Slice of Life: It’s OK to Argue in Here

Slice of Life 2011We’re working on some daily persuasive writing as I toss out topics that I figure will garner some strong opinions from my sixth graders. The other day, we discussed the validity of our state’s MCAS test as a requirement for a high school diploma (you’d be surprised at how many students agree, given how much they dislike the test, and how many were completely unaware of the seriousness of the test in 10th grade). Yesterday, our topic was whether or not schools should allow students to use mobile hand-held technology devices in class.

We begin with some framing of the question, as I explained how many schools are grappling with this topic right now, and then we pushed into brainstorming around the issues for and against the topic at hand. This is where I try to balance between encouraging independent thinking and respectful listening. But they get it. They listen. They talk. They debate. It doesn’t get personal.

Since my students were mostly divided on this topic of mobile devices, I thought I would share out our brainstorming list of the pros and cons of allowing cell phones, iTouches, GPS and other devices from home into the classroom. I am sure you will find their insights as interesting as I did.

The Pros:

  • Handy research tool
  • Educational Apps
  • Built-in calculators and dictionaries
  • Ability to contact family
  • Ability to contact anyone in an emergency situation (they had a past lock-down drill on their minds, I think)
  • Less need to purchase expensive laptops
  • You can easily take pictures/videos
  • Email/Text teachers (I joked that this might fall under the “cons” side for teachers)
  • Move towards paperless classroom
  • e-books available for reading at any time
  • Some students work better, harder with music soundtrack

And the Cons:

  • A distraction for students
  • Inappropriate texting/instant messaging
  • Device might get damaged
  • Device might get stolen
  • Someone might hack into it
  • Games, not always educational
  • Social distraction (paying more attention to device than to people around them)
  • How would it get power/charge all day?
  • Pictures and video of others might be an invasion of privacy
  • The “cool factor” of the most expensive devices would create an equity issue (I was so proud of them for seeing this as a problem)

They then wrote for a bit and then a few shared out their writing. This was not a full writing project. It was a writing prompt, but I loved how it got discussions going around the room.  I could not help noticing that many of my most tech-savvy students were against the concept. Perhaps they were realizing their own difficulties with meshing their understanding of technology with the rules of the school.

Oh, and did I mention our school now has a class set of iTouches? We’re still working to use them (some PD is now underway) but that addition to our tech has piqued their interest and prompted the question by one student, “Why can’t I just bring my own in from home? It’s got all the apps I need.”

Peace (in the argument),

The Half-Full NWP/WMWP Glass: We Still Have Us

Basic RGB

We had our leadership meeting for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project the other day. This is the first time we have gathered together as a team since we learned that federal funding for the National Writing Project, which provided crucial financial and logistical support for us, has been eliminated by Congress and President Obama.

The mood was somber and reflective, but it wasn’t a funeral procession. We still have a lot of hope and we still have  a lot of faith in NWP leaders to find a path forward for the organization that means so much to us. And we know the power of the network is with us, and not in budget line item.

As WMWP Director Anne Herringon noted, “A corp of us remember pre-NWP funding (before the group of WMWP founders hitched their wagon to NWP). At the least, we’d still be a loose confederacy of teachers. There won’t be nothing.”

Past WMWP Director Bruce Penniman noted that there may yet be ways to stay connected to funding in the federal government, but maybe not primarily with the Department of Education. Other departments, such as NOAH and the Department of Agriculture, have educational components who may want to partner up with a proven organization, like NWP.

“We can re-invent ourselves, if we have to,” Anne concluded, and then asked that we dedicate most of our April meeting to deeper discussions about the way forward in the face of uncertain federal funds.

Then, I heard a piece on the radio today about NPR, which is embroiled in its own difficulties and faces loss of federal funding. The piece showcased folks seeing this as an opportunity to try new things, to re-focus efforts on local communities, to push further into the web-based listener audience. Even NPR reporters see possibilities that weren’t there before.

And of course, I am still thinking of Bud Hunt’s blog post about needing to take a breath and look at what we have in the NWP. It’s a challenge, but it’s not the end of the world. We still have us.

So, if change is afoot, what kind of change might we envision for our WMWP site? How can we try to see the glass as half full?  I’ll put out a few ideas and I want to note very strongly that this is only me — one person — thinking things through, and not the WMWP leadership.

