Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Technology Topics: Storybird, Collaborative Storytelling

I'm very excited to share this website. Storybird is a site where anyone can go to create stories using awesome ready-made illustrations. All you have to do is pick out an artist, sift through their artwork, drag-and-drop the images you want, and write your own story around the pictures. The illustrations are by some amazing new artists from around the world. Right now I'm working on a Storybird using pictures from an artist in Belgium named Sebastiaan Van Doninck.

The people at Storybird are marketing this toward teachers and students for classroom use, but anyone can sign up for a free account and add their stories to the Storybird public library. Teachers can create a classroom on the website and set their students up with logins. Teachers can also create public or private assignments for their students to complete. When the student logs in, the assignment will show up in their personalized  dashboard. This could be a great activity for classes of any level. This may be the perfect thing for homeschooling parents who are looking for fun assignments to get their students involved in writing.

When creating a story, you can even invite a collaborator to work with you on your storybird.  Each collaborator can take a turn until the story is complete. Once you've completed your story, with or without a collaborator, you can publish it to the Storybird site and get feedback from the social network of other creators who have used Storybird.

Log onto Storybird and be sure to share a link of your creation in the comment section here so we can see!

Here is a sample of one touching Storybird story created with the site.

Ribbons and Strings by FogCat on Storybird

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Author Spotlight: Laura Resau

Whether you're looking for a good middle-grade book for your classroom or a YA novel for your teenager, Laura Resau dishes up great stories in both age groups.  What's even better, is that Resau fills her novels with culture, magic, and travel, the perfect combination for The Curious Kind and anyone wanting to open a good book and take a mental vacation away from home.

I've heard a lot of buzz about Resau's latest book Queen of the Water, a true story about a young girl taken from her family to be a servant in a Mestizo household, but I haven't yet gotten my hands on a copy.  Instead, I loaded up on every other Resau novel I could find in my local library. Here are two must-read Resau books.

Star in the Forest is a middle-grade book that deals with the subject of immigration into the U.S. This award-winging book is told from the perspective of 11-year old Zitlally whose immigrated family is struggling to make a life in their new world. While this book takes place in the U.S., I still felt like it is a travel tale. Zitlally makes the point that back in their hometown her father seemed like the smartest man in the world; he was strong and confident and knew everything, or everything he needed to know.  When they moved to the U.S., she realizes her father isn't that invincible man anymore.  Any of us who has traveled to a country where we can't speak the language, knows that helpless feeling to some degree, and anyone who hasn't had that opportunity quite yet, gets a very real insight from Resau's story.

I especially loved the way Resau included words from both the Nahuatl and Spanish languages in her story that makes it feel like genuine cross-cultural writing. She includes a short glossary in the back of the book. By the end of the book I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. This is such a heart-warming story that I'm going to have to go out and buy myself a copy to add to my own library.

Another of Resau's novels is called The Indigo Notebook. Here is the synopsis from the Laura Resau's author website:
 "15-year-old Zeeta and her flighty mother live in a different country every year. This year, in the Ecuadoran Andes, Zeeta helps an American boy search for his birth parents. With him, she encounters adventure, mystery, love, and ultimately, the truth about what she really wants. (Ages 10 & up)" 
 Where do I begin with this book? First, she states that the book is for ages 10 & up. It is a clean book, but there are many quotes from the philosophical poet Rumi that add a deep and thoughtful and sometimes comical layer to the story. It's a story that I would recommend to my teenage students and even my adult friends. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to sell everything you own and travel the world with only a suitcase to call home, this book is the perfect snapshot of that life.  Again, Resau weaves other languages into her writing in such a way that the reader comes away with more than just a story, but an experience. This is one of those books that you can lose yourself in.

Check out Laura Resau's website for info on all of her books and pictures of her travels.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

3 Sunday Morning Must-Read Blogs

I picked up a stack of books to read from the public library yesterday to share on my blog. I had been putting it off, knowing that I racked up a week's-worth fine last month simply because I'm forgetful, and the books sat in my car. The librarian was understandably abrupt with me, reminding me three times that my due date is April 9th...or something.  Keep an eye out for the next Author Spotlight and Culture Challenge this week as both are headed to Central America; in the mean time, check out these 3 Sunday morning Must-Read Blogs by three very different writers.

