Archive for January, 2011

National Robotics League – Arizona

January 31st, 2011

Our students competed in the BattleBots tournament this weekend and the NRL has put the video online. You can watch it by clicking here. We’re the only junior high that competes. Everyone else is older.

Annexed by Sharon Dogar

January 28th, 2011

Sharon Dogar undertook a huge project and I respect her for that. In Annexed, she attempts to add more perspective to a Holocaust story many people already know. The Diary of Anne Frank is studied in schools across the world and has been turned into a movie multiple times. There are generations of fans who know the intricate workings of the Secret Annex during World War II.

The catch is that those details are mainly from the Franks’s perspective. When I taught it in my 8th grade Language Arts class, my students routinely didn’t like the van Daans (the van Pels in real life). They thought that Hermann van Pels was a villain that should be kicked out on the street, thrown to the mercy (or lack thereof) of the Gestapo.That right there illustrates that we see the characters of the play as merely characters and not real people. (That assumption is on a spectrum of maturity and worldview.)

Annexed is from Peter van Pels’s point of view. Anne is seen as annoying at first and Hermann is a caring, sacrificing father. Many times Peter will say to Anne, “Don’t put this in your diary” to account for why Anne didn’t record it. That gives Dogar some liberty with the dialogue, but one of my complaints is the addition of Liese, a made-up girlfriend for Peter that the author felt was needed to represent the loss Jews felt. It’s realistic to have a girlfriend be called-up, but bugged me that she couldn’t demonstrate the call-ups in another way.

What I was thankful for was that the tension between Margot and Anne, which one Peter would fall in love with, didn’t sink to an Edward/Jacob, Gale/Peeta cliche. The love grows through their times sneaking off to the only places not occupied by the other six people in the Annex and it is helpful to think through what Peter would be feeling. It’s an abstraction and not always fact, but it does add depth to the situation.

The book is told through flashback as Peter is in the sick bay at Mauthausen. From time to time, the narrative breaks to have italicized thoughts from Peter drifting in and out of consciousness.

It’s almost like the book is two books. Up to the point when they are discovered (that shouldn’t be a spoiler), it’s all stuff I knew. (I taught the play at least 15 times and I know there are others who have done it even more than that.) It is a novel, so you expect tension and conflict, but it’s pretty predictable. Where the book did grab me, though, was right when the Gestapo is taking the families to the concentration camps. That’s where Dogar’s research really shines through and makes for an engaging read.

This week we had a World War II veteran speak and his experience liberating Dachau made Peter and Otto’s stay at Mauthausen very relevant.

Like I said at the start, I applaud Sharon Dogar for tackling such a big project. Not only is it a story we know, but it’s of a subject matter that requires precision in writing and respect for the dead. If Annexed ended at the Annex, it would have been a so-so novel. Shining light on the horror of the death camps turned it into a book that I will remember.

Hunger Games Movie Release Date

January 26th, 2011

Mark your calendars for March 23, 2012. We’ll see what director Gary Ross does with it. As for the rating? Some say they want it to be R because of the violence. My wife made a good point, though. The main readership, while many adults have read it, is still under 18. Here’s what the director has to say about it, from Entertainment Weekly:

“It’s not going to be an R-rated movie because I want the 12- and 13- and 14-year-old-fans to be able to go see it,” says Ross. “This book means too much to too many teenagers for it not to be PG-13. It’s their story and they deserve to be able to access it completely. And I don’t think it needs to be more extreme than that.” He promises though that his vision for the movie will be just as stirring as anything found in Collins’ prose. “I don’t need to have a huge prosthetic budget or make this movie incredibly bloody in order for it to be just as compelling, just as scary, and just as riveting.”

The fact that Gary Ross was the screenwriter for Seabiscuit and Big has me excited. He knows what it takes on the literary side of things and will hopefully do the book justice. A March release date is better than Forgettable February, but it’s no big summer release.

I’m extremely curious about Lionsgate being the distributor. They’re the company that puts out Barney and LeapFrog DVDs, but are also the ones behind the Saw movies and the new Conan the Barbarian adaptation.

Guest Speaker: Captain Jack Nemerov

January 25th, 2011

“When we’re called upon to sacrifice ourselves, we go in and do it. It’s that simple.”

With those words, World War II veteran Jack Nemerov started telling our students what it was like to prepare for something you can never prepare for.

Nemerov recounted conflicts that he had with superior officers, friendships that he made with people of diverse backgrounds, and the solemn nervousness felt by a boat full of soldiers seeing Omaha Beach for the first time. You can bet the students paid attention when he talked about soldiers under his command dying in front of him. For many years, he kept inside what he saw in the war and only in recent years has he started speaking about them in detail.

This is understandable when you hear his story of having to torch cliffside Nazi encampments. His experiences didn’t end there, though. When his squad occupied a BMW factory in Germany, they never expected to find a death camp ten miles away. Dachau was so close that the soldiers could smell the burning ashes in the air. Nemerov was one of the first to go in and make contact with the survivors in the camp. Something that he said really stuck with me: the prisoners were so used to death, they just walked around the corpses. If they kept moving, they could stay alive. That had to be a nightmarish scene to encounter. Nemerov was one of the soldiers who made the people around the camp who “didn’t know” dig ditches and fill them with the dead bodies. For those that would deny the Holocaust, it’s a very real thing that this man saw.

By self-admission, Nemerov is getting older (he’s 93) and he may not be speaking at schools any more. If you get a chance to have a veteran present to your students, take it. One place to start would be places like the Veterans of Foreign War or the Jewish War Veterans association (where Jack Nemerov is from). These stories shouldn’t disappear without another generation hearing it from a primary source and not someone’s second-hand knowledge. Once again, so honored to hear from someone who’s willing to lay it all on the line for his beliefs.

