Sparking Creative Thinking and Rich Imagination

Peter and Paul Reynolds visit Norris

Is there anything better than bringing some talented guests into a classroom and school who then urge everyone in the room, teachers included, to lead a creative life full of possibilities?

That was the clear message from writer/illustrator Peter Reynolds and his equally talented brother, Paul Reynolds, as they visited my school to observe students working on a digital picture book site and to give an uplifting presentation to all sixth graders.

My students are using an early iteration of a platform that the Reynolds’ media company — Fablevision — is testing out as a means for young people to write and publish a book. (I’ll write more at some later date about that). Peter and Paul, and their sister Jane, who leads a school in England, and Andrea, who works at Fablevision, arrived at the start of the school day, and watched my students working on their digital picture books. My National Writing Project friend, Judy Buchanan, was also there, as NWP is my connection to Fablevision.

willow and macy and peter reynolds

(image courtesy of Paul Reynolds)

There were so many positive interactions, it’s hard to pinpoint the power of my students not just meeting a very famous author/illustrator, but also, to get to chat personally with him and to let him, and the others, read their draft stories. I had a whole group of students beaming all day, and walking on air, because they got some advice and support from Peter Reynolds.

trisha and peter reynolds

(image courtesy of Paul Reynolds)

In the presentation to the entire sixth grade, both Reynolds exuded positiveness about possibilities of the world, and encouraged students to use their imagination and to imagine the possible. When asked what his favorite book was when he was growing up, Peter Reynolds pulled out a blank book, with empty pages, and said, This was my favorite book. The kids loved that.

What a nice counterpoint this all was to the state testing season that just ended last week, where students are shoved into boxes of expectations. You have to know this. You have to know that. One answer only, please. Follow the rules.

The Reynolds’ message and Fablevision philosophy– which resonated with many of students, as evident by our discussions later and the energy level for the rest of the day — was quite the opposite of that.

Peter Reynolds talked of being a dreamer as a student, of doodling his ideas. He described how “When I read words, they turn into pictures in my head.” It was Peter’s math teacher, who told him to illustrate a math concept that led to Peter creating a comic book that led to his first animation movie as a 12 year old that put him on the path to writing books such as The Dot, and Ish, and many more (including the illustrations of the Judy Moody books and the Stink books).

We need more creative thinking, not less, and I applaud the Reynolds and Fablevision for staying true to that philosophy in all that they do — from books to software to video animations and more.

Peace (in deep thanks),
Kevin

… And Miles To Go … (before the school year ends)


flickr photo shared by *s@lly* under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

A good friend of mine asked me in a social media space if my school year was over yet. A lot of my connected colleagues are university professors, so many of them just got past their “crazy zone” of activities. (or they are correcting final papers before grade submittal deadlines)

Me?

Not. Hardly. There. Yet.

We still have a month or so to go, even with an early year thanks to a slow New England winter, and we have lots of things yet to be accomplished with my sixth graders.

Let’s see …

  • We have a digital picture book project in the mix right now, where they are creating a story about their years in elementary school;
  • We have an argumentative writing piece to undertake next week, which is designed around synthesizing the reading of three texts and developing an essay with claims/counterclaims;
  • We have a digital writing portfolio to assemble in Google Sites (I wrote about part of this project over at Middleweb);
  • We have an idea brewing for creating a Fan Site for some topic of their choosing (novel, author, movie, television show, etc.);
  • And daily writing and reading of novels, too.

Yeah. We’re going to get all that done, and more, too. In the middle of the day, when kids are getting all summer-brained and showing odd end-of-year-social-itis, I don’t know how we will get it all done.

But we will. We’ll get it done. We still have miles to go before ….


flickr photo shared by alt1040 under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Peace (in the think),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Fostering Fan Fiction

sol16

Can I confess? I was inspired to do this writing activity …. by PARCC. There, I said it. I never would have even thought of writing a sentence like that. But, it’s true. Our state has merged some PARCC elements into our state testing this year, and the PARCC Literary Task reminded me of Fan Fiction, and so …

Let me back up. My students are deep into their independent reading books this time of year. I give them a good 20 minutes every class period to stretch out around the room and read, quietly. Even in May, with the end of the year jitters in the air, they revel in their quiet reading mode, and complain loudly if they don’t get that time. How great is that, eh?