  • Since I came on board, we have seen our site’s direct engagement with students dwindle. This is mostly because of stipulations on how NWP/federal funds can be used. It can support professional development and teacher worker, but not student programs. I wonder if we can now re-double our efforts in helping meet the needs of student writers, directly. I feel as if student writing programs is an area that needs more attention, particularly in our urban and rural districts.
  • The reality is that our university, The University of Massachusetts Amherst, is very generous with its support of our WMWP, even in tough times. It provides release time for our leader (Anne, right now; Bruce, before that; Charlie Moran, before that) and office space and other intangibles that even I don’t quite understand. But that support is part of a matching funding agreement. Will UMass still support us without NWP funds? Given its own financial problems, I doubt it, a least in the long-term. Which means we might need to forge new partnerships with other community organizations. This won’t be easy and it is something Anne has been working on for years. I wonder if our cache as a place for teachers and writers and technologies might open the door for something at another space of higher learning? I’d hate to lose the UMass connection. But it might happen.
  • We need to redouble our efforts on grant programs. Anne and other do a lot of this right now — they work hard at this — and the fact is that we will need to cast a much wider net for grant opportunities, and begin to revamp some of our expertise to fit the needs of funding agencies. We can do this.
  • There has been tremendous work in creating inroads with our state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. As we talked about in our meeting, the state’s shift to a Common Core Curriculum (already underway) opens up an opportunity for our WMWP folks, some of whom are already doing deep work (thanks to NWP and its connections to the Gates Foundation). I think we can position ourselves as a leader for school districts wondering how to help teachers re-envision their curriculum in light of Common Core. I see this as a real positive direction (oh, and my wife is part of our WMWP team working on it, so I have a vested interest).
  • Will the loss of NWP bring forth new energy to our  WMWP? Will this turn of events with federal funding be a rallying cry for local folks? Our energy ebbs and flows. We’d like more flow, and less ebb. Perhaps folks who take WMWP for granted will suddenly remember why they connected with us in the first place, and reconnect on the journey ahead.
  • Will the shift mean more online presence work for our site? It may have to. Which means that our work on redesigning our website better get in high gear soon (the delay is mostly me, sorry to say). If funding limits what we can do in physical space, perhaps we need to become more acute in virtual space. We’re dipping our toes into online classes and offerings. We may need to make a full push ahead in this direction to leverage our expertise across a wider spectrum.

Yes, I am uncertain and worrisome about it all. But it does no good to harp on all the reasons why change is bad. We also need to remember what we tell our students: the only thing certain is that things will change.

Peace (in the glass),

March Book Madness: The Clockwork Three

Here is another in my March Book Madness feature, in which I am sharing out book projects and reviews from my students and myself. This one is about The Clockwork Three by Matthew Kirby. This student and I were actually reading the book at the same time, and having interesting discussions about how Kirby was slowly bringing the three main characters together. This glogster report about The Clockwork Three is actually in addition to a paper project he did on the book.

Peace (in sync),

Slice of Life: Shhhh! We’re Testing

Slice of Life 2011Round one of this week’s Reading Comprehension state testing began yesterday and I don’t think I have had a class work as hard, or as long, on the test as I have with this year’s crew. Some of them were at it for more than 2 1/2 hours (on a test the state suggests will take about an hour).

Here are some snapshots from my perch as teacher:

  • The school provides some pre-testing snack food. Yesterday, it was goldfish and juice. Before I knew it, they were all trying to toss the fish in the air and catch them in their mouths. I let it go on for a second, until the fish were landing on the ground. “OK, enough,” I shouted. “Pick up the fish.” Their response? “Ahhh.”
  • They had to put my name on the cover of the test this year. This is new and no doubt, it is a result of some cheating or accountability problems in some districts (not ours). Even at this point in the year, some kids still have trouble spelling my name! And one of them wrote down me as a MRS. I explained that my wife was in another school that day, helping to oversee high school MCAS (true).
  • They asked if they could take off their shoes. I had never been asked that before, but I didn’t care. Almost everyone did, and one of my more exuberant student shot her feet into the air to show off her mismatched, colorful socks. “Look at my toes!” she giggled, which eased some of the stress in the room.
  • I saw a hand across the room. A student, whose second language is English and who struggles with reading comprehension, called me over and pointed to a word. “What does that mean?” he asked, looking up at me. I could only shake my head and tell him I could not help. I saw tears in his eyes for a second, then he got back down to the problem. It broke my heart.
  • I had to exchange nine pencils during testing because they were writing so much on the open response questions, they had run their pencils down to the nub. In fact, I saw them doing a lot of writing, making notes and making outlines. I believe a few even wrote a first draft in their test booklets before a final draft in their answer booklets.
  • Another hand. I wandered over. “I think I made a big mistake,” she whispered. These are not words you want to hear in a state testing environment. She had written the open response answer in a space for another question. OK. I grabbed an eraser and told her to rewrite her response in the right space and then do a good job erasing the other one, and she should be fine. “You’re fine. Don’t worry,” I told her, and she seemed to settle down.
  • Once they are done, they can read. Only read. But the time stretched on so long that one of my antsy boys lost interest in his book and began to dissemble his pen and then use the spring to launch the pen cap into the air. He was doing it silently, and with focus. I let him go until another student began to imitate him, adding her rocket to the launch sequence. Suddenly, the airspace felt crowded. I told them to stop, and told the boy later, “Make sure you have a good book with you on Friday.”
  • We are not allowed to look at the tests or their answers, and I don’t. But I couldn’t help noticing as I was wandering the classroom that there was a play skit as one of the reading passages this year. We had done an entire unit this year on writing and reading plays. I have myself a little mental fist pump on that one.

Round two for Reading Comprehension is tomorrow, and then we are done for awhile (until Math rolls around in May).

