Monday, January 30, 2012

Happy Anniversary, Tony Tata

So today's newspaper reminded me that it is the one year anniversary of the head of the Wake County Public School System, retired Brigadier General Anthony (Tony) Tata.   If you have been reading my blog for over a year (and if you have been, bless you!), you know that I had my doubts about Mr. Tata.  I doubted his experience, I doubted his political orientation, I doubted his former boss when he was head of operations in the DC Public School System (that is, Michelle Rhee)....but most of all, I doubted his bosses, or at least the Republican majority who voted him into office in a rather dubious manner right before Christmas of 2010.

So it seems only fair that I report my assessment of the man after a year on the job.  And that assessment is ... relatively positive.

As I said at the time (in one of my most-frequently read blog post, Wake School Board Majority Should Be Ashamed), the Republicans on the Board did him no favor in the way they pushed through his appointment, seemingly in the dead of the night, with no public notice and some of the Democrats on the Board unable to attend a meeting called with 48 hours notice only days before Christmas.  It was not an auspicious way to begin a job, and I did express my sympathy to Mr. Tata at that time.

However, I did review an interview he had,  as well as his first statement after accepting the position,  and found room for hope in both.  He seemed like a nice man, a reasonable man, and, most of all, a man who knows that you don't win a campaign--military, educational, social, it doesn't matter--by castigating, blaming, and demoralizing your "troops" (what ever their actual jobs may be) on the front line.

So I've not met the man, so my assessment is based only on what I've seen going on in Wake County schools.  I believe our basic political beliefs are not aligned.  We probably have fairly different visions for how the children who attend Wake County Public Schools would be best served.

However, there is no denying that things have been so much more peaceful, respectful, civil, and hence, productive, in 2011 then they were in 2010.  And I attribute a lot of that to Mr. Tata, since that is the major thing that changed between the two years (the elections were held in 2009 and the end of 2011).

Superintendent Tata has apparently been able to smooth the waters of the often fractious School Board--which to me is a big deal.  I'm OK with people disagreeing--our entire political system is based on that reality--but the Board shenanigans had become not just a local, not just a statewide, but a national embarrassment (when Steven Colbert is making fun of you, you should know you've gone too far).  Things have gone so much more cordially and low key in the past year, and I credit Tata with at least some of that.

I also really acknowledge Superintendent Tata for his efforts to reach out and talk with the community, even those who opposed his appointment.  To me, this should be a given.  Again, our system was set up with the idea that we might disagree, but that the majority would find a way to work with the majority.   Sadly, that philosophy has been abandoned lately in our national politics.  But it is great to see a School Superintendent who is trying to connect with all facets of the community, even those who disagree with his political orientation.  (Although he hasn't, to my knowledge, met with the homeschooling community, although I think that could begin a very enriching dialogue that would benefit both sides.)

Along those lines, the agency that was threatening to withdraw accreditation from the WCPSS in 2010 has come again, and found things much approved.  It upgraded our accreditation status to accreditation advised (subject to a few more improvements), and commented positively both on the Board's better behavior and Superintendent Tata's "stablizing influence."  Again, as I stated in a previous blog post, this is a big deal to me.

Next, I'm pleased that things have been going along the lines that I advised in a blog post of a year ago, Four Pieces of Advise for Anthony Tata (and One for the Board of Ed).  While he hasn't adopted all my words of wisdom....YET....he has stuck to one of my top ones, which was to abandon his conservative commentary that he maintained while he was working with the DC School System.  Different place, different job, different sensibilities.  According to the News and Observer, Tata has steadfastly refused to comment on military-related or other conservative topics, sticking strictly to talking about the Wake County School System.  I'm sure it was hard, as an ex-military man,  not to comment on, say, the death of Osama bin Laden.  But the fact that he refused to do so makes him much more credible as the head of our school system.

Finally, he has produced.  We have a plan, and a plan with enough information that parents can actually comment on and/or do something with.  I don't necessarily agree with his plan.  But at least it is something concrete and with enough specifics that parents can react to.   From what I can tell--it is very confusing to dwell into specific details--I don't agree with the overarching philosophy, but it is beginning of a system that is more responsive to family needs and request.  It is, at least, something to work with.  With the way that the Board was acting in 2010, having something even nominally reasonable is a great accomplishment.

So all in all, I say pretty well done, Mr. Tata.  I have issues with the school plans that you have produced.  But I can still admire what you have accomplished, given the cards you were dealt.  Of course, the election results last November shuffled the decks a good bit, so who knows what lies in our future.  But at least things are operating on a more civil and reasonable basis, and we can all be glad of that.

PS--Do I agree with the Republicans who think we should be extending his employment contract already?  No.  Do I think the Democrats should (or will) kick him to the curb?  No.  He's made a good start.  But let's see things play out a bit more before we decide whether he should continue to be Superintendent past 2014.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Book Review: Newbery 2012 Honors Winner Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

I had not read this prior to the announcement of the Newbery 2012 Awards, but I immediately requested it from the library (along with the winner, Dead End in Norvelt, which I also hadn't read).  So this review is looking at the book not only on its own, but as one of the Honor winners of this year's Newbery Awards.

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

I'm much more torn about this book, having read it knowing it was a Newbery Honors winner, than I think I would have been had I just read it straight.  It is definitely a good book on a really important topic that I don't believe is covered much in American children's literature--namely, the Great Purge, Joseph Stalin's campaign of terror and repression of the Soviet people during the years of 1936-1938.

