Liar & SpyLiar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hey, Newbery Committee!! Can you hear me now? THIS IS FREAKIN’ AMAZING!!!

I loved When You Reach Me, the author’s last Newbery Award winner, so I had high expectations. Stead blasted right through the roof. I love genre-defying books–this is a bit of a thriller, and a bit of a mystery. Stead obviously knows her Man from U.N.C.L.E., and she’s put in as many stunning twists as Sixth Sense. There are elements of a family story, a friendship story, a school story, too. It’s a rich read.

This is the story of Georges (the is silent), who is glumly getting used to a new apartment, his parents’ schedules, the recent defection of a friend to the “cool table,” and the cheerfully bizarre family who lives in the same building. Middle School is a trial, complete with bullies, clueless teachers, and pointless tasks. But the boy who lives upstairs has all kinds of secrets–and he has plans for Georges.

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The Grave Robber's ApprenticeThe Grave Robber’s Apprentice by Allan Stratton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

High adventure awaits in this Shakespearean tale of missing heirs, evil magicians, and a Bluebeard-style wicked ruler. The author’s gleeful embracement of the conspicuously awful (torture chambers, descriptions of rotting corpses, and being buried alive…) reminded me of the more gruesome Grimm tales, with a bit of Lemony Snicket thrown in. I, personally, loved the various objects the over-the-top Necromancer used for eyeballs in his loathsome empty sockets. I was hoping for a bit more character development. The heroine and hero seemed little changed by their adventures. I also thought the heroine’s love of puppetry was going to be put to more significant use.

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Lies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got WrongLies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen

This was an absolutely fascinating read for the summer of 2012. Loewen examines a dozen or so American history textbooks for accuracy, and finds a lot of evasions, half-truths, misconceptions, lies, damned lies, and statistics. The story of the American nation, as we teach it to our children, is slanted to a nationalistic, Eurocentric, self-righteous angle. To protect our kids from unpleasant stories, we whitewash historical events. To avoid annoying vocal political groups, we soften stories to remove elements of racism, sexism, and greed. To inspire our children, we present our national heroes as perfect, unblemished souls–worthy, but impossible to emulate. Loewen makes the argument that by hiding controversy and teaching history three times removed from primary sources, we rob our children of the truth, and of the opportunity to think critically about forces in our nation today.

Do pick up this book. While you read, keep your Twitter stream open on the left, and follow all the conversations about the Common Core Standards and teacher evaluations. Check the newspaper and news websites for stories on teacher proficiency, and remember that all these poor saps who want to pay their mortgages are going to have to teach to whatever test will determine their teaching “quality.” The content of the test is going to drive what’s in the textbooks. And what’s in the textbooks will drive what Ms. Jones or Mr. Smith is teaching. Most likely, the test, the textbook, teacher licensure, and the professional development the teacher receives are coming from big companies like Pearson. Even if teachers and school boards want students to have a more realistic understanding of American history, the odds are against them.

In those news items, watch for the insidious presence of corporate backers, union bashers, and conservative politicians who want want to tell history “the right way.” And remember that Texas–the state with the GOP platform that proclaims critical thinking is dangerous because it might lead children to question entrenched beliefs–is pretty much the most important force in textbook approval in the nation.

Then ask yourself if anything is going to change.

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Bink and Gollie, Two for OneBink and Gollie, Two for One by Kate DiCamillo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brilliant! Text and illustrations are perfectly paired in this funny, sassy, warm story of two friends visiting the state fair.

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Image With iPod Touches and iPads increasingly available in the schools, it’s lots of fun to explore kid-friendly apps to find the ones students will enjoy.  And that I myself enjoy, if truth be told.

One of my favorite science apps is Creatures of Light, a free app from the American Museum of Natural History. App users can explore the biology of bioluminescent creatures of land and sea, in a well-designed app that features photos, interactive maps and diagrams, and embedded videos. I even like the background music.