Peace (in the testing),

March Book Madness: Million Dollar Throw

Thank God for Mike Lupica. I’ve seen more of my boys reading his books over the years, due to the sports theme, than others when it comes time for choosing independent books. Million Dollar Throw is one that appeals to the football players and fans in my classes. I think they are intrigued by the million dollar reference, too.

This student decided to do an offline poster, which is fine, and showed good insight into the characters of the book. His journal was full of questions and predictions. This is part of my daily March Book Madness feature this month.
Million Dollar Throw

Peace (in the toss),

Slice of Life: Expert Advice from Students

Slice of Life 2011We’ve been working in class on paragraph writing in a slow, logical progression that began first with the Origins of Words, then shifted into Parts of Speech, and then on to the Structure of a Sentence, and now into Paragraphs, to be followed by a Research Essay.

Yesterday, my students shared out their expository paragraph on the theme of explaining how to do something. This is a pretty typical school assignment, but it does tap into student knowledge about a task, and puts it into explanatory writing.

I was thinking that I wish I had time for two more expository activities (maybe next year, when the Common Core starts to creep further in, as it shifts writing more into informational next and away from narrative): creating a video tutorial, using the writing as the script, with groups working on how to videos;  and moving into a Make Session around students in groups working on hands-on projects, and then learning aspects of technical writing. I’m not there yet, but I see the possibilities of extending informational writing.

While some of the topics of their writing sound familiar to anyone who has done this activity, (sports, baking cookies, etc.), there were a few paragraphs this year that were nicely off the beaten trail, a bit. As they were sharing them with the class, I jotted down some notes on topics they chose that seemed interesting:

  • How to create a movie with Pivot Stickfigure animation software (frame by frame, patience is key for a smooth movie);
  • How to read and play Drum Sheet Music (each line is a different drum or percussion instrument);
  • How to clean a fake beard (which she wore for her presentation and giggled a lot);
  • How to annoy your siblings (a crowd pleaser for the younger siblings in class — a warning shot for the older siblings);
  • How to build an arctic igloo out of ice cream (then, you get to eat it, so it’s win-win);
  • How to play the ukelele (which he demonstrated to the cheers of the class);
  • How to kickstart a dirt bike (in case you get stuck in the woods);
  • How to make a live action movie (start with a script, but then improvise. You’ll have more fun that way.);
  • How to fill out an NCAA Basketball Bracket for March Madness (go for top-seeded teams and hope for some luck);
  • How to use a ripstick (motion of your lower body makes the skateboard-like object move, and but don’t fall. You’ll get road rash.);
  • How to wear pointe shoes for dance (protect your toes. We all agreed the shoes looked uncomfortable.);
  • How to play power chords on the guitar (crank your amp for greatest effect).

Peace (in the expertise),

Slice of Life: Slowing Down Time

Slice of Life 2011We were settling into a nighttime routine, my son and I, slowing down the day before sleep.

“What words did you learn at school today?”

“AT!” he shouts, with some frustration. He’s only six.


“We already knew it. It was already in our circle. Next to ‘the,’ and ‘to,’ and ‘and.’ You know … the circle,” he says, using his hands to demonstrate the circle. The circle is where they keep high-use words that they are learning in his kindergarten class.

“Well, it’s good to keep using new words.” I sound more like a teacher than a dad at that point, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

He nods, the frustration now fading.

I have watched him closely this year in kindergarten. His reading and writing skills has blossomed so much since September. Each week seems to bring new developments in his learning. With two other kids, you would think this would be no surprise. But it is. He surprises me daily.

When we read books, he picks out words from the text to read. He’s writing little stories, making comics. “We’re making books and books and books,” he informed me earlier in the day. He and two friends have become co-authors on what I can only guess, knowing them, will be another history of the Star Wars Universe.

His literacy development is on full display, if we just take the time to watch and observe him, and ask questions. His teacher is doing a great job, pushing him and nurturing him. And so is he. I guess we are, as well.

Peace (in the snapshot),

March Book Madness: The Lightning Thief

For the past two years, I have taught The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan as a class novel, with great success. This year, however, too many kids have already read it perhaps inspired by last year’s movie), so I am shelving it for the year. That saddens me, but I do see many other kids still enjoying it. This Glogster project is just one of a couple that were done on the series by my students. It continues my March Book Madness feature.

Peace (in the search),

Slice of Life: Very Small Twitter Poems

Slice of Life 2011Yesterday morning, I read an article from The New York Times about efforts by writers to use the Twitter format to write very short poems. I am always intrigued by how technology informs our writing, and how our writing can be adapted to technology. So, throughout the day, I tried my hand at some Twitter poems, and used the #poetweet hashtag to share my writing with others.

It’s challenging, as you can imagine. The constraints of 140 characters leaves very little room for exploration. You need to be short and you need to choose your words carefully. It’s a great exercise in editing, actually, and I wonder if some variation might not work well in the classroom.

Here are some of the poems as screenshots off Twitter, which I recast into podcasts this morning, too.
Peace (in the poems),