Both Sides of the Telescope: MetaWriting and MetaComic

Last week, I started to work on a sort of meta-comic because comic creation has been on my mind — both for a guest blog post I have submitted for the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing and for the upcoming Digital Writing Month in November.

I began with this:

Eat the Words

And then ended with this:

I wanted to explore if I could use one comic platform and then pull back the lens a bit, and show how one comic was part of a larger comic and idea, and then those were part an even larger idea, and so on.

I was shooting for the idea that inspiration comes from all different places, and different platforms change the way we create things. And in the end, well, I don’t always know where ideas come from. I just know, the string is getting pulled.

The lens was pulled back, showing ever expanding views of the comic in creation.

I put that comic project aside when I got caught up in some other things, but a post by my friend Terry Elliott, inspired by friend Ian O’Byrne, entitled 140 is Dead, 14o is Dead! Long Live the 140! caught my eye, as Terry writes about how Twitter changes the way we write. In doing so, he played around with editing and revision, moving from a wide view of writing to something smaller and confined.

Terry writes: “I think in the end that Twitter has made me a different kind of writer.  Perhaps it makes me better because I need to reconsider and edit based upon a simple set of initial conditions, fairly rigid editorial guidelines like the 140 character limit. Perhaps it makes me better because it makes me write more then less then more again like the exercise above until I get it right enough.”

The lens was pulled in, showing ever narrowing views of the writing in creation.

It struck me that Terry and I were looking at each other through either end of the compositional telescope — him, with his writing; me, with my comic.

What I wondered was, where do we meet in the middle? Maybe the telescope is the world, and this blog post in the place where his view meets my view.

Peace (in the view of the world),

Slice of Life: A Moose in the Meadow

(This is a post for Slice of Life, hosted by Two Writing Teachers.)

Moose in the Neighborhood

We live in the suburbia of Western Massachusetts, but it is not unusual to see wild animals wandering nearby. The influx of new homes on what used to be forest lands and open space has pushed animals into contact with humans on a regular basis. We have bears regularly traipsing through our backyard. Deer often wander into our neighbor’s large side yard. I won’t get into the mice that try to set up shop in our basement, except to say it is a season-long struggle to keep them out.

But a moose? Not so often. The last time I saw a moose in our Western Massachusetts neighborhood was many years ago, when I was taking a walk with my two older sons (who were much younger than they are now) and we came upon a mother and child moose in small dingle around the corner. We were startled. They were startled. They took off. We just gawked.

Did you know moose, with its lanky legs and odd-shaped torso, can run pretty fast? I know that now.

So, the other day, as I was driving my son to his clerk job at the family-owned grocery story, we were noticing a lot of cars on the side of the main road. Uh oh. I thought it was an accident. But it turns out, a moose was standing there, in the meadow off the road, watching the people watching it (they had phones out; he didn’t). It was a fairly large moose, just staring out. A few police cars were nearby, to protect the people as much the moose.

On the way home from dropping my son off, the moose was still there, but had moved to the further side of the field, and was now munching on the leaves of a tree. More people were stopped, and traffic crawled. I got home and told my middle son to get on his bike and drive down the street to see the moose.

“And take your camera!”

He did, and he did, and the picture above is the best that he could get. The moose had moved deeper into the field, and by the time I went out again about 30 minutes later, the moose was gone, as was all of the traffic. I went to get my youngest son from baseball practice, and he would not believe me that a moose was in our neighborhood.

“It was not.”

“It was. It’s true.”


“Really! A moose!”

Luckily, my other son backed me up. And he had photographic evidence.

Peace (along the moose tracks),

Student Mentor Texts: Hooking the Reader

At the start of this school year, and in the midst of our first real writing project, my students are writing short stories. Our focus is on “strong story openers to grab the reader’s attention,” among other things. It’s all about hooks, dialogue, inference and tension.

I’ve been showing some mentor texts and now that my sixth graders have enough written, I can begin to share some of their own writing as mentor texts. I’ll be post about a dozen openings around the classroom, and I created this Slides show as a way to publish at our class blog site, too. (Slides is like any presentation software, but I like how it has a folded box effect.)

I’d go full screen for better reading here, but you can also just glide through the show to get a sense of the stories and the writing, and how Slides works.

Peace (just gotta read about it),


Teacher-Writer, Annotate Thyself

Using comments via google docs

We’re in the midst of a short story unit right now, and my sixth graders are deeply engaged in writing a story. I gave them complete freedom on the story idea, and have been focusing in on strong openings, formatting of dialogue and plot design. This is their first endeavor in Google Docs, and they love it and I love it.

And we haven’t even gotten into any of the collaborative tools at our disposal yet ….

As per my norm (not Norm, from Cheers. Norm!), I am writing a story alongside them. (You can read my progress so far, if that interests you) Actually, when I am not conferencing with them about their stories, I am writing my story, and projecting it up on the interactive board, so they can track my progress as I write, revise, rewrite.

