Archive for the ‘Society-Challenging’ category

The College, Career, and Civic Life Framework

September 19th, 2013

The new framework for Social Studies instruction includes a focus on evaluating sources and taking informed actions during a study of civics, history, geography, and economics. I’m intrigued.

Here’s a quote from the intro:


Billboard Grabs Water from the Air

August 9th, 2013

The University of Engineering and Technology of Peru set up a billboard in Lima that pulls water out of the 90% humidity air, filters it, and then sends it to cannisters where people can fill up buckets like they would at a well. In a city like Lima – where there’s 9 million people and not a lot of rainfall – it may very well be a life-saving technology.

Insignia by S.J. Kincaid

July 3rd, 2013

Before she became a writer, S.J. Kincaid interned with a politician in Washington, D.C. and you know that had to influence Insignia, her debut novel. It’s set in a future where corporations have more power than nations and war has become so distant and sanitized that teens are the ones fighting the battles via drones. The threat of a neutron bomb and mutually assured destruction keeps warfare civil.

Tom is recruited a la The Last Starfighter to train in the Pentagon (now a spire like something out of Ender’s Game) and escape his troubled home situation. It’s a fun adventure and, on the surface, is a lighthearted sci-fi story with enjoyable character interactions. I found myself laughing out loud multiple times and that’s rare for me.

But there’s another layer to Insignia, one that challenges what modern warfare really means and what the whole point is. Behind the scenes are employees of megacorporations trying to woo combatants to fight for them. Imagine if the U.S. Army was sponsored by Wal-Mart (with Wal-Mart’s two million employees) and the Navy was run by McDonald’s (where every fish in the sea contained genetically engineered McFish DNA). The great thing, though, is that it’s not preachy and addresses it in an accessible manner.

The tech is pretty cool, too. Each character is introduced with name, rank, and IP address popping up in Tom’s vision. Computer programming takes center stage for a bit, but it either produces humorous or dangerous results, so I don’t think a non-programmer audience will be bogged down by it. I like to code, though, so I may be biased. (Really, the programming action reminded me of the wizard duels in Harry Potter.)

While many parts reminded me of other stories, Insignia‘s a brilliant combination of those different elements told through Kincaid’s honest voice. It’s definitely worth a read and a copy or two on the shelf.

Imagine a future where you print your food.

May 21st, 2013

So, you know how printer cartridges hold ink? What if the printer cartridge held proteins, sugars, and carbohydrates and then could layer them into food that is semi-recognizable? Anjan Contractor is working on that and has been awarded $125,000 from NASA to develop the food printer for space travel. Anjan has bigger plans than space travel, though. He wants to cure world hunger.

If the foodstuff was in powder form, it could last up to 30 years. That’s a long time and could help with portioning out the right amount to avoid waste. It’s a pretty ambitious and world-changing achievement to pursue. If it could be made cheaply, even better.

The next question would be taste…

The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer (House of the Scorpion #2)

March 20th, 2013

If you haven’t read House of the Scorpion, stop here. It is an excellent book and I don’t want to spoil any of its details. If you have read it, meet me after the scorpion…

Yes, House of the Scorpion has a sequel. Many students will be excited. I even had one class a few years ago get so mad that there wasn’t a sequel that they wanted me to write to Nancy Farmer and make her write a sequel.

It seems that more people wanted a sequel because here we are.

A caution, though: I started reading with extremely high expectations and it took me a bit to realize that the sequel is different. Where the first book is about a young boy trying to survive in a crazy cartel world, the sequel is about Matt trying to run the cartel. The book spends a significant part of the narrative taking the reader on a tour of the new Lord of Opium’s palace. His ideals come into conflict with some of the staff from the previous leader, but most respect him – at least on a surface level. This was the part of the book where my attention waned for a bit. While it’s interesting learning about the inner workings of a household, it wasn’t what I was reading the book for. I wanted suspense. In the first book, a clone could be killed without any real consequences because they were property. How harrowing! I wanted that level of suspense and/or intrigue.

The rival drug lord was scary sounding. I mean, his name is Glass Eye. I wanted more threats from him, more brooding foreshadowing from him. Something. Anything.

I had to accept that the big conflict for The Lord of Opium is person vs. self. Matt is a clone of a violent man. One question haunts Matt’s existence: Will his genetics destine him to a life of violence or will the world around him forge him into a violent man? (Okay, so maybe that’s technically two questions.) Once I realized that it was Matt’s own fears that we should worry about, it made for a more interesting read.

The scientific detail matches the first book and challenges the ethics of why we do what we do. I loved that about House of the Scorpion and appreciated it here. I didn’t quite anticipate just what tech level the society was at, though. Imagine my surprise when a wormhole opened up in the hacienda. It was jarring (my reading, but I’m sure the portal was, too), but once I shifted my perspective, I was good.

Nancy Farmer works in many details from Arizona. As a fellow Arizonan, I appreciated references to Kitt Peak, Ajo, and the Chiricahua Mountains. Those details were spot on.

