any business making Superman movies. 
But then came Wonder Woman. And then came Joss Whedon, taking over directorial (and writing, and re-shooting) duties late in the production of the Justice League movie. I'm hoping that Whedon, who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer and directed the first two Avengers movies, can bring some hope and light and humor, even though he did come to the movie late in the game. 
Oh yeah, LEGO. My LEGO Set of the Month is Battle of Atlantis. Honestly for the simple reason that I love Aquaman. I might write a whole blog post or chapter or epic opera about all of my reasons for loving Aquaman, but I do. Whether we're talking classic fuddy-duddy I've-Been-Wearing-This-Orange-Shirt-Since-1941 Aquaman (my personal favorite, I grew up with him on Superfriends)(and I've cosplayed as him a few times over the years), 1990s Piranhas-Ate-My-Hand-And-It's-Been-Replaced-With-A-Harpoon Aquaman, or now Jason Momoa Wow-They-Badassed-Him-Right-Up Aquaman, he's a favorite of mine. So the LEGO set with Aquaman is my Set of the Month. If you're interested in winning the set, check out how to do it below. 

The Battle of Atlantis set is small, but has some things going for it that are pretty cool. The minifigure selection is impressive for a set this size, naturally featuring Aquaman at the heart of things. The likeness to Jason Momoa is good, with a two-sided head that has a pretty neutral face and normal eyes--then turn it around and he's got a fierce grimace and his glowing superpowery eyes, I guess. He's not wearing the orange and green, but a gold and green that looks like intricate metallic armor--he got an upgrade for the big screen, and it's probably for the best. There are two Atlantean (from Atlantis, not Atlanta) soldiers with sweet finned helmets and similar gold armor -- and then there's a Parademon attacking Atlantis. The Parademons are winged monster soldiers from Apokolips, home of Darkseid. The storyline (sigh) involves one of Darkseid's lieutenants, Steppenwolf, leading an invasion of Earth, making way for Darkseid himself to come someday and finishing the subjugation of the planet. But the Justice League will repel this invasion by becoming a team and winning the day. I have so many issues with that storyline you guys. So. Many. Issues. If you ever want to have a prolonged conversation about all of the many things wrong with it (you don't), just say the word.

The scene takes place among the pillars and arches of Atlantis, which look like they may be carved from coral (?) with some seaweed here and there, some barnacles, and even a few glow-in-the-dark pearls. There are a few pieces designed to break apart when attacked, that can be reset easily. The pinnacle of the archway is this cool transparent blue piece that topples nicely, but brings an air (a water?) of elegance and royalty to the set. Another part of the storyline involves "Motherboxes" that are like beacons to Apokolips; they're scattered across the globe and one happens to be in Atlantis--that's the white cube on the plinth wow I know the word plinth I hope it means what I think it does at the bottom center.

It's a cool set. Not perfect, but it does what it should. Sets the stage, allows for some adventure, fires up the imagination. I'm sending one set, but if someone was obsessed enough to buy say, four of them, you could build a pretty extensive Atlantis and then have an Army of Atlantis and like four Parademons which is more of a threat, and then have an Aquaman for the set, but also a display shelf and also your desk at school and also your pocket JUST IN CASE. Yeah, that would be prettttty obsessed. 




IN THE CLASSROOM

Kids and adults, so humans, I guess, love the story of Atlantis. Whether it's a civilization that sunk millennia ago, or one that grew up with fish people underwater, or it leaked through from another dimension (the DC Comics version is some combination of these things), it's a place that's been part of Western memory and myth and pop culture for thousands of years. It's going to be featured in Justice League and then be at the center of the Aquaman movie coming next year -- but I don't know if it looks like "Atlantis" looks in my own imagination. Have students design their own vision of Atlantis, whether on paper or out of LEGO or other building materials. 

You could have students write a short story about a visitor coming to Atlantis for the first time, marveling at the world around them, and the things they'll encounter there. Are they welcomed as a hero, are they captured and brought before the king as an enemy, are they in a stealthsuit so they can't be seen, and observing as an anthroichthyologist, or is the civilization long dead, and they're an aquarchaeologist looking at the ruins? 

Students could compare and contrast Plato's version of Atlantis with the one pictured here -- could they be the same civilization? They could watch a clip of the heroes visiting the Disney version of Atlantis and compare it with this one too -- would the Justice League Atlantis fit in with that one, or are they too distinct to share the same world? 

