Slice of Life: They Should Be Bursting With Stories

sol16(This is part of Slice of Life, a regular writing activity designed to look at the small moments of life. It is hosted by Two Writing Teachers. You are invited to write, too.)

The paraprofessional who works alongside me with my sixth graders — she’s someone for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration and gratitude for, on so many levels —  pulled me aside yesterday.

“They’re so afraid that they will be wrong that they don’t even know where to start,” she whispered. I nodded. Like her, I too had noticed a sense of reluctance in the room. Many students were staring off, empty page in front of them.

“That’s because there is no right or wrong answer here. That confuses them,” I responded. She agreed. We both were saddened by that insight.

What we were doing was writing short stories as a daily writing prompt. Now, this is not the first time we have done writing into the day, but it was the first time that I pulled out Chris Van Allsberg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as a story generator. If you don’t know what this picture book is all about, check out this video I found by a high school student on YouTube. This YouTuber does a pretty decent job of explaining it.

I had featured four of the 15 mysterious illustrations from the book (I have a portfolio version), instructed my students to choose one of the images (which have a title and caption but no story), and use it as inspiration for 15 minutes of short story writing in their writing notebooks. My only stipulation was that they had to write in First Person Narrative Point of View. Other than that, they were free to use the illustration anyway they wanted.

“There is no wrong way to do this,” I instructed. “The story is yours to write.”

But for some, this open-ended instruction stopped them dead in their tracks. They didn’t know how to begin or where to begin. They didn’t know what I was looking for. How could they write “the story that had gone missing” if they didn’t have the story in front of them?

It saddens me that we have to wrestle creativity like this out of sixth graders. At age 11 and 12, they should always be brimming with ideas, bursting with stories. But their response raises questions: Is this what standardized testing is doing to our students? Has the right/wrong dichotomy immobilized our students into inaction? Is this what the Common Core push away from narrative/poetry writing is doing to our classrooms?

Yes. It is.

In all of our edu-talk about “inquiry”, the question remains: how do we best help our young people see the rich possibilities in the blank slate before them if we don’t give them more opportunities, more freedom, more chances to explore their ideas on the page? Perhaps this happens more in your school than it does in mine. I get them at the end of their time at our school. I notice the echoes of past lessons. I can sense the shift in instructional practices.

Let me end on a positive note: when it came time to share the stories they had written (and we always build in sharing time), there were so many amazing pieces of writing. Stories told from the strangest perspectives. Dialogue-rich and thought-rich stories of characters struggling against the oddity of the world. Stories told in the present, the past, the future. Descriptive language that brought us deep into the landscape of the imagination.

They had it in them. Of course, they had it in them. They needed permission to write the way they wanted to write. Let’s provide them with more of those opportunities, and understand, as teachers, that this kind of creative writing pays dividends in the future.

Writing stories just for the sake of writing stories — no assessment, no grades — is a small gift we can give to our students in this time of data points and standardized testing. Give it, freely, won’t you?

Peace (don’t be afraid to make it happen),


What Goes On in the Chat Room … Spills Back Out

Word Cloud Chat Room

I had the great pleasure of being the keynote speaker for the ending of the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing last night, and I wish I had had another hour. My aim was to bring to the surface some thinking about our notions of defining the term “Digital Writing” and share out some of the ways in which I use digital canvasses for writing and composition.

But I had to rush in the second half of the hour I had in the keynote, due to the clock, and so I didn’t give people enough time to explore some of the projects on their own and the come back to reflect, which was my intention, nor did we get to a collaborative activity around brainstorming the affordances of Digital Writing. Luckily, the session was recorded in the Blackboard platform, and the slideshow and resources will be shared out in the coming days.

As I was speaking and sharing, though, the chat room inside Blackboard was a streaming, scrolling site of pretty intense activity by those attending live in the session. I kept an eye as best as I could on it all, but I know I missed a lot of the conversations.

I don’t mind.

