Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: Ambassador by William Alexander

Two criticisms come up frequently in reviews of William Alexander's Ambassador: the sci-fi adventure plot "sits uneasily" next to the family drama plot, and the family drama remains unresolved at the end of the novel. I would like to go on record saying that neither of these things bothered me. In fact, I love the length of the novel (222 pages), and I'm glad Alexander didn't make it longer just so he could tie everything up nicely.

The story is first told from the perspective of an envoy, a highly intelligent plasma-like creature who must select an ambassador from Earth. He chooses Gabriel Sandro Fuentes after observing him babysitting his twin siblings at the playground. He builds a blackhole in the dryer in Gabe's basement and uses it to send a sort of projection of Gabe to another playground, one where child ambassadors from all over the galaxy meet to play games as a way of negotiating with each other.

I wish I could have read the novel without knowing that, back on Earth, Gabe's family was going to be picked up by Immigration.  (His parents and older sister are undocumented.) But you can't review this book without acknowledging the way Alexander plays with both meanings of the word "alien," and the way he uses the sci-fi adventure plot to show how different groups of people (and aliens) can misunderstand each other, leading to terrible and unnecessary conflict.

Because I was anticipating what happens to Gabe's family, I don't think it had the dramatic effect it would have otherwise. So for me, the book didn't really become dramatic until half-way through, when the mystery of the ships at the edge of the solar system comes into focus and extraterrestrials start targeting Gabe violently. At that point, I was hooked.

I did have a moment at the end of the novel when I asked myself, did Gabe change and grow over the course of this novel? Did he even make any mistakes? He is selected to be an ambassador because of his thoughtfulness and ability to "code-switch," and he uses these skills to good effect throughout.  Where's the moment where he acts out or resists the role that's thrust upon him?  I don't think this novel quite follows the usual "hero's journey" arc.

But after thinking about it, I realized that Gabe does make mistakes--at least two, which I won't describe because it's spoilery. But his mistakes are of the unintentional, understandable variety. And that fits with what I think the author is trying to show: that people of different backgrounds may misunderstand each other, and this can lead to terrible consequences if we do not make the effort to get to know each other rather than retaliating.

All in all, I think this is a remarkable adventure story. It celebrates a character who avoids conflict and acts thoughtfully, but it is still full of action and Zorro-like wise-cracking. And every adventurous episode supports the big idea. I do think that Gabe accepts his role as ambassador with surprisingly little resistance, but I love the idea that children make the best ambassadors because they are more curious and flexible, and therefore more likely to befriend creatures who are different from them.

As for the unresolved nature of the family drama, there will be a sequel. But frankly, I think this book can stand alone. In fact, I think it's a hallmark of Alexander's work to leave some things unexplained and unresolved. It still drives me a little crazy that I don't know why certain people change into goblins in the world of Goblin Secrets and Ghoulish Song, but that just keeps me thinking about the stories.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Online Tools: Collaborative Writing Pads

Around January of last year, I started using the phrase "writing collaboratively" without really knowing what I meant.  Actually, I knew what I meant.  But I was only vaguely aware that other people were using the term to mean something rather specific.

What I meant was that I wanted my students to be able to add to and comment on eachother's writing without doing any of the following:
  • printing documents out and writing all over them
  • sending documents via email (students can't access email at school)
  • saving documents to external devices and opening them on other computers
What I was looking for was basically an online text editor that multiple people could type into at the same time, without a lot of complicated logging in.  That was my idea of collaborative writing.

But when I started looking for online tools to accomplish my goals, I realized that (hello!) collaborative writing is a Thing.  Seriously, just look it up on wikipedia

So, about those tools I was researching.  Now, I already knew about Google Drive and I already knew about wikis (like wikidot and PBworks)*.  But both of those are a little complicated for elementary school students, and they require a certain amount of logging in, which is tricky with under-13-year-olds who don't have access to email at school.

But it turns out that there's a better option for creating single documents, and I am in love with it: Etherpad.  Unfortunately, it no longer exists in its original form.  Google acquired Etherpad, the first realtime collaborative text editor, in 2009, presumably because it would complete with Google Wave.  Etherpad ceased to exist and its users were invited to join Google Wave.  However, Google released the source code, and there are now a number of sites that use the Etherpad software.  So it's like it's been resurrected!

Of the sites that use the EtherPad software, I have two favorites: TitanPad and Twiddla.


