Category Archives: Across the Curriculum

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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Time to dust this off. 

GAWeek09_Blog-a-thon_badgeI’ll be joining bloggers around the Web for the 2009 Geography Awareness Week Blog-a-thon, hosted by National Geographic’s My Wonderful World Campaign. Tune in to the My Wonderful World Blog November 15-21 for a daily dose of geographic news and jottings, photos, calls to action, a mystery location quiz, and more…

The move to digital

Image courtesy of MorgueFile

Cushing Academy, a private school in Massachusetts, is making the move to a purely digital library–no more books.  Kids will access information only electronically.  The Library will have 18 e-readers for student use.

In general, the move toward digital information sources is a good one. Digital versions of books are often less than half the price of the library bound edition. E-books will never wear out, never get lost, never be chewed by a dog or left on the porch in the rain (though the e-readers will be, I imagine.) Students enjoy accessing information digitally–those that have them use cell phones and iPods and laptops and Kindles quite happily. Looking at the comparative weights of my daughters’ textbooks and a Kindle, I’m all for switching to digital.

Much of the reaction to the whole “coffee bar” idea comes from a sort of collective gasp over the cost. In a recession, with library budgets slashed, teacher positions cut, and families in financial crisis, it seems jaw-droppingly, over-the-top insane to spend that much money on a school coffee bar. (What would other schools do with $72,000?) However, this is not a school or a community in any financial difficulty. It’s their cash.

In the specific case, I cannot imagine why the administration (or the library staff) thought that 18 e-readers would be sufficient for a school with an enrollment of over 400. The $72,000 for the coffee bar would have purchased over 200 more e-readers. The original article did not address how kids without e-readers would access books. Perhaps, being the children of wealthy families, they all already have e-readers. Perhaps the library intends to license digital copies of the novels, poems, non-fiction, and reference books they’ve discarded. Perhaps.

A quick look at Amazon’s Kindle Store tells me they offer over 300,000 titles. The SONY e-Book Store looks to have a pretty comprehensive collection. But even the most cursory glance through what’s available show that there are holes. For example, Cushing will now have a school library with no Harry Potter books. I looked for the books our AP History kids read this summer, and discovered that you can’t get Salt, by Mark Kurlansky, in a digital edition.There are many, many more titles that exist only on paper. And–Cory Doctorow aside–I don’t see authors flocking to release their new works into the public domain or under Creative Commons license. And while many authors have licensed Kindle or e-book versions of their works, the books aren’t licensed for access on regular computers. If I’m a student with no e-reader, all the books in the Cushing library are closed books to me.

I also can’t quite imagine using an e-reader to read anything that relies heavily on graphics to support the text. Reading a graphic novel on a 6″ screen sounds like an exercise in frustration. And scrolling back and forth between an illustration of a physics experiment and the accompanying text doesn’t sound like a picnic, either.

It seems to me that there are still so many problems with access. The move to a purely digital library seems very, very, premature.

Some little sites for those big headaches

image courtesy of MorgueFile

Image courtesy of MorgueFile

Every job requires the right tools.  For getting things done on the web, sometimes you need the internet equivalent of a Swiss army knife– that’s when you go to Google apps or a fancy interactive tool (or call the help desk.)  And sometimes you just need a toothpick or a pair of tweezers–a little tool designed for just one thing.

I just saw a request pop up on Twitter that I see all the time, there and on LM_Net and other group sites.  Someone will ask about a particular website, “Is this site down? Or is it just me? Or my browser?”  I’ve actually e-mailed sites to report a problem, only to discover I needed to clear my cache or update my browser.  That’s when “Down for everyone or just me” comes in handy.  Go to the site, enter the URL you’re wondering about, et voilà! “Down for everyone” will check on your URL, and report back on the status of the site in question. Now you know if it’s you, or if the site is really down.

Another handy little site is  Everybody needs a good URL shortener–my e-mail program is always garbling web addresses, and it’ll save characters in Twitter messages.  The best feature of TinyURL is their little bookmarklet.  When you’re on a webpage with a long URL you need to shorten, just click on the bookmarklet in your browser bar, and you’ll automatically jump to a page with the now-shortened URL.

One last useful little site is  I come across file types I’m not familiar with all the time, largely because I hover wistfully at the edge of the true ocean of geekiness, but don’t jump in.  .flv? .odt? .csv? .notebook? If you have no clue whether your brother just sent you a movie or a spreadsheet, FileInfo will be able to tell you what kind of file it is.