Monday, October 8, 2018

Graphic Novel Review: Illegal

Graphic Novel: ILLEGAL. Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin, Giovanni Rigano. 144 pages. 2018. Sourcebook Jabberwocky, publisher. 

My good friend and geography teachin' superstar Chris Heffernan recommended this book to me last month when he got to meet author Eoin Colfer at a book talk near his home in Illinoisville or something. I'm not the geography teacher, don't ask. There's been a wave of YA books and graphic novels using the global refugee crises as a setting to both tell emotional stories and inspire action, and it seemed like Illegal was going to be one of those books.

I don't know that I was prepared for just how emotional the book was going to be.

Illegal tells the story of Ebo, a boy from Ghana who's trying to get to a better life in Europe. He has an older brother, Kwame, and an older sister, Sisi. Sisi made the journey some time ago, leaving her brothers behind; Kwame left more recently, and Ebo is desperate to be reunited with him. The path Ebo needs to take will take him across two vast wastes--the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea, each fraught with the possibility of death at any time.

Throughout the book, we see Ebo getting to take two steps forward, and then a step back. Sometimes several steps back. His perseverance through these incredibly harsh conditions is admirable, and he shows a strength that I honestly hope I'll never need to have. Along the way, Ebo is given assistance by strangers who become fast friends, but usually only after Ebo does something for them out of kindness or necessity. Using his wits, hard work, and a beautiful singing voice, he's able to keep going onto the next step of his journey.

The artwork by Giovanni Rigano is beautiful, although some of the images are hard to look at. Seeing the cruelty of humanity on one page, the vastness of the obstacles Ebo faces on others, you wonder how anyone can make these journeys at all. Was their life back home so bad that they'd take this risk? Is this their only hope?

The answer is often yes. With the conditions of war, poverty, disease, and political instability creating crises in multiple locations around the world on large scales, it seems like the refugees trying to find a safe harbor are more desperate and more numerous than ever. We (the United States) only take in a fraction of what we could, leaving "the problem" to be solved by countries closer to the crisis. Illegal makes these ideas clear, and being written and illustrated by an Irishman and Italian, the United States is never mentioned, but my feelings of responsibility were palpable.

The other recurring thought was about my students. Many of them have these same stories, either in their own life or in the lives of their parents or grandparents. Be sensitive to this when it comes to assignments that center on refugees and immigration; some of these kids are comfortable sharing these stories, for others there's a very real trauma that's still fresh, renewed when the topics come up. Don't treat them lightly.

This is a book everyone needs to read.


This is a great book to read within an immigration unit for a social studies class, or as part of a current events class of any kind where you're looking at modern day crises and attempts to fix them. I'd say this is most appopriate for grades five and up as far as the language goes, but the frightening themes may move it up a grade or two. Ideally, I'd teach it with two companion picture books: Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant's Tale and The Journey.

Pancho Rabbit softens the story of a boy traveling in his missing father's footsteps: Papa Rabbit went north a year ago, and the family hadn't heard from him since. Pancho enlists the help of a coyote (the nickname for these "helpers" getting people across the border, often through ruthless, mercenary means is coyote), and goes through many trials on his way. Definitely a US/Mexico border story, although as with Ebo's there are going to be similar themes throughout.


The Journey is a simpler, quieter story than either Illegal or Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote. It's a family fleeing the Middle East after their father is taken from them, and they're heading to Europe. They get help along the way, but the obstacles are still great. Francesca Sanna's artwork is beautiful and makes the story almost lyrical, again, softening some of the true horrors this family faces along the way. Either of these would be fine for younger grades, and the three books together would engage different students for different reasons.

Bringing in real world stories, statistics and maps from the migration of displaced persons (refugees) around the world, both historic and modern, would help bring the point home -- that this is an ongoing crisis that impacts groups of people for various reasons. Race, religion, war, famine, poverty, government can be unbearably depressing. It's important to point out in each of these stories the protagonists are helped along the way by people trying to do good. These books can inspire us to step up and do the same.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Potential and Power of a New Classroom

This year I'm back in the classroom, for the first time in six years. You can read all about it here. I'm excited about it. It's where I belong. And then I saw my classroom. It's in a building that was formerly a junior high, and has been absorbed into a high school campus. The building I'm in was built in 1950, and is full of interesting spaces and/or smells. I came expecting a traditional classroom with 40-ish desks in neat little rows.What I got was this:

But uh...the panoramic fisheye version of it. When this building was a junior high, this was the band room. It has those risers built into the floor, and the steps are too narrow for desks of any kind. There are 44 chairs (turns out my largest class is 45), and the guy before me loved this setup because he taught public speaking and a film class. I've inherited the film class, and it's awesome...but the majority of my teaching schedule is a traditional US History class for juniors. Which 1) I've never taught before, and 2) the history classes I have taught have been with, you know, desks. 

