Some Nerd Girl

Some Like It Nerdy


Alex P

Classroom Nerdery: The Geek Connection

During my day job of substitute teaching, I’ve noticed a wonderful trend: classrooms are getting progressively geekier. Teachers can use geek culture to connect with their kids, but they’ve also been using it to help kids connect to the world.

For example…

Creative Tables

You know how in elementary school, desks are usually clustered into small “tables” for group work?  The tables are usually distinguished somehow, either numbered or given a color or something of the sort.

Well, teachers have started going the extra mile and separating their kids into Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin.

The first time I saw this I thought it was clever.  The teacher had printed out the house crests and hung them over each table, and my inner child just danced when I called Ravenclaw to line up first for PE.

The second time, though, I was actually a little appalled: I was in for a teacher’s assistant (meaning the teacher herself was present) and within about ten seconds of being in the classroom it was apparent the teacher had actually Sorted the students. Gryffindor was full of popular kids, Slytherin was constantly trying to get out of work, Ravenclaw had all five hands constantly in the air, that sort of thing.  It boggled my mind. Usually teachers make an effort to avoid troublesome combinations.

Then they started working in pairs, and she told all the Gryffindors to pair up with a Slytherin, and all the Hufflepuffs to find a Ravenclaw.

In this case, I don’t know how the seating arrangement worked out, since I was only there for a day.  But that’s a great way of getting kids to work with someone they usually wouldn’t — while still giving them the agency to choose a partner.

I’ve seen other creative uses of table-naming, too: art classes where tables are named after famous painters, for example, or classrooms where they use book titles.

Computer Clubs

Computer clubs are nothing new, but technology has gotten far more accessible over the past decade.  The wandering laptop cart I grew up with has been upgraded to a tablet cart, for one, and whiteboards are rarely used in favor of Smart Boards.

(Digression: I was in high school when Smart Boards came out. Our teachers made a video in which they came alive, HAL-style, and took over the school.  There were lots of ZAP noises and teachers dying dramatic deaths. This was presented to the entire school, and is evidence that the dorkiness of teachers isn’t entirely new.)

The computer clubs I’ve seen lately have access to some awesome toys, including things like the Raspberry Pi and 3D printers.  Kids now have access to more than just sandbox coding and the internet: they can build things completely on their own.

The future is now!
The future is now!

With the advent of the mini-computer like the Raspberry Pi, kids can learn to build their own computer and have complete freedom when it comes to coding.  The club I saw was building the computer as a group and letting the kids each have their own “hard drive” on a USB stick, which was an amazing idea.

And the 3D printer clubs are half-programming, half-art-class.  I got the chance to see some of the things a group of middle-schoolers cooked up, since a library I was working in had them on display.  The figurines included a dragon, a giant heart, a bunch of complicated bits that someone eagerly explained would make up a Transformer (no idea if it actually worked), a Pokeball, and a trophy.

Awesome Book Nooks

Classroom libraries seem to have become a work of art.  I’m not sure if it was the same back when I was in elementary school, but I’ve seen some amazingly creative ones.


My personal favorite (so far) was made to look like the TARDIS: three bookshelves in a U shape, with construction-paper police box siding taped to their backs.  Above, in a banner, the teacher had written out the quote “In all of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”

Inside the U was a pile of pillows and beanbags and blankets, so the kids could read all over the classroom during book time.

Other favorites: The three-shelf classroom library based off the original Pokemon starters, with easy books under a plushie Bulbasaur and hard books under Charmander. Or a Hogwarts-themed corner: similarly-designed to the TARDIS, but with a castle, and little wands you had to take when you “checked out” a book.

Or the Redbox-based corner (“Bookbox”).  Or the one just covered in Minecraft figurines for no reason other than the kids liked it– and I think the teacher wanted an excuse to have a ton of Minecraft toys.

Who isn't all about this??
Who isn’t all about this??

I’ll admit it: it still takes some mental re-framing to think of myself as a teacher whenever I enter a classroom.  Stuff like this doesn’t help: I would be perfectly happy to sink down in the TARDIS book corner and read all day.

AlexPAlex Penland is currently enjoying a longtime addiction to stories, which she feeds through books, tabletop RPGs, and an excessive collection of video games. She’s currently seeking to publish a novel about a bookshop that gets abducted by aliens, loves to crochet, and blogs about it all over at  You can follow her on Twitter @AlexPenname, where she spends two hours every Saturday livetweeting whatever books strike her fancy.

Ghost Town Hunters: A Helpful Guide

There’s been an article going around my Facebook circle about ghost towns.  It’s specific to my state: something along the lines of:

“Ten Iowan Ghost Towns You Absolutely Have To Visit!”  

Being a Facebook article, it’s only marginally accurate. Several of the towns listed still have residents, and most consisted only of one old building surrounded by newer urban growth.

