Posts tagged ‘Science Fiction’

February 3, 2011

She was my ear, my eye, and my arm: a thank you to someone who helped me be a working mom

It was the first day of school.  My son was about five months old and enrolled in a daycare near the campus.  We hadn’t signed up for the really expensive back-up nanny service yet, because well, it was really expensive and we wanted to see how far we could get on our own sick days and helpful relatives (the answer: not far).  I was at the time both the principal of the Middle School and teaching one period a day of fifth grade science.  It was the first year my school had a fifth grade, so the job at least felt fairly high-stakes.  We wanted them to have a good year.

The school, Eastside Prep in Kirkland, WA, has traditionally always started the year with grade-level field trips and overnights, helping to bond the new classmates together and explore some of the real-world context of their curriculum to come.  The plan for that day was for myself and Daria, the fifth grade general ed teacher to take the kids downtown for their field trip.  (When I say “general ed”, I mean that she did all the English, History, and Math, plus the organizational stuff, the homework stuff, the computer stuff, and the what-am-I-doing-in-Middle-School stuff, which is my way of saying she did everything.)

So here I am, driving to school and dropping my son off at his daycare.  I pull into the parking lot and he promptly throws up all over me.  Daycares in general don’t like vomit, and they are pretty strict about not taking vomiting children.  So I put him back in the car and drove to school.  The next thing I know, I’m in the back of a public bus with 18 brand-new fifth graders.  It’s their first day in middle school, their first day at this new school, and for many of them, their first time going into the city on a bus.  Daria Brandt, their general ed teacher, was with me, as was my son, five months old and huddled to my chest in a Baby Bjorn.  I was still praying that the throwing up in the morning was just some spit up, or reflux, or anything.  So far, it was going well.  Hey–I could be a working mom with a baby, right?  It’s the modern age!  He was happy on the bus with the kids and they were happy to watch him.

That was until he threw up on two or three of the closest ones.

Now, these were some good kids, and most had a reasonable amount of respect for me as their teacher and principal, but even they had their limits.  Apparently, me bringing a baby that was throwing up on them had crossed some kind of line.  They weren’t all that pleased about it.

Well, Daria and I did our best to get the mess cleaned up and get the kids to the proper destination.  I still tried to stay on the field trip–I didn’t have a lot of other options, and couldn’t imagine leaving Daria alone.  A) You can’t send one teacher into the city with 18 kids.  B) Daria had just moved to the city and had no idea where we were or where we were going.  C) Well, there are a lot of reasons, and they should be obvious.

But as my son continued to vomit, it became apparent that I had to leave.  I can’t imagine what Daria was thinking at the time, but she never once seemed upset or looked at me askance, even as I was walking away, leaving her with the kids, the kids she had to walk back through an unfamiliar city to find an unfamiliar bus stop and get them all home.

That was the first time, but not the last time, Daria would bail me out that year.  To say that it was a hard, hard year is the understatement of the century.  Every working mom knows the trials, and I, at least, was not up for them at this point.  My husband worked as a surgery resident, a famously overworked field.  Throughout the months of October or April, not one week went by without one or more of the three of us being sick.  To this day, I don’t know how I got out of bed each morning (which, was no later than 4:00 for the whole year, because sleeping was never one of my son’s favorite things to do).  But I do know that I couldn’t have done it without the help of truly awesome people like my school’s new fifth grade teacher.  When I was late to class because of some administrative emergency, or just because between pumping and breastfeeding during breaks I hadn’t had time to eat lunch that day and was trying to scarf something down before class, she would help with the kids.  When we were supposed to co-teach units together and I didn’t have the time or energy to plan that much detail, she would talk about the integrated lessons within her own classroom.  Knowing that these kids were being taken care of by the best of the best made me thankful every day.

But do you know what?  I don’t think I ever said “thank you”.  I don’t think I ever bought the bottle of wine that I kept thinking she deserved…well, it was a lot of bottles by the time the year was done.

So when I saw this contest, and how it asked for a compliment, I knew exactly who I was going to write about, because even though I work at home now, I want every woman to have the chance at a career if they want it.  And we will only be able to do that if we help each other.  I hope that every mom returning to work has someone as helpful as Daria waiting to help them out.

And (segue here–this IS a book blog after all) she also introduced me to a GREAT new book.  She has her fifth graders read it (I told you they were in good hands–they read some great stuff with her), and I was excited to read it as well.

Title: The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm
Author: Nancy Farmer
: Science Fiction
Age: Middle School, 9 – 14, and probably some older kids as well

Summary and Review:

I really enjoyed this book.  The straight-up plot is the story of three children of a wealthy and powerful General who live in a futuristic Zimbabwe.  Their house is a grand estate where they interact almost solely with robotics, including the robotic Doberman guard dog.  In an attempt to find adventure (and hopefully win a scout badge) they escape their house and venture through the country, dodging (and not dodging) danger at every step.  Their parents hire the unusual trio of private detectives Ear, Eye, and Arm, three men whose exposure to plutonium in the womb gave them unusual powers and weaknesses–one with superb eyesight, one with superb hearing, and one able to feel the mood and read the minds of the people around him.  The children stay a step ahead of the detectives as they fight their way through the city.