It is estimated that over 20 million people were killed, imprisoned, or exiled during Stalin's reign, and almost no one could rest confidently in the knowledge that he or she would not be next.   Even the low estimates of actual deaths during that period believe that Stalin's purges killed at least as many people as the Nazis did in the holocaust (not even including the six to seven million who starved to death in the Ukraine from a famine that Stalin basically created).  Yet few students are aware of the fact that Stalin was on par with Hitler in terms of genocide.

So it is definitely an important subject to be covered, and one that is difficult to cover in a way appropriate to early adolescents.  I sympathicize with the author on how difficult it must be to try to walk that narrow path.  Yelchin, who was born and raised in the Soviet Union and whose father survived Stalin's regime, tells the story from the point of view of a young boy who idolizes Stalin and is a true believer in communism.  It is a tale of a dramatic 24 hour period in which several people he knows get caught up in the betrayal, bigotry, denunciation, and disappearance that was so common at that time, and he must figure out what path is right for him.   It is a powerful and affective way for students who are learning about the Stalin purges to experience them through the eyes of someone their own age.

My issue about the book, though, is whether students reading it on their own can really "get"a lot of the messages that are packed into the story.   Since we are studying 20th century history this year, and have been reading about Lenin and Stalin and such, it is a perfect adjunct to the histories and biographies my son has been reading.  But without that context, I don't know that students would understand some of the things that are implied, but not stated.

The problem is enhanced, I think, by Yelchin's writing style.  It is a short book--only 160 pages--and they are little pages, many of which are actually illustrations (Yelchin is a children's book illustrator).  Plus it is pretty simple vocabulary, without a lot of exposition or interior dialogue and such.  This makes it a very quick read.  I read it in under an hour; my son said it took him 20 minutes.  So I think there is a tendency to read through it quickly and to not really consider what the book is suggesting about the Soviet system at that time.  The simple style makes it seem like it is geared to the younger end of the Newbery spectrum--nine or ten year olds--but I don't think many children study anything about Stalin until at least middle school, and sometimes not until high school.    But without some background, I just don't think students are going to pick up on what I think the book is really saying.

In short, I think it is a wonderful resource to have on hand when studying this awful period of history.  But I'm not sure it works as a stand-alone book for this age.  I think it suffers in comparison to a book like Words in the Dust, which did such a masterful job of conveying an alien world that most middle schoolers know nothing about, but feel they understand after completing the book.  I don't think middle schoolers feel that way about Stalin's USSR after reading this book.  So, personally, I don't think I would have given this book a Newbery Honor award.

But I do honor Yelchin for trying to write a book on such a difficult topic for this age, but one that definitely needs more visibility.  And I do think it is a marvelous novel to read in conjunction with studying this period.  With some historical knowledge, it can help students understand what that time must have felt like for kids their age, without it becoming too depressing or overwhelming for this stage of development.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Black History Month Curriculum Resource: The Harlem Renaissance

Black History Month is coming up, and it happens to coincide with the time we are studying the history of the 1920's and 1930's.  So what better topic to combine the two than the Harlem Renaissance?

We have already been working on it some, but I recently found what I think is a fantastic resource.  John Carroll University has created the Harlem Renaissance Multimedia Resource, which pulls so much information about this fascinating period of modern American history into a central site.

What I love about this website--beside the fact that it is FREE--is that it includes not only the aspects of the Harlem Renaissance that most of us tend to think about, such as the music and the literature, but also the politics, the philosophy, the education, and even the international connections.  There is a whole section on religion as well; in fact, throughout the entire site I saw the predecessors of Martin Luther King Jr's thoughts, philosophies, actions, and words.  It not only has multimedia resources--pictures, audio, and a little video (all that I found was Billie Holiday)--but also lots of links to other websites with even more comprehensive information on that particular topic.

Particularly helpful to me were the timelines included and the map of Harlem itself.  It has a general timeline of the political and artistic events during that period, which helps me put things in order.  Even more interesting to us right now, however, was the timeline of the music.  My son has been getting more interested in jazz, about which I am not that knowledgable (confessional--even though two of my brothers were performers, students, and aficionados of that musical genre, and my father is at least a long-time fan).  The timeline helped me understand how ragtime gradually morphed into swing, with dates, different jazz styles, artist bios, and short audios of outstanding pieces along the way.

So if you are looking for resources about black musicians, writers, thinkers, educators, or politicians, this  website is a great place to look.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Please Vote in the Great Sea Slug Beauty Contest

Photography by Steve Childs
used under Creative Commons license
Aren't they incredible?

These are just some of the contestants in The Great Sea Slug Beauty Contest.  This competition is an online poll being held by my son's environmental education and awareness group, Healing Oceans Together (H2O).

The goal of the The Great Sea Slug Beauty Contest is to raise awareness about this fascinating and often overlooked inhabitants of seas all around the world.  The middle school-aged students who make up H2O believe that as people learn more about some of the more numerous but less publicized underwater creatures and come to appreciate them, they will be more willing to take action to help protect our global oceans.

Because they love sea slugs (the common name for the animal classification known as nudibranchs), they are holding The Great Sea Slug Beauty Contest in honor of Valentines Day.  So between now and Sunday, February 12, they are asking people of all ages to
Glaucus atlanticus © Taro Taylor,
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
visit the contest webpage to learn more about some outstanding types of sea slugs.  Then scroll to the end of the page to vote for your favorite.

The winner will be announced on Valentines Day, February 14, 2012.

They also have a map of visitors, and are hoping to get responses from all the different areas in the world where sea slugs live.  Since sea slugs live in almost all oceans and seas, that means pretty much from everywhere!