I like that there was this parallel track of my sharing with their wondering and sharing, and the swirling pool of ideas is exactly what this kind of session should be about. I aim go back and dig deeper but some of the themes in the Chat Room included:

  • Access and equity issues around technology in some schools
  • Perceptions of doing Digital Writing in the classroom, by students, by administration, by parents
  • The overarching question of why do we need “Digital” as part of the phrase itself — why not just “Writing”?
  • Integrating writing in digital spaces a seamless mix with what we are already teaching (and are expected to teach)
  • Acknowledging the real-world literacies of our students outside of the school
  • Amount of screen time, for younger students in particular, and how concerns over time on screens impacts technology use in the classroom
  • Curation of student work over time

The Word Cloud above is my attempt to gather up all of the chat room and see what themes emerged a day later. It’s cool to look at, but no one element jumped out at me from the chat room, at least in this particular Word Cloud formatting. The Word Cloud image almost invites annotation (ThinkLink?), so that the phrases and words (I tried to remove people’s names as best as I could) have meaning.

Here, they are taken out of context. And, really, context is everything.

Peace (together, we learn),


Book Review: Plotted (A Literary Atlas)

I love the whole concept of this book, Plotted: A Literary Atlas. Illustrator Andrew DeGraff uses his skills as an artist and mapmaker to create an atlas of the imagination, drawn from famous literary works. Daniel Harmon provides some of the written context, but it is DeGraff’s wonderful evocative maps of books such as The Odyssey, Hamlet, Watership Down and more that are bound to draw you into the fictional worlds and let you wander.

One of the more bolder and pivotal maps, I think, is the literary map of Frederick Douglas, where DeGraff shapes the history of this great man from Slavery to Freedom to Advocacy, all through the path of the map that echoes of the path of the man.

And I found this video of DeGraff, sharing a video on how he made this particular map in stopmotion framing. I love the Internet!

Creating the Literary Map of “The Narrative of the Life ofFrederick Douglass” for “Plotted: A Literary Atlas”, by Andrew DeGraff from Andrew DeGraff on Vimeo.

Peace (along the lines, plotted),


WMWP Programming: At the Springfield Armory

WMWP Armory PD

For the second summer in a row, the Western Massachusetts Writing Project collaborated with the Springfield Armory (a US National Park site) on a summer youth program. Middle school students spent a week in the Armory, learning about innovation, immigration and role that the Springfield Armory played in our country’s history.

WMWP Armory PD

This week, I joined some other presenters –in conjunction with WMWP, a regional educational collaborative (which is running the program, as part of its history programs and Library of Congress access and support), the Springfield Armory and the  Veteran’s Education Project —  in a three-day Professional Development that uses the Springfield Armory as the source for primary documents and experiences.

My facilitation role in the PD is more central to the second session taking place in a few weeks, when teachers will be exploring Narrative Writing, History and Primary Sources, as they develop lesson plans for the classroom. My goal will be to explore “voice” and “perspective” from the angle of writing and primary sources.

One of the goals of the program is to get teachers inside the National Park site, and consider bringing students there. I admit: I remain a little leery of mixing my students with displays of guns, but the innovation and invention elements of the museum are pretty intriguing.

Here is a playlist/collection of students from the summer program, presenting student research on various aspects of the Armory and its historical connection to the Pioneer Valley region. Note: I was not a facilitator of the summer youth program.

Peace (in student voice),


Why THEY Write (Student Voices)

Yesterday, as part of the National Day on Writing, my four classes of sixth graders went into a reflective pose, and wrote about why they write. I invited them to come into our “podcast station” (a comfy chair, Snowball Microphone, and Garageband up on the screen) and share their words with the world. Many did. It was wonderful.

Peace (in the share),

Why Do YOU Write? (The National Day on Writing)

Today, my sixth graders will be writing to the prompt of “Why I Write” — which is the theme of this year’s National Day on Writing. I aim to show them Garageband for the first time this year, and get some of them podcasting their voices as a class. We will then share out via our class Soundcloud account, and on our class website, and be “part of the conversation” of the world.

The other day, I wrote about why I write digitally.

Why I Write Digitally 2016

I also found and revised a poem I had written before on the theme of why I write.

Why I Write poem 2016

And I found this podcast mentor text from a past year when Why I Write was a theme of the National Day on Writing. I’ll be sharing it out with students today.

Why do you write?

