Sketchnoting Tall Tales

Sketchnoting tall tales

I‘ve written about ways in which I am trying to bring more sketchnoting, or visual notetaking, into my sixth grade classroom as another means of active listening and active learning.

We did it with the presidential inauguration and this week, as we are diving into Figurative Language techniques, we did it while listening to the American Tall Tale of Davey Crockett (as an example of extreme hyperbole and storytelling). They had a lot of fun with this activity, and the doodling forced them to “close listen” to the stories of Davey Crockett.

The sketch above is mine.

Peace (doodle it),

A Strange Concoction to Consider: Fan Fiction and State Testing

aafad 225/365 under new management … flickr photo by lamont_cranston shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

We’re into state test prep season (our ELA test is a few weeks away) and our state of Massachusetts is in the midst of some pretty significant changes to what we call MCAS. The state claims to have moved away from PARCC, but that’s not really the case with its MCAS 2.o or MCAS Next Generation.

Everything MCAS is moving to computer-based testing over the next two years, which is already posing a logistical challenge at my school, and the kinds of texts and questions and tasks being asked of my sixth graders are also changing, becoming more complex on many levels (reading across multiple texts and genres, paired multiple choice questions, etc.)

As I work with my young writers on learning how to approach what is known as the Narrative Task, I find myself amused at how the whole concept seems like a riff out of the Fan Fiction textbook. This is something we were exploring in Networked Narratives, too.

Let me explain …

The MCAS Narrative Task is built on the concept of reading a story, or a passage from a novel or larger piece of text, and then writing the “next section” of the story, with consideration of some concept — mostly, we’ve been seeing a focus on character and setting in sixth grade but fifth grade has been about shifting point of view.

So, for example, in a sample we did last week, my students read about a girl and a nanny, in a rainstorm, rushing to meet an unknown aunt. Their assignment was to continue the story, with the characters and setting, and determine what happens next. And yesterday, I had them plucking minor characters from novels we are reading, or have read, and write a new story.

In other words, just like fan fiction, you take characters that exist in literature and bring them into an imaginary space (or world) that you create, with a story that you write, and you bring them to life in ways that you choose. That’s fan fiction, in a sort of nutshell, right? For example, let’s pluck Hermoine and Malfoy from Harry Potter series and send them off on an adventure. Or what would happen if Katniss Everdeen bumped into Luke Skywalker? (At least, they’re not siblings. Or are they?)

We’ve been talking about Fan Fiction in Networked Narratives, as a way that writers find spaces to write, outside of school confines, with interests that bring them into a larger, but slightly hidden, online community. Fan Fiction has many elements of what we term Connected Learning.

Now, granted, some fan fiction gets a little … adult, in content. I don’t think the state folks want to see any slash fiction (note: not necessarily violent and not about the GnR guitar player, but a genre in which two characters from different books meet, and likely hook up) in my students’ writing samples. But this notion of taking a character for a walk into your own story has its roots in fan fiction.

Which makes it odd, and interesting, that the idea behind fan fiction would be the underpinning of the Narrative Task on a state test.

Peace (a fan of it),


Slice of Life (Day 31): Celebrating Losing

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write all through March, every day, about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

Yesterday was Quidditch Tournament Day at our school, and my sixth grade classroom team — the valiant Blue Barbarians — just barely lost the 2017 championship. Just barely, by just a few points. That fact that it was so close, particularly given the athletic talent of the team that won, was cause of some celebration at the end of the long day of playing in our Quidditch Tournament. The last game — which featured our team versus the team that eventually won before an audience of a few hundred students, staff and family members — was right down to the wire. Every player was giving it their all with teamwork and hustle and positive energy.

What more could you ask for?

At night, we teachers came together as Pink Fury, and we played our sixth graders in our own Students vs. Teachers Quidditch match, and boy, I am tired and sore today. We didn’t win, either. In fact, the students beat us pretty thoroughly, but it was a great time, and fun to interact with them outside of the academic classroom.

The problem is that each year, we, the teaching staff, get a bit older — and slower, and more likely to tire out quickly — while our sixth graders each year stay the same age, like Peter Pan on the athletic gym floor. And with nearly 65 students signed up, they kept coming at us with fresh legs and arms. Eighty minutes of running, jumping, defending, throwing. You don’t realize how long 80 minutes is until you are in constant motion for nearly all of it.

It’s a long time.

Still, they won, fair and square, and we teachers then had our own little celebration at a nearby “establishment.”

