Friday, December 5, 2014

Super Creeped out by Creeptastic Jake Gyllenhall (“Creepy McCreepyson”) in “Nightcrawler”

I wanted to see a movie, but the choices were slim today. When I saw that “Nightcrawler” earned 95% approval rating on Flixster, I was pretty encouraged. That Stephen Hawking movie got a 91%, so I figured this movie was going to be better. And it was. And it has creeped me out forever.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a petty thief who has found his life calling in documenting the crime and accidents of Los Angeles as a nighttime freelance cameraman. But he is a psychopath who is driven to advance in the field, and his amorality is the perfect conduit to make that happen. Gyllenhaal is so believable as a psychopath that I don’t think I can watch his movies any more.  

Jake "Gaunt"enhaal

For the role, Jake Gyllenhaal lost some weight, and while I was thinking about gaunt Christian Bale in The Machinist, Gyllenhaal's skeletor-effect transforms him into a perpetually hungry, sunken-eyed madman who reminds us that we validate his actions and we participate in his crimes as we watch him. I found myself looking all around the theater during every single scene, trying to avoid looking directly at Gyllenhaal and his unsettling character. If an actor can win an Oscar for evoking the heebie jeebies and cucuys in his viewers, it’s Gyllenhaal in this movie.

Serious Social Critique
More important than the quality of the acting is the storyline, which clearly serves as a social critique of the sensationalistic and unethical nature of news reporting. Rene Russo’s character Nina, as the producer of the morning news, tells Bloom that to be successful, he needs to film urban crime seeping into the suburbs, particularly if the perps are people of color and the victims are white. (!) The film reminds us as viewers again and again how the news is distorted and transformed into entertainment to earn higher ratings, a fine reminder in the wake of the news coverage of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and even Ebola.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Great Graphic Novels for Girls (and boys, too)

It all started when I had to take my daughter to the emergency room and she was reading Smile by Raina Telgemeier in the waiting room. I read along with her to pass the time, and I was expecting something fluffy and vapid, but the book was a memoir with verve and I loved it. It's the story of a tween's loss of two front teeth, headgear, fake teeth, and braces. She faces boy trouble, petty friends, and gives hope to the lonely tweens who feel out of place in the world.

It was then that I began to wonder if there were more female protagonists in graphic novels, and the answer is a resounding YES! and they are delightful.

We searched through the shelves at Barnes and Nobel, which does not have a graphic novel section for school age readers. El Deafo was nestled in the books, as if it were just any old book. Cece Bell's graphic memoir captures the anguish and frustration of a young girl's maturation through her struggles in school as a result of hearing loss. Hearing or deaf, all readers will enjoy the protagonist and her Phonic Ear and can identify with the universal themes: her desire for a bosom friend, her need to fit in, her hope for the attention of the boy she likes.
Well-written, thoughtful, and inspiring, Bell makes every reader more sensitive to the hardships of disability while turning them into superpowers.

I think the best graphic novel featuring girls is Tomboy by Liz Prince, which every student who has checked it out has devoured. Not only does the book speak to girls about their struggles as a non-girly girls in a male-dominated world, but it also helps them to understand the dangers of gender norming in American society. It isn't often that we read books that change us forever, that leave book hangovers that last for weeks, but this is one of those books. If every young person read this book, I think the world would be a better place. Prince models for all girls that anyone can be a comic book artist.

While Tomboy inspires young women to pursue their dreams and passions, Relish by Lucy Kinsey does the same. Kinsey's book catalogues her childhood through food as the daughter of a gourmet and chef, and explains her own journey to become a chef. In the process, she reminds us that food is connection, food is home, food is family, and food is art. The recipes are great, and the huevos rancheros are easy to make and delicious. Like Tomboy, Kinsey delves into a career dominated by males and shows her readers that she can do anything. 

Both Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol and Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch feature ghosts who torment the protagonists and require them to find their strength to fight back and make the world right again. Hereville features an Orthodox Jewish girl who fights a pig and delves into the realm of fantasy much like a fairytale. Students will learn about Orthodox culture and a little Yiddish as they read, and also that girls are just as tough as anyone.