That said, I Twitter-know and Instagram-know a lot of you who have adapted your classrooms with flexible seating and other options for your students that have worked well for you and your kids. So...maybe what's scary to me has some potential. My administration has been understanding of the unique space I've got, and has offered to buy whatever we need to make the space work for us. My district has some limits on things like bean bag chairs or other fabric-covered seating -- in between fire codes and potential hygiene issues, administration wants to avoid them. So while it would be ideal to look like the inside of Jeannie's Bottle, that's not going to happen. 

One of the first features I realized I wanted to find a way to use is the four small practice rooms. There's one on one side of the room, and three on the other. Each is about ten feet by ten feet. In this room's previous life, they were used as practice rooms for instruments, and one of them was used as the office for the teacher. I'm a believer in having students do collaborative work, so they've been repurposed as small meeting rooms where kids can go in groups of 4-6 and work on projects. There are windows, I can still see into them and know if they're on task or not, but they have a bit of privacy and a bit of independence. These guys are sixteen years old--they can handle it. I've also rebranded the rooms: one is a Star Wars-themed room "The Porg's Nest," one is Rick and Morty "Rick's Lab," one is Aquaman-themed "Atlantis," and the fourth is Black Panther's "Wakanda." There's some nerdy stuff in each room that helps establish the vibe I want, and so far the kids seem to dig it and pick up on that vibe too. Photos from this point on are what I've done with the room; you'll also see photos of the room and some of the activities we do on my new classroom Instagram feed

Another benefit of this new room is that, as a former band room, it has an enormous storage space. And...I need a lot. Play-Doh, LEGO, graphic takes up a bunch of space. And now that I'm moved in, I really appreciate that storage space. We're building a new high school in four years, and I'm pre-missing that storage space, and resenting the new shiny classroom I'll end up with.

I'm always a fan of sharing your passion with students, whatever that happens to be. So yeah, I have things about Muppets and LEGO and superheroes, and I have my Aquaman Shrine (because he is The Best)...a few teachers have said "aren't you afraid they're going to steal ____?" and truthfully, no. I'm not. If they love the thing enough to take it from me, I hope they get some joy out of it. And guilt. Sweet, sweet guilt.

I'm only in my second week with students, and while there are a few hiccups (some students would rather have a traditional desk when they're doing things like using Chromebooks or doing some kind of paper-based assignment), most of them seem happier with the differentness of the space. I have a set of clipboards they can use on their laps when they're taking paper notes, and when they're doing either independent or group work, I release them to use whatever space in the classroom is most comfortable for them. I've used LEGO with them already, which isn't really a lap-top activity (neither is Play-Doh), but we'll figure out how to do that together. I have a small LEGO wall that may expand over time; we'll see how much weight this first iteration can take before the 3M strips separate from the wall and I can do LEGO wall 2.0. 

What it comes down to is that the kids are more flexible, more resilient, than I am. Things that I thought would be a difficulty for them, or for me, just haven't been. In the first few days, I told them "the principal says if this room doesn't work for us, we can move to a regular classroom," and they were unanimous in wanting to stay with this one. I do think the setup, and especially the proximity of the students to each other, makes them a bit more chatty...but they also know that in any given class period, they'll be released from those seats to do other things. 

As I put more of myself into my room, it became more my space, a happier place for me to be in every day, and hopefully a memorable and happy and effective space for my students. Room 630 will be different from the other rooms in the school. It turns out that's the way I want it, and more importantly, the way the kids want it.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

LEGO Set of the Month: BrickHeadz Go Brick Me!

Last year LEGO introduced a new kind of building toy aimed at kid and adult collectors: BrickHeadz. BrickHeadz can be seen as a brick-built cousin to the enormously popular Funko Pop! figures (see my post about using Funko Pop! in the classroom here), in that they have big ol' noggins and creepy dead eyes, and they're just damn cute. Can I say damn in here?

Another part of the appeal of LEGO BrickHeadz is that they're releasing them in pretty much every license that LEGO has:

...that's just in the first two years. Knowing LEGO and how much of my wallet they want, they're just getting started.

Each BrickHeadz figure has the same internal structure, with variations in the outside details. Aw, just like us! Seeing that they were on to something, and that the point of LEGO is really to experiment creatively with your own spin on their original models, LEGO just came out with a set called "BrickHeadz Go Brick Me!" And that's my LEGO Set of the Month this month. Details for how to be entered to win it are below. This is a set you want.

The Go Brick Me! set has everything you need to build a BrickHeadz figure of yourself. Different skin tones, hair colors, clothing pieces, accessories, decals -- there's a rainbow of colors and shapes that you can use to get as close to a BrickHeadz version of you that you can make.

