The Enchanted Forest Chronicles: fun fantasy reads for middle grade and up

I’ve always loved to get the flyers from Scholastic with the monthly book orders. I’m always excited when my kids bring them home now, and from time to time I’ll tack something onto their order for myself (Lego Star Wars, anyone?).

When I was in Grade 5, I ordered two books by Patricia C. Wrede: Dealing With Dragons and Searching For Dragons. They’re the first two books in a light-hearted fantasy series of four books called The Enchanted Forest Chronicles about an improper princess and her unconventional approach to life in a fantasy world.

You should read them. I found the first two books to be the best of the series (Dealing With Dragons is particularly awesome), but they’re all worth reading. My original copies are still around but fairly tattered; I’ve purchased several more of each over the years for classroom libraries. Yesterday I found two used copies of Calling On Dragons for 10 cents each, so they’re in the collection as well. I also like the original cover art :)

Give them a try. Amazon links below.

Dealing With Dragons

Searching For Dragons

Calling On Dragons

Talking To Dragons

Four-book Boxed Set

Book of Enchantments (short story collection)

Flash Fantasy Fiction: Mining for Silvers (minor edits plus audio version)

I decided to read the flash fiction I wrote last week. When I did this, I realized there were a few errors. I’m sure there are more, and my reading of it feels a little stiff, but I’m sharing it anyway. Follow the links to download from my Google Drive.

Book 5 – Mining for Silvers.MOBI [for Kindle]

Book 5 – Mining for Silvers.ePub [for other e-Readers]

Book 5 – Mining for Silvers.mp3 [audiobook]

Book 5 – Mining for Silvers [Google Doc]

Great Grey Owl snow-plunges and catches mouse!

Our family was sitting at home eating pancakes this morning when my daughter pointed out the kitchen window and said, “Whoa, look at that huge bird!”

We turned to look – it was an owl, and a big one. We had never seen one here before; in fact, I last glimpsed an owl for just a moment as a kid. This one turned out to be a Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa, according to Wikipedia).

A couple of weeks ago I saw some deep holes in the snow as I was dumping the ashes from the woodstove. There were marks on either side of the holes, and I figured it was a crow (we have a lot of those) catching a mouse. My wife suggested this morning that perhaps it was this owl.

Out came the camera, and we saw something pretty amazing. I took about 250 pictures, and here are some of the better ones, mostly in the order I took them. I didn’t touch them up, although I did resize/crop a little. Click on each photo for a slightly larger version; I’ll post full-size (4272px by 2848px) for specific requests (tell me the filename).

(For the curious, the camera is a Canon Rebel XSi, and I used a Tamron 70-300mm zoom lens. It has a UV filter on it also.)

Listening at the top of a spruce tree.

Listening at the top of a spruce tree.

Ready to plunge - hearing breakfast under the snow.

Ready to plunge – hearing breakfast under the snow.

In flight, searching...

In flight, searching…

Starting the descent...

Starting the descent…

Tucking in...

Tucking in…

In the snow.

In the snow.

In the snow, closer.

In the snow, closer.

Looking around. Watching for predators, maybe?

Looking around. Watching for predators, maybe?

Back to business.

Back to business.


Success! (That’s a rodent; maybe a mouse or a vole)


Flipping it up.

Flipping it up.





Three. (This reminded me of Tootsie Pops.)

Three. (This reminded me of Tootsie Pops.)

Jumping up from the snow. Look at the talons!

Jumping up from the snow. Look at the talons!

Soaring away.

Soaring away.


Another picture in flight.

Perched in a birch, being pestered by blue jays. They're shouting at each other.

Perched in a birch, being pestered by blue jays. They’re shouting at each other.



And ruffled. What an enormous bird.

And ruffled. What an enormous bird.

Very yellow eyes, distinctive white markings.

Very yellow eyes, distinctive white markings.

The hole and marks left in the snow from the plunge (Canon 50mm prime lens, FYI).

The hole and marks left in the snow from the plunge (Canon 50mm prime lens, FYI).

Closeup of the hole, with visible blood (Canon 50mm prime lens).

Closeup of the hole, with visible blood (Canon 50mm prime lens).