Still, I loved the idea of visiting ghost towns (especially in October) so I decided to take the article’s advice.  My dad (Dane Penland, a professional photographer) was in town for a visit, so we grabbed cameras and hopped in a car.

Who doesn't think this stuff is awesome?!
Who doesn’t think this stuff is awesome?!

If you think this sounds like fun, here’s some advice for how to go about it.

1. Do your research

Depending on where you live, this is as simple as a quick search for “_________ state ghost towns”. Google is an excellent guide. A warning, though: just because you know a ghost town exists doesn’t mean you’ll be able to easily find it.  Most of the sites we found had plenty of information but very few current maps.


That can be a challenge.

You also want to keep in mind how far you’re willing to drive, and try to limit your search to that area. This will not keep you from finding amazingly cool sites four hours away, but it’s worth a shot.  If you decide to do a long drive, see if there’s anything along the way you’d like to see as well.

Pro tip: if there’s a cluster of ghost towns in one area, you can drive out and see them all in one trip. The cool part is, there is a ton of history available once you find a good spot. People love to look into local history, so you’ll likely have a wealth of information on what it used to be.

Dane and I settled on a site in northeastern Iowa called Buckhorn. It’s an hour and a half away from my apartment. From what we could tell, there was an old mill, a church, and a graveyard in the area.

2. Don’t get your expectations up too high

The phrase “ghost town” usually conjures up the image of… well, a town.  In my mind, it’s all wild-west style, tumbleweeds and all.  That’s not how it works.  Old buildings get demolished and built over as nearby towns expand, and you end up with fragments.

When we got to Buckhorn, there was one building.  It was a really interesting building, don’t get me wrong, but the only church-and-graveyard nearby appeared to be pretty modern, or at least still in use.  Most of the other sites we looked into were fairly similar.  There’s actually a site about 20 minutes from where I live, but upon closer examination (read: Google Maps) it appeared to be about 95% cornfield and 5% railroad track now.

That said, don’t get discouraged.  What we did find was really cool! It had everything from skulls to shattered roofs, was scattered with old glass and graffiti, and loaded with old nooks and crevices to explore.

3. Have a goal in mind

What do you want to do once you get there? Exploring is fun, but if someone comes up and asks you why you’re there it’s probably a good idea to have an answer.  Just in case.  (Side note: A lot of these are on private property. I am not advocating trespassing.  But if you do trespass, a smile and a reason will work magic.)

There are a ton of possibilities.  Dane and I were there to take pictures, plus I was doing a little writing research.  There’s always ghost-hunting, if that’s your thing.  Or film making. Seriously, the ideas are endless.  What can’t you do in a ghost town?


Once you have your goal in mind, do some research again.  Example: we arrived in the early afternoon, expecting some great sunlight, only to discover the whole place was in shadow.  Buckhorn is a morning-photography site.

4. Be safe

Ruins are dangerous.

Bring a first aid kit with you: bandaids, bug-bite stuff, sunscreen.  Bring some granola bars and a water bottle.  A flashlight.  Don’t wear flip-flops or shorts: we encountered a ton of broken glass. Watch where you’re walking. Be careful of roofs and upper-levels.

Seriously, don’t trespass.  You don’t know who owns the property.

If you’re planning on going after dark, check the area out during the day first.  Keep the local fauna in mind: just because it used to be a town doesn’t mean it isn’t wild now.  Be smart, don’t try to pick up a snake with your bare hands even if it’s cute.  And tell someone where you’re going before you leave.  If you can help it, don’t go alone at all.


A lot of this stuff is common sense, but it’s shocking how many people forget something simple.

5. “Spirit Orbs” are dust flecks that caught the light.

Or lens flare, or oftentimes something reflecting in glass.

Credit: Dane Penland
Credit: Dane Penland

My pride as a photographer forces me to include this.  If you are doing a ghost-hunting thing, don’t get excited over small floating circles of light in your pictures.  By all means, go off in search of the unknown.  It’s awesome.  Just be sensible about it.

6. Remember: the journey is the fun part

Sitting in a car for three hours is a great way to disillusion yourself: take some time to stop somewhere unknown.  Dane and I stopped by a surprisingly good motorcycle museum on our way to Buckhorn, and hit up a pub for a late-lunch-early-dinner on the way back.  The actual driving seemed to take no time at all, and it was full of good conversation.


That’s good advice for life, actually. Don’t get so caught up in where you’re going that you forget to enjoy the ride.


Alex Penland is currently enjoying a longtime addiction to stories, which she feeds through books, tabletop RPGs, and an excessive collection of video games. She’s currently seeking to publish a novel about a bookshop that gets abducted by aliens, loves to crochet, and blogs about it all over at  You can follow her on Twitter @AlexPenname, where she spends two hours every Saturday livetweeting whatever books strike her fancy.