The instruction manual that comes with the set is kind of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" format -- if you want to see how to make different hairstyles, turn to page 19. You need a dress, page 28. A beard, page 33. I build a lot with LEGO (a lot), but this particular style of building was new to me. I've built a few Justice Leaguers, but I wasn't confident in my BrickHeadz selfie skillz. It took some trial and error, but with the booklet and the pieces, I was able to come up with something that's reasonably Quinnish:

I stuck with the colors that came with the set, otherwise I may have given myself a yellow shirt -- as it is, they had an anchor that seemed suitably piratey for the shirt, and the little yellow brick I'm holding could either be a copy of PLAY LIKE A  PIRATE: ENGAGE STUDENTS WITH TOYS, GAMES, AND COMICS or my Rubber Duckie, or...hey this works: a LEGO.

Despite minor things, I think it's a passable likeness. My hair's not necessarily orange. Kind of dirty blond/brown/red/grey/white/bald. So orange was as close as we could get.

Got some bald in there tho. :/

If nothing else, building yourself as a BrickHeadz figure lets you be alongside some of your favorite characters -- I finally get to be a Super Friend!

The set includes everything you need to make two different BrickHeadz, although if you've got the same skin tone and hair color as your second figure, you'll have to get creative. It's back to school time, I wanted to do something fun. It's a great set, with 708 colorful pieces that can be used to supplement any classroom LEGO set.

My friend Ryan Read, always up for engaging kids with LEGO and Perler Beads and other pixelated goodness, even created a template that can be used for kids to design a BrickHeadz figure on paper:


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 August LEGO Set of the Month will be at 8 PM MST on Wednesday, August 8. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.

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Friday, June 1, 2018

Graphic Novel Review: Be Prepared

Be Prepared. Vera Brosgol. 265 pages, First Second Books, 2018. (10/10)

I've been a fan of author/artist Vera Brosgol's work since I read Anya's Ghost a few years ago. Her clean lines and cartoony style disguises surprisingly emotional stories about growing up and feeling different from the people around you. are different from the people around you.

Her most recent book is Be Prepared, and is an autobiographical-ish look at her first experience at a summer camp. Monthlong summer camp is a kind of east coast phenomenon that we don't have as much of out west--we have weeklong scout camps, high adventure camps, and in my part of the country (Utaaaaaah) we're basically one step away from camping at any given time anyway, doesn't seem to happen as much. I know about "real" summer camps from movies and tv. Vera's experience seems to be very much like the kind of experience I would have.

Vera's growing up in the city, a Russian immigrant with a single mom and little brother. Mom does her best, but doesn't quite get American culture yet. In between that and the economic hardship of being a first generation immigrant, Vera doesn't quite fit in with the other girls in her class. She goes to some sleepovers and birthday parties, but her gifts don't measure up to the other gifts, her own birthday party isn't as upscale as other other girls' parties are.

When summer comes, all of the kids in her class go away to their own summer camps, and when the chance comes up for Vera and her brother to go to one, she's excited about finally being able to take part in the same ritual all of the other kids do. The camp she's going to is a Russian Orthodox summer camp, and the small pieces of that culture we get in the book made me feel like I was experiencing something different: the religious services that were a part of camp life; the borscht and other Russian dishes; pieces of Russian language and traditional songs that I don't know the tune to, but helped us understand Vera's balancing act between her two worlds.

Vera goes through most of camp surrounded by people who understand her culturally, but she still doesn't fit in. Her two tentmates are both named Sasha, are both infatuated with the same boy, and have both been going to the same camp for years. Vera is a newcomer, she's younger, and she's beneath their notice. Vera doesn't know the camp traditions, the songs, the routine...and doesn't really want to. The latrines are nightmares, the bugs are everywhere, and she doesn't know if she'll be able to make it two weeks until Mom comes to pick her up again.

Who of us hasn't been there? Brosgol channels her pre-teen angst and pours feelings into this book. We feel miserable alongside Young Vera, but we have older Vera as a narrator explaining things and maintaining some perspective. We also have bright moments of humor (including some gross latrine humor)(hey, it's camp!), and get to see Vera overcome some of her personal fears, her bullies, and find ways to make friends that will serve her well after camp ends.

This book is fun, funny, and even exciting--but more than anything, it reminds us what it's like to be a kid in this situation. Being a little bit different, trying to fit in, but also wanting to maintain your uniqueness. Vera Brosgol did an amazing job with Anya's Ghost -- Be Prepared is even better. I loved this book.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Decision to "Boldly Go" Back to the Classroom

Six years ago I made the jump from the classroom to a position in our district office. As the social studies curriculum specialist, I got to work with teachers from kindergarten through twelfth grade, across 63 elementary schools, 15 junior highs, and 9 high schools. 67,000 students or something. And I liked it. I liked being able to help teachers with curriculum problems, help find resources for them, be an advocate for them at the district level, be a liaison between the schools and the state…there are things I liked about that job and (I think) did well.

There are other things I didn’t. Two hour meetings where my job was to sit and not say anything (I doodled soooo much great stuff), being tasked with districtwide initiatives for 87 schools with no resources or support. Putting together standardized tests that I don’t think are the best way to measure student growth or achievement. Mountains of paperwork (and thank goodness for my incredible secretary who…she’s amazing) that I never quite appreciated.