1.  Andy Jarosz is a freelance writer who travels and writes what he sees. His blog 501 Places is a collection of his experiences. Check out his most recent post to get a look at an afternoon in London by foot. Although there's no significance in reading this particular blog on a Sunday, I just felt like drinking a cup of tea and perusing London was a good Sunday morning activity.

2.  Christine Gilbert is a corporate manager turned travel blogger and is the author of Almost Fearless, a blog that documents life around the world.  She is hosting a series on her blog entitled the Sunday Travel Selection. Today's post is by a guest-blogger who gives a realistic view of the true adventure and chaos that is Indian traffic.

3. Kristi at The Story Siren blog hosts a weekly event called In My Mailbox in which she shares YA books that have come across her desk. Over 200 bloggers participate regularly to share their books as well. What I like about Kristi's IMM is that she puts together Vlogs to share the books. Who doesn't love a quick video to kick-start some blog reading?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Technology Topics: Google Earth and Field Trips

This week I've been on a Staycation Spring Break. It has been wonderful and restful, but I've found myself wondering if any of my students have managed to venture out of town by car, plane, or book this week. I came across a great blog entry today at Bronx Classroom Tales written by a high school teacher whose school has been able to send students abroad for short learning trips to expand their worldview. What can I say? That school has it going on!

In case this week has been your spring break, and you haven't been able to travel, I'd like to introduce you to a tool that I use in my classroom to show my students the real locations of our reading assignments. This tool that can solve your travel woes is called Google Earth.

Google Earth has been around for several years; however, the appeal has not worn off. In fact, every time I log on, I find a new feature they've added that I tinker with for hours.  As the developers say, [it's a way to] get the world's geographic information at your fingertips."  In other words, you can see the world without having to leave your living room.

At first the satellite images only gave you the overhead view of a location, but Google has worked to make street views available on all seven continents by driving around the world with cars equipped with cameras. Now they've taken to the narrower trails by trike and snowmobile to capture even more for web-travelers to see.

What I've found exciting is that Google Earth has been working with local women in Kenya to map their African villages. Since there are many dirt-road villages in Kenya that are tucked far away from the big city life, it would be easy to never see what daily life is really like, but they are working with locals to solve this.

 Check out Google Earth's blog Google Lat Long Blog for new features and weekly posts on interesting places to travel to with the program.

While Spring Break is winding down, I'm going to make myself a cup of comforting tea and take a little jaunt around Europe. Log on and tell me where you're traveling to with Google Earth. Here is a screen shot of my first stop in honor of St. Patrick's Day.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Culture Challenge: Japan

In light of the devastation that has hit Japan and its people recently, this week's Culture Challenge is Japan. Please take a few minutes to get a look into some highlights of daily life in Japan before this big earthquake hit.

I visited Japan in 2005 on a study abroad stint with University of Virginia's Semester at Sea Program. It was the last stop on a sixty-five day voyage that covered nine Southeast Asian countries.

Japan was my favorite stop. One of my closest college friends had grown up in Japan with his American missionary parents. He considered himself a product of the Japanese culture first, American second, so I had a big respect for the culture coming into the trip.

While there I had the chance to live with a wonderful young Japanese family for a weekend to get some first-hand insight into their daily life. The following culture challenge will send you around the World Wide Web visit Japan for a day. (I should add a disclaimer here that the cultures featured in the Culture Challenge are so rich and diverse that one cannot sum up a culture in one little blog. I've hit a few highlights out of many neat things about the place, and I hope I do not over-generalize or stereotype in any way.)

Begin your Japanese Journey by reading your steps and clicking on any of the linked words for more information:

1. You step off the plane in Japan and grab a taxi-cab. The heat is blistering, so the cab driver stops buys you a cold, refreshing bottle of...cow piss? Did he really say that?  It's Calpis, but the pronunciation has surprised many travelers. This tangy non-carbonated soft-drink is surprisingly addictive. Find out what strange ingredient makes Calpis so great.

2. After finishing off your bottle of Calpis, you make your way to the train station. You found a cheap plane ticket into the booming city of Tokyo, but the place you really want to see is Kyoto. You hop on the world's fastest form of transportation aside from flight. It's the cleanest, sleekest train you've ever been on, and it feels like something from the future. Here you were thinking Japanese people would all be wearing Kimono robes and wearing funny shoes. You realize the streets of the city are filled with fashion forward men and women.

3. When you arrive in Kyoto, an old friend of someone in your family picks you up. After all, the six degrees of separation means everyone has connections of some sort in Japan. You notice the GPS in his car is about 10 years ahead of the brand new GPS you have in your car at home.