They are fascinated with me as a writer, it turns out. I worry about my writing being intimidating to them, but that hasn’t seemed to happen at all.

I’m starting to annotate my thinking of my own story, too, to show them how a writer might reflect on the act of writing. This is all part of our digital portfolio work. Soon, I will be having them shift from writer to reflector of writing, and I need to model some of the ways this looks. Using the comment feature on Google Docs seems like a good way for me to do this, and it has been helpful.

The act of annotation, particularly of your own writing, forces you to consider agency. What choices did I make? Why this and not that? How did I overcome the obstacle presented by that cliffhanger? Where did I get tied in knots and how did I undo those knots to keep the story moving along?

I know, as a writer, I do these unconsciously, without thinking. I am forcing myself to become more transparent in my writing practice, in hopes that it provides a path for those students who struggle with the reflective stance. It is one of those critical thinking skills that some of 11 year olds get, and some don’t quite get.

Peace (off to the side of the world),

Playing a Global Game of Comic Strip Panel Lottery

I Dream in AnalogI came across a new comic maker (Thanks, Maha, for the tweet!) that seemed worth checking out. It is called Fun Palace Comic Maker, and is part of a larger Fun Palace group that is doing intriguing work around the arts and science and more.

The options at Fun Palace Comic Maker are fairly limited — you can’t adjust the number of panels, or resize the art, or add your own art. But the limitations are part of the charm, and this narrow element of choice is at the heart of the rationale of the site, which is built along the lines of a “panel lottery.” (See Scott McCloud’s Five Card Nancy game)

The comic maker site was conceived by Matt Finch, and you can read an interesting interview with him over at Comics Grid about his intentions and thinking behind the Fun Palace Comic Maker idea. It also sounds as if there are more innovations to the site coming down the road.

Finch notes, in that interview at Comics Grid:

Making an online game was as much about reaching an international audience as exploring the digital medium in itself – “the world’s largest game of Panel Lottery” – but it also let us do things that you can’t achieve with pen and paper, or cut-up comics on a desktop. — Mike Finch

Still, for what it is at this point, it was fun to create something quickly (although, when I tried it on my iPad, my comic crashed on me … I had to move to the desktop), and when you “submit” your final comic, the site sends it off to a companion Tumblr site for archiving. I like that collaborative publishing piece of Fun Palace.

I made my small comic on the theme of digital writing because that is on my mind these days with the approach of Digital Writing Month in November (more on that in the next few days).

Peace (at play),

Writing Goals for Writing

As I’ve mentioned, I am piloting a digital portfolio system this year with my sixth graders, and I am trying to establish some reflective practice as they are writing throughout the year. Setting goals for writing class is one of those early activities, so they were working last week in Google Docs and then in Google Slides to establish three goals for themselves as writers this year.

I did model my own, but as I look over all of the goals that were submitted, I notice that too few were very specific enough, and I suspect we will be revisiting the goals, revising a bit to get more specific. (Now I know why we have SMART goals as teachers, with the emphasis on “measurable” in the mix).

Still, I was pleased by much of what my students wrote about wanting to accomplish this school year. There are budding poets, and story writers, and there are even those who know they need to be more attentive to spelling and grammar. A few chose expository writing and research writing as areas that will be on their radar screen. More than handful referenced technology and media as elements of writing in their goals.

Peace (in looking ahead),

Students, Meet Calvin and Hobbes

I guess I fulfilled my duty yesterday in my role as arbitrator of fine literature as I pulled out some classic Calvin and Hobbes comic strips to use as texts for lessons around writing and formatting dialogue (this is always an issue with my sixth graders.)

I did a little informal polling, too. I asked, how many have heard or read Calvin and Hobbes? I teach four classes, of about 80 sixth graders, and only seven students TOTAL raised their hands in response. The rest had never seen nor heard of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.

What a travesty!

And one that I quickly remedied, as first I gave an overview of the classic comic strip and then introduced all of the main characters to them, and then each student received a page with three Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, and began the task of rewriting the dialogue as a short vignette, using proper formatting.

The best part of the lesson?

The giggles and the sharing of the comics with neighbors (every student got three different comics on their page) and those who asked, Where can I get a collection of these comics to read for myself? (I have some, of course, but my sons would get angry at me for taking them into school. Our Calvin and Hobbes books are read all the time in my house.) Maybe a new generation of Calvin and Hobbes fans is being born right now after a little taste of goodness and mischief and imagination.

Mr. Watterson, you’re very welcome.

Which reminds me: I have yet to watch the documentary — Dear Mr. Watterson — on Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes, and I know it is on Netflix. I might need to do a little viewing this weekend.

Peace (in the panel),

Book Review: The Marvels

Recently, I wrote of receiving The Marvels, the newest book by Brian Selznick, in the mail and being taken aback by its physical presence. It’s a beautiful book, with golden pages and an delightful cover. The book has the weight of words and drawings. I couldn’t wait to read it with my son.