Another nice little app is Painting with Time, $.99 from Red Hill Studios. Children can use a palette of art tools to “paint” changes over time. For example, a child might choose a black and white photo of a forest. Using the painting tools, she can paint one slice of the picture with “spring,” another with “summer” and so on, until she has a layered painting showing aspects of all seasons. Other choices include how a city changes in the course of a day, how a woman’s face changes with age, or the changes in a mountain scene as a glacier retreats. It’s deceptively simple, but the app has a lot to offer. They have another app that explores climate change in a similar fashion.

There are a host of apps now that let the user identify common species of plants, birds, rocks, insects, and many other features of our world. The free iPhone /app WildLab Bird, part of a “citizen science” project, helps users identify birds and record their sightings. Each users’ sightings become part of the data that supports research at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  There are lots of teacher resources at the WildLab website, too.


Time to dust this off. 

App-plying Myself

My husband and I gave each other iPhones for Christmas this year. In fact, it was an iPhone holiday–we surprised our daughters with iPhones, too. Poor nerdy children. Need me to pass the salt? Just text me.

I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a tech tool this much since my first Palm handheld. I like the immediacy of posting a photo to Flickr right away, responding to someone on Twitter, or checking for movie listings or store hours on the go. The cell phone functions seem little different from our old Verizon phones, though I’ve been cautioned by more seasoned users that I should’t expect the same coverage when I travel to less-populated areas.

Smartphones like the iPhone are becoming among the best-selling tech tools out there.  If you–like me–have been steadfastly ignoring all that Apple stuff, here’s a little primer. An iPhone is a phone with web access, an integrated camera and voice recorder, with an onscreen keyboard that lets you send an email or surf the web. An iTouch is the same tool, minus the camera and cell phone part– and it needs to connect to the web via a wifi network, instead of the cell phone network. For the foreseeable future, the iPhone is going to remain a tool that teachers buy for themselves but that just happen to be useful for school.  The reason is the contract iPhone users must have with AT&T for access to the cellphone & data network.  Most districts aren’t going to be able to pay for cellphone contracts for their staff. (I wish.) The iTouch is a different kettle of fish, because it can connect to the wifi network many schools already have in place, and because the iTouches don’t require a contract and monthly fee. At about $200, the iTouch is a good substitute–though not perfect–for the less portable, more expensive laptops.  Affordable magic.

Many libraries and classrooms are already using iPods to share podcasts, lectures, photos…a whole host of media.  iTouches can do even more–access the web, make audio recordings, and perform an amazing array of tasks using apps from the App store, which is the way software developers distribute and sell applications (what someone of my generation thinks of as a “computer program”) for the iPhone and iTouch. There are apps that make grocery lists, let you post to your blog, find an NPR broadcast, play a word game, find a recipe, or trackweight loss. Go ahead, diehard techies, laugh…but I had NO CLUE that such a variety of educational applications were available. Storytelling apps. Math game apps.  Music-making and art apps. Apps to help your learn Spanish, post to the class blog or to Twitter, or figure out what constellation you’re looking at.  Many apps are priced at less than $3; many are free.  The two apps from the International Children’s Digital Library are lovely. And free.

Quick example: my first graders have been learning about the various reasons authors write–to persuade, to inform, to entertain.  We were looking at books by NY author Seymour Simon, a great non-fiction writer.  We read his Danger! Earthquakes! (a far more timely topic than I had anticipated!) which explains the Richter scale and how scientists interpret seismograph data to learn about quakes.  The morning of the lesson, I downloaded an app called iSeismo to my phone, which shows a seismograph-type display (little lines going up and down as vibrations shake the phone.)  The vibrations were provided by 12 eager 6 year-olds, who could immediately see what a seismograph recording looked like, and how the intensity of the vibration changed the way the lines jumped up and down.

I spent some time this weekend reading up on the apps other educators are using, and finding what folks are posting on Twitter using the #app4kids hashtag.  More on this later…