My middle son, a high school senior, and his friend are having tons of fun (and working long hours) producing a weekly segment for their high school television/media class’s online television show, called The Transcript. This second segment — Moth vs Bear — of the school year became a “bonus” last week because it didn’t fit the serious theme of the rest of the show. I got a kick out of it.
A column that I wrote for our local newspaper through an ongoing monthly publishing partnership via the Western Massachusetts Writing Project to feature WMWP teacher-writers ran yesterday morning. In it, I explored how the book Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst has me wondering what else I can do to get my sixth graders deeper into independent reading. The stats they provide, and my own classroom observations, indicate a decline in “books in hand” and I find that alarming. I decided to do a podcast version of the piece.
This is the second year I have used the creative nonfiction text — Book: My Autobiography by John Agard (illustrations by Neil Packer)– as an opening novel with my sixth graders. I read it aloud (and we do some various activities with it, including some sketch-noting) so we can talk about where stories come from, and where books and texts have evolved from.
This short book (which we humorously refer to as Book book in class), with lots of woodcut drawings, does a nice job of giving Book (a collective voice of every book ever written) a role as personable and wise narrator as we move through the timeline of history, from oral storytelling to papyrus to paper to illuminated texts to printing presses to libraries to ebooks and more.
In using the Book book, I laying the historical foundation for why we write and why and how we read stories, and how stories change who we are in powerful ways. I wish I could spend a few more weeks doing more activities — long ago, I did a printmaking activity for a newspaper unit — but I need to keep moving along.
We do make time for activity in which they design a book, or story delivery system, for a time 100 years into the future. I wonder what they will be making this week …
My students mostly enjoy Book book, although the chapter where we learn about book burning and the ways dictators often target writing and writers as symbols of dissent is a little unnerving. (It gives me a chance to chat about banned books, too).
I also do love how the book itself is scattered about with poems and proverbs and excerpts from writers from all over the world, from many cultures.
And of course, the storyline of Book book is another entry into how literacy has shaped the world, particularly during moments when an innovation opened up the possibilities of reading and writing to those who would not otherwise have had access, leading to eras like the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)
I took our dog, Duke, for a leisurely walk around the neighborhood yesterday. It was a warm end-of-summer day.
Here’s what Duke and I saw:
Two puppies and one elder dog, and Wally the cat. Wally, a female, loves dogs, and loves Duke, so she rolled on the pavement as Duke investigated, touching noses before moving on.
A dead squirrel. Duke wanted to get closer. I did not want Duke to get closer. I won that tug of war.
Three young sisters on some sort of electric scooter/bike that their handyman dad cobbled together. They zoomed past us, huddled together on the contraption, giggling, “Hi Duke.”
A hummingbird at the flower patch by the mailbox. Duke didn’t seem to notice or pay attention but I did. I never get tired of seeing hummingbirds and their ability to seemingly float in midair.
Three people who mentioned my New York Giants shirt (we live in New England Patriots country), with a mix of humor and friendly derision. I still had some hope for my team last night. Wasn’t enough.
A neighbor out raking, the first leaf raker I have seen this season. She stopped, leaning on her rake, and we chatted, and when she said, “I can’t believe I am doing this already,” I playfully suggested she “leap into the huge pile of leaves” she had raked. She declined. I kept walking.
Five possums in a possum parade, crossing the street from a small dingle to a small drainage culvert. One saw Duke and leaped back to hide. The other four hustled across the street. They are funny-looking things, sort of creepy with wobbly bodies and short legs.
The next-door house that has seemed too empty in recent days. One of our elderly neighbors was taken to the hospital a few days by ambulance, and we think he’s still there, and his wife is no doubt spending time there. Duke looked to the house. He always had treats in his pocket for Duke.
Sometimes, I get obsessed with a song I am writing. It follows me everywhere. At night, I’ll wake up, hearing the chord changes and then I’ll be tweaking the lyrics as I try to fall back asleep. Someone will be talking to me during the day, and I’ll realize I was somewhere else in my head, lost in the song’s architecture. I’ll juggle words, phrases, verses. Add a bridge, then remove it.
I can’t quite explain it, except when I go through periods where it doesn’t happen, when I don’t write a song for a long stretch (sometimes months), I forget about how intense the artistic process can be. And then it happens again (I have faith during those fallow periods that I will write songs again.)