Photography by Patrick Krug
used under Creative Commons license
So after you have voted, please take a minute to help refer other people to the site.  Please encourage your friends and families to vote, and/or post information information about the contest on your eloops, blog, website, Facebook, Twitter account, or any other types of social media that you may use.

It is free and anonymous, and participating in the poll will not put you on any mailing list or anything like that (although if you are interested in keeping up with what is going on with this middle school-aged coop, you can sign up on their mailing list here).

Photo by: John Albers-Mead
by Creative Commons license
Help support these wonderful invertebrates, sometimes called "the living jewels of the sea," by visiting the contest page and by spreading the word among your networks.

Let's help these middle schoolers, who believe they can make a difference in the world, by generating some world-wide love for these under-appreciated wonders in our waters!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Happy Chinese New Year 2012

Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year, and this year happens to be the year of the dragon.  So, of course, we had to have a meal to celebrate this august occasion.

In honor of this event, I fixed my version of a traditional Chinese dish called Phoenix and Dragon. One thing to know about this dish is while it might be called Phoenix around here, it is very different from the phoenix that most American's think of.  In Chinese, it is called Fenghuang, and it is a mixture of different birds--roosters, sparrow, peacocks, etc.--none of whom necessarily re-generate after a fire.

However, the dish itself is a lovely stir fry of several ingredients, including chicken (to represent phoenix), shrimp (to represent dragon), vegetables (to represent health), and spices (to represent taste and sensation).

The meal refers to ancient Chinese beliefs, in which the dragon and phoenix or fenghuang are two of the four most revered animals.  While both animals are supposed to have male and female aspects, the dragon came to represent the male leader, or emperor of China, and the phoenix the female, or emperor's wive or emperoress.

The year of the dragon is supposed to be an especially auspicious period, so let's hope that is true for us all!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

My 2012 Newbery Award Winners

My son's Mock Newbery Book Club made their decisions on Friday, and the official awards come out tomorrow, so I guess it's time for me to announce my Newbery Award choices for 2012 (although it covers the books from 2011).  This isn't a prediction, because I don't know enough about the Newbery politics and such to know what goes into their decisions.  But after having read a BUNCH of great, good, and pretty good books written for the early adolescent crowd (10-14) over the past year, I've finally narrowed it down to my favorites.

So if it were up to me, the Newbery Award for 2012 would go to......

Okay For Now by Gary Schmidt

They say in interviews that you either want to be the first candidate or the last candidate.  Okay For Now was the first Newbery contender I read (based on the recommendation of our local children's librarian), and somehow, none of the other books I read after that quite measured up to that one.  I even read it again a couple of months ago to make sure I wasn't over-romaticizing my memories of it, and I still favored it as much as ever.

I loved The Wednesday Wars, which introduces the protagonist of this book and which won a Newbery Honor in 2008, but I think Okay For Now is even better.  So maybe Schmidt will go all the way this time.

However, I do have this reservation about Okay For Now; like 2010's National Book Award winner, Mockingbird, I think that this is a children's book that adults like more than children do.  Which is not to say that children's don't like it and don't recognize its quality; my favorite middle schooler book blogger, Laura's Life, chose it as her Newbery Gold winner as well.  But many of the major themes of the book, such as the possibility of redemption, the power of forgiveness, and the difference that one caring teacher or librarian can make in the life of a child, speaks more to adult values and life experiences than the typical 9-13 year old.  I'm not sure that early adolescents will be touched by this book the way that adults may be.

The Newbery Awards are, of course, given by adults.  But I don't know how they considered the perspectives of the actual age group compared to the additional insight that reading it as an adult brings.  However, with themes like that, particularly Schmidt's depiction of how schools and libraries can transform a person's life, I can't help but give Okay For Now my Gold medal for the year.
(Note:  If you are a teacher, check out this passage from the book featured in my post, What Education Is Supposed to Be About, for some inspiration about your work.)

Then I have four Newbery Honor Awards, because that is what my son's book club does.  It's hard, because there are so many really good books that are so close to this level.  But I finally decided that my four Honor books would be:

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy
If Okay For Now was my first, Words in the Dust  was one of my last, particularly in actually writing a review, since I only finished writing about it yesterday.  But it is a phenomenal novel by a first-time author.  If there was one novel from 2011 that I wished every middle schooler would read, it is probably this book, both for the contents and the great job Reedy did in immersing us in a completely different world--one that we should know a lot more about than most of us do.

The Aviary by Kathleen O'Dell
I loved the writing in this book.  Maybe it was just me, but it seemed more poetic than the norm.  It is such a great mixture of genres and tones.  It starts out reminding me of more old-fashioned books, like The Secret Garden, but then morphs to a much more modern sensibility by the end (I don't want to be more specific because I don't want to give it away).  It was familiar and yet unpredictable, and I really enjoyed reading it.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
This is another wonderful book in bringing us inside a completely foreign experience, except that much of it takes place in the US.  So I think this is another important read for our middle schoolers.  It is also a story told in verse, so that gives it a different twist.

The last slot was really hard to fill.  And when I finally decided, I was ashamed to discover that I never wrote a review of it in my blog!  I was sure that I had.  But, like Okay For Now, it was one that I read early in my Newbery reading year but that stuck with me.  I guess I thought I would get around to writing a review until the point where I assumed I already had....

Anyway, my last choice would be The Absolute Value of Mike by Katherine Erskine.  I chose this one over many that I like pretty much the same because I like some variety to my Newbery choices.  I mean, they can't all be historical fictions and/or dealing with war, disabilities, or other weighty subjects!  This book had a lot of humor, with lots of whacky characters and situations.  But it had also had some great messages about family and being a leader and figuring out what really matters.  I also think that it might appeal a bit more to boys, which I wouldn't necessarily say about any of the others (only Okay For Now has a boy as the main protagonist, and even so, I'm not sure it doesn't appeal more to girls and/or women).