Three Female Authors Every Nerd Girl Can Be Inspired By

Let’s be real – books are amazing: they are these tiny little packets of dead trees that transport you to another world. Literature has long been a place to explore the weird, taboo, and/or morbid, so it’s not too much of a surprise that they attract an eclectic crowd.

Any English major can tell you: the life of an author is usually as interesting as anything they’ve written, and often a lot more surreal. The girls of literature in particular are brilliant, badass, and have a habit of throwing convention to the wind.

These ladies are three of the best: they’re testaments to saying “screw it” to the social constructs of the world.  Their work is incredible on its own, don’t get me wrong, but writers can be a work of art all on their own.

#1 – Tamora Pierce

Known for: The Lioness Quartet


Strong female protagonists are on the rise (we’re slowly getting the hang of this whole equal-portrayal thing in books and media) but I still have yet to find an author who can write a female character like Tamora Pierce.

Pierce grew up reading Tolkien and Arthurian legends, writing fan fiction, and befriending pigeons.  She crochets.  She is, to be blunt, one of us.  So when she noticed a lack of good female characters in the works she enjoyed, Tamora Pierce decided to thoroughly deconstruct gender roles in her own writing.

Alanna: The First Adventure was published in 1983 and was (along with Disney’s Mulan [1998]) the introduction to cross-dressing for an entire generation of young girls.  For someone like me, who grew up with a huge assortment of dead white men for heroes, it was a refreshing change.

Gender discrimination was a very real thing in Pierce’s world, but the picture she painted was far from hopeless.  Discrimination was oppressive, but her characters faced it head-on and kicked its butt.  This was not limited to women: The Lioness Quartet‘s main character has a twin brother who escapes the masculine future of the knighthood to become a scholar and mage instead.

I know I’m not the only one out there with Pierce-inspired childhood stories.  There isn’t a female writer born after 1980 who hasn’t admired elements of her work: everyone should aspire to challenge the status quo as thoroughly as she does.

#2 – Maya Angelou

Known For: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings


A ridiculous number of people know Maya Angelou by nothing more than her poetry. A few of her tamer poems get tossed around classrooms as examples of black culture every February, picked apart, and promptly forgotten.  This has its merits. Way too many people don’t appreciate poetry.  But it means the actual reasons to celebrate her life are completely whitewashed.

Maya Angelou was, over the course of her lifetime, a poet, a dancer, a prostitute, a journalist, a playwright, an essayist, an actress, a director, and a civil rights leader.  She was a friend of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.  She endured racism, divorce, sexism, and even rape.

She was mute for five years of her life as a result of trauma, and once she recovered she spoke loudly and clearly for the rest of her life.  She’s also a fairly serious addition to a somewhat lighthearted article, and the least-obviously-geeky of the three.

Maya Angelou should be right up there on the required reading list with Douglas Adams. There is no writer in the world who portrays passion, the driving force of nerd girls everywhere, as well as she does.  You can’t read a word she writes without feeling your own voice get a little stronger.

#3 – Mary Shelley

Known for: Frankenstein


The best zombie story ever written was written by a 19-year-old girl in a cabin, surrounded by a bunch of poets, over a rainy summer.

She had just lost a child, run away with a married man, and (according to her own writing) she felt pretty inferior to the literary giants she was hanging out with: Lord Byron and her then-boyfriend Percy Shelley.  When Lord Byron suggested they have a ghost-story contest, she spent the first few days at a loss for ideas.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein that summer. She blew them all away.

Mary was a writer from youth and raised by her father. She believed in free love and ran away at seventeen to practice it. She was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, an amazing first-wave feminist, and it is a shame the two never got to know each other. She once caught smallpox helping a lesbian couple run away together.

Shelley played gender roles like a violin.  Where most of her contemporary female writers focused on a female narrator (not a bad thing), Mary flipped convention the bird and wrote Frankenstein with a male protagonist.

Not from a male perspective, mind: there are a lot of feminine undertones when you deal with the creation of life, not to mention the themes of ostracization and family life that seem pretty heavy for a horror novel. If you don’t aspire to live a life as chaotic as hers, take inspiration from that self-awareness: there are so many layers in Shelley’s writing it’d make an onion cry.

Mix that up with a voice inspired by Angelou while you challenge the status quo like Pierce, and nothing in the world can stop you.

AlexPAlex is currently enjoying a longtime addiction to stories, which she feeds through books, tabletop RPGs, and an excessive collection of video games. She’s currently seeking to publish a novel about a bookshop that gets abducted by aliens, loves to crochet, and blogs about it all over at  You can follow her on Twitter @AlexPenname, where she spends two hours every Saturday livetweeting whatever books strike her fancy.

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