I Like Big Binders

January 24th, 2011

Ms. Johnson, 7th grade AVID instructor, shared with me this great video emphasizing the benefit of a big binder:

Verb Volley and the History of Oregon Trail

January 21st, 2011

I was reading an article about the history of the Oregon Trail video game and learned that it was the result of two Math teachers and a History teacher being roommates. All three were in their first years of teaching and wanted a way to grab students’ attentions when learning about western expansion in the United States.

They programmed the whole thing in two weeks. That’s what reminded me of Verb Volley, a game I created one Fall Break to help my students review parts of speech.

Here’s my game:

The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

January 18th, 2011

I have to be careful with what I read around students. I guess my face is pretty easy to interpret, because when I covered another teacher’s class at the end of last semester, students knew that the book I was reading was suspenseful based solely on my expression. I then explained to them that I was reading Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist.

I know that book two, The Curse of the Wendigo, is already out and I’m late to the party, but I’ll still give a quick opinion (aside from the fact that I don’t like the change to book one’s cover. I love the photo of the experiment beaker and miss it in the paperback edition).

The Monstrumologist is scary. There are no two ways around it. After reading a section of the book one night, I went to take out the trash to the alley and I was afraid an anthropophagi was going to pop out of the ground and eat me. That would be especially scary because yelling, “Look out! There’s an anthropophagi!” would take way too long and I’d be long gone before some other unsuspecting townsfolk tried to take out the trash.

The biggest compliment I can give Rick Yancey is that he made me question whether the protagonist would make it to the end of the book, even though the book is in first-person perspective. (Think about it for a second.)

The book is extremely detailed, though, so some caution needs to be shown. This is definitely not one for the elementary shelves. The first part of the book reads like a Discovery channel show where the scientist and his apprentice dissect pieces of evidence to track down the monster. The book gets grimmer as the hunt becomes more dire.

I truly appreciated the relationship between the apprentice and the monstrumologist. It mirrored the Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson banter of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and had many one-liners worthy of repeating. Interactions with other characters are also enjoyable because of the well-written dialogue.

Also of note is how each prominent character represents a different philosophy prevalent in the time period. The monstrumologist looks at the world as an empiricist and treats the apprentice in what seems to be a cold, calculated way. A rival of the monstrumologist shows up and evaluates the world similar to Nietzsche, saying that there is no good or evil but only the morality of the moment. Apprentice Will Henry has to sort through his own philosophy as he witnesses the horror that the world offers and must fight to see what’s good despite what others may say.

The Monstrumologist is definitely one for older readers, but is most certainly a good read for those that can handle it. The students that have checked it out so far have been able to tackle the 19th-century vocabulary and I’ll be interested to see if that has an effect on the book’s circulation.

The Concord Review

January 10th, 2011

Normally when you see a link for ESSAYS ON THE INTERNET, it’s a money-making scheme to sell desperate students poorly written essays.

The Concord Review, though, publishes the top research papers from around the world as a showcase for colleges/future employers to look at. If you want to submit your essay, here are the guidelines. I will say this, though: there is a fee associated with submissions and the essays all deal with history.

I think the site is great to show off examples of well-written student work and definitely being published here would make for a nice addition to your college application.

How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor

January 7th, 2011

“Sometimes the trail you leave behind you is more important than the path ahead of you.”

How to Steal a Dog is easy to read, yet spoke a challenge into my own life. So often I’m not thankful for what I have and this book, without making me feel guilty, reminded me of how fortunate so many of us are.

Main character Georgina starts out the book soon after her mother, brother, and her are thrown out of their house. They live in their car and have to park it somewhere new every two days so the police won’t hassle them. One day Georgina sees a reward poster for a lost dog and decides to steal a dog and wait for a reward to be offered.

Author Barbara O’Connor does a fantastic job of describing a hard situation without becoming preachy. We’re not guilted into liking Georgina; we care about her and yet we’re able to disagree with her decisions. O’Connor also adds very realistic details about what it’s like to have to take baths in the sink at McDonald’s or wash your clothes in the bathroom at Texaco. The adults are not portrayed as complete morons, which is sometimes a rarity in YA fiction, but the story still depends on the protagonist’s actions.

This book is another quick. enjoyable read. I don’t read that quickly and even I was able to finish it in one day. Definitely worth checking out. Also, if you’re interested in helping people in the same situation as Georgina, you might look at organizations like the House of Refuge or St. Mary’s Food Bank for a place to start.

24,550 students in Arizona were homeless last year.

The Last Shot by John Feinstein

January 6th, 2011

The Last Shot is a book to read with a Google search at your fingertips. One of the techniques that Feinstein uses is bringing in his connections from the world of nonfiction sportswriting to add plenty of realism to the narrative. Dick Vitale is, oddly enough, not a work of fiction and Feinstein characterizes him perfectly. Talk show hosts from ESPN banter with each other like they do in real life.

This is a YA book, so the heroes are teenagers. More than once the protagonists have to smooth-talk their way past guards and NCAA officials. In reaity, the teens would be pushed aside pretty quickly and, although that does happen in the book, the teens always find a way out of the complication. That’s the only part for me that broke the realism, even though Feinstein includes plenty of plot to explain how the kids rationalized their actions.

I appreciated a different perspective on sports. This was not the stereotypical “new kid comes to school and makes friends/saves the day through sports” type of book. The world of sports reporting is not one that is explored much in YA fiction even though many of our students want to pursue that as an occupation. Deadlines, working with an editor, and searching for interesting details are all shown in the story.

For being 250 pages, it’s a very quick read and I read the book off of the recommendation of students and teachers at our school. It’s definitely worth a checkout.