Last picture as he left our yard.

Last picture as he left our yard.

Exciting morning! I’m writing this blog post, and my wife and daughter were both inspired to write books, which was possibly the coolest thing about the whole experience. I love living in the country!

Request: please sponsor to help feed the hungry in Northern Ontario

I’m heading out the door to go to “The Coldest Night of the Year”, a 5K walk to raise funds in Sault Ste. Marie for St. Vincent’s Place, a charitable organization that feeds the less fortunate in our community (admittedly, it’s zero degrees Celsius right now, so it’s more like “The Warmest Night of the Winter”…).

I set a goal of $100 in sponsorships; as I write this I’ve received $65.

If you can spare a few dollars, please head to the sponsorship page and help feed the hungry.


Flash Fantasy Fiction: Mining for Silvers

Just finished another very short story (701 words) in the same world I’ve been writing in. It’s fun, and always surprisingly difficult. MOBI (Kindle) version here.

Kyle drove the pickaxe into the wall. It tossed up a few sparks and jarred his arms. He was tired, but he was determined to earn his silver piece for the day. Two more cartloads of rock and he was done. Just two more.
He lifted the axe high and sent it into the rock. It thudded this time instead of sparking, and he grinned. A soft spot. He shrugged off the pain and exhaustion, raised the axe and began raining down blows upon the stone. Chips flew and a moment later a large chunk tumbled from the rock wall and rolled to a stop at his feet.
Kyle tossed the pickaxe to one side and bent to lift the boulder into his cart. As he did, he caught a glint in the torchlight. His eyes narrowed and he shuffled over to the light with the stone.
It was a ruby.
Kyle felt his blood pounding in his ears. He looked around quickly, although he knew there was no one nearby. He was one of the deepest miners in the Company, and the handful of other men down here were in their own, distant tunnels.
Carefully, he lowered the rock to the floor of the tunnel and grabbed the torch. He passed it back and forth over the surface of the stone, trying to decide how large the ruby was. He decided it might be a couple of centimetres across, but it was hard to tell.
He reached across and retrieved his pickaxe. Sitting next to the boulder he started to tap away at the grey rock surrounding the gem, trying to uncover it further. As he chipped away the dull stone, he decided that the ruby was bigger than he had originally thought, perhaps four centimetres along its length and three centimetres across. There was no way to know how deep into the rock it burrowed in the dim light.
He spent an hour or more carving the prize from the stone, careful not to damage it in any way. The edges were rough, but rubies were among the most prized gems for their ability to Warm when Infused, and even a chip that came from cutting the ruby would be worth more than his daily silver.
It wasn’t until he had broken away all he dared that he realized the problem. The ruby was far too large. There was no way he would be able to smuggle a gem of this size out of the mine; the Company searched all of their employees thoroughly as they left each day. He had hidden gems to get them past the Company before, but they were just tiny pebbles. This rock was massive. If he could get it safely out of the mine and find a buyer, he wouldn’t have to work again for years, perhaps ever.
Kyle frowned, thinking hard. He knew he should have come out with a cartload of rock already; the Company was almost certainly getting concerned already. Or suspicious, more likely. He had to move quickly, or someone would come looking for him.
He made up his mind. He dropped down at the end of his tunnel and wedged the priceless ruby into a cleft in the rock. Shaking his head in disbelief, he stood, raised his pickaxe again and brought it down hard in the very centre of the gem.
It shattered, tiny fragments showering the miner, the walls, the floor. Kyle dropped the ax and fell to his knees, gathering up the smallest pieces of the red stone and putting them in his mouth. He swallowed hard, forcing them down with water from his small waterskin, wincing as the sharp edges scraped past his throat. He smashed the largest of the remaining pieces again, and swallowed the smaller treasures that resulted. Again and again he repeated this, until his mouth was raw and bleeding, and he could find no more rubies on the floor.
He gathered up all of the worthless rocks he could find to cover the treasure in the cart, rinsed his mouth out with the last of his water, and whistled tunelessly as he pushed the heavy load back up the tunnel.