If Atlantis is too fishy for you or your students, you could have them do most of the same things with any number of fictional places:
  • Hogwarts (Harry Potter)
  • Neverland (Peter Pan)
  • King's Landing (Game of Thrones probably don't watch clips of that in class though)
  • Oz (Wizard of, not the acclaimed HBO prison series)
  • Who-Ville (How the Grinch Stole Christmas)
  • Halloween Town (Nightmare Before Christmas)
  • Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings)
  • Cloud City (The Empire Strikes Back)
  • Narnia (...Narnia)
  • Arendelle (Frozen)
  • Orbit City (The Jetsons)
  • Bedrock (The Flintstones)
  • Pawnee (Parks and Recreation)
Atlantis can be the key to a student's imagination. Help them unlock that door. 


SO HOW DO I ENTER TO WIN THIS AMAZING SET?? 

I knew you were wondering. There are three ways to enter:

1. Comment on this post. You do that below at the very end of this post. Lower...lower...there.

2. Subscribe to the monthly Play Like a PIRATE newsletter. It comes out once a month, with ideas for the classroom, a graphic novel review, and a review and chance to win the new LEGO Set of the Month. No spamming (beyond once a month), no selling your emails to anyone. I don't even know who I would sell them to. It may be worth investigating.

3. Follow @jedikermit on Twitter and retweet this tweet. If you're not on The Twitter, you really should be. Sign up just for this entry. And follow me. So worth it. You can follow the #PlayLAP hashtag to see what other people are doing with Play Like a PIRATE. A book you should totally buy.

So you can enter up to three times. Don't try and cheat. Teachers always know.

Some fine print: the LEGO Set of the Month will only be available to U.S. residents. Even though I love everyone on the planet, international shipping is beyond my reach. The drawing for the November LEGO Set of the Month will be at 9 PM MST on Wednesday, November 15. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.

Subscribe to the Play Like a PIRATE Newsletter!

* indicates required
Email Format

Thursday, November 9, 2017

William Shakespeare's Star Wars

When I first saw the cover of William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope flash across Twitter a few years back I had two thoughts: the first was "This is blasphemy, and it must be stopped!" The second thought: "This must be a work of either genius or madness--either way, I must have it!" Ian Doescher's adaptation of George Lucas' original Star Wars screenplay to be in the style of the Bard of Avon has moments of genius, and moments of madness. I will say that for most of the time I was reading it, I had a stupid grin plastered on my face. Because (this is my usual line about these series ((also The LEGO Movie))) it was better than it had any right to be. Doescher could have written a sloppy mashup of Star Wars and Shakespeare, and it would have sold well enough. But what he's done is create art. 

Rewriting one of my favorite movies as a five act Shakespearean play could have fallen completely flat. I love Star Wars. If you know me at all, you know this. In 1977 my DNA was overwritten, and I'm at least 22% Star Wars at any given time. My handle on every friggin social media is JediKermit. I'm that kind of nerd. You know this. What you may not know is that I love Elizabethan English, whether in the form of Shakespeare's plays or the poetry of the King James Bible, I genuinely love it. I was worried that Doescher's treatment of the language would be poorly-written, or unnecessarily cluttered. Instead, what he's done is take George Lucas' script, translate it into iambic pentameter (really!), and discover more depth and meaning to key scenes and characters than I would have thought possible. I mean, I know Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia better than I do my own parents. (Happy Thanksgiving Mom and Dad!) I know their biographies, their passions, their fears...what could Ian Doescher possibly bring to the dejarik table that I don't already have? Turns out, a lot.   
Bith cantina musicians
Each major character gets asides and even soliloquys that I love--some of those are expected, and just flesh out the characters. Some are for comedy's sake--Han Solo gets most of those. What Harrison Ford may have expressed with a facial expression or body language is written out here as an aside, thrown with a wink or a sneer at an audience that isn't actually there. This formatting as a play will be a barrier to some readers, even more than the four hundred year old language is, but I love it. Doescher uses stage directions and these asides and soliloquys to add new layers of depth to characters that don't interfere with, but enhance our heroes and villains. 
The best soliloquy in the first book is from Luke Skywalker, after seeing that his aunt and uncle have been killed by stormtroopers on Tatooine. I don't want to put the whole thing in this review, but here's a portion:
Adventure have I ask'd for in this life,
And now have I too much of my desire.
My soul within me weeps; my mind, it runs
Unto a thousand thousand varied paths.
My uncle Owen and my aunt Beru,
Have they been cruelly kill'd for what I want?
So shall I never want again if in 
The wanting all I love shall be destroy'd. 
O fie! Thou knave adventure! Evil trick
Of boyhood's mind that ever should one seek
To have adventure when one hath a home--