The bigger issue is that pretty much every day I missed the students. I didn’t go into education to be a quasi-administrator, I didn’t go into education to sit through endless meetings. I went into education to teach kids. Like, actual human children. And I missed it. When you’re working with kids, you see impact. You see things that work, things that don’t work. You see kids who are struggling, and kids who do more than you could have ever imagined them capable of. Sometimes in the same kid. I've been feeling like I needed to be back with those students for the last two years or so. So I'm heading back into the classroom.

When I think about my past, present, and future jobs in the context of my larger career, I keep coming back to Captain Kirk. Or, more specifically, Admiral Kirk. You see, when James T. Kirk finished his five year mission, he was promoted to the position of admiral. He took a desk job. Dr. McCoy told him not to do it, Spock told him not to do it, Scotty told him not to do it. But he did it anyway. And he regretted it pretty much every day. In Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture, he ended up taking temporary command of the Enterprise, and saved Earth. Also, he basically got to spend the entire movie in PJs, so it wasn't a total loss.

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he again took temporary command of the Enterprise, this time to stop a madman. In the scene where he takes command (this time from Spock), he keeps protesting, saying "no no no I couldn't possibly, nooooo please no not the briar patch" and then Spock is like "STFU bro, I don't have feelings to bruise, even though I'm slowly dying inside, I'll let you take this one bc we're bros" ...these may be paraphrased. I don't need Paramount suits coming after me.

In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, he stole the Enterprise and blew it up to save a friend. I'll probably skip that part. Fire codes,'s gotta be a headache.

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, he was on his way to his own court martial, ended up picking up some humpback whales from 1986, and again saved Life As We Know It. He was Admiral Kirk in all four of those movies. At the end of the fourth movie, his punishment for breaking all kinds of Starfleet laws was being busted down from the rank of admiral to captain, and being put back in command of a starship. The Enterprise. Of course. He was told it was the job that he always should have had, and why weren't you doing it all along, your friends told you so, you keep sneaking back onto the bridge of starships every chance you get -- just go do the job that you're actually good at.

Thaaaat’s how I feel right now. I did some good things in my district office job, but the job I'm most suited for is a classroom teacher. I’m excited to be going back. I’m heading to a high school, and it’s the first time I’ve taught high school. I’ve worked with high school teachers in my own district and across the country, and my sons are both in high school now—I think I get it. I’m a little intimidated, I’m a little nervous, but only realistically so.

Despite my six year hiatus, I’m more connected now to other teachers than I’ve ever been. I’ve spent six years seeing the amazing things you are all doing in your classrooms, and I want to bring some of that to my own school. I’ve got a great department, great administration, and the best kids in the district. All of those ideas have me excited.

The district office has been good for me. It’s opened doors. I’ve had the luxury of more time to reflect on practice than a classroom teacher gets. I’ve had more time to explore different pedagogy, different resources than you typically have when you’re rushing from class to class day by day. I’m grateful to my colleagues there, but going back to the classroom is like going back home. It’s where I belong. As Captain Kirk himself said, I'll "boldly go" where I haven't been before. And where my heart has always been. And I'm gonna rock it.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Graphic Novel Review: Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery

Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery. Darryl Cunningham, 264 pages, 2017.

Even though I'm a history teacher, I'm a big fan of science. I mean, who isn't? Part of history and change over time is invention and innovation, technology and progress. The story of science is the story of humanity's understanding of the world around us, so...what's not to love? The stories of the scientists behind the science are equally fascinating, and some of my favorite nonfiction graphic novels have been about these people and their discoveries.

Darryl Cunningham has become one of my favorite graphic novel authors and artists, with books like Psychiatric Tales, Science Tales, Supercrash, and How to Fake a Moon Landing. He specializes in nonfiction, and his heavily stylized art is a complement for the stories he tells.

Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery is Cunningham's latest book, and the anthology is an outstanding collection of stories I hadn't heard before, and scientists I hadn't met.

Cunningham chooses seven scientists who often get overlooked for one reason or another, in favor of "larger lights" of history. But without these seven, our lives and understanding of the universe would be vastly different. The seven profiled:
  • Antoine LaVoisier
  • Mary Anning
  • George Washington Carver
  • Alfred Wegener
  • Nikola Tesla
  • Jocelyn Bell-Burnell
  • Fred Hoyle

Some of these I had heard of (Carver and Tesla), but most of them were unknowns. They weren't Darwin or Einstein or Newton...and that's Cunningham's goal. Introducing readers to these scientists who "for reasons of gender, race, mental health, poverty -- excessive wealth, even -- have not won the recognition they deserve. Overlooked, sidelined, excluded, discredited: key figures in scientific discovery take a bow in this alternative Nobel prize gallery." 