Two other graphic novels for more mature students are Lost At Sea by Bryan O'Malley (famed author of the Scott Pilgrim series) and This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki (authors of Skim, the graphic novel that artfully explores suicide, depression, and crushes). Both of these books explore the loneliness and despair teenagers experience as they grapple with the demands of the world around them, and these books are particularly poignant and must be finished for the powerful endings they both provide.

I also recommend Persepolis by Mariana Satrapi, a book my 12-year old daughter consumed with passion. Persepolis is a heart-wrenching historical memoir of a 10-year old's experience during the revolution in Iran in the 1980s. I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached captures the same nostalgia for homeland and horror for the war that ravaged it, but it is written as poetry, and the ending is perfectly evocative. Religion plays a role in the lives of these girls, and is essential in these stories.

Honestly, I had no idea there were so many graphic novels that would appeal to female readers, nor did I know they would be so profoundly well-written that they expand the genre and represent what is possible with the power of good storytelling.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

John Wick Kills Everyone for his Puppy

My husband wanted to take me on a romantic date, so, of course, we saw John Wick. If you haven’t heard about it, here is the plot: a mourning and scraggly Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, a widower whose wife has left him a post-mortem gift to help him grieve: the cutest beagle puppy since Snoopy. Even worse, a couple of days later, Russian gangsters beat him up, steal his ‘69 Mustang, and kill the puppy. Little did the Russians know, John Wick is worse than the Boogeyman, and thus begins his revenge killing spree.

Better Than the Eighties
Unlike the ultra-masculine proto-males of the eighties, John Wick is vulnerable and sensitive.  He cries, he lets the puppy sleep in his bed with him, he looks longingly at his dead wife’s jewelry, and he watches videos of her throughout the film. This is what every woman wants: a man who will mourn her death eternally. Even more, we want a man who loves little dogs. And this is why every American can justify the collateral damage of at least 95 Russian thugs for the puppy. This is something we can get behind. Without a doubt, Americans care more about homeless dogs and abused cats than we do our human brothers and sisters.

As a child of the 80s, I saw dozens of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Dolph Lundgren movies. They were fun movies that glorified murder on a grand scale and included graceful jumps from motorcycles where the hero literally lands on his feet. Most of those 80s films demonized Russians, but John Wick is different: these Russians used to be his friends and he doesn’t waste time with silly iconic lines (“I’ll be back”) or outrageous physical feats; his silence and his relentlessness are his secret weapons. He never hesitates; he just pulls the trigger with graceful purpose. His focus and determination are inspirational lessons for the viewer: If we just focus enough, we can overcome anything in our way.

There are so many people killed in this movie, I thought it might have exceeded Rambo IV (236), but the murder of the puppy is so heinous that it distorts the kill-count as something significantly higher. Keanu is no stranger to fight sequences, but he has proven in John Wick that fighting and killing are the right things to do. The final sequence of the film (I don’t want to give it away) brilliantly restores order to the chaotic world we live in and reminds us of what is important: we need to rescue puppies, Russians can’t be trusted, and you never know who is secretly an assassin, so be nice to everyone.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Gamifying Reading

I've been desperately seeking a way to motivate busy high school students how to read, and after attending the GAfE Summit in San Diego, I developed a series of challenges for students to undertake in their reading but within a game-based experience. 

My goals are these:  

  • Make reading seem special and convince kids that they are lucky to get to do it
  • Make them feel like they are part of an elite group of special students
  • Give them a reward for accomplishing their goals
  • Give them plenty of time to reach those goals so there is no pressure, only positive outcomes
I decided share the challenges to four students to test the waters.  I was not prepared for how they reacted. Every single one of them started taking pictures of my notes on the computer screen, and the question they all asked repeatedly:  Can I start right now?  

Yes, yes you can read.

