A Novelist in the (School)House

Tui Sutherland
Yesterday, we had the pleasure of having one of the team of novelists from The Warriors book series in our school to talk with students about her work as a writer and a book editor. Tui Sutherland was kind, and gracious, and opened the floor up to a lot of questions from students about where she gets her inspiration, how she works with other writers under a common pen name, and her career arc from editing into novelist.

Sutherland was brought to the school because fifth grade students decided they wanted her, and they sponsored a series of cat-related events in our school to raise money to pay for her visit. There are some die-hard Warrior fans, I guess. To be honest, I have not read any of the books in the series, nor her newest series — The Seekers – but I do see plenty of kids walking around with them under their arms. I suspect I will now see even more.

She repeatedly encouraged kids to write, and explained that when she was their age, she wrote and wrote and wrote. She also noted, however, that she rarely finished as story. “I love beginnings. It wasn’t until college that I really began to finish the stories I started. The more you write, the better you get about getting to an end,” she said, and I’ll bet that rang true with a lot of my young story writers, who often lose steam midway through stories.

As Sutherland spoke with sixth graders, I jotted down some notes about her as a writer.

First of all, she’s a night owl, and has a dog not a cat (which drew laughter from the students). After midnight “is my secret writing hour,” she explained. “That works for me.”

She became a novelist because she was in the right place at the right time. As an editor in a publishing company, she got her start as a writer by writing the text for sticker books, which led to writing early reader books, which led to a biography of Harry Houdini, which led to larger projects. Her connection to The Warriors series was first as an editor, and then when she left publishing to become a writer, the head author of The Warriors asked Tui to join their team.

She talked a bit about why writers sometimes use pseudonyms. In the case of her work in updating some Little House on the Prairie books, the name she chose for her work started with the same last letter of Laura Ingalls Wilder so that her Little House books would be located in the stacks near the original. In the case of The Warriors, the use of a single name for four writers allows each to contribute under a single name. But, Tui admitted: “I would love to have my name on all of my books, even though there are logical reasons” for pseudonyms.

She has written a few Disney novelizations of movies, including the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Disney forced her to sign all sorts of non-disclosure agreements and made her do all the writing on a Disney computer in a Disney office, and she could not bring any papers home with her. She also did a novelization of the updated Christmas Carol, which struck even her as odd, given that the movie is adapted from the Dickens’ novel.

And she urged students to write and aspire to become writers. She pointed out that televisi0n, movies and video games all have stories and characters at the heart of their work, and writers are behind them all. “There are all sorts of ways to be writers these days,” she encouraged them.

I see those writers just about every day in my class, but I was glad that Tui came and shared her story with us.

Peace (in the writing),

To Game or not to Game, that is my question

For the past few summers, our Western Massachusetts Writing Project has made a concerted push to offer youth writing programs in the summer. I have been involved with a partnership with a local vocational high school that offers summer enrichment programs for middle school students. I’ve been part of teams that have offered programs in stop-motion movie making, webcomics, digital storytelling and more.

Here’s what I am mulling over, and I need to do it fairly soon (like, in the next few days, when advertising for the summer already gets underway): Do I offer a course around Game Development and Design? Before I say “yes,” I am trying to figure out, “Can you pull this off, mister?”

The text to a speech about gaming that I found online is something I keep coming back to as a sort of guide in my thinking around using gaming for education. The Ten Commandments of Game Development Education by Ernest Adams is wonderfully frank and helpful, and even though it is aimed for the university level, I see a lot of advice here that I should follow, including allowing for failure, keep “play” at the center of the work, show the history of the field of work, and encourage collaborative teamwork.

I have a feeling such a class would be of interest to a lot of kids (don’t you?) and so I am brainstorming here a bit about what I would do with them over the course of the 12 hours spread out over four days. My aim would be to make the program fun and interesting (it is summer, after all) while still engaging them as learners around concepts of design, play, creation and technology. And I want them to “create,” not just play.