We’ve been doing writing about reading activities, but the other day, a few weeks after getting them ready for the state ELA test, one element of the new PARCC elements has stayed with me as something rather interesting. In the task, students are given a passage from a novel or short story, and then they are to either continue the scene or do some variation of the story, paying attention to character or setting or whatever.

It dawned on me one day that this writing assignment was really just a twist on Fan Fiction, and that I could easily get students thinking in terms of the ways that technology and social spaces encourage readers to become writers. It also harkened back to a keynote address by Antero Garcia at a local technology conference, where he extolled the Connected Learning virtues of Fan Fiction communities. That planted a seed that just needed time to grow.

So yesterday, I gave a mini-lesson to my students on what Fan Fiction is (a fair number knew the term but not too much about what it was) and how it works. I mentioned how some Fan Fiction writers connect with others in online spaces (like one of the Harry Potter site that has 80,000 fan fiction stories) around shared interests of books and authors,  and then:

  • write prequels
  • write sequels
  • spin off minor characters
  • create alternative histories
  • create alternative story paths
  • mashup characters and settings from different novels

So, we wrote, and then, instead of sharing out the stories they wrote, we shared out the technique they used to write their Fan Fiction stories, and the struggles they encountered (or not) in doing so. It was such an interesting discussion, and I think many now have their interest piqued about Fan Fiction. Certainly, all have now experienced it as a reader/writer.

Side Note 1: So, I did not get into some of the adult themes that emerge for some Fan Fiction sites, such as sexual trysts and other, eh, explicit materials. And I realize a day late that I should have broached the copyright conundrum (is it protected derivative work?) of using someone else’s material for your own writing, and publishing it to the public view. Obviously, this did not pertain to our writing activity, where the stories were in their writing notebooks, but still …

Side Note 2: I wrote, too, of course, taking a minor character from the book I was just finishing up — The Boy Who Lost Fairyland — and creating a short story that could have happened in the book during a time gap when the character was “off stage.” The character is a magical Gramophone, who spins records to communicate, and I had the character, Scratch, meet with a mysterious character who is a DJ who spins discs. You can see where my story was going, right? Scratch gets scratched into a little hip-hop in the Fairyland. It was blast, writing it.

Peace (among the fans),
Kevin

Getting Groans and Writing Poems (for Two Voices)

Poems for Two Mathematical Voices

I knew this assignment would elicit some groans. And so it did. We were nearing the end of our poetry unit with Poems for Two Voices, and with our state math test on the horizon, I decided to have them write Poems for Two Voices on a math theme.

Poems for Two Mathematical Voices

You’d have thought I had told them to stick their toes into a vat of boiling tar. It’s funny how much kids create these illusionary walls between curricular areas. What do you mean, we are writing in social studies? Why are we learning argument writing in science? Why is math the topic of our poetry?

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 5.17.18 AM

But the reality is, we live in an interdisciplinary world, right? So, the more we do a bit of everything — particularly literacy — in the content areas, the better off our students will be.

Thus: poems with a math concept.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 5.19.35 AM

In reality (teacher moment), the writing of the poems became another way for me (in support of our math teacher) to go over math vocabulary in a way beyond the textbook. I won’t say too many of the poems were deep explorations of mathematical themes (far too many were addition vs subtraction … boring) but learning a new form of poem with an underlying element like math does make for something different.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 5.19.13 AM

So, I ignore the groans as they write the poems! And then, they sat with partners and read their poems (as these should be) with partners to get a feel and sense of the flow.

Peace (in the poem),
Kevin

Collaboration and Chaos: The Best Laid Plans Sometimes Fall Apart

Collaborative HaikuI am a big fan of the potential of collaborative projects. I’ve instigated my fair share of activities in online spaces, inviting people to make with me, and I’ve participated in even more. There’s often a certain “magic” with writing and creating with other people with digital tools that demonstrates attributes that get at the heart of how technology is changing the ways we learn. Collaboration has often been the heart and soul of the Making Learning Connected MOOC (and some of us still hope to launch a version of CLMOOC this summer) and Digital Writing Month and Rhizomatic Learning, etc.

