Of Podcasts and Poems for Voices and A Knot of Ideas

Warning: This is one of those posts where I don’t have any clear ideas of where I am going to end up. I am thinking as I am writing. Writing as I am thinking.

Poems for Two Voices 2015

Anybody know how to …” a voice called out in the classroom.

I do. Be right there.

I watched from another part of the classroom, as one student got up from their project, walked over and showed another how to add the loop browser into Garageband.

How do I ….” another student called out.

Let me show you. I figured that out when I …

Again, I am nearly completely removed from the discussion. One student calls out for help. Another steps up to share their knowledge. This was yesterday, in class, as my students are learning how to use Garageband (only two or three of my 80 students had ever used it) to record podcasts of their poems, which are “poems for two voices.”

Poems for Two Voices 2015

I’m thinking of all of the work going on in the Rhizomatic Learning community these past few weeks, right into this week’s current theme, as posed by Dave Cormier, of “rhizomatic learning as an invasive species.” I’ve appreciated Terry Elliott continuing to remind us to find and notice and share out rhizomatic practices in the field, to help make the move from the theory of the tangled roots of learning to what it might look like in the classroom.

Poems for Two Voices 2015

So, these “poems for two voices”? They are a tangled woven root system in themselves. Designed to be read and performed, the poet weaves the words in and out of the two voices, often pulling phrases into conflict and then in harmony with each other. Ideally, the two topics are related but different enough to create tension.

For 11 and 12 year olds, even at the end of our sixth grade, writing “poems for two voices” is critical thinking challenge, and not only in the crafting of the words. The physical writing, of leaving gaps in the poem for the other voice to fill, required me to teach them how to make and use tables. That seems pretty basic, no doubt, but if you have never created a table before or used a table before in a word document, it’s something new to be discovered.

Add the element of podcasting, and a new software experience (Garageband), and suddenly, the level of learning gets extended even further, and this is where (as indicated by some of the exchanges above) that I noticed what rhizomatic learning sort of looks like in small moments of my classroom. I have purposely tried only to show my students the basics of Garageband, and given them time to play and tinker before moving into the recording of their performance of the “poems for two voices.” Sure, it would have been easier and simpler to use some other voice recording tool, or to have given detailed Garageband instructions.

But it is a wondrous thing to watch what happens when everyone is struggling to get their head around how to add new tracks, record different voices, add vocal effects, and layer in a musical loop soundtrack underneath the poems, and to observe what happens if the teacher is purposely (they don’t know this) standing back, offering only minimal support.

You know what happens?

They help each other. They turn to others. They play and figure things out, and then share that knowledge in a very informal way. One helps another. That person helps another. Someone discovers something “cool” and a crowd flocks around to learn how to do it, too, and then that leads to something else, and suddenly, the classroom is alive with experimentation. Or, learning.

I am always surprised, and saddened, when so many students say they “hate writing poems” and it is mostly a result of being forced to write in strict styles, particularly rhyming poems, that don’t allow students to feel free and experiment with language. This “poem for two voices” (and we even read together a very complicated “poem for four voices” that blew their minds) is so unlike anything that they have experienced, that it opens up new possibilities for how we merge writing and technology and creativity together.

What’s my role in this podcast activity, as teacher? Of course, I am there to help those students who just can’t seem to figure it out, for whatever reason. I guide them. I call over others. And my role is to put the experience into a context of learning, of helping them see the entire process from above after spending time deep in their little recording world.

My co-teacher and I were having a conversation in class yesterday, as we watched this unfolding. We were talking about changes in expectations this year with a new principal and her push to make the standards we are teaching more explicit and preferably posted each day (we are not yet required to do that but I suspect it is coming), and how some teachers are struggling to figure out how to find that balance between their experience in knowing what engages students as learners and offering proof that it connects to standards.

We looked around the room, as podcasts were being recorded, with students in headphones speaking into computers and remixing media. There was laughter, and sharing, and teams working. I noted that while the learning on display here touched on writing and speaking standards, my main goal was to enrich their knowledge of technology and keep the push alive to get them composing their own content, making the shift away from passive consumer. There’s no explicit standard for that.

But there should be.

I know the phrase of “invasive species” has a negative connotation (something foreign snuffing out the native species), but if we think  in the positive of learning something new and sharing it with others as a way to create impact, and maybe root out some shared knowledge, by suffocating old ideas, then this kind of media poetry activity is on target.

Peace (in the knot),

The Struggles of MultiModal Assessment Design

I had an interesting conversation with a doctoral student who is doing her work on how teachers are evaluating and assessing student digital writing projects. I am part of her study (well, as a teacher, I am participating) and yesterday, we had a 90 minute chat about assessing digital work. Interestingly, this connected in my head to the inquiry going on at Rhizomatic Learning this week, too.