Some free Kindle fantasy books today (2013 02 19)

I “bought” a couple of free books for my Kindle today. I don’t really need more to read, but I can’t resist them all. I did resist a couple of relatively long books; these ones are shorter. Nice cover art. Maybe someday I’ll even read them…

WICK (Wick Series) by Michael Bunker – “…A Mind-Bending Thriller…” – Listed under “Science Fiction – Adventure” and “Fantasy – Alternative History”. 197 pages.

Edgewood (Edgewood Series) by Karen McQuestion – “…a brand new, spellbinding novel…” – Listed under “Fantasy – Paranormal” and “Science Fiction – Adventure”. 325 pages.

Perhaps I’ll write a review, if I ever read them.

Infusing for Fun and Profit

Here’s a [very] short story I wrote last night; about 850 words. Here’s the MOBI version if it’s helpful for you.

Earlier in the evening Edgar had extinguished the torch over the door, so as he walked by now it was easy to slip into the near-darkness next to a window. He’d heard that the owner of the house was a rich, young woman who had moved into the city against her father’s wishes. He hadn’t seen her, and he expected she was home, but it didn’t matter to him. He would not be caught.
From the inside of the cuff of his jacket he took a gem – an emerald, cut into a perfect cube, very small. Edgar pressed the tiny rock against the metal securing the window lock. He looked about to make sure the street was truly empty then called forth the magic.
Bright green strands of power burst from the emerald, whipping and thrashing about his fingers. He harnessed them quickly with his mind, expertly wrapping them about the lock to Soften it. The light died away as the spell ended. Edgar took a moment to allow his eyes to adjust, then lifted the window pane slowly. The metal of the lock stretched out like a thick syrup, thinner and thinner in the middle until it finally snapped. He stopped lifting the pane and Dispelled the enchantment, tucking the emerald back into his cuff. He flattened the threads of the now-ruined latch to one side and swung his legs over the sill.
It was completely black inside the house. It was a dark night, and his eyes were not completely recovered from the brilliance of the magic. He dug inside his jacket again and drew out a metal cube, about two centimetres on a side, which was glowing faintly. He lifted up the dim light and raised his eyebrows in mild surprise.
He was in a small library, or perhaps an office. Shelves of leather-bound books covered the wall at the left end of the room, and a desk piled with books and papers stood at the other end. Books were valuable, so Edgar felt a certain temptation at the sight of the collection. He shook his head. He had broken into this house to steal jewelry. It wasn’t just for the money; there might be gems.
The door to the hall was straight ahead. He padded slowly and silently through the house, looking cautiously into each room that had an open door. There were more rooms than he expected, but most of them were open and empty. Finally he found the room he was looking for.
He smiled when he saw that the bedroom was carpeted; it made him nearly noiseless. The bed was directly in front of him and the owner of the home was asleep in it, as he expected she would be. The sound of her breathing was soft, slow, and regular. Perfect.
He quickly and quietly moved the dressing table. Opening the drawers as cautiously as he could, he held his Brightened cube up for illumination. He was disappointed to see mostly plain, silver jewelry. He was hoping for gems in the mixture, or at least some gold, but it was all silver and base metals. His information was wrong. This was not the spoiled daughter of a wealthy merchant; she was not even particularly well off. He took what he could without making any noise, leaving behind the tangled pieces and those which he thought might jingle and betray his presence to the woman sleeping two paces away.
He bit his lip as he slid the final drawer back into the table, took his too-light bag of pilfered jewelry, and returned through the darkness to the library. When he reached the window again he paused.
Nearly any book in the library was worth more than the meagre cache of jewelry he had found. Was it possible that a merchant’s daughter spent her coin on books instead of adornment?
Edgar crossed to the desk and grabbed a few of the books that were scattered across its surface, stuffing them into his bag. He also took the papers; he could read, and he felt a twinge of curiosity about the girl. Perhaps he could learn more about her from the pages of her writing. He circled the desk and discovered that it had a single, small drawer on the right-hand side. He opened it and caught his breath.
Gems. Dozens of them. Sapphires, garnets, rubies. Emeralds like the one in his cuff and diamonds like the one fused to his Brightened cube. The drawer was half full, an almost unimaginable treasure, especially to someone like Edgar.
The thief glanced about apprehensively, his stomach churning. He knew now why there was only silver in the dressing table. He knew what the wealthy girl did with her money.
She would not waste coin or gems on jewelry. She was an Infuser, like him.
He swallowed hard and closed the drawer, leaving its contents untouched. He crossed quickly to the window and slid it up again, careful to avoid the remains of the lock. After standing in the darkness of the room another moment, Edgar swung over the sill and into the night.

