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 2018 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. The next 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 #Inktober2018 -- the challenge has been issued.


 Art Teachers: This was made for y'all. Depending on where you are in your curriculum, pen-and-ink might not be the kind of exercise you'd do as a formal classroom assignment, but it could still be a great way to stretch your students. I know some artists who design a character (an alien? a pumpkin?) or pick a character to draw doing all of the #Inktober prompts. How would you have your alien doing "Flowing?" "Stretch?" "Cruel?" "Swollen?" ...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 #Inktober2018 hashtag on Instagram and Twitter, and follow both Jake Parker and Inktober on Instagram. If you're on Twitter, more great follows are #K12ArtChat (both the hashtag and the account) and Laura Grundler and Matthew Grundler.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Graphic Novel Review: Ghosts

Ghosts, Raina Telgemeier. 256 pages, 2016.

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

LEGO Set of the Month: Skylines

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Some fine print: the LEGO Set of the Month will only be available to U.S. residents. Even though I love everyone on the planet, international shipping is beyond my reach right now. The drawing for the September LEGO Set of the Month will be at 6 PM MST on Sunday, September 10. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.

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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Book Review: Wonder Woman Psychology: Lassoing the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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