Here’s an outline of my thinking:

  • Some of the first day would be centered around non-tech gaming and development of a game as a collaborative process. I would use what we did at the National Writing Project session around gaming, where we worked in small groups with some unknown materials to develop a game, with rules, that we could teach others.
  • We’d look at some familiar board games, and then use this book that I found that comes up with different ways to play familiar games (such as, a new way to play Monopoly, etc.) This would lead into a discussion around design: how does a game invite a player and what elements work for play? I might toss some card games into the mix, too.
  • I’d love to do something about the history of Video Games (there must be a good resource somewhere) and bring them to one of those sites that allow you to play the old 8-bit games like Pacman, Pong, Astroids, etc.,. so they can experience where video games came from and how far they have come in a few decades.
  • We’d then move into looking at and playing some online games, as we mull over, once again, design elements. What animation, choices for the player, artwork, etc., makes a game effective? I bet we could compile a pretty good list of recommended games from the kids.
  • I’d show them Scratch, with an emphasis first on animation and programming, and then, shift gears into using Scratch to develop a simple game. (I know this can be done with the MIT freeware, but I haven’t yet done it.)
  • At this point, I would work on the concept of “story” — of the underpinnings of a good game, and how character and plot can guide the game developer along (and also, note that this is a point of argument in the gaming world — that not all games need “story” to be successful and sometimes “story” ruins a good game, right?).
  • Here’s where I might have them use Gamemaker8 (which I have been experimenting with) to develop a Maze Game, and for those advanced students, turn them loose for something larger. I imagine this will be the point where the differentiated instruction will come into play, and where students with background knowledge can become leaders with me of the session. (And to be honest, I am looking for platform that is a bit easier to use. Any ideas?)
  • I want to look more for other game development software that we could use. I know there are some for developing games for mobile devices and for the Xbox. And I seem to recall a gaming platform that students can use to learn about making games. I’d have to dig around my notes for that one (does it cost money?)
  • I might as well have a time when kids can bring in their Xbox or Wii and let them play, right? I’d have to structure what we are looking at while they play.
  • I’d develop a website for their games to be published and shared. They would not be creating in a vacuum. And they would be testers and sources of feedback for each other, too. This could be interesting — how do we adapt the Peer Writing Response for Peer Gaming Response?
  • I’d even dig up a video documentary or two about game design. There was a good one about Donkey Kong, if I remember correctly. (note to self: appropriate for kids?)
  • I know at least one person who had a career on working in the video game industry that I bet I could bring in to talk about his work. There must be others out there, too. I always try to bring in guests who have experience who can talk to the kids and answer questions that fall outside my own field of expertise.

So, what do you think? Is it viable? Do you have resources that could help me along the way?

Peace (in the brainstorming),

More Design Talk w/Glogster

My students are moving into a final week of creating poster projects as one component (but not the only) for our independent reading unit. They have the option of working on the poster online (with Glogster.edu) or offline (with regular poster paper). I would say about 2/3 of my students are using Glogster for their project.

lost hero busy

The other day, I received a message from a student in our Glogging space, telling me that “my project is ready” for review. Ummm, not quite. I pulled the Glog up and my eyes began dancing the cha-cha-cha and I could feel a headache coming on. You would never have known that we have talked about design elements and use of colors and fonts and art, and shared examples.


I messaged him back, telling him “we need to talk” and then we did talk in class. I pulled up his project and asked him some pointed questions about his design choices (particularly about using the book cover for the background image, which many students are trying to do, but which won’t work unless you have a very simple book cover).

“What do you think I am going to say?” I asked.

“Uhhh. It’s hard to read?”

“Why? What do you see?”


“I guess it’s got a lot going on. But I want the cover on my project.”

“Why not use it as an image and not the wall? That would still give you the use of the cover.”


“Then you could read what I wrote? It’s hard to read. That’s what you’re talking about, right?”

“Yes, and you want the reader to learn what you know about the book. And notice your use of font color. Does yellow text work?”

“No. I guess not. It’s hard to read with that background.” Another pause. “I still want a green background. Can you show me how to do that?”

“Of course.”

I walked him through the process, helping him think about colors. He made changes, asked for my opinion again, and we both agreed that it was much easier to look at and understand.


“Now,” I began, “about some of the spelling …”

He examined his project again.

“I don’t know how to spell ‘recommend’.”

I pointed to the bookcase.

“That’s where we have our dictionaries. You know that.”

He moaned.

So here, Glogster gave me an opportunity to talk about design, offer up some suggestions for thinking through changes, review with a student on a project as it is still underway and conference a bit both in person and online. I love that flexibility. And while Glogster can sometimes seem to offer too many choices around design elements, we teachers can use that to our advantage through mini-lessons and guided discovery processes.