During our time, she asked me a lot of questions and I admit, I struggled to explain how I best assess digital writing projects that my sixth graders make. Even after co-editing a book on assessment of digital writing (Teaching The New Writing), and even after years of bringing various projects into my classroom to push at the notions of what it means to write in a digital age …. I am often as lost as I have ever been.

In particular, yesterday, I did a very close look at a video game design project and “talked through” what I was seeing, using my own project indicator sheet as my guide.

It had been some time since I had played this game called Into An Animal Cell (you can play it, too) , and I remained impressed by the work of this student. Talking the game through with my assessment lens on as I played it was another way to examine the moves of the student around game design, story narrative and the use of science as the underpinning theme.

But I openly admitted to her: grading/assessing something that has many modalities — here, for example, game design, science concept, story narrative, science vocabulary, etc. — is something I continue to grapple with on so many levels. If I get too specific, then I lose the flavor of the whole. Too general, as I am in the assessment tool for this project, and it is nearly meaningless. And then there is the element of “newness” here — I’m lucky if one of two of my 80-odd students ever designed and published a video game. Assessing the newness of the skill tugs in contrast to the learning experience I want them to have in the end, which is a design mentality and expanded notion of story narrative flow in a multimodal space.

I still seek (and yet, have not yet found) the balance here to create an assessment that will do what an assessment tool is designed to do: guide the student to make improvements so that they can further their work and learn from the experience. I still feel as if I am designing assessment tools to give them a grade. The tool is for me more than for them, as a way for me to justify why we are making video games.

I need to turn that whole perspective on its head. I need to better figure out how to create something more meaningful for my students. I’m still struggling with this. As it turns out, so are many others, as evidenced by some of this researcher’s other interviewees.

Peace (in the pondering),

Enter Pink Fury (Tired and Sore)

This is our team, Pink Fury. As you can see, there are only about a dozen of us.

Pink Fury 2015

I am on the one with the painted shirt. I like to do my own thing.

In the Students vs Teachers Quidditch match the other night, there were more than 60 student vying to play us in our school’s unique game. For almost 80 minutes, we teachers ran and shot the quaffle and did all the nutty things we do for our game, as wave after wave of students (fresh from sitting) joined in.

Yesterday, I was tired. This morning, I am sore. But the spirit of fun was baked into the entire day yesterday, and it was all kids could talk about it (even our new principal joined in the game and she had no idea what was going on). So, yeah, as we move into our April break, it was worth it.

Peace (in the pink),

PS — our name, Pink Fury, comes from supporting a colleague battling cancer …

We Play Quidditch (What About You?)

So, today is our huge, massive, completely-nutty Quidditch Tournament at our school, where the four sixth grade classes square off against each other for an entire day of running, teamwork, running, throwing, running, cheering, running and well, running. There’s a lot of running in our game, which began with a group of students reading the first Harry Potter book years ago and asking, “Why don’t we make this game for us to play?”

They worked with our PE teacher to design rules of the game and this “literature in motion” has been a major event at our school for more than 12 years. Other classes come to watch the games during the course of the day (not a favorite event for many other teachers, I must admit.)

After the teams of sixth grade students play all day (with us homeroom teachers as coaches), then the students take on the staff at night (I am exhausted just thinking about it already) in a fun match in which the line of students seems never-ending and the line of teachers seems pretty small. Did I mention a lot of running?

See you on the field …

Peace (in the Quidditch Pitch),

Slice of Life: Charting the Listeners

(Each day in March, a whole bunch of educators are writing Slices of Life — capturing the small moments. It is facilitated by Two Writing Teachers. You write, too.)

Write, Share, Give


In another writing space, in which connected friends from the National Writing Project write regularly and different folks take on different writing prompt hosting each week, my friend, Fred M., posed the question this week of nurturing active listeners. Fred, citing Peter Elbow’s work, used the launching idea of: “Listening is NOT waiting for the other person to stop talking.”

It’s a great topic, and one my colleagues at school and I talk about a lot, mostly from the deficit viewpoint: “Why isn’t he listening?” or “She was staring out the window again” or “He never participates in class discussions or raises his hand.” Maybe we need to think more of, what I am doing to bring her back to the classroom? Or how I am engaging him in something he is passionate about? That’s another day, another time.

I wrote to Fred’s prompt about some story activities that I do that encourage listening skills and then started to think about a typical class. I had this idea to use one of my four sixth grade classes, and to break it down (very unscientifically) along categories of listeners.

Here is what I came up with:

A Class of Listeners

Fred suggested I share the chart back with my sixth graders and get their input and perspective. I just might do that.