Why are tech skills less important than reading skills?

I recently read a blog post by Mark Gleeson called Can EVERYONE in Education really be “Tech Savvy”? In his post he comes to the conclusion that “We have to take it easy with the technophobes on our staff…. We need to accept that tech is not everyone’s number one priority.” He makes his point about both staff and students.

While I agree that it’s important to recognize that not everyone wants to be a computer/technology expert, I think we should be careful not to excuse people for choosing not to engage in the learning around technology.

Literacy and Numeracy

Nearly everyone I know agrees that literacy (reading and writing, mostly) is essential in our society. If a teacher were to say, “I can’t read,” the public (and other teachers) would be horrified (also incredulous, since that person acquired at least two university degrees in a very traditional education system).

Not everyone agrees about numeracy, though. They do intellectually (including bemoaning the prevalence of calculators), but if that teacher were to say, “I can’t do math,” or, “I have a lot of trouble working with numbers,” the public would be sympathetic. That’s a problem with our culture right now, and historic (and sometimes current) math education is partly to blame. I think we can fix it, but it’s going to take a while.

Are tech skills the new math skills?

I’m concerned that skills with technology are seen as being more like numeracy skills than literacy skills. It seems like it’s permissible to say, “I’m not good with technology,” or, “Computers don’t like me,” even as a teacher.

Excusing a lack of commitment to learning technology is just like excusing a lack of commitment to learning to read. You need these skills. Not developing them will absolutely hurt you professionally and personally. You’ll be able to get by, for now, but I don’t know for how long. Certainly not long at all in this field. Technology (and connectedness) can have tremendous power, and you need to leverage it for you and your students.

Talk with some connected colleagues. I know lots of people who say, “I wasn’t good with computers, but I figured it was too important to ignore. Now I love them.”

Be one of those people.

Audio recording of my last short story

I’ve been listening to audiobooks lately, so I thought I’d record the short story I wrote (with minor edits). It sounded fine while I was reading it; less so when I played it back for myself. Ah, well. Narration is harder than it looks. Enjoy.

Link to MP3 file on Google Drive

Credit Recovery is a Good Idea

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the idea and implementation of Credit Recovery in Ontario high schools. Opponents I have spoken with usually say that CR:

  • gives credits to students who haven’t earned them
  • allows students to have poor work habits/work ethic/organization/etc. but still succeed (i.e. if they don’t fail they’ll never learn resilience)
  • take jobs from teachers by preventing students from repeating courses

There may be other concerns as well, but these are the big three. I don’t think the last one merits much discussion, since it presumes that teacher jobs are more important that student success, which I feel is an unethical perspective. The other two are worth looking at.

How Credit Recovery is supposed to work

Here’s the Credit Recovery process from a student’s perspective:

  1. Fail a course
  2. Repeat parts of the course

Here’s the Credit Recovery process from the school’s perspective after the student fails the first course attempt:

  1. Identify the student’s level of success on each overall expectation
  2. Create/select a custom set of lessons and activities for the student based on their success in the first course attempt
  3. Guide the student through re-learning key concepts from the failed course
  4. Re-evaluate the student’s new work, including a new final summative task/exam (30%)
  5. Base the student’s new grade on their new performance, with the 70% term work possibly including information from the first course attempt

Credit Validity

I agree that this is a concern, for a couple of reasons. First of all, many schools will create a “Credit Recovery Package” for a course, but not for a student. For example, there will be an “AVI1O Credit Recovery Package” which will include 10 lessons about grade 9 visual arts, 4 assignments and a short exam/culminating task. The school will “administer” the package to every student who needs to recover AVI1O; if they pass each assignment and the exam, they get 50% in the course.