Two other special awards I would give outside the Newbery parameters:

Best Sequel:  Without a doubt, that honor goes to Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger.  I was so charmed by Angleberger's highly original The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (one of my Newbery honor choices for last year) that I was worried that he wouldn't be able to capture the same magic in the sequel.  Half way through the book, I was thinking that I liked it, but it wasn't on par with the first one.  But by the end of the book, I took it all back.  It was as new and unique as the original, but Angleberger found a way to keep things fresh and surprising.  So kudos to him for avoiding the sophomore slump!

Best Movie Potential:  Another book that I really enjoyed, but apparently never wrote a review for, was Aliens on Vacation by Clete Smith.  This was a cute, sweet, and really funny book.  It's not one of what I consider the most important books of the year among the ones I read, but it was one of the most entertaining.  But mostly, I kept visualizing the scenes in my head, which is something because I don't typically do that when I read since I'm not a real visual person.  I kept thinking as I read it, "I don't really see this as Newbery, but I think it would make a great movie."  I found out a month or so later that some producers associated with Disney had take an option about turning it into a movie.  So I don't know what that means, except that someone besides me could imagine it being a great film!

As long as we're in Newbery mode, let me share my son's Mock Newbery Award Book Club choices, along with those of a neighboring library, complete with my comments:

My son's book club:

2012 Winner:
A Monster Calls   (Alas, this book didn't get on my radar until too late, and although I requested it from our library several weeks ago, it is so popular that I haven't gotten a copy to read so far.   My son really liked it, though)

The Apothecary (I liked it a lot; it was on my top 10, but not my top 5)
Words in the Dust (My #2 choice)
Small Acts of Amazing Courage (A really good book with an unsatisfactory ending; read my full review here)
Inside Out and Back Again (My #4 choice)

Second Honors:
Hidden (Unfortunately, I haven't read it)
Second Fiddle (Read my review here)
Dogtag Summer (Read my review here)
The Aviary (My #3 choice)

And here is the neighboring library club's choices:

2012 Eva Perry Mock Newbery Award:
Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys (I thought this was a really powerful book, but wasn't sure it isn't more appropriate for a teen audience than the Newbery 9-13 age range)

2012 Eva Perry Mock Newbery Honor Books:
A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness  (Obviously I need to read it....)
Bird in a Box, by Andrea Davis Pinkney  (Didn't read this one either)
Michael Vey: the Prisoner of Cell 25, by Richard Paul Evans  (Neither my son nor I had even heard of this one, which meant that nobody in his club read is funny how clubs at two libraries only 15 miles from each other can have such different reading lists) 
Words in the Dust, by Trent Reedy (One of my faves)

So there you have it--the favorite choices for the Newbery Awards from our neck of the woods.  The official announcement comes tomorrow, so let's see what the experts have to say about the premier books for our early adolescent students!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book Review: Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy

This book may receive my “most amazing accomplishment” award for the year. In this book, Trent Reedy, former English teacher and military reservist who was called into active duty during the Bush wars, manages to convincingly tell a wonderful story in the voice of a thirteen-year-old girl. A Muslim thirteen-year-old girl. A Muslim thirteen-year-old girl living in modern-day Afghanistan. A Muslim thirteen-year-old girl living in modern-day Afghanistan who was born with a cleft palate.

Personally, I think being able to capture the voice of someone so different from the author is an incredible achievement. But I think Reedy got Zulaika, the narrator of the book, just right. And this is only his first novel!

I will also admit that I had to be won over by this book. Having read the description of the book, I didn’t think I wanted to hear the tale of a disfigured girl leading a primitive existence while living through the struggles of war-torn Afghanistan. But within just the first chapter or so, I was so sucked into the story of this alien world that I couldn’t stop reading until I finished the book late in the night.

Reedy does a great job of conveying a lifestyle that is so foreign to most of us here in the US.  And I love how neutrally he is able to present this world, even though some of the values and traditions run so counter to ours (Reedy is also an American).  He does a particularly good job of not making either side--the US or the Afghan--be good guys or bad guys, but rather the mixed-up combination of both that we all truly are.

So, for example, the Americans in the book can be unintentionally terrifying, wildly inappropriate, culturally insensitive, or arrogantly intrusive. On the whole, though, they want to help. The Afghans, on the other hand, can be cruel, violent, chauvinistic, callous, and opportunistic. On the whole, though, they love their families and their country, and just want to make a better life for themselves and their community.

So this is a really good book to learn about life in contemporary Afghanistan.  But it also deals with the universal themes of dealing with family and finding one's own identity that adolescents all struggle with, not matter where they live.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Book Review: The Aviary by Kathleen O'Dell

The Aviary by Kathleen O’Dell

This is a great book if you can’t decide which genre you want, because it combines historical fiction with a mystery and a fantasy edging towards horror--but in a way that really works, rather than just seeming like a hodgepodge that couldn’t make up its mind.

The book is set in the late nineteenth century, and is told from the point-of-view of Clara, an eleven-year-old girl who is a shut-in because of her weak heart. Not only can she not venture into the world, but the home she is shut into is the decrepit mansion of a formerly famous but now deceased magician, The Great Glendoveer, whose widow Clara’s mother now serves as housekeeper. The only outdoor space that Clara is allowed to enter is the estate’s backyard rose garden, but she doesn’t like going there because it is also home to an aviary with five loud, squawking birds that frighten her, but to whom the aging Mrs. Glendoveer is completely devoted.

