Thursday, May 30, 2013

An educational app looking to make a difference

One of the most beautiful apps that I have downloaded in my quest for apps is the one developed by the World Wildlife Fund. There is exceptional detail to the layout and the stories within the story and the photography is gorgeous. The app explores a number of animals on WWF’s list of endangered animals. The list is (sadly) ever-expanding, and WWF does a really good job of adding stories to the list.

The app is well-constructed and once you get the hang of it, easy to navigate. Each animal is introduced by a single word. The word is meant (I think) to typify one fact about them. The Tiger’s word is Solitude, the Snow leopard’s word is Rarity and the Panda’s word is Charisma. Inside each story, the user receives facts about the animal, including 3 threats to their existence, their current population, their habitat and the distance that they are from where the user is (The snow leopard is 6,700 miles from me – the polar bear is 1327 miles and the bison is just down the road, at 503 miles). Each story includes photos of the animals at various spots in their habitats and video and interactivity to keep it interesting. For example, in the Gorilla story, one page shows leaves that need to be gathered up into a circle. Once they are all gathered, another fact about the gorilla’s foraging and movement activity is revealed. On another screen a number of dots move towards a centre dot. When you tap on the dot, it mimics the thumping behaviour that gorillas use as aggression displays to warn off other males. The thumping that you do also brings up other types of behaviours used by the gorilla male.

This app is free to download at the iTunes store and WWF is doing a great job of adding new stories to it. One of the features shows a globe, with dots indicating the locations of threatened animals. I imagine that the intent is that eventually the app will have all the stories of all the animals.

One last thing that I particularly like is that there is no overt asking for donations – that certainly is one of the ways that the user can help – but it is not first on their list. And they make sharing the app via Facebook, Twitter and email easy.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Life’s journey

Drawing from the City by Tejubehan is another interesting offering from Tara Books, an Indian publisher that promotes Indian art forms in beautifully produced books that are often handmade.

This particular offering is an oversized, handmade book based on the oral stories of the artist Tejubehan who has illustrated her life’s journey with highly detailed, folk art drawings.

She introduces us to her life as a young girl in a small village in Rajasthan.  Daily life revolves around the routines required to survive.  On occasion her father tries to earn money and food as a traditional singer, going house-to-house.   Her mother, also a singer, does not sing in public.

A nearby train track makes Teju wonder about the lives of others – travellers on the trains, where they are travelling to, life in the city – and she dares to dream of going there one day.

Drought and famine do eventually drive Teju’s family to the city, but the vibrant urban pulse that Teju feels when she first arrives, won’t help her family start anew.  Their new lives will be on the fringes, living in a ragged tent city, again just scraping by.

Time passes and she marries a kind man, Ganeshbhai, who is also a singer from Rajasthan.  With his encouragement she also begins to sing in public and the two decide they will try to earn their living travelling from place-to-place, singing of everyday occurrences, of hope and faith.  Life continues to be a struggle.

But luck does strike, too.  The artist, Haku Shah gives Ganeshbhai the opportunity and encouragement to learn to draw.  In turn, Ganeshbhai encourages Teju to try her hand at drawing as.  With pen and paper, Teju feels a level of contentment she’s never encountered before.  Being able to draw what she sees and imagines in her mind’s eye is ‘like magic’.

Teju’s illustrations are filled with images of busy people moving and travelling on bicycles, trains, cars, and airplanes. She focuses on women, depicting them as they travel about. As much as this book shows others travelling and what she imagines the lives of other women to be like,  this Teju’s story about her journey from village to city, from girl to married women, from singer to artist.  The idea of travel seems to represent freedom for Teju something she knows she doesn't always have due to economic and social constraints.  But it’s in her art work that she does revel in her artistic freedom to express what is in her heart.

This is an intriguing record of one woman’s life and art work.  I recommend using this book across the grades in social studies, fine arts and language arts classrooms.

Today's Nonfiction Monday event is being held at proseandkahn.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

SYNC 2013 Begins May 30th!

This is a fantastic deal!  24  audio books for summer listening --free! Starting next Thursday!

From May 30th until August 21st, SYNC pairs two audio books each week, one YA and one 'classic' or non-YA title.  For example, first up is Of Poseidon by Ann Banks and Shakespeare's The Tempest. The following week is The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood paired with Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

There is a real mix in the selections and it's interesting to see what titles have been paired with each other.  There are a few titles I've not heard of but I think sound intriguing such as Enchanted by Alethea Kontis

Check here for the full schedule.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Wooden dynamics

Woodcut by Bryan Nash Gill is a beautiful art book.

This is a collection of images of large-scale relief prints from cross sections of trees and manufactured wood products such as ply-wood and 2 x 4 boards.  The  work explores aspects of wood that intrigue the artist, such as the patterning of rings and grain, boles, insect damage, and growth patterns.

He discusses each image and what he was looking at or trying to achieve with each print.