This is not okay for two reasons:

  1. The course package is not customized to the students’ needs. If a student performed well on half of the expectations but very poorly on the other half, what guarantee is there that the package is not mostly testing the same items they were originally successful on?
  2. The student gets a maximum grade of 50% (this isn’t part of Credit Recovery, and not necessarily part of this scenario, but it’s a common practice).
A pre-made, standard Credit Recovery "Package" may not be what the student really needs to learn/demonstrate.

A pre-made, standard Credit Recovery “Package” may not be what the student really needs to learn/demonstrate.

Aren’t we teaching them to not work hard?

I understand this argument too. After all, if students never fail, never have to persevere, are we preparing them for “the real world”?

Let me give a few scenarios, and think about whether you believe the student should be able to recover the credit involved.

Scenario 1

A student is taking a full course load, including three grade 12 Science courses. The student is working hard throughout the semester. About two-thirds of the way through the semester, he sits at 70% in Grade 12 Biology. Then he starts to have some personal issues, including a difficult struggle with depression. He stops handing in assignments, disengages from the lessons in class, and enters into a spiral of failure. He fails the exam miserably, and the teacher assigns a final grade of 42%; the student basically flunked the whole last strand of the course.

Scenario 2

A student is taking a full course load, including three grade 12 Science courses. The student is working hard throughout the semester. About two-thirds of the way through the semester, she sits at 70% in Grade 12 Biology. Then she starts to spend a little too much time partying, and not enough time on homework. She stops handing in assignments, is often absent, and is disruptive enough to be sent to the office and suspended. She shows up to the exam but barely writes anything on it. The teacher assigns a final grade of 42%; the student basically flunked the whole last strand of the course.

Scenario 3

A student is taking Grade 12 Biology. He works hard, but consistently performs below Level 1 throughout the semester and achieves 42% in the course.

Who should be eligible for Credit Recovery?

These three scenarios are different, but they have some similarities. First, they’re all in the same class. Second, they all achieve 42% overall. Should they all (or any of them) be eligible to recover their credit?

Scenario 1 and 2

These are the same for me. The reason that the student struggled and was unsuccessful is not important to me. If they are both willing to learn the content, to demonstrate their understanding, and to recover their credits, great. Why would we insist that the students work through the first two-thirds of the course again when they have already demonstrated their understanding?

Create a custom package of material for each student. Base it on the expectations they did not successfully demonstrate and the ones they wish to improve upon. This will also allow them to improve their performance on overall expectations that the students didn’t fail but which they have the ability to demonstrate a better performance on given an opportunity (i.e. fix the downward spiral, not just the part that was below 50%).

Wait, what about teaching them a lesson? No thanks. I can think of better ways to teach a student to be more responsible than making them “suffer” through 13 unnecessary weeks of a course they already know. For example, make them fix their mistakes by redoing the parts they did poorly.

Scenario 3

This student should not recover the credit. He’s that nice kid, the one who always puts in the effort, but he failed consistently. The only way to recover the course would be to demonstrate an improved understanding of all of the overall expectations. That’s called repeating a course.

Is this a good idea?

Let’s say you’re learning to make wooden cupboard doors. You study under a master carpenter for 6 weeks, learning to select the wood, prepare it, coax it into the shape you want. When you finally produce a finished door for your teacher, he says that you need to improve your finishing technique. So, naturally, he wants you to take 6 more weeks to relearn all of the components of door construction that you have already mastered, right?

No. He’d work with you on your finish, helping you to improve by providing timely, relevant feedback. When you produce another door that is perfect in his eyes, you start working on the next type of project (table legs, in this case).

Not the best idea, but the best idea we have

Credit Recovery is a way for us to sort of fix the problem of 20 week courses. Students learn at different paces, and life gets in the way. Ideally, we wouldn’t give students the opportunity to fail. Everyone would be enrolled in the right courses, they would all be 100% engaged at all times, they would have the extra two weeks they need to master the topic.

Since that’s not going to happen, I think it’s reasonable to give students more chances, and to be careful to keep those opportunities relevant to their past performance to ensure the validity of the credits they achieve. It’s a good idea; we just need to do it right.