Shortly into the book there is a death, which eventually launches Clara into investigating a decades-old mystery. Along the way, Clara encounters a variety of intriguing matters, including a kidnapping, locked doors, a missing scrapbook, an unexpected ally, ghostly presences, secret messages, and various kinds of exotic magic. In the end, however, the book is not about ghosts or magic or codes--it’s about friendship and family and how to restore them if ever they go astray.

I really enjoyed how this book was written. The descriptions are vivid and sometimes poetic, and the characters are well developed and appropriate to the time and setting (whereas I sometimes find characters in these historical fictions to be more modern than I think they should be for their times). The plot builds up very nicely, with the necessary clues being laid carefully without the plot twists being obvious. It is a very imaginative story set in a time period that isn’t too common in children’s literature lately.

All in all, I think it is quite a good read, and a worthy contender for Newbery consideration.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What Happened to Wikipedia and Google?

I'm frequently writing about Google Doodles in this blog.  But today's Google "Doodle" is different than any before, at least as far as I know.  Today the famous logo does not appear at all, but rather is blacked out by a big black box.  However, at least that popular student resource is working.  If students go to the English site of Wikipedia, they will discover that it is down for 24 hours.  In its place is a short protest against two pieces of legislation and a request, complete with links to contact your representatives (according to the zip code you enter) and then tweet about it or post it on your Facebook page, to express your opposition to the bills.

The legislation in question is the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).  The goals of both these acts is to protect US intellectual property, primarily from foreign sources that are selling it as their own.  The main supporters of the bills have been Hollywood and other entertainment producers who are trying to shut down foreign bootleggers of commercial media, such as illegal downloads or DVDs of US films and TV shows, music, etc.

So the goal is something that I think most of us would support.  People shouldn't be making money by providing us with illegal copies of performances they don't own and that the performers themselves don't make any money for, right?

The issue that many Internet-based companies, and many of their customers, have is that these bills address the problem not by going after the illegal producers themselves, but the sources that give these illegal producers access to American consumers online.  So, rather than suing or arresting the bootleggers, SOPA and PIPA allow the producers to take action against anyone who provides services or even has links to the illegal websites and demand that they block any US access to this site.

Many in the online community have major issues with this approach.  Some consider this approach to be censorship, which they vehemently oppose in any form, despite the reason.  Others argue that the legislation as written is overly broad and would impose onerous burdens on even the smallest Internet companies. Yet others say that this is just the wrong way to address the problem of intellectual privacy.  As Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit (another online resource that has gone dark for the day), says about this legislation, "It's like taking action against Ford (Motor Company) because a Mustang (car) was used in a bank robbery."  Reddit has a lot of educational information about this issue (albeit more anti-legislation than pro) as does the SOPA Strike website.

So as much as we might hate losing our Wikipedia (along with lots of other informational sites) for the day, this is a great opportunity for discussing with your children or students some of these issues, such as the downside of everyone (including criminals) being able to access everyone in the world, and what is the best way to deal with problems like this.  (Besides, only the English site of Wikipedia is down, so you can search in a different language and work on your translation skills along with researching the subject.)

And if you think your students will use this as an excuse to play games rather than do their research on the Internet, don't worry--MineCraft is one of the sites that has joined the blockout.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Curriculum Resource: Dr. King's Original Documents Online

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Day 2012, the King Center has opened a new online resource.  With the help of JP Morgan Chase, the organization that continues the work of Dr. King has digitized over one million materials related to King's life and mission.  They are now making about 200,000 of them  available for free over the Internet.

The collection is organized into themes, such as public opinion, economics, the Vietnam War, and such.  It contains many different kinds of materials, including articles, hand-written drafts or notes, telegrams, photographs, etc.  It is a premier resource for the original source material for one of the most important American thinkers and activists of the 20th century.

To view these documents, go to the Archives of the King Center.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

FREE Physics Game Online: Steampunk

My son will be doing several physics classes this semester, so I'll be trying to supplement them with some additional physics at home.  I recently found a fun game to practice some of Newton's laws, and with a stylish theme to boot!  Plus, it's a FREE online game, so the price is right.

The game is called Steampunk, and so it has the Victorian-era-meets-high-technology look about it.   The aim of the game is to break pieces of wood in such a way that they release balls, explode bombs, swing pendula and the like to move the GOOD pentagonal-shaped guy to safe ground and the BAD pentagonal-shaped guy to unsafe areas (like the water and gears, etc.)  The components move in the ways predicted by Newton's law, so it is a good way to model concepts like momentum and such.

The game is not designed to teach physics, nor does it say anything or explain anything about Newton's laws or other concepts in physics.  However, playing around with the movement puzzles presented does develop an intuitive feel for Newtonian physics.  It also requires systematic thinking and the ability to plan ahead (if I blow up this, it will release that ball, but I have to wait until that board swings into place for the ball to move to the next level, ect.)

So it's not Victorian-era rocket science.  But it is a fun game to model and test your physical predictions.

You can play the game by clicking here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Best Google Doodle of 2011

Yesterday's Google Doodle reminded could I not have written about the Best Google Doodle of 2011 as part of my New Yearl's posts?   There were so many wonderful Doodles that is is hard to choose.   Some were really beautiful, some were educational (like the Nicolas Steno one yesterday), and some were so inventive, like the Jim Henson one where you could manipulate the Muppet puppets or the Freddie Mercury one? (was that it?) where you could actually play notes?