As with the best graphic novels about science, Cunningham balances the personal lives of the scientists with their discoveries and inventions. LaVoisier, who proved the Law of the Conservation of Mass (matter can neither be created nor destroyed), discovered that the classical elements (air, water, fire) were actually comprised of discrete atoms, and gave us the forerunner of the periodic table...was executed in the Terror in 1793 in Paris. Mary Anning became a self-trained paleontologist partially to survive -- she was selling the fossils she found in the chalk cliffs near her home on the English coast. She was never allowed to receive formal training as either a geologist (women weren't allowed yet) or paleontologist (it didn't exist as a field of study), but became the preeminent expert in the field...but lived in poverty her entire life. 

There are issues of race and gender -- George Washington Carver was probably gay, although there isn't much in the way of concrete evidence to support the notion; Tesla was likely asexual, but again, people weren't tweeting their gender identity to the world back then, so private matters of these scientists stayed awfully private. 

Some of the most interesting stories were about the biggest ideas possible: how do we know about plate tectonics, and the concept of Pangea? I suppose the biggest idea ever is the big bang theory...where that came from is included in this book. Both stories are fascinating, both about scientists whose lives were touched by tragedy. 

After reading these seven stories, you come away with a new respect for the work that goes into science. The careful observation, the patience, the experimentation...leading to dead ends every time...until it doesn't. That spark of excitement that disrupts the world as we know it is in every story, and Cunningham captures that beautifully here. Whether you're a science teacher or a fan of inclusion and social justice, or just someone interested in how we understand the world around us, you'll find a lot to love in Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Barbie Inspires Girls with "Inspiring Women"

Barbie gets criticized a lot. Rather, Mattel gets criticized a lot for what they've done with Barbie over the years. From unrealistic body proportions to "math is hard" speaking dolls to expectations about beauty, Mattel has made some missteps here and there.

But sometimes, they get it right. Two years ago, in one of my very first Play Like a Pirate blog posts, I wrote about Mattel coming out with different body types, skin colors, and hair textures. This went a long way toward girls being able to see themselves in the toy, which makes sense for Mattel's bottom line, but is also a very human gesture to a rapidly diversifying world. Let girls (and women, and kids and adults generally) see women more like them, more like the women in their own lives they look up to.

Yesterday, in honor of International Women's Day, Mattel unveiled their "Inspiring Women" line of dolls. These seventeen dolls represent historic and modern women from various nations, ethnicities, and careers, in a diversity of roles that is truly inspiring.

Some of the dolls have been out for a while it seems, under a "Sheros" (she-heroes) branding, while others are brand new to the lineup. The first three under the Inspiring Women brand are pilot Amelia Earhart, artist Frida Kahlo, and mathematician Katherine Johnson.

There are things to criticize about the dolls (and it's the internet, so of course there will be critics). Frida without a unibrow just isn't Frida. They also could have put braces on her legs. Katherine Johnson is probably a little too pale. All of the dolls are "idealized, Barbie-ized" versions of the real women. All of that said, I applaud the step in the right direction that Mattel is taking. They've done celebrity tribute dolls for decades -- Judy Garland as Dorothy, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara...but relatively few Real Women as Real Women. I love the lineup that they've chosen for this series:
  • Amelia Earhart - Pilot
  • Frida Kahlo - Artist
  • Katherine Johnson - NASA Mathematician/Physicist
  • Patty Jenkins - Director (most recently of Wonder Woman)
  • Chloe Kim - Snowboarding Champion
  • Nicola Adams Obe - Boxing Champion
  • Helene Darroze - Chef
  • Sara Gama - Soccer Champion
  • Martyna Wojciechowska - Journalist
  • Ibtihaj Muhammad - Fencing Champion
  • Gabby Douglas - Gymnastics Champion
  • Ashley Graham - Model, Body Activist
  • Bindi Irwin - Conservationist
  • Yuan Yuan Tan - Ballerina
  • Leyla Piedayesh - Designer
  • Xiaotong Guan - Actress
  • Ava Duvernay - Director
  • Hui Ruoqi - Volleyball Champion
Each of the women has a profile including a biography, their major accomplishments, and photos of the woman and their doll on the Inspiring Women site. Mattel has also included PDF activity sheets for Earhart, Kahlo, and Johnson; each two page sheet has inspiring achievements, quotes, and a "circle the qualities that made ______ a role model." Things like Curious, Persuasive, Assertive, Humble, Genius" -- things that we all want our daughters (and students)(and sons)(and students) to be. I wouldn't use those sheets in a classroom per se, but they can set the stage for other activities and lesson plans that help students find their own role models. 

I recognize and respect the pink baggage that Barbie carries for a lot of us. But when one of the largest toy companies in the world tells kids and adults that there are more reasons to look up to women than just their pink Townhouse, pink Glam Convertible and pink Dreamtopia Sweetville Carriage, it has a ripple effect. Celebrating some of the most inspiring women in our time is the right thing to do. I'm glad Mattel is doing it. 