TitanPad is super simple. It does not require a login.  Once you start typing, the site generates a web address.  If other people go to that address, they can start typing, too.  Each person's text is highlighted in a different color, so you know who wrote what.  There's no hierarchy of users, so one person can also strike out or delete another person's work, so you need to have a good working relationship!  You can also send each other chat messages while you're typing.  Those appear in a window on the right.

The only thing I did not like about TitanPad is that there are no copy, cut, or paste buttons on the toolbar.  You can use the CRT key, but I miss my buttons.

That's literally my only disappointment.  Everything else works flawlessly.  And you can export your document at any point into a txt, pdf, word, or html file.  Another cool feature is the timeslider which is like a motion capture of your document being created.  You can stop the replay at any point and save or export a specific version, as well. 

This is great for students, because they can jump in and start using it really easily--no logging in or figuring out a tricky interface.  There's also very low risk of them losing a document, because they can either export it or just go back to the address where their pad will be saved for a generous amount of time. 


Tiwddla is a bit more complicated than TitanPad and makes it more difficult for you to save your work (you have to login to export or take a screen shot).  But there's always copy-and-paste!  And this site also offers many more options for marking up existing documents.  In fact, I was delighted when I found it because I think it will make it a million times more fun to use my SmartBoard in the computer lab!

Tiwddla markets itself mostly as an online whiteboard and defaults to a pen tool that you can use to draw.  You can also call up a webpage or a document from your computer to scribble all over.  Or you can click the EtherPad tab and switch from the "pen" tool to the "browse" tool to start writing.

Take note: in order to get a normal cursor and start typing, you have to click the "browse" tool which looks like a hand.  That didn't make a lot of sense to me and I can see my students (who rarely listen to directions) struggling to figure that out on their own.

Your other tool options are a "select" arrow and a "text" tool which actually puts little text boxes on top of your document--it doesn't let you type on the EtherPad.  FYI.

Like TitanPad, Twiddla lets you chat with other users and even add audio so you can straight-up talk to them.  You can also upload documents and images to share.  It even allows you to add bits of code and mathematical formulas to your document.

So basically, Twiddla's a powerful tool for collaboration, but you're still limited in the extent to which you can create a final document without logging in.  It lets you do more, but there's a bigger learning curve.

I am super excited about using these tools with my students.  I think they will take me one step closer to my true dream of initiating a library resource which kids actually contribute to and maintain--like a small scale wikipedia for my school.  But that's a post for another day!

*Oh, and Padlet.  I like Padlet, but it doesn't result in a single document, and it's sometimes really slow to load.  But shout-out to Padlet anyway.  It's definitely in my rotation.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review: Homesick by Kate Klise

If you're looking for a chapter book for your fourth grade class's unit on the 1980s, then Homesick, by Kate Klise, is the book for you!  Of course, nobody teachers units on the 1980s, but wouldn't it be awesome if they did?  With its land lines, game boards, and mix tapes, this book answers the question, what was life like before the internet?  Also, it's about hoarding. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Review: Listening for Lucca by Suzanne LaFleur

I loved the mood of Suzanne LaFleur's Listening for Lucca: summery, sinister, dreamy, mysterious.  Siena's family moves to a house on the beach in Maine, hoping the change will encourage Siena's little brother Lucca to start speaking.  Siena welcomes the move.  In Brooklyn, she has developed the reputation for being weird because she sometimes sees things that are not there.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Book Review: YA Roundup

Since I work at an elementary school library, I can't really call my YA reading "professional."  In light of that, I don't usually post reviews here.  But sometimes I just have to say something about what I've read!  So I've decided to occasionally indulge in some mini reviews of YA books that got my attention.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Online Tools: Infographics

I decided that I wanted to make an infographic as part of my annual report this year.  So at 12 p.m. yesterday I started playing around with a couple sites and 11 hours later, I had an infographic!  Seriously, I spent forever on this.  But sometimes you just have to give yourself permission to be obsessive and inefficient so you can learn a new skill, right?

Fortunately, I am really happy with the results, and I have a few thoughts on the sites I tried and on infographics in general.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Online Tools: Websites for Making Avatars (for kids under 13)

I'm doing a program for 3rd-6th graders this summer, at the public library.  After a rocky start, I've sort of focused on the goal of teaching kids how to make stuff online.  I'm sure I'm being influenced by the whole Maker movement, but I also notice that lots of kids use the computer passively--watching videos and clicking madly, but rarely contributing by commenting or creating something new.  So now I'm on a mission to change that.