But one was the nearest and dearest to the hearts in our household, and that was the interactive submarine view for Jules Verne's birthday:

Visit my original post for a video of all the things you could find in this interactive display.

But if you aren't clear about the outstanding Google Doodle for the past year, you can watch this video for some reminders of all the great displays Google gave us this year:

So which one was your favorite Doodle for 2011?  Add it to the comments below.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Who is Nicolas Steno?

I know, it sounds like that movie, The Usual Suspects, where they ask "Who is Keyser Soze?"  But that is the question I asked when I saw the beautiful Google Doodle this morning.

There have been lots lately, but I thought this one was particularly eye-catching.  Plus, when I check out most of the Google Doodles, I know something about the subject.  But Nicolas Steno?   Never heard of him.

Of course, that led to me reading hyperlinks to information about the man and his work, which was all interesting and ended up diverting me for far too long.  But how great it is that Google throughs these little diversions at us.  I have my issues with Google as a company, but I love the whimsy that is illustrated in the Google Doodle program.

If you happen not to know about Nicolas Steno either, you can watcht the Google Doodle video below:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: A Month of Sundays by Ruth White

A Month of Sundays by Ruth White

The book opens with a common ploy in middle school literature (including the top Newbery winner last year and another of the honor awards):  the protagonist, Garnet, is left by her single mother at the home of relatives she has never met before while her mother goes to Florida to find work.  While angry at her mother for abandoning her, Garnet finds she enjoys getting to know her aunt--the sister of the father who ran off with another woman before Garnet was born-and the grandfather she had never seen before.

Her aunt, June, welcomes Garnet's arrival, not only because it brings another female into the house (Aunt June has two sons), but because Garnet agrees to accompany her as June visits a different church every Sunday, searching for God.  Garnet, meanwhile, who had grown up with only her mother in her life, discovers it's not so bad to have family.  Add into the mix the handsome young son of an evangelical preacher at one of the churches they visit, and suddenly Garnet is no longer sure she wants to return to the solitary life she has known with her mother.

As with most of these books, family secrets are eventually revealed and the protagonist learns a lot about family and love and relationships and herself.  However, this book also deftly includes some questions about religion and faith into the plot.  And just when it seems like all the loose ends are going to be tied up in a rather saccharin way, an unexpected twist plunges the novel into deeper and darker territory.

In the end, many questions are answered, but other ones are raised.  Just as in life, the conclusion mixes the good with the bad, the mysteries that have been explained with other ones that will never be resolved.  So I think this is really an excellent book for adolescent readers, who are beginning to grapple with the questions, contractions, and abiguities in their own lives.  It wasn't what I expected when I picked it up, but I enjoyed it a lot and definitely recommend it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

83 Stores That Give Discounts to Educators

I had to take a break from my Newbery book contender reviews to share this great resource I just stumbled upon with those of you who are teachers and/or educators.  A site named Brad's Deals has compiled a list of 83 businesses that give some kind of price break to teachers and educators.  A lot of them I knew about and already use--Barnes & Noble and Apple Computer and Jo Ann's Fabrics and such--but this list is MUCH more extensive than any I've seen before.  It includes not only education-related businesses, like bookstores and craft stores and computers and educational supplies, but stores that sell lots of other things as well--cell phone, clothing, travel, contacts, insurance, vacation sites, and even pizza!

I haven't checked them out, and the article doesn't say, but usually these discounts are also available for homeschoolers, at least in stores around here.

Anyway, look over the list yourself here, and see if any of these resources can save you some money.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Book Review: Pie by Sarah Weeks

Pie by Sarah Weeks

As befitting the name, this is a sweet, sweet book. I had to love this book, because the opening of the novel revolves around one of my favorite affirmations: Do what you love and the money will follow. It’s something that I’ve always tried to follow, although sometimes it is a hard path. So I’m always excited when even a fictional character demonstrates the efficacy of this approach to life.

So the main protagonist, Alice, has an aunt who also apparently ascribes to this philosophy (which is never stated in the book--I’m bringing this to the story). Aunt Polly loves to make pies...and not just any pies, but pies with the sweetest, juiciest fruit, the dreamiest cream fillings, and the flakiest crusts. When she is left with a modest inheritance, Aunt Polly uses it to open up a pie shop. However, there is a catch to Aunt Polly’s pies--she refuses to accept payment for any of them. If she exchanged them for money, why, that would take all the joy out of them!

The small town in which she lives wants to make sure that the supply of pies, each tailored to specific people’s preferences, keep coming, so they find other ways to support the pie shop. And that makes everyone happy, but no one as much as Alice, who not only loves the pies, but the pie maker as well. She sits and talks and helps in the kitchen as much as possible, always knowing that she will never have the same magic touch with the pies that her aunt does.

Then, suddenly, Aunt Polly dies. She leaves the pie shop to the church, and the secret pie crust recipe, that companies have offered lots of money for, to...her cat? And it is Alice’s responsibility to care for the fat, ill-tempered white feline, named after Aunt Polly’s favorite brand of lard. Her mother (Polly’s sister) feels cheated out of a proper inheritance, her father is allergic to cats, and the cat itself hisses and scratches whenever Alice approaches. All this does not bode well for a happily-ever-after ending.

The story leads into a mystery involving break-ins, missing cats, stolen pies, and more. But I don’t think the mystery is really the heart of this book. Rather, it is a book with a lot of heart--love of what you do, love of friends and family, love of community. I enjoyed it, but I don’t see it as a strong Newbery contender. But as a fairly light read to help remind us all about what really matters in life, it is a great book.