Pink Fury Quidditch Team

Peace (in the air),

PS — Our Quidditch game is now in its 18th year, and is played in our gym. We call it “literation in motion” and connect writing, reading, art, music and dance to our Quidditch season.

Slice of Life (Day 30): Making Quidditch Animations

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write all through March, every day, about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

We do all sorts of celebrating for our school’s Quidditch season, which comes to a close TODAY with a day-long tournament for our sixth graders and then a students vs. teachers match this evening. I am tired just thinking about it. But it will be a lot of fun. Noisy fun. Exhausting fun. You get the idea.

Among the many classroom activities surrounding Quidditch, which includes various writing pieces such as diagramming plays and using expository writing to explain the plays, I show my students the basics of stopmotion animation using a site called ParaPara Animation (click the yellow wrench in the bottom right corner to get started). It’s simple to use, and a little quirky and a bit buggy, but the students love it. We had them making animations to celebrate Quidditch, and their teams.

Here are a few:

Peace (catch it),

Slice of Life (Day 29): Let’s Hear it for the Kids

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write all through March, every day, about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

I am the teacher-advisor to our sixth grade Student Council, which is hosting a Spirit Week all this week at our school. Yesterday was Animal Appreciation Day, and the Student Council organized a “supply drive” for the regional animal shelter. By day’s end, the table in the back of my room was filled with supplies.

Shelter Drive

This picture is BEFORE three push-truck-loads of paper towels and other items arrived from the preschool through second grade wing of our school. The entire table is now overflowing. We have cat food, office supplies, paper towels and other items that the Dakin Humane Society has asked for help with. Some families also sent in checks and cash donations.

The sixth graders on the Student Council were so excited yesterday, as they went around collecting donations, and they have another project on tap today — a “mystery project” to have the entire school thank the non-teaching staff in our building for all they do. This includes bus drivers, custodians, nurses, cafeteria crew, and office staff. They wanted to show appreciation for folks who often are outside of the focus of thanks.

I love that.

Looking at the ever-growing pile of supplies for the animal shelter, I suddenly realized: I have at least one trip ahead of me to deliver the donations. And, I promised anyone who would listen (colleagues, wife, kids) that I WOULD not be coming home with a new dog or cat.


Peace (please),

Slice of Life (Day 18): Making a Mess

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write all through March, every day, about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

Yesterday, our normal Friday schedule was all messed up. We had a visit from the guidance counselor at the regional middle school, where nearly all of my sixth graders will go next year, and along with getting information, they filled out some paperwork. It’s a sign that the end of the year is on the horizon (well, in a few months). The other sign was that we gave out report cards for our second trimester yesterday, too.

We are now in the last trimester of the school year. How’d that happen?

Since the day was already broken up, we decided to allocate a stretch of time for students to begin making posters for the Quidditch teams. Each team (each sixth grade class) has to have five huge posters for our upcoming Quidditch Tournament — three run-through posters and two posters to hang on the wall to decorate the gym. So they did sketching in the morning and then some painting in the afternoon.

Making posters

Oh boy. These kids are messy with paint, particularly when you have 70 kids painting in the same space — the cafeteria. The teachers were wandering around with paper towels and wipes, reminding kids to clean up any drips and dribbles. At one point, a student hopped all the way across the cafeteria floor to me, asking for a wipe. He pointed to his shoe.

“I stepped on a glop of paint,” he chuckled, and indeed, the entire bottom of his show was now coated in black paint. Sigh. I handed him some wipes and watched him one-foot hop his way all the way across the cafeteria floor.

Clean-up was crazy and chaotic, and the end of the day was a mess of motion — moving posters to classrooms to dry, washing paint brushes, wiping the floor, handing out report cards, keeping track of everyone. I was happy for the quiet of the empty classroom.

Still, the posters are looking pretty darned good.

Making posters

Peace (it’s here),

St Paddy Day Tie

Slice of Life (Day 17): When Memes Creep into the Classroom

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write all through March, every day, about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

There’s a single line in the short Quidditch video that I shared with my sixth grade students yesterday that sparked an interesting reaction in all four classes that I teach. I was sharing a clip from the first Harry Potter movie, where Oliver Wood explains the game of Quidditch to a very young Harry.

The video, as well as one showing how they play Quidditch at the college level, is part of our work around our game of Quidditch, played for more than 12 years at my school and the 2017 Quidditch Championship is coming up in two weeks. (Video below is how we play our game)

The two videos set the stage for an activity in which students design and explain in writing how to play the play. It’s a lesson around different kinds of literacy — how a sports play diagram can be “read” and “written” — as well as reinforcing expository writing.