Peace (in the talk),

Inside My Poetic Mind: A Reflection on Writing

Lost Piano Poem rough draft
Yesterday, I shared my digital poem entitled Lost Piano (Standing on the Shoulders of the Ocean) and today, I wanted to take a step back as a writer and mull over what I was trying to do with the poem, where the inspiration came from and why I scribbled out so many lines.

I am sharing the draft paper of the poem here as a sort of roadmap and instead of writing out my reflections this morning, I decided to sort of wing it and podcast my ideas as I remember them and as I am looking at the rough draft version.

Here is the final version of the poem

Lost Piano (Standing on the Shoulders of the Ocean)
listen to the podcast

I imagine the notes
riding the tides out each night
as the world slumbers —
silent fingers slipping over ivory puzzles,
piecing together stories in the moonlight.

What hint of a symphony draws the ears
of the stars above,
stretched to the point of falling from their perch
so that they may hear?
What rhythms push down into the depths
of the sand below,
burying treasure on whose map one
cannot ever hope to find?

Last night, as you and I stood on shore,
watching the waves lap at the pedals of that piano,
we listened for whatever might come.
We closed our eyes and held hands,
breathless in the moment of wonder.

We both swore we heard it.
How could we not?

You; the lost murmurs of your mother
sitting in her easy chair
overlooking the bay, unfolding stories
in her lap.
Me; the distorted refrain of my brother
on electric guitar,
amplified sounds behind doors locked
to keep us out.

These songs of our lives entwined, locked like fingers,
moving their way into a single melody
only we could hear, together,
as one.

We left it there — that song —
as others had done before us;
We left that song on the piano
standing on the shoulders of the ocean.
We left it there and walked away.

Peace (in the poet’s mind),

Lost Piano: A Digital Poem

I don’t know if you saw the news reports of the high school student whose art project for his college applications was placing a piano on a high sand bar off Miami (his father helped). They didn’t tell anyone about it, so that caused quite a stir in the media. Photographs show this lonely piano sitting there, in the middle of the bay. And, in my imagination stirred, too, as I wondered about the beauty of a piano sitting atop the ocean (even at high tide, apparently).

Before I knew the real story, I wrote this poem, and then created it as a digital story poem. Tomorrow, I’ll share my writing process and the rough draft work I did on the poem. (lots of cross-offs, restarts, etc.)

Peace (on the shoulders of the world),

Considering the Live Performance in the Digital Age


When I was in eighth grade, I think it was, I attended a summer arts camp and remember clearly a performance of musicians from China performing traditional Chinese music. I remember it because at the time, I found it so incredibly boring that I squirmed in my seat and thought time had slowed to a crawl. This was music I had never heard before and its strange timbre, rhythm and sounds jarred me. Why were they making us sit though this, I wondered?

Now, today, I remember it because those sounds of those musicians and those odd-looking instruments still live in my head. That first exposure to music from Asia made its mark, even in my own reluctant head, and I can now appreciate as an adult what I didn’t appreciate as a teenager: the talent of the musicians and the breadth of music in this world (beyond Led Zeppelin and Charlie Parker).

I was thinking of this yesterday as we brought all of our sixth and fifth grade students to a live performance of Three Cups of Tea yesterday. It is a one-man show from the American Place Theater/Literature to Life series, with actor Curtis Neilson, and the audience imagination plays a role here, too (as Neilson told us in a discussion after the performance, about the partnership of actor and audience). The audience must imagine and believe. Luckily, all of my students read the young adult version of Three Cups of Tea last year and some even got to meet Greg Mortenson at a local college after a fundraising activity we did at our school. (The fifth graders will read it this year). My students last year also did a Glogster project around the book, its themes of making a difference in the world, and the character traits of Mortenson.

Discussing the performance with my students after the show, they mostly gave it a thumbs-down (“boring” and “I got sleepy” and “why didn’t they have more props” were common remarks), but I am convinced it because they — us, the audience — had to work, as the stage consisted of just the actor and a few simple props, and the words from the book. Nothing else. We had to imagine the invisible actors, and the scenery, and come into the story. The opening scene of Greg getting lost in on the mountains, which starts the whole story, involved the actor in the dark theater, walking through the audience as he laments the death of his sister and his inability to finish his climb to the top of K2.

(And just to be clear — I thought the actor did a fantastic job, using his voice and actions and the words of the text to draw us into the interesting elements of the story and the emotional part of the story, too.)