Plus, it’s got RECIPES--and they all look tempting!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Book Review: Second Fiddle by Rosanne Parry

Second Fiddle by Rosanne Parry

This book combines a lot of themes. One is the life of displacement that it is to be a child of a military family--something I was familiar with, although my father was in government service in international finance, rather than the military. But I could relate to the three girls who are the protagonists of the book, all used to a life of moving every few years and losing the friends and connections built up in previous locations. Then there is the call of music--the joy, the striving, the competitions, and the way it can bring people together.

Another familiar strand of the book is the typical adolescent belief that “I’m not as ______ as....” Not as pretty, not as popular, not as rich, not as smart, not as whatever quality we are sure that we lack in middle and high school (and beyond, if we don’t mature). In this case, the narrator, Jody Field, is sure that she isn’t as smart, beautiful, fashionable, confident, or talented as her two best friends, Giselle and Vivian, who are other American daughters of military or diplomatic families stationed in Berlin. But that is OK--she is used to playing second fiddle behind Vivian’s lead and Giselle’s cello.

However, the girls aren’t just living in Berlin--they are living there during the turbulent times of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East Germany with West Germany. They get caught up trying to save a Soviet soldier who is trying to return to his native Estonia and to pass important information to the West about a toxic weapon the Russians want him to transport.

All these leads to a clandestine trip to Paris, an international music competition, foreign spies, playing music with Spanish gypsies, finding a refuge in a socialist bookstore, and other such adventures. But at the heart, the story is about playing music, being with your friends, and trying to do the right thing. So even though the circumstances are far removed from what most middle schoolers who read this book are familiar with, the underlying messages are ones that almost everyone has experienced in their lives, no matter where that might be.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Review: The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

This book is the second in the Riordan series, Heroes of Olympus, the follow-up to his wildly-popular Percy Jackson and the Olympian series. This series makes sense (on more than a just-cashing-in-on-a-popular-character basis) because it explores the way the Romans took the Greek gods and altered them, as well as contrasting the Greek and Roman cultures in general.

This is good, not only because it is educational, and not only because that is an interesting topic to explore. I like this series better than the last because it gives the gods and goddesses more nuanced characters, particularly as they appear in either their Greek or Roman forms; I felt they were rather simplified into larger-than-life caricatures, and too often presented for comic effect.

I would extend the same praise to the new characters introduced in this series. While the story still incorporates Percy Jackson and some of the most important demigods (the offspring of the gods/goddesses with their human partners) from the former series, the new ones tend to be more well-developed personalities with more interesting abilities, quirks, and/or backstories. In this book, we meet Hazel, who harbors a secret skill and a ton of guilt about how that skill was used to bad ends in her history, and Frank, who has an unknown family legacy and a life-and-death secret that may be the key to saving the world.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book was towards the beginning, which is largely set in Camp Jupiter, the Roman alternative to the Greek demigod training facility, Camp Half-Blood, that was home base in the original series. I really enjoyed how Riordan demonstrated some of the big differences in the Roman culture by the ways Camp Jupiter contrasted with Camp Half-Blood (although you had to have read and remembered the other books, because there is no description of Camp Half-Blood in this book).

I haven’t mentioned much about the plot because it is typical Rick Riordan fare. That is, it largely consists of the underdog heroes having to get somewhere (usually far away and in very little time without any obvious means of transportation) in order to follow a quest/rescue someone/get a vital clue or piece of information/retrieve some necessary item from some mythical creature. Of course, either on the way or once there (sometimes both), the heroes have to defeat some monstrous force from Greek or Roman mythology against which it would seem they would have no chance, but somehow miraculously prevail. Repeat multiple times through the course of, in the case of this book, 513 pages.

So the nonstop battles to save the world aren’t my cup of tea, but, then, Riordan isn’t really writing for me. His stuff is very popular among the upper elementary and middle school crowd, and it appropriate for them to be reading such heroic tales. But I will say that I like the heroes, particularly Frank, better than the ones in past books, which makes all the violent (but not gross or nightmare-provoking) encounters more palatable for me.

And, as I’ve said in previous reviews, given that kids of this age like reading this kind of action book, it’s great that Riordan packs in a lot of great mythological and historical content in among the mayhem.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Book Review: Dogtag Summer by Elizabeth Patridge

Dogtag Summer by Elizabeth Partridge

What is worse? To be an alien, with completely different language, food, religion, mores, etc., stuck in a different world? Or to be someone who came from a divergent culture, but has been so forcefully acclimatized into the prevailing tradition that you have been forced to deny all your history to fit in with the prevailing society?

I’ll wait for a minute while you consider that question, which is not an easy choice to make.

This is the question that the protagonist of this book, Tracy, might ask herself, especially if she had read Inside Out and Back Again. Like the narrator of that book, Tracy was a young woman who was plucked out of South Vietnam when the war was lost and the Americans were leaving with whichever fortunate Southern empathizers (apparently, at least) could flee with them. But unlike Ha, she is alone and is adopted by American parents, and so is raised in a completely American situation. Tracy speaks perfect English and has been accepted, for the most part, in her southern California community, although as an ethnically-Vietnamese/culturally-American in the 1970’s, she never feels like she fits in anywhere.
Tracy’s adopted father is an ex-Vietnam War veteran who refuses to discuss his war experience, which contributes to Tracy’s alienation from her past. But when she and her friend find a dog tag with an unknown name, things come to a head. The discovery not only stirs up Tracy’s repressed memories, it drives her to press her father for questions he doesn’t want to answer. The resulting tale is part mystery, part psychology, part cultural history, and so is quite captivating and valuable, especially for a middle school audience.