I’ve done versions of those projects in my classroom, too, but harnessing the energy of 12 year olds can be a bit tricky, so I often have to think through the process before launching into them.

A collaborative poetry project this week reminded me of the difficulties of working with young writers not all that accustomed to working with others this way. We’ve used the “sharing” element of Google Docs and Slides this year, mostly for peer feedback. I know they share with friends, and I’ve seen some “side projects” among them.

In this case, I created a large Google Slideshow for our haikus, and told them to “choose a blank slide as your own” and create a haiku image. I also did a mini-lesson on using Creative Commons images as well as design principles, which we clearly are still working on. I had this vision of a beautiful and engaging activity, where nearly 80 haikus with images from across four classes would come together in a seamless way.

I reminded them not to tinker with anyone else’s slides because it was an quasi-open slideshow (they needed to be logged into school Google accounts to access it).

You see where this is going?

The first class of the day was wonderful. They did a great job, although some of their images wouldn’t load later in the day. It went nearly exactly as I planned. It was downhill from there. The second class did fine, but I got a few who shouted across the room to other students to “get out of my slide.” Some were confusing the icons at the top of the project (which shows all collaborators) with intrusion into an individual slide. A mini-lesson ensued.

The third class had trouble right at the start because the wireless connection caused the slideshow to load slow, and some chose what seemed to be an empty slide, only to realize it wasn’t empty after all. And some students there tried to leave little notes for friends in their slides. That got some writers upset.

The fourth class (a challenging group at times) .. I decided to assign a slide number of blank slides for each to work on. You are Slide 56. You are Slide 74. This seemed logical to me at the time as a way to avoid confusion over who was working in which slides.

But then, someone added in a few slides at the start, by accident (maybe), and all of the numbered slides were suddenly off, and so we had some more confusion over which person had which number. Someone deleted a blank slide. The numbers were off yet again. Another student accidentally set her image as the theme for the entire slideshow, so that now everyone had an image of green grass as their background. Shouts and murmurs. The “undo” key fixed it but not before a wave of complaints hit the air.

Collaboration suddenly edged up to chaos. It was like some strange comedy routine unfolding in a virtual space in real time.

At that point, I just said “grab a slide and add your poem” and let it be what it was. The result is an interesting slideshow, and a story to tell, but not everyone got their poems into the collaboration project. The ones that are there are very cool, though. I still love the idea.

And off course, I have not given up on collaboration. Still, my experience does raise the question of how to best guide students in this kind of low-stakes activity. And it reminds me, too, of why many teachers often don’t take that step forward into online collaboration. I was doing a lot of unexpected management of collaboration when what I really wanted the day built on implicit trust that they could do this rather simple task of collaboration.

What I forgot to remember was the innate curiosity and social nature of sixth graders. Duh.

Peace (in collaboration with you),
Kevin

 

Interact: A Q from a Past S


flickr photo shared by monojussi under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

I received this email the other day from a past student. They were in one of the first classes I ever used Twine with, as we were crafting interactive fiction stories as a writing activity. Years later, I guess that experience still sticks.

Dear Mr. Hodgson,

               Hi, how are you? I need a refresher on how to operate the Twine program for my science project. Is their any written form of instructions to operate the system that I could have a copy of? Or any other ideas to help me with my project will be fine. Thank you for time, I look forward to hear from you.
Sincerely,
(Student)

I was so happy to hear from this student because I last saw them in the high school theater production but I was also very happy that they were asking about how to use something we did in sixth grade for a high school project. That’s pretty cool, eh?

I sent this email, and a few others have gone back and forth in the last few days between us.

Hi (Student)
It’s great to hear from you.
Twine has a new version out, called Twine 2. It’s more web browser-based and more stable, I think.
For the older version of Twine, which was a software download, which we used in class, I always went to this site for help and instructions
We have begun using Google Slides and hyperlinks that jump from slide to slide as our main tool for Interactive Stories. It’s been pretty effective. You can do it right in your school Google account.
Inkewriter is another online tool
I hope that helps. Let me know how it goes. I’d love to play your project!
Sincerely,
Mr. Hodgson

I really do hope they sent me their project to play.

