Tuesday, May 23, 2017

LEGO Sets of the Month: Mighty Micros!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Some fine print: the LEGO Set of the Month will only be available to U.S. residents. Even though I love everyone on the planet, international shipping is beyond my reach right now. The drawing for the April LEGO Set of the Month will be at 10 AM MST on Friday, April 28. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

5 Ways Kermit the Frog is a Great Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, May 5, 2017

Graphic Novel Review: Snow White

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

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

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

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

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


Three thoughts came to mind while reading Snow White

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

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

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

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

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Monday, May 1, 2017

Happy Batman Day!

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

Batman Villains

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

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