I’m not suggesting I am writing musical classics, or that anyone other than me will like the music I am engaged in. I know my limits and limitations. But there is something in the creative endeavor of merging music and words and message together in a song that exerts an awfully powerful pull on me. If you listen and get something out of it, I am happy.
The other day, I started to write this new song — Heaven (Where I Want To Be) — and I could not shake it loose. In fact, I had the chorus nearly immediately, almost as soon as I started strumming, yet the lyrics to the verses were frustrating me. I worked and reworked them, over and over. I almost tossed the whole thing out a few times. It kept pulling me back to the guitar.
The song is inspired by two things. First, an elderly couple in our neighborhood suffered a recent loss when one of them passed away. Another elderly couple nearby might be nearing that situation, too. An ambulance was at the door this week. These are neighbors who were married for decades. I started thinking of what happens when you lose someone after so long.
Second, I’ve been listening a lot to this Jason Isbell song — If We Were Vampires — which is about that same theme, about the realization that one of the two of lovers in life will someday leave this place first, and the other lover will have to find a way to forge ahead, alone.
The narrator in my Heaven song is in that situation, too, remembering the traces of a lifetime together and skirting the boundaries between reality and remembering, of ghosts and love. What is real, anyway?
I’ve been listening to LCD Soundsystem and paying attention to how James Murphy builds songs off hooks and synths. The other week, I jumped into one of my favorite music programs (Soundtrap) and began building a song, imagining people walking down a city street with all the hustle and bustle, and destinations in mind. The pauses are moments of waiting for the street lights to change for crossing.
Yesterday, my sixth graders took park in International Dot Day (which celebrates artistic and creative spirit) by writing Circle Stories (short stories with either a circular object or a circular theme) and using the words to paint the stories into circles (or dots).
We then added them to a Padlet canvas as part of the sharing out with the millions of people who were also participating in Dot Day around the world. If you look at the #dotday hashtag stream on Twitter, you can see some incredible and amazing Dot Day activities going on. It’s all pretty inspiring, and dots are simple and flexible for all ages.
It’s International Dot Day. Nearly 10 million people in nearly 170 countries have signed up to be creative today, inspired by Peter Reynold’s The Dot picture book. That’s a whole lot of dots being made in the world with positive ink. What mark on the world will you make? (I made the comic above).
My sixth graders will be making Circle Stories today (writing about round objects in a short story format) and then using Visual Poetry to draw dots with the words of their stories. They will then add then to a Padlet canvas to share out with the world.
Last spring, my sixth graders worked on a book of memories from their time at our elementary school (they have now all moved on to either the regional middle/high school or another place). It’s a tradition that our librarian and myself have started with our writers as they leave our school.
For the past two years, we have also been working with author/illustrators Peter and Paul Reynolds through the Fablevision media company out of Boston, beta-testing their Get Published publishing site for writing, illustrating and publishing books. Like any beta system, the spring project had its glitches and only this week did the boxes of published picture books get delivered.
The books look great, and I am coordinating with families to get them into the hands of the writers. It’s pretty neat to see a story in a bound edition like these, looking very official. And the books are packed with memory stories from kindergarten through sixth grade.
I was also writing and illustrating with my students, so that as they were working, so was I. Partly, it was to experience what my young writers were experiencing, from a technological standpoint. And partly, it was because I wanted to write a book, too.
My picture book is called Strange Things in Sixth Grade. It’s about funny things that have happened in the classroom over the years. I’m pretty happy with how it came out.
Take a look. I used Animoto to make a video book of the book’s pages.
I am a huge fan of Ben Hatke, and this second book in his Jack series — Mighty Jack and the Goblin King — has only deepened my appreciation for his talents as a storyteller and artists.
Hatke has taken the Jack and the Beanstalk into strange, new territory here, and I love that the story splinters and then comes back together in a way you might not suspect. He always has strong female characters, too.
Mighty Jack’s story is not over, and the end of the novel brings another movie-like twist, reminding my son and I of another Hatke character that drew us into his world many years ago: Zita the Spacegirl (another series you should read).
The Jack series is a solid read for elementary students, but middle school readers would probably enjoy it, too.