Occasionally, he includes bits of information about his techniques as well. In the last section of the book, he provides  more lengthy descriptions of the process he used to bring out the wood (lots of sanding), preservation techniques, inks, printing process and storage of the wood blocks.

It’s an investigation into looking closely at trees and the nature of wood.

But the real reason I purchased this one was for its use in the Grade 6 science unit about trees and forests.  On occasion, I've been asked for cross sections of trees so that student-teachers can have their students count rings and discuss the growing conditions that have produced variations in ring growth.  And we do have a couple of kits with a few examples of cross sections.  I thought Woodcut could also be used for this purpose as well, but would also provide opportunity to examine variations between different types of wood.  I think the blocking process brings out elements of the wood in ways that we don’t always see in the real thing.  It’s easy to take wood for granted. Looking at art and knowing something is an art piece often brings us up short and gets us to consider this in a different way or for a longer period of time.  An artist thought this was worth doing something with – why? What did he see?  What was he thinking?

It’s an exercise in artful and scientific observation.  Fascinating.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Short and Sweet (mostly)

Selecting early-readers, chapter books or short novels for grades 2/3 to 5 can be tricky.  Varying reading abilities makes it challenging to find interesting stories that aren't too difficult or too easy to read.  Illustrations are good, but this group is moving out of picture books so you don’t want too many.  Lots of white space on each page and large text are also helpful for the novice reader. I'm big on humour, too.

Here’s a few of my current favs for early readers (grades 2/3 to 5) with varying difficulty of texts.

I love these books.  They are short and 
snappy with fantastic illustrations by Lane Smith.  Lulu is a pretty self-centred little girl who does learn (eventually -- and with some interesting experiences along the way) that being nicer to those around her (Mr. B, the Dogs, Fleischman) gets her more than being overly bossy and tyrannical. Great narrator, too.

I'm late to discover Bad Kitty but am glad I've found her. Lots of exaggerated circumstances cause Bad Kitty to become more and more nervous and frighten of goofy, well-meaning Uncle Murray.  His inexperience around cats means he’s not aware of her ‘tender’ feelings and hair trigger reaction time. The illustrations add a lot to the visual humour.

Stuart Goes to School by Sara Pennypacker
I’m a big fan of the Clementine books by this author (check out Clementine and the Family Meeting for a great intro to this clever little girl and her family) and hope Stuart’s story would be as good.  Stuart is a worry wart plain-and-simple.  Nothing is too big or small to cause Stuart to fret.  Add a magic cape and life of this grade 3 student gets really interesting. Though I thoroughly enjoyed this very short book for it’s hyperbole I found it a bit more ‘message-y’ than the Clementine books.  The slap stick humour will appeal to this grade level easily.

Though I really liked this one I do have one complaint.  “Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa.”  This is great.  This is fantastic but I can’t figure out why the Nigerian-born author didn't specify which country in Africa.  We don’t get a lot of books written about African characters by African writers and African countries have a tendency to be lumped together with little acknowledgement of the wide diversity on this continent. However, that being said the narrator’s voice, the plot (Anna travels to Canada to visit her maternal grandmother in the winter), and the descriptions of her African family are well done and draw us into Anna’s adventure. 

A few other honourable mentions are Sadie and Ratz by Sonta Hartnett, Say What? by Margaret Peterson Haddix and Fat Bat and Swoop by Leo Landry.  These certainly have elements I look for in early readers, but I found them a bit more message-y.  I think kids will find the premise and humour in each enjoyable, regardless.

Monday, May 13, 2013

How does your garden grow?

With gardens starting to stir in Calgary, PotatoesOn Rooftops: Farming in the City by Hadley Dyer is really timely.

This book is a pitch to persuade young people about the value and do-ability of ‘urban farming’.

It gives a brief overview of growing food in the city, historical initiatives during times of crisis such as World Wars I and II, global issues about food production, costs and inequities, optimizing space, community development and benefits such as better tasting food and good exercise.

There are lots of examples (both Canadian and American) of creative projects that are already underway, such as rooftop gardens, gardens underground, small-scale community plots on school grounds, left over bits of land close to urban infrastructure and greenhouses in locales with very limited growing seasons.

There is basic information about how to go about starting a garden on a windowsill, balcony or backyard, composting, or buying local produce.

There’s also lots of positive encouragement:
 “As you've seen, you can accomplish so much when you have an appetite for change.  And the more you do, the more you can do! Use your positive experiences to inspire other people, whether they’re your friends, classmates, neighbors, or city council.” (p.74)

Recommended for middle grades.

Today is Nonfiction Monday a round up of blogs about nonfiction children's literature.  Today's event is being host by Instantly Interruptible.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Confession time, or Am I a bad Canadian?

I hate to state with any sense of definitiveness that I think, spring has perhaps come to Calgary at long last, maybe.

