Happy New Year: A Look Back in Books!

I genuinely wish I read more books in any given year. Since my doctoral studies, I have not pushed myself to read as voraciously as I always intend. One of my resolutions this year is to change that and in general read more books for both edification and pleasure.

Still, I read my fair share of interesting books that I am sharing in my first post of 2019 along with a brief sentence review for your consideration. Read on to check out the books, and here is to all of us reading more this year!

Hector and Hummingbird by Nicholas John Frith

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So turns out having a toddler changes you. Who knew? I wanted to start with one of the most charming children’s books I read to my daughter (over and over again) this past year. The artwork is unique and the story is a wonderful tale of how important friendships we may take for granted really are. I recommend this for any elementary teacher’s library and certainly for the home of anyone with a child to read to and with!

The Bible Tells Me So… Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns

While I do not talk about religion or my own affiliations on this blog, I mention Enns’ book because it is the one that resonated me unlike anything else I read. In a nutshell, Enns argues readers, interpreters, and followers of the Bible have to see the text as one that had a very specific audience and context for its time as it was assembled, and that acknowledging that there is metaphor, symbolism, and borrowed cultural experiences in it does not diminish or invalidate Christianity. I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a refreshing way to wrestle with what appears to be the Bible’s inconsistencies.

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans

I know, I know, two books about the Bible in a row. What can I say, as a someone who considers himself a believer and someone who wrestles with doubt, Enns’ and Evans’ books were two of my most interesting reads. Evans has a similar take on discussing the Bible as Enns does; however, while Enns is a Bible scholar who blends history and scholarship effortlessly, Evans writes as a memoirist does, blending personal story telling, with contextual history, and re-imaging of some of the most brutal and difficult to reconcile stories in the Bible. I recommend this text really for the same reason as I recommended Enns’.

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Literacy Engagement through Peritexual Analysis edited by Shelby Whitte, Don Latham, & Melissa Gross

This will seem like a selfish plug, but it’s not. I genuinely feel this is a great collection of chapters showcasing the benefits of looking at, wrestling with, and leveraging peritext, or the text that surrounds the text proper (i.e. glossary, index, dedication, book jacket, etc.). I recommend this book to just about any media specialist, but also to teachers–ELA or otherwise–who want to help students make deeper connections to how text interacts and is informed by the text surrounding it that is often taken for granted.

Spider-Gwen Vol. 1: Greater Power by Jason Latour & Robbie Rodriguez

One of my favorite early reads of the year was the collection of comics that make up the first volume of Spider-Gwen comics. Now after seeing Into the Spiderverse at the movies, I have even more appreciation for the text and art created by Latour and Rodriguez. The collection is a refreshing take on Spider-man origin story with a unique, yet familiar heroine who has both depth and kick-ass qualities to keep you reading. I highly recommend for a high school or older audience, but especially anyone who loves the Spider-man or saw Into the Spiderverse and want to learn more.

Gnomon

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

This monster of a book ends my little list this year. Complex, compelling, and nearly impossible to finish my be the best way to explain my feelings about my one standout fiction text of this past year. The book takes on the survellance state in a way that is both jarring and, at times, unreadable. This is one of the most challenging narratives I’ve read in a long time, but it has elements of great storytelling throughout. I would recommend this for any reader looking for a challenging read, rife with diction not often used in fiction writing, and anyone who loves a good sci-fi detective story!

I wish I had more worth sharing, but beyond the texts above my reading this past year was both limited and maybe not as thrilling as I hoped. Here’s to a better year of reading ahead.

Character Trading Cards: ‘Gotta Catch ‘Em All!’

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Okay, okay–I can’t take any credit for this idea, but it was so awesome when I saw it and it’s been so awesome in my classroom that I have no choice but to share it with the world! I originally saw this great website and activity while visiting a professor of mine’s master’s course. I was there to present a little bit on my zine exploration this past year, but I was lucky enough to participate in the activity they were engaged in, which centered around making trading cards of various characters from three texts they had read. What ensued were fun, engaging, and difficult small group discussions about each major character from the stories in an effort to be ready to participate in some friendly competition using their self-generated trading cards. Continue reading

Having the End in Mind

It’s been awhile.

Sometimes life just gets in the way of blogging, but have no fear–I have a whole new reflection to share with you today.

Since The Studio’s inception three years ago, my colleague and I struggled to develop the best practice for introducing our students to the world of project-based learning, our expectations, and the realities of good research. This year I think we hit a home run with our freshman group.

You see, we start every school year in our Studio classroom by utilizing summer reading as a basis for the first ‘mini-project’. The idea being that the summer reading actually matters, and the first project is relatively low stakes. (It has a relatively low weight to their overall grade throughout the year.) For the last two years, we’ve used this mini-project as a way of drawing our freshmen into what I had stated above–PBL, expectations, and research. Each year we’ve improved by just the tiniest of margins, but this year we seem to have really figured out how to manage all of our intentions and support our students.

So what was different this year? Much like one of our summer reading books for our ninth grade group suggests, we had the end fully in mind this time around. Sean Covey’s book The 7 Habits of a Highly Effective Teen mirrors his late father’s book of a similar title oriented towards adults and attempts to teach teenagers the value of really prioritizing their lives. The habit of ‘beginning with the end in mind’ is a mantra we’ve used in our PBL class since the beginning, which is partially why I have students read this book coming into high school. Taking a lesson from the book itself, we carefully rearranged how we wanted our first project to flow, and the kind of experience we wanted our new students to have. The end result was a combination project of both a well-designed infographic and an argumentative essay–both developed in small groups of four or less.