I get the feeling that entertainment for too many of my students means “feed me what I need to know, and make it quick.” Or maybe I am thinking this  because I am reading the novel, Feed by M.T. Anderson, and that constant flow of data and entertainment is on my mind.  The connected world of mobile devices, gaming and wired computers often means instant gratification (and I know I sound like a digital naysayer here, and you should know, I am not). They have that expectation now, I think. To sit for almost an hour in a dark theater and be transported by one man on the stage …. they are not there yet and it requires a skill of patience few of them seem to have. A show of hands by my class afterward indicates that very few have ever even seen a live stage production of any kind.

So, why force them?

We sort of knew this might be the case. I go back to my own experience, with the Chinese music. Our hope as teachers is that this performance, and other experiences that bring them outside their comfortable circle, will enrich their lives, in ways that might not unfold for years down the line. We want them to see the possibilities of art, and drama, and music. Yes, I tell them: one actor on stage can transform an audience, if the story is powerful enough.

We need to expose our students to as much of the world of art as we can, and plant the seeds for creativity. It might not bloom for many years. But, it may bloom and that is enough reason in itself.

Peace (on the stage),

Listening to (Invented) Words

An apt metaphor for my classroom yesterday was a busy bee hive, as my students zoomed around to different stations that we had set up to share out their invented words. Along the rim of the classroom, I had set up stations of laptops that were on our Crazy  Collaborative Dictionary (see yesterday’s post). On the blackboard, I had four large pieces of chart paper, where they were writing their words and definitions. And at my desk, I had a podcast station set up for recording their words and definitions.

I was monitoring this all with the eyes on the back of my head, as I did the main recording of the podcasts with Audacity, and then quickly converted the files into MP3, and then uploaded into my Box. net sharing account.

It’s on days like this that I realize why some teachers might worry about moving such technology projects into their classrooms. There is a bit of controlled mayhem that goes on. But the kids were great, and there was lots of laughing and talking about words they were inventing. We had a long conversation in one class about how they might actually get one of their words into the real dictionary (not just our online one).

Why do we do this activity? As part of our study of how words come into our English language, I want them to understand that language is not static; it is always growing, shifting, changing. Words reflect our times. The act of invention here is a fun activity, but in the world, words are invented for things that have a new nuance, or represent a shift in thinking, or are adapted for something new. Words are not shackles that hem in our thinking. Words are part of the vibrancy of our lives.

I also gave a mini-lesson on wikis, since we use Wikispaces as the home of our dictionary work: what wikis are and how to use them and how they can foster collaborative writing. That discussion touched on Wikipedia, of course, but also Wikianswers and now, Wikileaks. My hope is that the word “wiki” now has some context for them when they hear it referenced in the news. And of course, we talked about the word “wiki” itself (Hawaiian, meaning “quick”).

When I get the 2011 Crazy Dictionary up to speed (and also the larger Crazy Dictionary featuring words from 2005-2011), I’ll share it out, but I thought it would be fun to share a folder of some of the podcasting. I really enjoy hearing them saying their words, particularly as the audio files will become a permanent part of our growing dictionary project.

Peace (in the wordy words),

Vertical Collaboration and the Crazy Dictionary

Frindle: Words from Mr. Hodgson on Vimeo.

Today, we will be jumping on our class wiki site and students will be adding newly-invented words to an ongoing collaborative project: constructing a dictionary of made-up words. It’s called collaborative because since 2005, my students have each been adding one or two words every year to the Crazy Collaborative Dictionary wiki site (and adding podcasts the last few years). We now have about 500 words on the site, and another 80 or so will be added to the mix this year.

What I find interesting is that many of my current students have older siblings who also took part in the Crazy Collaborative Dictionary, which means they are collaborating across time. This is one of the beauties of an online space – the collaboration can go horizontal (across class) and vertical (across time).

They began their work last week as I read parts of the book Frindle by Andrew Clements to them. A fair number had read the book when they were younger, but there are some wonderful sections in there about the power of words and language. We then talked about William Shakespeare and his impact on our language even today. We spoke about the framework of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet and other plays, and the foundation they have laid for so many plot devices in movies and books today. And we talked about how Shakespeare introduced hundreds of new words and phrases to our language, finding gaps between what he wanted to say and what words were available to express that meaning.

I have shared some of the newest words in the Oxford English Dictionary from 2010:

And showcased some past words from the Crazy Dictionary:

Today, they will get on the wiki, add their words, create a podcast of their word and definition, create a wall chart of their new words and begin to have fun with this invented language.

Who knows what words will emerge today?

Peace (in the language),