But while that in and of itself would be a great story, there’s much more.  The book, in my opinion, is really about the worlds through which the children travel.  They find themselves in a community hidden in a trash dump among people who live off the obsolete plastic they can sell from the “plastic mines”.  They find themselves in a world of yesteryear–an enclosed piece of land where no technology is allowed, and mention of the outside world is prohibited.  Here, the young graze cattle as in traditional Zimbabwe, and the elders still believe in witchcraft.  Later, they venture through a wealthy suburb and finally to the modern city, with its mile-high swaying hotel and gang-ridden violent subways.  Each foray shows what each society has to offer–and its disadvantages.

This book offers a unique glimpse of the evolution of human society and the choices we make with each technological and societal advance.

It’s also a commentary on the development of science from the technology of their holophones and robotic servants to the genetically engineered talking monkeys.

And if a great plot and great commentary weren’t enough, the characters are also great, and watching the children (and some of the adults) grow and change throughout the story makes it all the more enjoyable, relatable, and meaningful.

Nancy Farmer is a great author.  I highly recommend this quirky, intelligent adventurous read.

Follow-up with the kids:

Seriously, there’s a lot of talk about.  See above.  But if I add anything to this post, people are going to fall asleep.  1420 words so far–if I write that much on my book today, I’ll be that much closer to ending it!  But seriously, please always comment or email me for more activity and conversations suggestions–I love to think of those things!

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October 19, 2010

Is that your organ or mine? A compelling dystopia with cloning, slavery, drugs, and other things we bring upon ourselves

I had to read this novel.  It was for school.  I was about to assign it to my kids, 7th graders, for a dystopia project, on the advice of a librarian, so I needed to read it first.  What an awesome assignment!  I loved it.  It’s a page-turner.  It’s adventurous.  It’s emotional.  It makes you think about where the world today is going.  All things I love when I am reading a great book.  And it’s why I think young adult and children’s books are often so much better than adult books.  Wasn’t it the author of The Golden Compass who said that you can deal with so much more in a kid’s book?  Well, this book is a great example of that.

Title: The House of the Scorpion
Author: Nancy Farmer
: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Age: Middle School and High School and lots of Adults

Summary and Review:

The main character, Matt, is a clone.  He lives in the country of Opium, between the United States and another fictional country of this dystopic future.  In his society, clones are created and their minds altered with at birth so that they have none of their own emotions or thoughts.  They are treated like animals, or worse.  But Matt is a special kind of clone.  He is a clone of the country’s dictator, who demands that his brain be kept intact.  But this isn’t a gesture of good will–the dictator will kill Matt when the time is right, because Matt exists to keep the dictator’s life eternal–when he needs a new organ, Matt will be there ready, as have many clones in the past.

Matt must first understand that he is not a human at least as far as others see him, and then relearn his humanity with the help of a few caring souls.  He does eventually escape his horrible fate in his own country, but only to join a fate as a child slave laborer in the next one.  The book is full of issues that mirror today’s society, and this, combined with likable characters and a compelling narrative, makes it a great read.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

A lot of kids have trouble understanding what a “clone” is.  They know the term mostly from science fiction stories and snippets they hear, mostly out-of-context in the news, and so they don’t really get the full story.  As a result, I found some kids would read this book and have trouble understanding why a clone wouldn’t be treated differently.  So this is an important starting place for a conversation.  Make sure your child knows what it means to be a clone.  Basically, that the DNA is taken from one individual, put into an embryo, and a baby develops.  That baby is no different from any other baby, whose DNA happened to come from two individuals via an egg and sperm, but some students have a hard time understanding that.  Sometimes I relate the issue to identical twins.  Clones are no more alike than identical twins–in other words, they will probably look like the person they are cloned from, and probably have some similarities, but they will be their own person.  Getting kids to fully understand the implications that Matt is fully human is an important first step to understanding this book.  (After all, in today’s society, many children start out as “test tube” babies, and this, while different and controversial in whole new ways, is, from the point of view of the kid who is born, very much the same.)

Older middle school students and high school students can relate this to stem cell research as well.  I don’t think there are many people out there who would argue that it’s okay to “grow” a human being and then kill it for your own purposes–that’s the equivalent of saying we should be able to do anything we wanted with our own children.  However, there is a debate about what it’s appropriate to do with embryos that are created in the process of trying to help someone get pregnant and one their way to be destroyed.  Should scientists first be able to research on them for the good of those already alive, or is that wrong, since they have the “potential” to become human life?  Or should we not be allowed to create such things in the first place?  Books like this can help students wrap their heads around issues that otherwise seem too big or too irrelevant for them to understand.

If your child is reading this book, I would highly recommend reading it with them.  It will help you identify issues that are most important to you and your child and help direct a conversation even further.  Plus, it’s a great read.