Students read two books over the summer for the Studio I (first year) class: The 7 Habits and Harm de Blij’s Power of Place. While ‘Habits’ is an easy read, de Blij’s is anything but for a fourteen year old. We use ‘Habits’ as a way to trigger the right kind of thinking going into a PBL environment–students have to be able to collaborate, think ahead, communicate effectively, follow through, and respect others. ‘Power’ is an in-depth overview of everything a student needs to essentially understand for AP Human Geography. (de Blij wrote many of the current textbooks used in AP classrooms today.) With two very different texts, the struggle has always been how to blend the purpose of both texts into a single, meaningful project. This year we finally found our way. Students were told to find a major issue, with our guidance, in de Blij’s book to center an argument around. Students were told they had to choose a side or qualify their argument about one de Blij’s topics or observations about human geography. Once selected, the issue also had to be given a solution incorporating one of the seven habits in Covey’s book. The project’s product was two-fold as mentioned above. The argumentative essay was a collaborative effort. All members of the group agreed upon an issue and a possible solution, but each member wrote an initial draft separately from the rest of their group. Students then came together to draft a final essay incorporating each member’s insights into a cohesive paper requiring both a clear thesis, arguments given and cited from de Blij’s book, and a solution integrated and cited from Covey’s book. The infographic could be designed using any digital platform, but was to visually represent the issue the group chose and its possible solution. The infographic was to highly visual, but have clear facts and statistics represented throughout.

At the end of the project phase, each student reflected one five specific areas:
What did I learn academically?
What did I learn from a social aspect (ie working in groups)?
What was my greatest weakness during the project?
How can I improve on that weakness in the next project?
What was the most memorable aspect of the project?

The results? Well see for yourself below:

Shakespeare: The Biography

In an attempt to rev up my personal reading, my wife and I have decided to start using our local public library on at least a bimonthly basis and start expanding our reading repertoire. I’m a big fan of owning books, but that gets down right expensive and really limits what one might read otherwise. We started this little journey yesterday.

I grabbed three books: Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd, The Narnian by Alan Jacobs (a biography on C.S. Lewis), and First Meetings by Orson Scott Card.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the quickest of readers. I actually appreciate this fact about myself as I feel it makes me more in-tune to my students who despise reading in part due to their inability to read a page quickly. My wife, on the other hand, can devour a book in day two leaving no morsel of a word behind. All that being said, I picked those three to read in three weeks and my wife chose five.

I’m starting, as the title of this post suggests, with Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography. I’ve always wanted to read a full biography about the man who over time has won me over as an avid fan and believer in his unquestionable reign as the greatest English writer of all time. In college, I took a Shakepeare course where we read several plays and analyzed them; we even read a book focused on the design of his staging and how plays translated to his audience, but never have I read more about the man than besides a few pages of curtailed information on the man. I’m only partially into reading the book, but already I’m fascinated by his lineage and childhood. Ackroyd tries very early on to convince the reader that those who detract from Shakespeare being the true author of his plays are foolish to believe such as their is just too much evidence to the contrary. There are times already I find myself thinking that Ackroyd is reaching with a few of his conclusions, but admittedly there are more than enough clear facts to support Shakespeare’s education and his clear familial connection with his own plays.

I’ll give an update once I’ve finished the book, but in the meantime trust me when I say it really is a fascinating read.

Here’s for reading more books this year!

A War of Gifts

Orson Scott Card has been one of my favorite authors since I was about twelve years old. It is his book Ender’s Game that helped me fall in love with reading as a young teenager, and I have followed his writing for the last fifteen years. I’ve paid the closest attention to his Ender books, though. They are afterall, the catalyst for my current and continued love of reading. What I’ve always loved most about Card’s books is that although labeled as science fiction, they are really deep character stories that take you through the psychology of growing up, war, and the dynamics of human nature. I’ve appreciated this even more as I’ve grown older. My love for Ender’s universe has been so strong that I read the original book at least once every other year, and recently I have read through the graphic novels developed by Marvel; I’m currently listening to the original book on CD now on my long drives to school and back home. (Big thanks to my Dad for sharing the CD’s with me.) In many ways, Card, with the help of my Dad first handing me the book, has altered the course of my life forever. I have pondered before if I would be a teacher or a writer if not for reading Ender’s Game.

This past week while traveling, I re-encountered the Ender universe by reading a short novella that Card wrote not long ago aptly named The War of Gifts. The short book (only about ninety pages) sucked me right back into the extraordinary world and psychology that Card has built over the last three decades. Written in third person but from different character’s views the story propels the reader back into the days of battle school, but this time the focus is on religious celebrations and holiday practices which are strictly forbidden in battle school. Card exquisitely develops the psychology behind both those who hold close to their culture and those who have been unknowingly oppressed by religion all while reintroducing familiar characters as well as Ender Wiggin himself again. As a fan of the series, I was probably easy to please, but I genuinely feel this is a great, short read for anyone. The writing is superb and the themes leave you thinking well after you finish drinking in the final word.

If you’re a fan of Card’s, or even if you’ve never heard of him before now, I highly recommend checking this novella out in the near future.

PS – If you are an avid Card reader, he just released his newest book as part of the Ender’s Shadow series and will release a prequel about the first formic wars in July. Also, the Ender’s Game movie is slated to be in theaters in March 2013.