Peace (I’m listening),

Slice of Life: Shuffle the Cards and Make Stories

(This is a Slice of Life post, as facilitated by Two Writing Teachers. Lots of educators are writing about the small moments of their days. You write, too.)

kevin 2 storyteller cards pic

I recently wrote a piece for my Working Draft blog over at Middleweb about using a fun, new way to get my students to write stories. Storyteller Cards. They’re pretty nifty and strange, and perfect for sparking interest from my young writers. At the time, I had just introduced the cards to some students, and asked them for suggestions.

Each card has information: a character in a setting, with an object, doing something. Other bits of information along the edges of the cards include a mood, a season, a letter and a playing card suit/number.

This is an image from the Storyteller Card site: An Anatomy of a Card.


Yesterday, I pulled out the deck of cards for all four of my classes and we created a story-writing game of sorts that engaged my sixth graders so much, they were leaving the class asking when we could write again.

This is how we played:

  • Everyone gets two cards, face down. No looking.
  • We all flip one card together, spend a few minutes examining it (lots of excitement when this happened), and begin a short story with that character and some information from the card.
  • We write for 7 to 10 minutes. Keep writing.
  • Then, we flip the second card and add a new surprise character into the story underway (this flip kicks in the giggles and sharing with friends and “what is this?” comments all over the room)
  • Write for another 10 minutes.
  • Share out stories.

Ideally, the third step of this “game” would have been to trade your card with someone next to you, but we never got there. This activity engaged my students and also provided a nice creative break from our Parts of Speech unit and open response prep work that we are doing as we eye our state tests on the horizon.

My co-teacher, seeing the engagement of our writers, made the astute observation:

What if the state test was all about this kind of writing?

What if? As if.

Peace (in the cards),


Slice of Life: It’s Quidditch and We’re Cold Fusion

(This is a Slice of Life post, which is part of the daily writing challenge facilitated by Two Writing Teachers. You write, too.)

Quidditch Cold Fusion 2015

Well, some of those who read my blog regularly (thank you) or who read it as part of Slice of Life (thank you) know that March brings Quidditch to our school, and this year is no exception (although it almost did not happen due to reverberations of funding cuts at our school – that’s another story).

Yes, we play Quidditch at our school, a version first created by students more than 10 years ago and adapted over time by our gym teacher, sixth grade team and of course, input from other students over that time. The Quidditch Tournament takes place next month and right now, we are in the midst of deciding class names.

We go through a pretty elaborate nominating process and then voting process. The image above is a screenshot from the voting process (there was some panic in the classroom that The Elsinators would get the top spot.) This year, when all was said and done, my class voted on Cold Fusion for their team name. We’re the blue team, so they always seem to lend towards cold and ice. Cold Fusion is a theoretical idea of creating a contained explosion that creates energy at room temperature. So, yeah, good name for a Quidditch team.


They begin working on t-shirts in art class today, are brainstorming symbols for our team, and making brooms in library, and we have read a chapter from the first Harry Potter novel to connect them to the book, and we will be doing various kinds of writing. I’ll be writing more about our Quidditch for Middleweb, I think.

For now, fuse the cold and create some energy. We are Cold Fusion!

Peace (in the game),


We Play with Language and Words

invented words 2015

We play with language and words a lot in my classroom, and we recently finished up our Word Origins unit, which culminates in each student inventing a new brand-new word. They then use our classroom wiki account to add their invented word and definition (and podcast) to a collaborative dictionary project that has been underway for many years, with hundreds of invented words now in our online space.

Here is this year’s collection of words. I have students working to move these words into the larger wiki dictionary site.

Peace (Word!),

Slice of Life: It’s Allegorical

(This is a post for the Slice of Life, facilitated by Two Writing Teachers throughout March and every Tuesday during the year. You come write, too.)

Yesterday was the birthday of Dr. Seuss. Theodore Geisel has local connections to our area (Springfield, Massachusetts, is right down the road) and so we often do play up celebrations around the author. Yesterday, with all of my sixth grade classes, I read aloud The Butter Battle Book. Only a handful had ever heard of it before, and a few had read it.

The Butter Battle Book is not his best book — I still vote for The Lorax just about any day of the week — but it does give me a chance to do a mini-lesson around “allegory” — a pretty complex literary term for sixth graders. But after discussions around the Cold War, and global geopolitics both of the past and present, we dove into the story of the Yooks and Zooks who hate each other because of how they butter their bread.

Reading the picture book, playing up the voices, asking questions, sparking discussions — it reminds me that we don’t do enough to use picture books for mentor texts in the upper grades. I use them, but I could probably do it even more.

We were hoping to do an All-School Read-Aloud for Read Across America Day yesterday (and Wednesday is World Read Aloud Day), but snow moved in (surprise) and we had a two-hour delay, so that community reading will happen this morning. I am trying to find my copy of The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. Anyone borrow it?

Peace (in the book),