I'll cut Luke off there. On the screen, what we saw was Luke standing near his burned home, the smoking remains of his family. The next scene, he's back with Ben Kenobi and the droids, and is clearly upset, but pretty much says "saddle up, Imma be a Jedi!" This scene at least gives him a few minutes to mourn his aunt and uncle and their blue milk, and summon the courage to go on to Alderaan. 
The book is richly illustrated by Nicolas Delort, who combines elements of Star Wars and Elizabethan dress in woodcut-inspired black and white drawings. So we have Grand Moff Tarkin in a high collar that accentuates his already gaunt features, and Darth Vader with a medallion seal of the Empire on his chest, and a fur-lined cloak in waves around his armored doublet. Jabba the Hutt sports a feathered Italian cap, and Han Solo wears knee-length breeches. We get pieces of how the sets could be designed and how the plays could be staged, which is another thing that boggled my mind. How would a play based on such special effects-intensive movies even work? I hope someone is thinking about these issues right now. 
Verily, A New Hope was published in 2013, and the series has continued on through The Empire Striketh Back, The Jedi Doth Return, all three Prequels, and a few weeks ago The Force Doth Awaken debuted. And I snatched it up. Because LOOK AT BB-8 ZOMG THE CUTENESS AAAAAH 
Like Shakespeare himself, Ian Doescher has taken a great idea (if not a new one) and run with it. I won't say that it's greater than the sum of its parts, but "William Shakespeare's Star Wars" has made me consider that galaxy far, far away in a new light. And I'm grateful for it. The subsequent books in the series are as good, and each has brought new depth to something that I didn't think I could understand better than I already did. In The Empire Striketh Back, there are two particularly poignant passages. One from Lando Calrissian, being torn between betraying his friends and letting all of Cloud City fall to Darth Vader. I've never quite forgiven him for this crime...after reading this take on his character, I finally get it. What may not have come across in the film for lack of time was brought home to me by this project, which I know at least eleven of you are going to dismiss out of hand. But if you're one of those eleven, you haven't read this far. So unclench a little and enjoy life, man. It's too short.

The other mindblowing, heartbreaking, and incredibly funny soliloquy in Empire is from that giant space slug who lives in the asteroid? The one the Millennium Falcon is hiding in and then has to fly out of? And it's like GNOOOMP ROAR even though it's in the vacuum of space and our heroes fly away and the Exogorth for lo verily that is its name ruminates (ironically, because ruminate is also TO CHEW but he's got nothin but vacuum)...that space slug gets his own page to mourn his loss, his hunger, his loneliness. GAH I love this series so much. DID I MENTION THAT YODA SPEAKS IN HAIKU?? 

IN THE CLASSROOM

Look, I could rattle off a few ideas for what I would do with this if I were teaching a Shakespeare unit. I'd have kids read a few of the most famous Star Wars scenes, ones that pretty much everyone knows even if they've never seen the movies. "I am your father," etc. You could have them do a side-by-side comparison with the script from the movie and Doescher's re-writing of it. You could have them reverse engineer Doescher's script into what they think the original language was, and then compare that to the movie. I'd have them take a few minutes of their own favorite movie or television script and try their hand at turning it all Elizabethan-like. I mean, I could. I could put five solid quick ideas in a little paragraph like that. 
Instead, I'll point you to two other places. First, is Quirk Books' own website, where they have study guides for the books in the series, but also a fully-fledged unit plan that's extensive and mindblowing and any single part could be used pretty much as-is in your own class. The other is Star Wars in the Classroom, an ongoing project that's collecting lesson ideas, camaraderie, and resources for bringing Star Wars into various parts of your curriculum at every age level and content area. Always worth checking out. They're good people. 


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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.



 IN THE CLASSROOM



 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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