This being the somewhat tentative case, I've started setting my reading goals for the summer and accumulating piles of books that I’d like to take a gander at in the next four months.  Four months sounds like a long time and I should be able to get through masses of them - which never seems to happen.

Anyway, besides the many newer titles I'm anxious to read (Liar & Spy, Lulu Walks the Dogs, Three Times Lucky, Close to Famous, Steampunk Poe, Piper of Shadonia, Following Christopher Creed, etc.  etc.  etc.  to name a few) I've also decide to work in a few classic kids titles that I've never read.

I'm doing well with having read Good night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian already.  A World War II story about the evacuation of children from London and the connection that develops between a withdrawn, grumpy old man and an abused boy.  A little sappy but I really enjoyed this one.

Second, I'm listening to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  This one was recommended by Janet (guest blogger here) as we both read The Montmaray trilogy.  Janet saw lots of parallels between the books and I so enjoyed the trilogy that I decided to look this one up.

And third is Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  I know. I know.  How remiss.  Does it make me a bad Canadian not to have read this one?  I'm looking to address my oversight and try not to envision Megan Follows (actress who played Anne in the 1980s series) as Anne.

A modest goal I admit but there really is so much else to get caught up on…sigh…

The book lover's lament: too many books, not enough waking hours.

What are some of your summer reading picks or goals?  I would love to hear some of your recommendations, too.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Part 4 – Book apps written only for the iPad – Or – Is it a good book just because it is an app?

Guest blogger - Janet Hutchinson

Janet has recently taken on learning about instructional technologies for the classroom.  Part of her time has been learning about iPads, their usefulness as a classroom tool and related apps.  We've gotten into a few discussions about some of the questions that arise when looking at some of these 'educational tools.'  Do these apps add anything to the reading experience?  Are they educational, entertaining, distracting or altogether off-putting? Do they replace the physical book?  What is lost without the physical book if anything? and so on.   

It will be interesting to see how this particular area of digital-only books develops.

The 4th type of app that I have been looking at is those books that are written only digitally and only as apps.  In other words, there is no hard cover book that can be bought to go with it. I can’t help wondering if this is the digital version of self-publishing (if such a thing would exist) and so I naturally wonder about the quality of books written as such and how they stand up to a more critical eye than mine.  I appreciate that publishers are going to create in what they perceive as the ‘go-to’ medium – and that there are authors for whom the drawing together of words and images in a digital format holds great appeal. I guess part of my struggle with this is the fact that where you can go to a bookstore and leaf through a physical book to survey and preview the content before plunking down your credit card – that’s not a choice (for the most part) with an app. You only get to see once you have paid. Granted, it is usually quite a bit less than what one would pay for a hardcopy picture book – and usually, even less than a trade paperback, but when you can’t preview, how do you know that the story is appropriate for the person you are buying it for? (And I won’t even go to the fact that you cannot lend these books, unless you lend the device.)

I have added only one of these books to our app collection so far. I say one for two reasons – the story description of the one I added intrigued me. And only one because I have yet to read a journal review or on-line review for any others that speak strongly enough to me that I want to purchase them sight unseen.

The one that I added is by Slap Happy Larry, a company that makes apps for touch screen Apple devices. This appears to be the first book app that they have released and it is called The Artifacts. Their press release identifies the book as one intended for “middle-grade” readers – their expressed point is that there is no need to abandon picture books, once a child has moved to chapter book reading. Picture books enhance and develop visual literacy and one could argue that this skill is one that will be heavily used as the digital medium grows and changes.

The Artifacts tells the story of a young boy who collects things – all sorts of things, from treasured antiques to stuff that others throw away. His family “does not appreciate his passions.” One day, while he is out, his parents get rid of his treasures. They move to a new house, where he is instructed not to have any more collections. So Asaf becomes a collector of thoughts, sounds smells and ideas, until, one day, he leaves home, with “two small suitcases and one large mind”.

This is a beautifully enriched app in very many ways. The drawings are well done, the add-ins are really neat and the transition from page to page is intuitive. It feels like the message is intended for older children, and parts of the book are dark and just a little creepy (not that little kids don’t like that) – but the format feels more child-like. It is a strong message to absorb, however, and I would be interested in seeing it in use with a class of students (both early grades and older) to more thoroughly understand its appeal.  It also took me several read-throughs to realize that as you touched the walls, floors, sidewalks etc. on each page, objects relevant to the story and the message appeared.  And maybe this is one of the differences between being a digital immigrant and a digital native. If this was the medium that I used to read all the time, then perhaps the appearance of the objects and the movement throughout the story would be a natural expectation for any book and I would know enough to explore the entire app more thoroughly. 

I am interested in looking at Slap Happy’s next production Midnight Feast – in part, to see how the story unfolds digitally, but to also see what age group they direct it to. In the meantime, I would be interested in hearing about other picture books translated into the iPad medium or written expressly for the iPad. If this is truly the way books are going, then I need to immerse myself in the medium and figure out what works – and what is better left in a physical format.

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