I have to say, however, that there are a few problems with the book. It is well based in Vietnamese culture, but I think it could have been enhanced if some of the foundations of those people, especially in regards to their spiritual beliefs and the afterworld, had been explained. Also, there is a whole part of the psychology strand that I missed entirely, and only realized from reading other reviews. I may be over-estimating my own brilliance, but it seems to me that if I didn’t get it, readers who are 10-14 are not going to stumble onto that explanation themselves either.

Nonetheless, it is an interesting and worthwhile read, especially for those with no memories of the Vietnam War. It also has a great Appendix that provides a lot of information about the Vietnam War, military protocol, and the divisive opinions in the US at that time, which can provide the basis for some wonderful class or group discussions.

I have found this year that there are many books that seem to come in two--that is, books that cover sort of the same theme, time period, or such, or that remind me of each other, for whatever reason.  When that is the case, I can't help comparing them to each other, even though they are usually quite different.  And usually one suffers in the comparison.  Such is the case with Dogtag Summer.  I probably would have been more impressed with it had it not come out the same year as Inside Out and Back Again, which I liked better.

However, such is life.  But I'm glad my son has read both of them, because I will refer to them both once we get to the whole Vietnam War era in American history later this spring.  They both provide valuable perspectives to a difficult time in US history.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Book Review: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Yesterday I promised you I was beginning a timely series, and this is it.  With the announcement of the 2012 Newbery Award for the outstanding achievement in children's literature over the past year coming on January 23, there are only a few more weeks to read and assess the best middle school books from 2011--at least if you want to make your own selections beforehand, as my son's Mock Newbery book club does.

My son and I have both been spending the extra leisure time we've had over the holidays consuming as many of the favored books as possible (seeing as our reading dropped off dramatically during our month of writing for NaNoWriMo).  So over the next few weeks, I will try to add book reviews for as many of the eligible books as I can.

Our first review in the series is an entry that is high on the Newbery prediction list:

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This book is a lovely description of an ugly time. It tells the story of Ha, a young Vietnamese girl who must flee her country with her mother and three brothers as the American forces pull out and the Northern Vietnamese overrun her homeland. Ha and her family are relocated to Alabama, where, as you might imagine, they have a hard time fitting in.

One of the things that makes this book really special, I think is the fact that the story is told as a series of dated verse poems. This means that the text is very sparse, with each word carrying a lot of impact. I believe this works really well in this book for several reasons. First, it is a device that moves the plot along in a specific time, which is important when you are dealing with a real historical timeline. But it also makes it seem like a diary, which makes it intimate, even when dealing with a pivotal time in our nation’s history. Second, it conveys the difficulty in trying to communicate in an unfamiliar language. It helps young readers understand unconsciously how hard it is to try to get your point across in a new language by using incorrect English--but in a way that is still comprehensible and poetic. Third, I, at least, thought it added a nice Asian sensibility to things. The verse makes it exotic, compared to traditional books, and also has that simple, stripped down essence that I associate with Asian culture. Finally, I think this really works for the audience for which it is written, which I would say is the Newbery Award age range of nine-fourteen. This bare-bones description of a difficult time is not overwhelming for the younger end of the age range, but is still complex and interesting enough for fourteen year olds and much older--such as me, who is several decades older.

This book won the 2011 Young People’s Literature National Book Award, which is quite a commendation. And in some ways, it reminds me of Mockingbird, which won the same award last year (see my complete book review here).

Because I think both of these books take you inside the head of someone living in a typical American community, but who have totally untypical American lives. I think that is a wonderful type of book to have for our children. It’s a period where fantasy is really popular, and that’s OK; my son definitely enjoys that, and I see the value in it. But I think books like this serve a different purpose. They can help our children develop empathy for others who are different by understanding where they have come from, and in many cases, how hard the journey has been. Fantasy helps us develop our “what if?” thinking, but these kinds of books help us deal with the reality of the differentiations in our lives, yet showing what we have in common (like commitment to family) that makes us similar despite our outward differences.

So I definitely recommend this book. We are doing 20th century history this year, including the Vietnam War, so it fits in with that. And I do think it is a great introduction for kids to think about that war from the perspective of the American-oriented Vietnamese. But Ha’s story about being uprooted and having to deal with an alien culture while trying to deal with the trials that come with families is a tale that transcends that particular era and situation.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Day 2012 Blog: Welcoming the New Year

Welcome to 2012!

That was what I wrote on the white board for the Sunday School class I taught this morning.  We had a really great discussion about "outside of the class" things they enjoyed last year and wanted to do this year. We're going to try for our first-ever "lock-in" for this class, some fun and interesting fundraisers, and some experiential spiritual workshops.  I don't want to give away all of our secrets, but let's just say that have some real "out of the box" ideas that I think our entire spiritual community will enjoy.

In addition to some brainstorming and planning, we did a nice Buddhist meditation that is called "Transcending Karma" that helps us detach from our past, and participated in our annual New Year's Burning Bowl and White Stone Ceremony, which I describe last year in this post.

It was a gorgeous day, so our family had a nature walk to enjoys the great outdoors.  Then we came home and ate our traditional "nuevo-Southern" New Years Dish of white chicken chili (made with black-eyed beans, which we feel compelled to eat on New Years but don't really like on their own, but are delicious in chili) and green salad (I can't cook collards, so we have fresh leafy greens instead).

All in all, a pretty fantastic way to spend the first day of the year.  If the next 364 days go anything like this, we're in for a wonderful year!

This will be the last of my holiday posts.  However, starting tomorrow,  I will be running a time-related series of posts.  What could they be?  Check back tomorrow evening to find out......