Monday, June 30, 2014

12 Years a slave

Stolen Into Slavery: the true story of Solomon Northup, free Blackman by Judith and Dennis Fradin is a retelling of the harrowing years Solomon spent as a slave in the southern US and is appropriate for middle grade students.

The movie version of Northup’s autobiography garnered much attention and won an Oscar last year making the story more widely known.  This book is based on Solomon’s book, Twelve Years a Slave.

This volume recounts how Solomon was kidnapped, bought and sold to different owners, his life as a slave, people he would have known, his thoughts and efforts to escape and eventually how he was able return to his northern life and family.

It was brutal.  It’s almost beyond imagining how a man could sustain any hope of resuming his freedom while living as a slave.  But, though covered in the book, I found the descriptions of the punishing treatment not overly graphic.  It tells of unrelenting work, destitute living conditions and spirit-grinding inhumaneness.  There are photographs and illustrations throughout the book though not in great number.

The book is highly readable and quite gripping in some parts.  Tension builds when Solomon contemplates escape or when white men plot against him. It was particularly interesting to read about the criminal case brought against the two men who had initially kidnapped Solomon and how they were not charged by instilling doubt about their role in Solomon’s enslavement.  According to them, Solomon wanted to be sold as a slave.

It’s a fascinating story made accessible to younger people, grades 5 and up.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Art of Clean Up: life made neat and tidy by Ursus Wehrli is a very funny and very clever book.

I can’t say that I think the idea of tidiness or cleaning for a children’s book would be all that relevant or of interest.    But after going through this very quirky book, I’m willing to change my mind.  I think it will hold and engage almost anyone.

Ursus Wehrli , besides being uber-organized, is a typographer, a comedian, live performer and freelance artist.  His humour and penchant for ‘tidying’ things is played out with flare in this book.

Let me give you some examples.   On each set of facing pages we are given a photo of a fairly commonplace scene from everyday life.  Clothes hanging out to dry, a child playing in a sand box, an aerial view of a car park or a school ground with playing children, a bouquet of flowers, a decorated Christmas tree or a pile of pretzels to give you a range of the mundane and ordinary that we surround ourselves with.
But if you were to take the ‘chaos’ away from each of these and prettied them up, life would be less jumbled, way more orderly and colour coded to boot.

Clothes on a clothesline would be grouped according to colour and displayed rainbow-like.   The child playing in the sandbox with various plastic toys, would now be sitting (and no doubt marveling) at very neatly arranged rows of pails, rakes and shovels, sieves, watering cans, sand molds and dump trucks displayed on freshly raked sand.   The messy mound of bent pretzels is now shown as two rows of straightened, salted snack food.  Who knew that a Christmas tree ‘broken down’ into its component parts would equal a pile of needles, a bundle of kindling, one stand, a coil of tinsel, one pointy tree topper and several rows of red and silver round ornaments, hooks and lights?  Kind of takes the romance away, but that’s what makes it funny.  It plays with our expectations.  Now if only I could get my decorations to look even half as neat.

It becomes somewhat of a game trying to see all the components between the before and after pictures.  Take a look at the book cover above. What are those white dots lined up with all the various pieces of fruit found in a bowl of fruit salad?  Why it’s the polka dots that were on the bowl, of course.

Besides the visual humour factor, I do think there could be some classroom application when it comes to pattern making and observation skills.  This isn’t the book you’d use to introduce young children to the concept of patterns in the earliest primary grades. But older children will be able to work things out.  Might be a book that you can model your own attempts to tidy up and get organized once and for all.  Not a crucial resource but one that is lots of fun.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Choose-your-own-adventure technology

Tammy’s discussion of “Choose your own adventures” books  led us to an interesting conversation on the appeal of these books to non-readers and then further, to if these  type of books might appeal to on-line game players and X-Box players (do they call them X-Boxers?).  Our sense of this was no – but were there on-line versions that might incorporate some of the decision making and thought processes?

Some Googling and trials of different search terms (choose your own adventure, interactive character stories) brought me to  Choice of Games, a company devoted to “producing high-quality, text-based, multiple choice games”. Their belief is that text-based games are an underutilized format in computer games, and that the use of text interacts with the imagination in different ways than a graphics-based game. (Hmmmm – interesting premise. I like it.)