See more ideas about how to use Barbie, Hot Wheels, action figures and LEGO in the classroom in Play Like a Pirate: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics! 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Graphic Novel Review: Making Scents

Making Scents. Arthur Yorinks, Braden Lamb & Shelli Paroline. 108 pages, First Second Books, 2017. 

First Second Books has been one of my favorite publishers for kids graphic novels for a long time now, and their ability to find talent and draw the best stories out of them is continuing on strong. 2017's Making Scents is a good example of a book that's ideal for kids in grades 3-5, telling a great story that is equal parts funny, weird, and unexpectedly sentimental.

The book is about Mickey, a boy being raised alongside his parents' dogs. Mom and Dad have bloodhounds, which help police solve crimes. Mickey grows up with the dogs as siblings, and they're a big happy family; Mickey develops a keen sense of smell so he can play with and compete with his brothers and sisters. He spends a lot of time on all fours, he doesn't use utensils to eat...basically, he's a dog.

After a tragedy, Mickey is sent to live with an aunt and uncle. The aunt and uncle don't like pets, so Mickey is separated again, this time from his siblings. He goes through the normal stages of grief, but is also trying to figure out who he is, and what he has to contribute to this new family. Can his unique sniffing talents be used to make his aunt and uncle happy? Can he share them with the kids at his new school? What is his place in the world? Mickey asks a lot of the same questions about himself that we all do, but Yorinks uses the (admittedly odd) device of the special smelling powers to help readers see things from a different angle.

I love the artwork -- very retro, 1950s-style art. Streamlined, sparse backgrounds with cartoony characters, and only three colors per page. It works well for this story, which has elements of near-magic that might not work in a "realistic" setting.

In all, Making Scents reminded me more of a Pixar movie than other books for young readers. The elements of comedy, adventure, and tragedy are all layered with a heartfelt ability to overcome grief, to find acceptance, to find love. It's a book I don't know that I would have picked up on my own, but I'm glad I did.


This is a good book for grades 3-5, with a few frightening moments that teachers would want to be sensitive to. I'd use Making Scents as the jumping-off point for three different activities with kids:

Mickey uses his "powers" in several different ways in the story. At school, in games with friends, and for more serious things later in the book. How could he use those powers as an adult? What kind of job could he get that would let him use his talents to their fullest extent? Have students write a short story about what kind of workday Mickey would have as a grownup.

Making Scents would be a good entry point for a unit on the senses, focusing in on the science of smelling. It's one that we use all the time, but it doesn't get all the top billing that say, sight or hearing get. If kids didn't have a sense of smell at all, what would their day be like? What do our noses tell us that our other senses don't?

Some of my favorite parts of the book are with Mickey growing up alongside the dogs, and him behaving like a dog. Have students write a story about what it would be like to grow up with a different set of animals. What if the pets were cats? Birds? What if their parents raised giraffes? What if they grew up alongside a pride of lions? What kinds of skills would you learn from those animals? What would be fun? What would be difficult? What would it be like to go to school and behave like a "human" if you were raised that way?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Using the Weird World of Archie McPhee as Writing Prompts

Most of a student's school day is predictable to the point of despair. Their day is regulated by bells, they're sitting in the same classes, taught by the same people, using the same reading and math program, using the same worksheets. Sometimes as teachers we end up in PD sessions in those same classrooms, and it's torture sitting in those desks and focusing for 45 minutes, let alone seven hours. There are things about the school day we can't change for them; but where we can, let's mix it up.

A big part of Play Like a PIRATE: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics is embracing the unusual. The bizarre. The downright weird. And I don't know if there's anything weirder than the world of Archie McPhee.

Archie McPhee is headquartered in Seattle, and in the pre-internet days was best known for their catalog of bizarre products. Now that catalog is all online of course, and it's one of the most fun and funny and weird places to go for classroom ideas. One of my favorite activities to do with students (and I share in Play Like a Pirate and in workshops) is to have students design their own action figures in lieu of traditional biography reports; Archie McPhee has some very cool action figures:

Pretty cool, pretty mainstream, pretty tame. You've likely seen some of their other products too. Freakish (and terrifying) horse head masks. A "Punching Nun" puppet. Finger hands. Their catalog goes much deeper than literary action figures. And possibly, much deeper than what you'd want to see. 

There's an entire bacon oeuvre on the site. Bacon soap. Bacon band-aids. Bacon scarves. Bacon-scented mustaches. Bacon dental floss. And, what's possibly my favorite, Yodelling Bacon

For the cat lover in your life, there's a Crazy Cat Lady board Game, Inflatable Unicorn Horns that go atop your pet's head, a car air freshener that's a renaissance painting of a cat, cat paws that go on your fingers, and a dashboard cat Buddha. My favorite cat-related item (besides the set of six glow in the dark cats that I bought and are glowing Right Now) is probably the Cat Bonnet

I have a cat. Her name is Slinky Marie Mousechaser. And she hates my dog. My good, good boy. She's had this bonnet coming for a while. 