Peace (celebrate it in writing),

Slice of Life: Cool Collaboration

(This is a post for Slice of Life, a regular writing feature hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write about moments. You write, too.)

I wish I could embed the media piece I want to write about today, but you will have to go to Mariana’s blog to see and hear it. Then, come on back!

<… we pause here for a blog break … musical interlude … >

Are you back?

Isn’t that nifty and cool?

Mariana shared out the final version of this impromptu collaboration yesterday and I was so excited about it for a many reasons. This all began in the DS106/Daily Create ecosystem, as Mariana and Vivian are both regulars in my DS106 Twitter stream.

The other day, for a Daily Create assignment to create an animated gif, I took that saxophone player image and layered an animation of notes on top of it.

Mariana saw it, and wondered if she could take it a step further. She wanted to split the original image and tie them back together in a gif format called Stereogram. I had included Viv in a tweet back to Mariana because I know Viv is also a saxophone player. Viv suggested adding a layer of saxophone music to the gif.

Viv recorded her part and then put it on Soundcloud. I grabbed the file off Soundcloud, pulled it into Soundtrap and then realized that my tenor saxophone was at my bandmate’s house,. So I dusted off my soprano sax, and proceeded to riff off the top of Viv’s part, as best as I could.

That file was soon up in Soundcloud so that Mariana could grab it and layer it on her gif … and that’s what she shared out yesterday. It was very cool.

So, a few things to reflect upon: collaborative creativity like this always gets me curious and energized. I know Mariana and Viv via social media circles (mostly DS106) but the passing around of media was rather seamless. We created together, collaboratively.  We shared, downloaded, added, uploaded, shared again. We live in different parts of the world but that didn’t matter. We were working together.

Second, Viv and I have periodically thought: we should figure out a way to accompany ourselves on saxophone. I don’t know many other sax players in my online circles. Viv is one of the few. So, finally getting a chance to “jam” with her was great. The gif was a perfect opportunity.

Third, this was all fun. Thanks, Mariana. Thanks, Viv.

Peace (sounds like music),

Writing Short: Flash Fiction in 140 Characters

One of the hashtags I keep open in my Tweetdeck is #25wordstory, which was first introduced to me by Brian Fay, and I try to contribute now and then. The small stories, confined by 140 characters, are interesting to write. While some believe the stories have to be 25 words, exact, I am more of the mind that it has to fit inside a tweet.

With flash fiction like this, you need to leave gaps for the reader. You can only hint at the larger story. They are interesting to write, and intriguing to read.

In the past week or so, I have written a handful for the hashtag and in the interest of curating, I ported the stories out of Twitter and into Pablo in order to marry the words with images. Then, the stories all got pulled into Animoto for a video collage hosted on YouTube. (Note: I am trying to make clear my paths of composition these days.)

Writing these very short, short stories reminds me of a presentation I once did for an NCTE Ignite session called Writing, in Short.

Peace (expand it),

#DigiLitSunday: #WhyIWrite Digitally

(This is a post for DigiLitSunday, a regular look with other educators at digital literacies. This week’s theme is connected to the upcoming National Day on Writing, which takes place on Thursday with the theme of Why I Write.)

I write digitally to find the grooves between the spaces. Digital writing does not replace the other ways I write. It accompanies it. It harmonizes with it. I have notebooks brimming with lyrics, poems and stories. Sticky notes dot our fridge.  I am always an arms length away from a pencil. Pens of all colors take up residence in the pockets of my jacket. But digital writing gives me another venue to consider the intersections of media and words, and how they might mesh or even collide together into something new. I have yet to find the perfect moment — that ‘aha’ spark when it all works just as I envisioned —  but knowing that moment might yet be possible gives me hope and inspiration to keep moving forward. I write with images as words and words as image, sound as image and image as sound, and video as platform for alternative paths to break down the wall between reader and writer. My ideas for digital writing collapse as often as they work. Beneath all that I write digitally, I seek to keep my words and language and stories as the foundation. Words still matter, no matter how glossed up they look and how interesting they sound. I’m still finding myself as a digital writer, and still helping my students find themselves as digital writers. I write digitally because the possibilities hint at something just on the horizon, and I can’t wait to write it into realization.

So, for example:

Peace (in theory),