So, what did I think of the book? I enjoyed it, but there were noticeable hurdles for me to get over. Some were in the pacing of the novel and the focus of the scenes. Some, though, were a result of perhaps unrealistic expectations on my part for a follow-up to such a staple of YA fiction that House of the Scorpion is. I’ll definitely pick up a copy when it releases for the Fall semester, but I’ll hold off on getting multiple copies until I hear from the students about what they think of the book. My copy was a digital ARC on my phone. Yes, publishers, this may save you printing costs, but it would help you out in the long run if I could hand out a paper copy to a student to give me their opinion.

Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case by Chris Crowe

September 28th, 2012

Emmett Till is not a household name, but his death impacted the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s in the United States. Chris Crowe, author of the award-winning Mississippi, 1955, set out to inform his readers in Getting Away with Murder about the controversial murder trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. Till, a young black man, whistled at Roy Bryant’s wife. That much can be verified by other witnesses. Whether Till said or did more, only Till’s accuser can tell. Roy Bryant found out about the situation and decided to “teach that boy a lesson”. Bryant and his half-brother, Milam, grabbed Till from his great uncle’s house in the middle of the night, kidnapped him, beat him, and then shot him. Milam and Bryant tied a length of barbed wire around Till’s neck and to a gin fan and then threw Till’s dead body into the Tallahatchie River.

Emmett Till’s gruesome murder was followed by a trial riddled with injustice. Sheriff Clarence Strider locked up two witnesses to the murder and filed their paperwork under different names so that they could not testify at the trial, for instance. Milam and Bryant were found innocent of the murder of the 14 year-old boy. Years later, when Milam and Bryant could not be convicted of the same crime again because of double jeopardy, the two sold their story two a magazine and admitted to everything.

Crowe’s book does a good job presenting the facts. The second chapter does make a couple of guesses about what Emmett would like to do for fun based on what other boys his age enjoyed, but other than that it sticks pretty closely to interviews and media records.

At 121 pages, it’s a quick read that I recommend to introduce students to the civil rights movement. There are a ton of pictures, which is a necessity for nonfiction for the middle grade target audience. I’m proud of Crowe for including the photo of Till’s disfigured corpse because it’s that photo that caught people’s attention to what atrocities racism can lead to.

Trash by Andy Mulligan

August 28th, 2012

My first experience with Trash was hundreds of printed copies of chapter one showing up in my library unsolicited as a promotional. I wondered if there was some unintentional irony with a book set in a giant landfill being advertised by creating another landfill. Was I supposed to give all 1300+ students a copy? Publishers and marketing experts, I don’t recommend that strategy.

Moving past that, Trash is a socially-conscientious book about a fictional Third World country and an extremely impoverished group of kids. The kids find a wallet in a section of the trash heap one day and through some investigation find that there may be a big conspiracy that they’ve uncovered.

Where Trash succeeds is in its grit. I truly believed in this poor country and the corrupt politicians serving themselves instead of the people. The description of life in a landfill is very gripping, which makes sense because Mulligan spent some time in the Philippines and visited a real-life group of trashpile kids.

Where Trash struggles is in the constantly switching POV. By jumping voices so many times, even though the voices sound real, it’s tough to keep track of characters and, more importantly, connect with them. Some narrators pop in for a few pages and then are gone for the rest of the book. I didn’t know who was worth investing in. If students can get past that, I think fans of realistic fiction with elements of a mystery story will enjoy it.

Do Something

August 22nd, 2012

(a screenshot from the Do Something site) 

I’m always a fan of students getting positively involved in the world around them. Do Something is an organization that helps point teens (and adults) towards ways that they can help. The app was what really caught my attention. Check it out at Google Play (I haven’t found the app for other systems yet).

Whether you’re on the site or the app, there’s an action finder where you can pick which issues you are passionate about and decide on your level of commitment. You don’t have to sign up for anything; it just gives you information about where you can do something. It’s definitely worth a look, whether for ideas for where your club can volunteer or for your own personal commitment.

It Can Wait

July 31st, 2012

Last Friday I was able to go to the American Idol Live concert in connection with AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign. AT&T had people at the entrance to Arena to talk with about the dangers of texting and driving. They had iPads queued up with the Facebook page to take the pledge with a few simple clicks. You can take the pledge on Facebook here or through AT&T’s dedicated website here.

The seats were great and I was able to chat with some of the people about the It Can Wait campaign. One of the messages that I posted on Twitter about it was displayed on the Jumbotron screens in the arena, which was fun.

AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign is sobering in its focus: to give real-life examples of people affected by teens texting and driving. We are currently in the 100 deadliest days of summer according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Teens are more at risk now to get in a fatal accident than any other time of the year. A study from Virginia Tech found that drivers who text while driving are 23 times more likely to get in a crash.

If you want more information about distracted driving, check out

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

May 9th, 2012

This matches up extremely well with Lost Boy, Lost Girl to compare fiction and nonfiction about the Second Sudanese Civil War. While Linda Sue Park says this is fiction, she does mention how closely she based it on the real Salva Dut’s life. Like in Lost Boy, Lost Girl, the depiction of human perseverance in spite of horrible circumstances is amazing.

The really cool part about Long Walk is that it has an interwoven story from 2009 with an update on how southern Sudan is doing. What I love is that Salva Dut, just like John Bul Dau, hasn’t just enjoyed his time in the United States; he has gone on to found Water for South Sudan, an organization to install wells for clean water. Go check them out.