Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Some Thoughts on The Last Jedi

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

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






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









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

In no particular order, some thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few things that Did Not Work For Me

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

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

That's all of my thoughts. 

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

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

William Shakespeare's Star Wars

The Force Awakens

Using Star Wars to Teach Biomes and Ecosystems

Teach Me, You Did

Yoda was Wrong

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

Thursday, December 14, 2017

5 Tips for Going Strong into Winter Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 4, 2017

Graphic Novel Review The Flintstones Vol. 1

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

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

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

Some of those social issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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. 


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. 


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.

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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?? 


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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