September 28, 2010

Is it still a GAME if your life is at stake?

I absolutely could not put this book down.  If I haven’t picked up the sequel yet (and I guess now is the time to admit that I haven’t), it’s only because I don’t want the memory of this book to fade.  This book has everything–fast-paced action, mystery and intrique, great characters and character development, and strong writing. And it has that wonderful characteristic of great science fiction–parodying our own society without shouting at us or lecturing us.  Just telling us how it could be, if we look at our problems in different ways.

It’s one of the many books I’ve read recently that makes me wonder how I didn’t get hooked on science fiction earlier in life.  And makes me lament that a little bit: I mean, I had all the characteristics–I was a nerdy, bookish girl who liked to think a lot and read a lot.  I ended up being a Science major for goodness sake.  How did I get by all of those school librarians and caring teachers without any of them handing me a book like this?  I forgive them, but only because I have now found them.  You might have read this one.  If you haven’t, please do. And even if you have, take these moments to remember it and get a few ideas on how to talk about it with your kids.  While I’m a girl, I think that this will mostly appeal to boys, a sexist comment which is in no way meant to say that girls won’t like it.  (Please, I say “mostly” for a reason.)  But it’s typical boy stuff—boy main character, war games, politics.  Not a lot of love interest in this one.

There are a lot of sequels to Ender’s Game, and as I haven’t read them, I can’t say too much, but I do know this, which I think is cool: some of them happen at the same time as each other, but from different points of view, told by different characters.  The characters are all so good, even the supporting ones, that I’m excited to hear some of their stories.

Although as a disclaimer—I’m not sure if this will be read as a plus or minus to most people—the founder of Facebook claims this as his favorite book.  So that take as you will.

Title: Ender’s Game
Author: Orson Scott Card
: Science Fiction
Age: Middle School and High School and a lot of Adults, Ages 10 and up

Summary and Review:

Andrew Wiggins, or “Ender” as his beloved sister has always called him, is a genius.  A rare “third” in a society where a two-child maximum has been imposed, the government has been watching his development closely, hoping he’ll have a mix of his siblings’ genius without the over-aggression of his older brother or the too-peaceful nature of his younger sister.

At only six years old, Ender is taken to a special school to train military geniuses, he engages with his friends in war games, training together and learning combat strategies as humans prepare for what they think will be the third attack by an alien species who has almost wiped out the human race twice before.  This is part action adventure, part school fiction, and part coming-of-age story.  Ender’s heroics as a leader on the battlefields endear him to the strategists but make him some fierce enemies within the school itself.  Bullying, cliques, and friendships are all themes this book is not afraid to explore.

When it came time for the final games, I actually cried when the scene opened up, with Ender at the controls and the friends he had made under his command.  I felt like I had known these kids for years, and I was still only in the first book.  The ending is beautiful, poignant, surprising, and provocative.  And then when Ender himself thinks about everything that happened, it is all those things all over again.  An amazingly crafted tale with an amazing voice and great characters.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Let’s be honest.  The most likely reader for this story is a boy in middle school and high school, so the conversations you are going to have with him aren’t long.  But there are a lot of great things to talk about.  I think some of the great themes in the book are:

a) school classroom teasing, bullying, and hierarchy
b) friendships
c) politics and political power (specifically the political power that Ender’s siblings are gaining, anonymously, through their online writings)
d) inter-species relations (which can obviously translate to inter-racial relations, international relations, intercultural relations, and even, speaking in environmental terms rather than extraterrestrial ones, inter-species relations again
e) what it means to grow up

When you talk to your kids about the book, ask them mostly about the characters.  I think a lot of a, b, and e can get lost in the action and science fiction of it all.  But the book is really about these people and how they interact, and just asking open-ended questions to learn more about the book should open an interesting conversation about school dynamics.  Also, it can be hard to get a middle school kid to talk about school cliques, but if they are talking about them in the context of an other-worldly school, it becomes less real and easier to talk about.  And no matter who they are talking about, you’ll still get a very good picture of how they think things are going in their own school, with their own friends.  Even if they won’t say so directly.

Other questions you could ask:

1) Why is the government using children for these missions and training?

2) What are the qualities in Ender that make him so special?  Both of his siblings are just as smart, if not smarter, than him.  What makes him different?

3) What does your child think about the ending of the book, and more importantly, about what Ender thinks about what happened?

4) A science kid might be interested in the idea of two different species trying to understand each other.  In this case, the buggers and the humans, with their different system of communications, fail to understand each other at a catastrophically fatal level.  Could it be possible that humans in this world are doing this with different species in this world?

Alternatively to a conversation, you could do a newspaper or online search for modern stories that parallel different story lines in the book.  This would be a great activity for an older child, especially one who is interested in politics or warfare.  There are a million stories out there that would work–some political, some environmental, some social.  The book comments on so much.

Really, you could do a year’s worth of curriculum on this book.  But I will stop here.  This is supposed to be a blog, after all, not a unit of curriculum.