Instant underpants for those...emergencies.

Handerpants, for people whose hands get cold when they're typing but need their fingers free. Very Dickensian. And very...not. 

Their now-iconic horse head masks have also been shrunk down and repurposed to be squirrel feeders, so those bushy-tailed rodents are even more terrifying:

Okay, okay. So they've got a lot of weird stuff. How would I use this in class? Essentially, as writing prompts. Students are expected to do a lot of informational writing these days. A lot of persuasive writing. And while some of that is engaging, a lot of it is...not. Here are three ways I'd use Archie McPhee as a writing prompt:

1. Have students write copy for an existing product. Give them just the photo of an Archie McPhee product, say...Emergency Inflatable Toast

And have them write the "Ad Copy" for the product. The ad copy is the text on the website or in the catalog that's convincing potential buyers that they need this product. In the case of Emergency Inflatable Toast, the existing ad copy is this:                                                                                                                                              The person who invented bread was probably heralded as a genius, but just think about the person who invented toast. I mean, the Bible calls bread the staff of life, but surely toast is the staff of awesome. It has an amazing crunch, nooks and crannies for butter and it costs almost nothing! When you want all the comfort of toast and none of the crumbs, you want Inflatable Toast. You don't even need an inflatable toaster! When you need your Inflatable Toast, pull it out of its tin, blow it up and just revel in its realistic toasty goodness. Perfect for toast emergencies of all kinds.

Ideally, you'd have a few of their actual products on hand, not just photos of them, so the kids get the full impact of how weird they are. I mean, you want the Ruth Bader Ginsburg "Dissent Mints" anyway, right? You'd want to show kids a few examples of what advertising is, watch a few commercials on YouTube, but their task would be to write a paragraph or two selling the customer on the Emergency Inflatable Toast. They should emphasize the practical nature of the (ridiculous) product, and make sure we know why we need it in our lives. I mean, look at it. Of course we do. 

2. Write a commercial for an existing product. Similar to the the first one of course, you're still advertising that weird, weird...thing. Their commercial would include ad copy, but could go even further, including dialogue between multiple characters. They could include a jingle. They could design a mascot for the product, like Admiral Toast.  Full disclosure: Admiral Toast is my friend Scott. I knew he was a hand model for Archie McPhee, but I had no idea about Admiral Toast, and I'll never stop loving this picture, ever. They could just write the commercial, but ideally they'd record it as well, or perform it for the class. 

3. Design a new product pitch. A product pitch is where you have an idea for a new product that Archie McPhee should carry, so you do a quick mock-up (in our case, probably a drawing), an argument for why this product would be a good seller, some ad copy, and a price point that you'd be able to sell the product at. You could have students connect this new product to your content. What would an Ancient Egyptian Archie McPhee catalog have in it? What kind of product would fit into a stage of the water cycle? What would Katniss Everdeen want to have on hand? The new items would be ostensibly practical (band-aids) but with a bizarre twist (they look like bacon). The product pitch needs to emphasize both of those aspects.

My rule of thumb about inserting the bizarre into traditional classroom assignments and assessments is that it's not appropriate for every assignment, but it's always memorable. These pieces of persusasive writing would be ones that students remember, but also that they're excited to share. With friends, with parents, with other teachers. Let them be weird. As my son memorably told his third grade teacher, "In my family, weird is a compliment. Weird is good." 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Graphic Novel Review Raid of No Return

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Raid of No Return 2017 Amulet Books, 128 pages. 10/10 

Since the first book in the Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales series was published in 2012, kids and adults and history teachers and comic book fans have been waiting to see how he'd tackle a favorite topic: World War II. We had to wait until last fall to get it, but Nathan Hale (author, not patriot)(I mean, I'm sure he's a patriot)(not the patriot spy though) doesn't disappoint.

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Raid of No Return doesn't attempt to tell the entire story of World War II. Towards the end of the book, narrator Nathan Hale (this one is the patriot spy) explains that this is only one story of many, and it will take many books to tell those stories. Instead, as he did with the Revolutionary War and Civil War, Hale (actually just assume it's both Hales) uses a smaller event within the war to tell the larger story. In this case, it's the Do0little Raids on Japan.

Going in, I didn't know much about the Doolittle raids, other than that they were featured in that Pearl Harbor movie (creatively titled Pearl Harbor) where Captain Jimmy Dolittle was played by Jack Donaghy Alec Baldwin. The raids were an American air strike against Japan, the first to reach the Japanese home islands. The attack was launched from aircraft carriers, and was a one-way mission; if the pilots and crews survived, they were to land in China and work their way home from there.