4. Once you get to his family's house, they cook you a dish called Okonimiyaki. It is sometimes called Japanese pizza, sometimes a pancake, but it is honestly more like an omelette. Okonomi means "as you like it."  So it literally is a flat pancake/pizza shaped meal with anything you want thrown into the recipe. Throw caution to the wind and dig into this dish that looks nothing like the ramen noodles or sushi you expected. This is a real Japanese home-cooking. Enjoy!

5. You sleep that night on your tatami mat laid out for guests. Tomorrow you have a full-day of sightseeing planned. Here are few pictures you snap on your 24 hour trip to Japan.

We will revisit Japan soon at the Curious Kind to feature Japan's wealth of art forms from their famous block prints to the beautiful Geisha. Hopefully with just a glimpse of the beautiful Japanese culture, you've been able to bring Japan a little closer to home. There are MANY fundraisers and relief efforts going on right now to help out the victims of the recent earthquake in Japan. Please take a minute to find a way to support those victims this week.

Culture Challenge Book Choices:
YA Choice: Shizuko's Daughter
Children's Choice: Grandpa's Town

(For another really neat look at what Japanese scientists are coming out with next, check out this site. This umbrella especially caught my eye.)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Author Spotlight: Maureen Johnson

Maureen Johnson is the author of more than a handful of upbeat YA novels.  I have to say, after reading Johnson's 13 Little Blue Envelopes, I knew right away she was the perfect author for the first Curious Kind Author Spotlight.

Johnson sends her teenage character, Ginny, across the world on a sort of coming of age quest to spice up Ginny's safe and unassuming life. Each chapter gives the reader the chance to drop everything and travel across Europe bohemian style. This quick read is equal parts mystery, adventure, love, and comedy,  and is the perfect book for anyone needing a change of pace. But it gets better! Johnson is set to release a sequel entitled The Last Little Blue Envelope this Spring! Anyone who has traveled to Europe will appreciate the unavoidable faux pas of a first time traveler and will chuckle along with the problems Ginny stumbles into. Those who haven't yet traveled, can consider themselves prepared with some great tips for when they do get the chance and a checklist of must-see sites.

Maureen Johnson has also published several other books for teen page-travelers that are on my list of must-reads including Girl at Sea.

Check out Maureen Johnson's website for info on all of her books and the community she has created among her fans.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Next Generation

I've spent the last few years commuting before the sun comes up to a fair sized high school surrounded by pastureland to teach English Language Arts to 10th graders. I expected to have very few students who love to read and write. What I didn't expect was the epidemic disinterest in anything and laziness across the board.

Let me give you an example. This January on the first school day of the new semester, I asked the students to introduce themselves, as many schedules had shifted and I saw many new faces. They were to tell the class something interesting about themselves or some activity they were good at doing.  The responses were shocking. Barely any of the students put any thought into their responses.  Most of the responses were things like, "I'm not good at anything" or "I don't have any hobbies" or "I just like to hang out." For them, the question isn't what they can offer the world, it's what does the world have to offer them?

That is a scary thought. They've seen what they think the world has to offer, and if it isn't "flash and trash" it isn't worth their time. It's taken the literary and the education world  awhile, but I think we're finally catching up.  Educators these days are becoming highly trained entertainers. The old black board and chalk are now just theatre props. Whiteboards are even outdated. Classrooms now have interactive whiteboards and are filled with more technology than the first space shuttle.

Interest and curiosity in these students can be piqued!

As a writer and an educator, I've set out to find those "next generation" stories and tools that make the world come to life for this next generation. The truth is that the world is a very small place to students who can't dream of traveling. My goal is to incite a ravenous curiosity.

What you'll find on this site: 

  • Spotlights on Young Adult (YA) novels that vividly transport its readers around the world.
  • Technology that expands the boundaries of literature.
  • Culture Challenges that set readers out on a scavenger hunt to learn about people groups.
  • Ideas for educators and parents to get their students interested in reading.
  • A little bit of Flash and Trash

This site is for you if: 
  • You want to see more of the world.
  • You love reading, or you want to.
  • You are curious to learn something new every day.

Today I'll leave you with a snapshot of some of my classroom technology. 
These are the tools I'm armed with daily to combat teenage apathy to learning: CD Player, ELMO document viewer, Polyvision ENO Interactive Whiteboard, DVD Player, and an iMac for displaying a slideshow of reminders.