Because I work at a school called Valhalla and we are the Norsemen, I decided to stay with our school theme. Here are the challenges:

The Gjallarhorn
retweet a Valhalla Library tweet @valhallalibrary
share the Valhalla Tumblr page
write a book review that is shared by 5 people on Tumblr

The Edda
read a book of poetry, various authors
read a book of poetry, one author

The Loki
read a graphic novel
read a romance novel
read a horror/mystery/suspense book
read a banned book

The Bifrost

read all the books in a series (has to be at least three books)
read all the books by one author (has to be more than three books)

The Saga
read a non-fiction graphic novel
read a biography
read an autobiography

The Ullr
read a Michael Printz winning book
read a Mann-Booker Award winning book
read a Pulitzer Award winning book
read a Nobel Prize winning author

The Yggdrassil
read a book longer than 300 pages
read a book longer than 500 pages
read a book longer than 800 pages

Complete 5 Challenges--The Mjölnir Award
Complete all 7 challenges--The Odin Omnireader Award

I'm using GameOn from my coworker Mike Skoko ( as the vehicle to roll out the challenges and to keep track of what each student completes. Once they finish the challenges, they can go through them again at another level (apprentice, master, etc.)

And the reward? Free printing in the library for the school year in which they complete the challenges. When the test group  heard the prize was free printing, they really went bonkers even though they already get free printing.

So, I'll be giving them a prize that's just going to make them more efficient students. I'm cool with that. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

I Need My Stinkin' Badges

Last weekend, when I attended the Google Apps for Educators Summit in San Diego, and I learned the workshops were gameified, I got more than excited.  I mean, they were giving away stickers for completing challenges based on what we learned in the workshop. And, these stickers were cool looking.  They were space-themed with rockets and moons and spacemen, and they represented three different levels:  #gettinggoing #gearing up and #gettinggeeky.  Deep down I wanted those #gettinggeeky badges--I knew they were going to be harder to get.  I thought to myself, these guys thought this badge business through.  These badges are even alliterative.

In the second session I attended, my friend April showed me that in addition to earning real badges, the summit was also awarding online badges, and she set in motion a chain of events that still has me reeling.

The online badges were even more beautiful, and the challenges were fun.  Take a selfie at the photo booth with the Summit sign and upload it.  Tweet with the hashtag #gafesummit.  Talk to a sponsor and get a code.  It seemed as though a switch turned on for me, and my rabid desire to achieve took over.  I was going to get all those badges, I was going to get more badges than anyone else, and it was going to be amazing.

I felt incredible.

And I finished those challenges within 60 minutes.

When I checked my Credly account to see the glory of all those badges, my page indicated I had only earned two badges, when in reality I had completed nine. I mean, nine challenges is a lot of challenges, and I wanted that tab to say NINE. Really, I wanted it to say eleven. And why did April’s Credly account say she finished seven? Clearly, there was something motivating and discouraging about immediate gratification.  

This is when I realized that I had been manipulated in the best way possible.  These masterminds behind Google Apps for Education somehow got me to listen to two sponsor pitches, they got me to tweet and retweet, to comment on Google Plus, to join their Google Plus community, to give them a selfie, and to add a bunch of Chrome apps.  I was hooked.  

This is the power of gameification.

Kids and adults love to take challenges even when the only reward is a sticker.  The badge challenges were something I could try without penalty.  I could take risks and no one would know if I failed.  This wasn’t high-stakes learning:  this was try-it until-you-get-it learning.  I felt like my learning was in my own hands rather than in the hands of my instructor.

And I was liberated.

At the end of the summit, I still wanted those online badges.  This glitch with Credly that makes it seem that I didn’t earn the badges makes me crazy, but my learning is in my own hands.  With a few drags and clicks, I sent an order for custom stickers exactly like the ones I earned online.  I will have those badges for real. I need them.

I also need to get kids motivated to read, and gamfication is the solution for my library. Today I set out to design a series of reading challenges.  The challenges will include reading all the books in a series, reading a classic, reading a graphic novel, reading a book over 1,000 pages, reading from every genre, reading an award winner, writing a review on Tumblr, and more.  I’m designing the badges now.  The kids are going to go bonkers!

