Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp

Alfred Kropp has the worst luck. He's big (but not good at football), sometimes clumsy, and he doesn't say anything right (especially to girls). Then his guardian Uncle asks him to help steal a sword from his employer. It sounds like an easy million dollars to make, but now Alfred's luck has him running from murderous thugs, working with an ancient order of Knights, and fighting to save the world.

I hate this cover, it's a tacky nightmare, although
my one student loved it, because of the car.
All book cover images are taken from LibraryThing
I stumbled on this book because I heard about another series by Rick Yancey (the Monstrumologist series), which we didn't have the first book of (but we have the second and third, joy). This sounded like a winner, especially with the boys who love action and have already read all the Alex Rider, Young James Bond, Daniel X, and Maximum Ride books.

The character of Alfred Kropp is relate-able to so many audiences. He's a big kid, not fat, just big. Which means he's also pretty clumsy, not always in control of his body. He describes himself as very average, with nothing really going for him. His father abandoned him at birth, his mother died of cancer, and he's gone through foster homes until his Uncle took him in. I think the part that worked best was the awkwardness of his size. Having been 5'8" and on the heavy side since I was in 6th grade, I really felt his pain and how he was bullied. Everyone assumes he'll be good at football, but he's not, as if his size determines who he should want to be in life.

When his Uncle, who is a sad-sack man just trying to get ahead in the world, enlists him to help steal this sword, Alfred resists. His Uncle then threatens to send him back to foster care, so Alfred decides to help, which is heartbreaking. He doesn't feel right about it the entire time, and his fears turn out to be true when his Uncle is double-crossed, then murdered in front of Alfred.

And this is just in the first 60 pages. We then find out the true meaning of the sword, and go on an adventure through Pennsylvania, Nova Scotia, France, and England. All while driving awesomely fast cars and battling thugs. 

There was a good amount of violence in this book. The villains use guns, but our heroes use knives, swords, and bows and arrows, which means they have to get close to their targets, and the wounds tend to be worse.  There is also descriptions of the use of medieval torture tactics used on our heroes. This being said, I don't feel that the violence was overdone, out of context, or unnecessary. In fact, the violence is viewed as horrifying and unnecessary, especially by Alfred. 

The plot is enough to propel the book, with enough mystery to keep you interested in reading the sequels. My students will love the use of incredibly fast and expensive modes of transportation. I enjoyed the history lessons intertwined with the story.

Overall, I think this is a good book for students in Grade 7 and above, mostly because of the violence, although I have a grade 6 I'd let read it too.

LibraryThing Review:

Alfred Kropp has the worst luck. He's big (but not good at football), sometimes clumsy, and he doesn't say anything right (especially to girls). Then his guardian Uncle asks him to help steal a sword from his employer. It sounds like an easy million dollars to make, but now Alfred's luck has him running from murderous thugs, working with an ancient order of Knights, and fighting to save the world.
Rick Yancey intertwines history, mythology, fantasy, action, and adventure with a realistic, likable, and worthy protagonist to introduce this series. Students in grade 7 and above and fans of Alex Rider, Daniel X, Maximum Ride, and Young James Bond will appreciate the well-timed action and humor, as well as being able to handle the sometimes brutal violence and swordplay. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Protests in Shahbagh Square

Warning: this blog post contains graphic images of the 1971 Liberation War in Bangladesh.

For almost two weeks now there have been nonstop protests in Shahbag square in Old Dhaka.*  The protests have been dubbed by some news media outlets as the Tahrir Square of Bangladesh.

For those of you who have already forgotten the Arab Spring of 2011, Tahrir Square is where the Egyptian people gathered to protest the corruption of their long-term President, Hosni Mubarak, protests that eventually got him out of office. Although, he was then replaced by his second-in-command, a hand-picked, loyal army General. And then, later on, the Muslim Brotherhood was elected and...I'm not going to get political, but you can read all about them here

Image via Environmental Grafitti
The story of the Shahbagh Square protests starts with the end of the British  rule in Southern Asia. East and West Pakistan were created as a unified country because they shared a common religion (Islam), although culturally (and ethnically for that matter) they were entirely different.

 Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, suffered greatly under the rule of West Pakistan. Especially when you consider that the East had a bigger population, but only got about 40% of the money and resources that the West got. The final nail in the casket was the Bhola Cyclone of November 1970, which is considered to be one of the (if not the) deadliest cyclones (hurricane) in the history of the world. The West Pakistan response has been largely criticized as inefficient and slow. Bangladeshi political leaders began voicing their opposition to being ruled by Pakistan, in the December 1970 elections they voiced that opinion by electing a leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who promoted separating from West Pakistan.

Image via
In response, West Pakistan did a couple of things. First, they refused to allow Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to take office, despite his popularity and the fact that he was elected by the people. Second, on March 30 1971, the Pakistani army, in an effort to curb these separatist movements, effectively slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Bengalis. The Pakistani army targeted Hindus, the intelligentsia, and political leaders, killing anywhere from 50,000 to 1,000,000. Regardless of the final casualty count, it has widely been regarded as one of the costliest genocides in the modern era. Yahya Khan, the President of West Pakistan, was reported as saying "We must kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of the palm of our hand."
Bangladeshi civilians, justifiably outraged, began attacking the Pakistani army, using guerrilla war tactics. Although the Pakistani army though they had wiped the resistance out by June, Bengali's received support and supplies from India to continue. On December 3, 1971, West Pakistan declared war on India, and the Indian army entered Bangladesh officially to do battle. On December 21st, the war was over, and the Bangladesh state was formed.

Image via Financial Express BD
Now back to Shabagh square. Since 1971, there has not been retribution for the atrocities committed during the Liberation War, until the Bangladeshi government organized an International Criminal Tribunal (ICT), with no international presence, to prosecute those who had aided and abetted in the genocide committed by the Pakistani army.

Abdul Quader Molla, one of the leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami political party, is one of those on trial. On February 5, 2013, he was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes. Locals have informed me that Molla passed information to the Pakistani army, which led to the death of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as well as to the murder and rape of countless others.

Image via the Daily Star Online

On the day of his conviction, a protest formed in Shabagh Square and has been ongoing since then. The people of Bangladesh are angry. They are angry at the government, who created this tribunal over 40 years after the crimes were committed, and then gave them little power to punish the offenders. They are angry that the tribunal didn't sentence him to death for his crimes. They are angry that Jamaat is threatening civil war, causing violence (including the murder of a high-profile blogger), enforcing Hartals (day long strikes), and generally causing trouble. For the most part, outside of the violence caused by the Jamaat party, the protest has been peaceful, with candlelit vigils and silent, passive protests.

I'm on the fence about the situation. On the one hand, there is irrefutable evidence that he assisted the Pakistani army in murdering his own countrymen. On the other hand, should we punish death with death? If we kill him are we any better than he was? Will killing this man heal the wounds of the nation? If he is put to death for his crimes, will Jamaat turn more violent?

Most of the locals I've asked about it feel that he should be executed for his crimes, although they are also worried about his followers causing more violence.

Too many questions unanswered. Only time will tell. Don't worry, I'm out in the countryside. And, like the embassy keeps telling me in email updates, I have an updated security plan.**

*Old Dhaka is basically what you might consider the "downtown" of Dhaka. It's where Labagh Fort is, Dhaka University, and the Shahid Minar. We generally stay away from Old Dhaka, it has incredibly narrow streets (not unlike Thamel in Kathmandu), and Dhaka University is well-known for having clashes between political parties that involve violence. 
**Extra milk, drinking chocolate, and peanut butter are enough emergency supplies, right?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Review: The Adoration of Jenna Fox

I cheated on this one, because I don't have this book in my library. Although, with girls coming next year and our need to have more books with female leads, I'm going to add it to my list of books to buy.