I did, and I have to admit: The Marvels, though it has lots of charm, does not quite hold up to Selznick’s previous books — The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. Those books showed intricate storytelling, fusing the image elements of his books (which shine in The Marvels, too) with the text. Both were like literary puzzles for the reader to wonder about, as he brought the fictional ends together to tell a single story.

Here, in The Marvels, there is again a mystery, and things are not what they seem, but my son and I were less taken in by the story itself, for whatever reason. I won’t give the plot away, but the novel is loosely based on a real event and people, and their story of an unusual life. I was interested but not intrigued. That’s all the difference in the world, right?

I can sing long praises for his drawings, of course, because they are an art form unto itself, but I wish the story text had been stronger to hold it all together. It’s still a book worth checking out, as is anything Selznick does. It’s not bad. It’s good. But it’s not great. Given his past few books, this one just didn’t rise to my expectation level. Maybe that is me, the reader, more than him, the writer.

Until next book …

Peace (on the pages),

Slice of Life: A Little Bit Goes a Long Way

(This is a piece for Slice of Life, a weekly community writing adventure with Two Writing Teachers.)


I found this in my email bin this morning, and I was quite happy. You see, I have started to contribute each month to support a few artists that I like via Patreon, which is a crowdsourcing site that puts into practice something I like to believe in: your audience will not only find you if you do creative things, but they will also help support you in order to support your art. (I did a book review last week on Cory Doctorow’s book – Information Doesn’t Want to be Free — in which this idea was a central tenet of how artists can survive, and thrive, in the digital age.)

At Patreon, I pitch in a dollar each month to support a few folk — including Audrey Watters and her insightful pieces about education and technology; David Finkle, and his work on creating comics about teaching called Mr. Fitz; and Dave Kellett, whose Sheldon comics I love to read every day for their wit and humor. It was Dave who sent out some free ebook gifts as thanks to his supporters. Audrey and David Finkle often send out material that we get to see first, or works in progress.

A dollar doesn’t sound like much, but if a lot of people pitch in a dollar, it can make the difference between an artist making art or flipping pancakes for a living. Kellett, for example, wanted to remove advertising from his website for Sheldon, and so the Patreon campaign is designed to replace the income from ads through direct support from fans.

I was happy to support Sheldon Comics even without the ebooks but now … now, I need to get these on my iPad for pleasure reading …

Peace (in the giving and in the receiving),


Lunar Eclipses and Short Attention Spans

Japanese Lantern: Savor the Moon

We huddled our kids outside last night, just after 9 p.m. It was clear skies, beautiful clarity, here in New England, and the Super Blood Moon Eclipse was underway.

I don’t know what my kids were expecting, but the slow-mo effect — which my wife and I found fascinating — was a bit too slo in the mo for them, particularly the youngest child.

“This is so boring!” he moaned, from his spot on the pavement, sitting there in his pajamas. Another of our boys was running up and down the street with our dog, teasing the creature with a banana peel. “Why are we out here?”

He knew why, because not only had I explained an eclipse (“Imagine you are the moon, and I am Earth, and that light is the sun …”) but I had also mentioned he would be in his 30s when this kind of natural event would occur again. However, unlike the apps and games he likes to play, this event unfolded slowly, and required patience.

A little quiet would have helped, too.

“Why are we out here?” he asked again, but I did notice he kept his eyes up on the moon, which by now was being taken over by the expanding black sliver to its left, a section disappearing even as we were talking. Ten minutes later or so, the partial eclipse was clearly underway.

I mentioned the need to read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which led to a discussion about Mark Twain, and scientific knowledge. The moon and the Earth and the sun kept working. More of the moon was now in shadow.

Finally, after hearing more than our share of groaning about the pace of the event, we sent the kids inside. They had seen enough. They had experienced the eclipse, at least. And we had heard enough. In the house, they went, leaving the movie to unspool by itself.

Upstairs, getting ready for bed, my wife and I raised the curtains on our window, and gazed up at the sky. The window framed the moon, perfectly. The eclipse continued.

“Why did we even go outside with the kids?” my wife joked, as we watched the magic of the skies in the peaceful, warm house. She started to hum “If Moon Were Cookie” from days of listening to Sesame Street songs on the van.

“We could just show them the time-lapse video in the morning,” I joked back. We both know that being “in the moment” of the natural beauty of the world is what was important and that even with the complaints, it was worth it.

Interestingly, the theme of our church service that morning was all about connecting and reconnecting back to the Earth and the environment. The guest speaker talked about the firebrand preacher, Jonathan Edwards (whose home church was our very own church), and his writing about seeing wonder in the world around him. The guest speaker connected Edwards’ writing to the Pope’s visit and the recent papal environmental report on Climate Change.

Earth, and its future, was on our minds for much of the day. The skies, too.

In the middle of the night, I woke up, thinking someone was turning on the lights in the house. But it was just the moon, coming back from darkness, filling the skies with a brilliant glow, as if announcing, Here I am.

There it was. Welcome back, moon.

Peace (on moonbeams),