As with the other books in the series, Hale (uh, both) does an excellent job of providing context for the relatively limited events showcased in the book. This means laying out the increasing aggressions of the Japanese in the fifty years leading up to World War II. In the United States, we often just talk about Pearl Harbor coming out of nowhere, but in fact the Japanese had been building their power empire in a series of invasions and wars against Russia, China, French Indochina, and other nations and territories beginning in 1894. This positioned Japan with one of the most powerful navies in the world, with uncontested dominance of the eastern Pacific. They were bound to run up against Hawaii sometime.

We mostly see the attack on Pearl Harbor from the side of the Japanese, and Hale (whoever) does a great job of laying out the purpose, events, and success of the attack. For being the worst attack on American soil in the twentieth century, Hale manages to tell the tale with his now-patented balance of exposition, excitement, suspense, and even humor--somehow while maintaining a reverence and respect for lives lost on both sides of the battle.

As a history teacher, I appreciate the way he uses maps and diagrams to help explain the strategic and tactical side of these battles; as a comics reader and dad, I love that he's able to bring the personality of the individuals involved to life. There are a lot of graphic novels out there about World War II, but many of them have the cold distance of a textbook with illustrations added; Hale truly marries the text and pictures, so that each supports the other.

The bulk of the book is about the Doolittle raids themselves; we see the technical problems of launching sixteen B-25 bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier, the secrecy of the mission, even to the pilots and crews who were flying to Japan. In this age of GPS-guided missiles and drone strikes, it's jarring to see men flying in tin cans and dropping bombs with gadgets that are only a few steps removed from line-of-sight opening a door and throwing it out the window. Hale explains all of this in a concise but thorough way, building more context for the heroism of these soldiers as he goes.

One of the things that's rarely explained in the history books is what happened to the pilots and crews after their successful mission. Some escaped to safety with the help of the Chinese; others were captured by Japanese and held in P.O.W. camps until the end of the war. A few managed to land and trek across the Himalayas to India (!!!) where they were able to make their way home. And several of them die, either in the immediate aftermath of the raids or executed as prisoners of the enemy. Each of these stories would make a book in their own right, but Hale gives us more about the lives of these men than I've ever seen before.

As Hale wraps up this Hazardous Tale, he explains that the Doolittle Raids were successful, but their significance wasn't the strategic win, it was the emotional win. The boost to morale that it brought to the Pacific Theater, which had seen nothing but losses to the Japanese navy for all of 1942. The realization that the Japanese weren't invulnerable, and the renewed motivation for the crews of the ships and planes that would be needed to keep fighting. Hale lists twenty-one other battles over the next three years, ending with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hale is able to give an overview of a significant historic event while still giving us a very personal story about how the individuals of history made a difference. It's not always the "big names," but the everyday guy, the pilot, the crewman, the soldier, the mechanic who make history. The end of the book includes a coda about the men of the Doolittle Raids; only one was still living as of 2017. This reminder that the Greatest Generation is nearly gone is sobering. Hale gives us insight into the writing of the book, including his bibliography, his experience learning how to draw B-25s, and where readers can get more information about World War II and the raids themselves. We're also left with a tease -- we have seven books in the Hazardous Tales series so far...what's next? My 13 year old and I are hoping for the Civil Rights Movement, but whatever Hale delivers next, we'll devour. He's making history cool, and we've got a front row seat.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

LEGO Set of the Month: World Fun

It's the 60th anniversary of the LEGO brick this year, which should serve to either make you feel like "wow, LEGO has been around since my great-great-great-grandparents were born" or "huh, I'm old." I fall somewhere in between. The more handsome side, whatever that is.

As part of their big 6-0, LEGO is releasing a series of sets simply called "Building Better Thinking." Which could be the title of a keynote address that I could give. Anytime. Really. Call my people. The idea behind these sets is to give kids a set of a variety of bricks and slopes and plates and pieces that aren't oriented toward any one thing, but showing them the infinite possibilities that LEGO provides. 

This is similar to the existing "Classic" line that I give away in my workshops (call my people), but with a few more specialized pieces, loosely clustered around a theme. The set I'm focusing on is the mid-sized set, World Fun. Essentially 300 pieces that can be used to build just about anything, the set does include instructions for a seahorse, a frog (complete with extended tongue and a freshly caught fly), and a helicopter. There's an "Atlantis" style underwater temple, and a pink ice cream sundae pictured on the box, but there are no instructions for them. I built the Atlantis temple based on looking at the picture, and there were enough pink pieces left over that the sundae is buildable too. 

This sets it apart from other "Creator" sets, where there are three different models pictured on the box, but you need to disassemble Model 1 to build Model 2, etc. There are also two minifigures, a girl in purple and blue, and a boy in orange and brown. 

As much as I love the Star Wars and superhero LEGO sets, there's something to be said for a box of colorful bricks that can be used to build just about anything. That's what the Building Better Thinking sets are all about. If you're looking for a way to start a classroom or grade level LEGO collection, this is a great place to start. 


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 January LEGO Set of the Month will be at 11 AM MST on Saturday, January 27. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.

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