The original  hardcover, via
Before I left the US, I loaded up my iTunes library with books on CD's I got from my local library. I justify any possible copyright infringement with the fact that I delete the files after I listen to the book, so I'm really just borrowing them.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is the story of a Jenna, who had a terrible accident, was sick and in a coma for a long time, and just woke up with very limited memories. Except she has perfect memory of some things, almost like she has a textbook inside her brain. She lives with her Mother, Claire,  and Grandmother, Lily, in California, while her Father lives and works in Boston. Jenna is confused, trying constantly to remember who she really is, learning to integrate herself back into the world, and constantly haunted by the foggy memory of the accident that brought her to this point.
Lily, once the very picture of a doting Grandmother, also causes confusion with her barely contained loathing of Jenna. Also, what happened to Jenna's friends, why isn't she allowed to go outside on her own, and why does she seem to follow her mother's orders with a robot-like perfection? Who is Jenna Fox, really?
The paperback edition cover, via

I loved this book. Set slightly in the future, but still dealing with things that seem all too possible in our world. With questions about medical ethics, environmental management (sometimes we should leave things alone), and conservation, it is thought-provoking without being preachy. The writing (although, like I said, I listened to it) was well paced, with natural dialogue. I especially liked the way Jenna's mind worked, she was struggling with bits and pieces of memories and life, and the pacing and tone reflected that very well.

I was actually disappointed to learn that they've now tried to make it into a series. It is a perfect stand-alone book, with elements of science fiction, realistic fiction, mystery, a little bit of romance, and some light suspense. Overall. I feel confident in recommending this book to anyone grade 7 and above.

LibraryThing review:

Jenna was in an accident, or so she's been told. She was very sick and in the hospital for a long time, but then she was moved to California from Boston and now she's fine. Except, she's not really. She can't remember everything before the accident. Her Grandmother, who used to love  her, seems to barely contain her loathing. She's not allowed to go outside by herself, eat real food, or tell people her real name.  And her memories that are coming back are too specific, should someone remember their christening in such vivid detail? Who is Jenna Fox, really?
 The Adoration of Jenna Fox is part science fiction story, with serious questions about medical ethics, and part a realistic fiction story, about a girl in a serious accident who now has to reshape her life. Jenna is a complex, funny, confused, and heartbreaking character. She knows something is different, but she can't quite understand what it is. Thought-provoking without feeling preachy, well paced, and dialogue that feels like a 17-year-old's. Students grade 7 and above will appreciate Jenna's predicament, her frustration with her mother, and will empathize with trying to figure out who you are.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Displaying ourselves

I have finally gotten around to cajoling my incredible volunteer assistant to create some displays. 

After scrolling through Pinterest (twist my arm, I'm sure) we found some good ideas that are possible with our limited resources. I might add that our resources aren't limited because of funds, but because there just aren't arts and crafts supplies here like there are in the US. I seriously have pangs of sadness because I left my Cricut machine in Utah. Had I know that Turkish Airlines wasn't going to bother me about my overweight bags, I would have packed all of them so much better, I had the room.

I digress. We started with a fairly simple decoration for Liberation Day December 16th. The students painted the flag, there are also poems written by the Grade 5's, and some small articles and pictures my assistant found online.

We then created this sports display. Being at a sports academy, you'd think kids would want these more. Oh well, you live, you learn.

We're now working on this display. Our Grade 6's wrote myths about how planets were formed, then there was a short section where they explained how they were actually formed. This storybook was written by one of my favorite students, Milton (who I've mentioned before). It's the story of an awesome kid who loves spaghetti and somehow becomes an asteroid. Milton likes to talk about his compartments. Some people have six packs, others have compartments. His compartments are for Cheetos, pizza, spaghetti, and chocolate. Just writing that makes me crave Cheetos...