Anyway … in the movie video clip, Harry looks down at a box of Quidditch supplies.

“What are those?” Harry asks (at the 34 second mark, in case you are curious), pointing to a bludger bustling to burst out of the box.

What are those … students in every class echoed together as soon as they heard Harry speak the lines. What are those … What are those …

I had heard this phrase before, but not recently, and I never followed up with any research as to where it had gone viral, and why. Of course, yesterday afternoon, intrigued, I did some research, going to Know Your Meme site (bookmark that site, teachers) to find out what is up with what are those … I knew it had to do with shoes and a sweeping hand movement towards the feet. I had seen students doing that, and crowd giggling.

According to Know Your Meme:

On October 2nd, 2011, Urban Dictionary[4] user JOHNxRYAN95 created an entry for “What Are Those?”, defining it as a question yelled at someone wearing unkempt or off-brand footwear. On June 14th, 2015, Instagram user Brandon Moore (a.k.a. Young Busco) uploaded a video in which he confronts a police officer by loudly asking “What are those?” before panning to his black shoes (shown below). Within three weeks, the video gained over 2,300 likes and 1,200 comments.

And the What Are Those? meme became a hit on Vine, I guess, and I suspect this is where my students found the meme.

It looks like the meme peaked about a year ago (according to Google Trends graph) but I guess some viral sayings just stick with you.

What are those

What are those?

Peace (that’s what they are),


Slice of Life (Day 16): An Audience of Interactive Readers

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write all through March, every day, about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

As my students were finishing up their Interactive Fiction stories, they were curious to know what others had been writing, too. Of course, I told them to feel free to share their Make Your Own Ending Google Slide stories with others, in view or comment mode, but I also know that narrows the audience.

Reading Interactive Fiction Stories

So, we set up laptops around the room, pulled up Interactive Fiction stories, and I worked like a carnival barker, moving readers from one story to the next with chaotic efficiency. “Over here,” I’d yell, pointing to an empty computer. “Who hasn’t read this one yet? Step right up!”

Reading Interactive Fiction Stories

The result was a fun 20 minutes or so of just reading. This time, I didn’t have them keep reflection documents or any other element, other than an open mind and reader’s eyes. They loved it, moving from one story to the next, calling out encouragement to each other — “Hey, great story” and “I love that ending with the twist” and “Way to add humor to your story.”

Reading Interactive Fiction Stories

Wait. You want to read a story or two, too? Of course. Just follow the hyperlinks …. and I suggest you use the Full Screen mode, too.

Peace (every which way),


Slice of Life (Day 11): Quidditch Comes Early

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write all through March, every day, about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

Regular readers here (Thank you) will know that our school plays our version of the game of Quidditch, and we have a Quidditch Tournament Day every year in which all four sixth grade classes compete for a full day. It’s very fun and very crazy, and it’s a unique experience for our students. They may someday play Quidditch in college, but the college way is not our way, not by a long shot (and we think our rules and our game is much better than what is played on the college club circuit).

Quidditch Tshirts 2017

Quidditch comes early this year because of shifts in the standardized testing season, and with the tournament coming during the school day on March 30 (and at night, we teachers play the kids — our team name is Pink Fury), there is a lot to do with creating posters and, as they were doing yesterday, making t-shirts to wear on Tournament Day.

Quidditch Tshirts 2017

My class came up with the team name of Blue Barbarians, which is not a name our class (with main color, blue) has had before. We’re often a cold or ice name.

We made this video a few years ago to show other schools how we play our game. We’re OK if others “borrow” the rules and adapt for their own situations.

Given that our Quidditch season at school coincides with Slice of Life here at the blog, you can probably expect more updates through the month. We connect writing, art, and physical education. We work on teamwork and collaboration as a class community, and we talk about winning and losing and other social skills, and more … all connected to the notion of Literature in Motion that drives our Quidditch season.

Peace (in snitches and quaffles),


Interactive Fiction Invitation: Come Play Some Stories

Interactive Fiction Story Trees

The other day, I wrote about my sixth graders planning out and learning about Interactive Fiction. They are in the midst of creating their own stories, using Google Slides and Hyperlinks as the backbone technology for composition and publishing. A few students are nearing the end of their projects, so I figured I would share out a few for you to play, if you want.

So strange to say that — Playing the Story — but I do it all the time with my students in this writing unit, to enforce the mindset of a different kind of narrative writing and reading. It makes the story a game, of sorts, and puts them in a different kind of position as writers of the story.

Peace (follow every path),