They have many, many games that they have produced – the one that Tammy and I played is called “Dragon”. It starts off with a knight who attacks a dragon (the character that the player assumes). The choices that are made determine the arc of the story.  Whoever wrote this one clearly has a sense of humour and a willingness to push the boundaries of stereotypes. Here is an example:

“As you think about it, the knight’s attack was probably inevitable. After all, you did just kidnap the princess from right out of her tower. Although…Isn’t it a little sexist to always kidnap princesses?
o   Maybe, but tradition demands that dragons kidnap princesses, even if that is sexist.
o   You dare question my actions?
o   You know, I never thought about that before. In fact, I think I kidnapped a prince, just to avoid being sexist.
o   I’ll have you know that I make a careful point of alternating between princes and princesses, but it happened to be time for a princess.

Good humour displayed here and at a level that kids would get, I think. As you move through the game, the choices that you make determine things about your character (or you) – in this case, whether you, the dragon lose or gain brutality, cunning, disdain and infamy, what your wealth is and if you have wounds. 
The adventure continues – unlike physical books however, if you don’t like the way it is going, you have to go back and start again, which can certainly change the entire focus.

But what Tammy and I thought had huge potential was that Choice of Games offers the opportunity for you to write your own multiple choice games. They offer a basic guide to their programming language that enables someone to post their adventure online. Of course, you cannot just randomly start writing the program. And this is where an opportunity to capture the attention of reluctant writers and addicted gamers comes in. The story line will have to be plotted out, include what happens at each choice point – students would need to know about plot development, think through the impact at each choice point and perhaps even read a few books/short stories to get some ideas for story ideas and what might appeal to a particular age group.

This would not be a quick project – but the inspiration of being able to see a game that you have written on line might just appeal to those who are reluctant writers and readers.  It certainly would have more appeal than a book report – at least from my perspective.  And certainly, in Alberta, at any rate, a project of this nature would go a long way toward achieving not only the vision set out in  Alberta Learning’s Learning and Technology Framework, but the ability to foster cross-curricular learning is invaluable.

Choice of Games can be played both online and as downloads through iTunes and Android. In addition, authored games can be placed on iTunes and Choice of Games will split proceeds with the author. Kind of a win-win for everyone!!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Choose-Your-Own-Adventure (or in modern lingo – interactive fiction)

Recently, I've acquired a few examples of the’ You Choose’ interactive adventures from Capstone Press.  Two subseries are available. One looks at survival in various extreme environments (Antarctica, mountains at high altitudes, a desert) or dangerous/disastrous situations (storm chasing, earthquakes). The other is based on historical time periods (Great Depression, space race of the 50s and 60s) or people from a particular time (ninjas, samurais, knights).

 Each book offers three story paths that leads to anywhere from 41 to 55 choices to work through with multiple endings, of course. There are lots of choices to work through, which I liked.

Overall, these are not bad books.  I know it never sounds good to start a review this way but it's true.  I think the topics are interesting and that a middle grade student would learn something about ninjas, climbing Kilimanjaro, Aztecs, or the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami or what have you.  The historical adventures all include timelines, additional research resources, glossary and index.  The survival- based adventures include a chapter about what survival techniques are necessary or at least essential to be aware about to live through such events.  These also include very brief bios of true-life survivors, a quiz, bibliography, glossary and index.  A good starting point, maybe.


I did find the ‘story’ side left me feeling a little flat.  Without much narrative context and even though I’m the main character, I didn't feel all that invested.  I did feel like I got a sense about each adventure I entered and thought that I’d like to learn more. It was somewhat entertaining working through the stories I chose (Life as a ninja, Can you survive extreme mountain climbing?, and Can you survive an earthquake?) to see what would happen - if I would live or die.

I think there might be some appeal for struggling readers who like the adventure aspect and possibilities for affecting the stories outcome.  I could see using these books to model this kind of storytelling in a writing classroom.

And then…

I got to thinking about the digital aspects of this kind of storytelling. Would the story be less flat? Are there digital applications that could enhance the writing and storytelling components of the ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ format?  How enhanced could the story be with interesting graphics?  I can envision the potential for interdisciplinary and collaborative projects.  Coming up with scenarios and potential outcomes requires research and significant comprehension of a topic.  Playing out scenarios would require all sorts of thinking skills.  The possibilities seem really exciting to me

And this is where I’ll leave off and entice you back next week when guest blogger, Janet, will let us in on what apps she’s found.  Stay tuned.

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