Overall, I'm pleased with the decorations. Our library is full of plain white-ish walls desperately in need of some flavor. I'm hoping, in the future, to add some color, but we'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review: Hauntings

I picked up a couple of hi-lo (high impact, low reading level) books to decide whether my students would be capable of reading them. Hi-lo books are typically older student oriented topics, but written in a lower reading level. It took me about 35 minutes to read this 62 page ghost story. Even in that short of a book/time, I was bored. The main character Rebecca, whose name we don't find out until 20 pages in, is annoyed with her father for giving her a birthday present that is an old cross-stitch that may or may not be haunted by the ghost of the girl who stitched it, and who also happens to share the same name as Rebecca.

There was no real plot resolution. There is a possible haunting, but Rebecca decides that, if she re-frames and hangs the sampler in the living room, we won't forget the girl who died. It was very un-fulfilling. 

I understand why these types of books are important, especially in a school where there are a lot of students who are older with limited reading skills, but do we need to insult their intelligence with poorly written books?

Bottom line, I really wish they hadn't bought this book for the library, because there are probably better ones we could have spent money on.

LibraryThing Review:

When Rebecca's Dad gives her an old cross-stitch for her birthday, he probably doesn't realize that the girl who made it died tragically and her ghost may be trying to take over Rebecca's body. Now, Rebecca has to spend her birthday month trying to figure out how to stop the haunting and put the ghost to rest, for good.
This Hi-Lo horror novella, part of the Shades series from UK publisher Evans, never really succeeds at being horrifying.  There is no character development, very little plot, and an unsatisfying ending. Overall, students in higher grades with a lower reading level can probably find better books to leave them in suspense.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Three cheers for emails

Part of my job is to pretend to teach technology. I say pretend because I'm not really a tech wizard as some would think, I just know how to Google stuff really well. We're switching to Google Apps, so that we can access all the gloriousness that is Google. I know that sometimes it seems like they're taking over the world, but I would accept them as my leader before anyone that is currently in power.*

I introduced the new emails and access to my grade 6 students, and it was received with cheers, jumping up and down, and general excitement. I was a bit overwhelmed on two fronts.

First, in the US we assume that access to technology is a standard. Office workplaces provide emails, as do Universities, and now a lot of K-12 schools (at least in all the schools that I've worked/volunteered/student taught at). However, here (probably all of South/Southeast Asia, maybe the world outside of North America and Europe really) they don't. I met a University professor who had his personal Hotmail account on his business cards, because the University didn't have continuous electricity, much less an IT department. I don't necessarily greet having an email address with cheers because it's always been the rule, not the exception that it is here.

Second, it's just really overwhelming to have your students cheer for something that you basically implemented. How am I supposed to react? Mostly I turned red and said "you're welcome."  Another student last week made up a song about me and sang it to me on the way to class. what world am I living?

Seriously though, I'm really excited about the students having emails. I'm also really excited for all the awesome Google Apps that they now have access to. Such as being able to make online portfolios with Google Sites**, being able to collaboratively work on assignments using Google Docs, and mostly avoiding the confusion of having multiple email accounts and wondering which one they're supposed to check for their assignments.

Interesting fact about life in Bangladesh: if you live in a slum (or shantytown as they are sometimes referred to) you are a squatter. Occasionally the government will want to come in and clean you out of there, because they want to exert their power, its gotten too big, someone else wants to buy/use the land, or they just want you to move elsewhere. Well, they'll try and make you move, force evictions, etc, but then there's the question of who is going to clean up the mess. How convenient then that a fire rips through the entire thing (generally not injuring/killing many) and makes it unusable for human dwellings any longer.
Agaragon slum burns to the ground. Picture from news story here.

So, when you go home to your house and land you rent or own, be thankful.

*At least in Utah. Our Attorney General has basically been caught red-handed giving and receiving bribes and is under investigation by the Feds. He says he's not going to resign though. I didn't vote for him.

**Sure, I could use something like Weebly, which has been the standard in a lot of other school districts I've worked with, but then I would need new accounts and I would have to manage all that. I like to work smarter, not harder. Sometimes.