Monday, March 10, 2014

10 Reasons to go to Iceland

I leave for Iceland a month from today, and every time I tell people (mostly students) that I am going to visit the land of Ice and Fire, they cock their heads to the side like confused dogs and ask in disapproving tones, “Why would you want to go there?”  I have at least ten good reasons to go to Iceland.  

Reason 1--Volcanoes, Volcanoes, Volcanoes
Iceland has 130 volcanoes, and one major eruption of Hekla formed a volcanic ridge that spans 25 miles.  Two continental plates that meet on Iceland are drifting apart, which creates the dramatic steam pots, sulfur pits, and enables Icelanders to harness more geothermal energy than anywhere else in the world.  I need to see this.

Reason 2--The Aurora Borealis

The solar flares this year have made the night sky come alive in Iceland, and the Northern Lights should be on every person’s bucket list.  Do the lights really ripple across the sky?  How long does it last?  Will I be able to sleep?  Is this where the Norsemen got the idea for the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla?  Basically, it’s like the heavens are unleashing an exploding rainbow, and I can’t wait to see it.  

Reason 3--Clean, delicious fresh water
Friends, I live in San Diego, where the drinking water tastes like the water that Harry forced Dumbledore to drink at the end of The Half-Blood Prince that made the dead creatures climb out of the pool in the cave.  It’s the worst tasting water in America.  Conversely, Iceland is said to have the most delicious water in the world.  Icelanders claim that their water is what makes them so healthy and happy, and it is the reason for their long lives.   Just so you know, I am traveling a long way for a cool drink of water.
Reason 4--Pools and Saunas
Iceland has several geothermal pools in virtually every city.  Icelanders take their pools seriously, and I want to relax in as many as possible.  And, every hotel I have looked at has saunas.  The pools are where news is exchanged, where people gossip, and people relax and chat. 

Reason 5--Hidden Folk
Icelanders believe in a phenomena known as the huldufolk or “the hidden people,” (a charming term for mystical creatures like elves and dwarves).  Some sources say 62% of Icelanders believe in the hidden folk.  Terry Gunner, a folklore professor at the University of Iceland said that the belief in the huldufolk makes perfect sense:  this is a place of fire and ice, where steam billows out of the ground, where the sky lights up with ripples of green and purple, and survival is miraculous.  I am going to Iceland because I want to be around people who believe in more than what is seen.

Reason 6--"Blind is the man without a book"
Icelanders might be the most prolific readers in the world.  I read a study from Bifrost University that 93% of Icelanders read more than one book a year, and 50% read more than eight books a year.  At Christmas time, they have the jolabokaflod, or the book flood, when most books are published and everyone gets a book for Christmas.  And I read on the BBC that one in ten Icelanders publishes a book each year.  What does this mean to me?  Icelanders will like a librarian.  It means this is a country of people who care about each other and the world they live in.  They are thinkers.  And, have you read anything Icelandic?  I read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent and then jumped into Independent People by Halldor Laxness.  Icelandic writers can make farming in the remote corners of the frozen landscape riveting.  This is a country with a rich history of storytelling, which is the perfect place for a librarian to vacation.

Reason 7--Puffins
I don’t need to explain this.  Everyone love puffins.

Reason 8--Icelandic
Have you seen the words?  Have you heard Icelanders speak it?  It has to be the most complicated and difficult language.  I just want to listen to it.  I think it’s prettier than French and Portuguese multiplied by a thousand.

Reason 9--Vikings
I don’t need to explain this either.  Vikings are cool. 

Reason 10--No murders
I just read on a website that Iceland is the only country in the world where no death or crime is due to murder.  The rate is nearly the lowest in the world at 1.8 per 100,000.  Iceland is safe.  The descendants of Vikings don’t hurt each other compared to the rest of the world.  

I’m taking a road trip around Iceland with my husband to celebrate 20 years of marriage, and we’ll be staying in guest houses along the way.  I'll write blogs along the way and share my pictures, too.  I suspect I won't want to come home to San Diego after visiting Iceland.