Peace (interact),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Art on a Large Scale

Polar Vortex Quidditch

On Thursday, we hold our annual (17th annual, apparently) Quidditch Tournament. The other day, all four sixth grade classes were hard at work on posters. There were kids and posters and paints everywhere in the cafeteria. It was pretty cool to see the floor turned into a colorful art gallery. We don’t do enough of those kind of large-scale art endeavors like we should. The banner posters (our team name is Polar Vortex) will hang up on the gym walls on behalf of each of the four teams that will play all day long before crowds of younger students and parents and others.

I gave my blue t-shirt to some students to paint for me (they are working on their own, too). They gave me a nickname and a number, and I am just about ready to coach, and have a blast.

Then, on Thursday night, after a full day of running and jumping and competing, the students get to team up and play against us teachers (our team name: Pink Fury). I’m tired just thinking about it.

:)

Peace (in the art),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: The Mosaic Project — Imagine and Create

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

School Mosaic

I was not part of this project. Our art teacher and a visiting artist worked with students in our school to create this amazing mosaic project on the theme of “create” and “imagine” and it hangs right outside my classroom right now. I am one lucky teacher.

Every time I wander by, I see stories emerging from the tiles of this mosaic. Students in the upper grades worked during a week on this, designing the images and laying out the tiles. The closer you get, the more detailed it becomes. But even from a distance, there is creativity in bloom.

School Mosaic

This is what school is about. Where else would most of these kids have a chance to do a full mosaic art project like this? And what a gift to the school for years to come. Did I mention it is right outside my classroom?

<grin>

Peace (in the imagination of creativity),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Clockstoppers and Timetellers

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

sol16Friday mornings, we do our fluoride in the classroom. About half the kid grab their cups of stuff (the other half don’t participate) and, at this point in the year, I tell them to time themselves for a minute. They stare at the clock on the wall, in a sort of trance, watching the second hand tick the seconds away.

Interestingly, it is one of the few times they make note of the analog clock in the room.

In almost every other occasion other than fluoride time, when they have to pay attention to the minute mark, they squint at my active board for the small digital clock in the upper corner. Sometimes, they don’t notice that I have the board on “freeze” mode (so the screen stays frozen and I can work on my computer) and they become lost in time. I had one student yesterday, signing out for the bathroom, who kept looking back and forth from the screen to the wall clock, trying to figure out why they were not in sync.


flickr photo shared by Bennett 4 Senate under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

On some mornings, like yesterday, right around 9 a.m., our wall clock sometimes … stops. Just pauses. Takes a break. It’s the building clock system adjusting to “real time,” I guess, but when it happens — when the hands of time come to a complete and full stop — all the swishing-spitting kids’ eyes bulge out, as if they can’t believe it. As if it hasn’t happen many Fridays before. They point with dramatic fingers at the clock, and try to get my attention. As if I can fix it.


flickr photo shared by bibendum84 under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

I nod, as if knowingly, and say, “Well, I guess your teeth get a little extra protection this morning,” to which their reply is as predictable as mine: a shake of theirs head in a dramatic “nooooooooo” shake and then relief when the clock starts up again.

The more attuned kids have realized by now that the second wall clock in the room — the one I brought in from home, with a saxophone on it — may be “off time” a bit from the world of Time, give or take five minutes, but it never stops working. Therefore, it’s a much better device for fluoride. I think the other just like the idea of watching time stand still.

Peace (in the seconds),
Kevin

Slice of Life: The Return of the Polar Vortex

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

sol16If you have read my blog over the years in March, you know that our school plays a version of Quidditch that is now in its 15th year, I believe. Each year, each sixth grade class decides on a team name and in April, we hold a full-day Quidditch Championship celebration, and the whole school comes out to watch the sixth graders play.

It’s crazy fun, and we weave in all sorts of art and writing activities into the mix.

I have a whole process for how my homeroom class chooses its team name, from brainstorming to voting. Our main color is blue, so we often have cold or water themes. Alas. But as with last year, this year’s group of students had already mostly agreed on a name before the voting happened (with a name suggested by the quietest student in the room, which I think is great) — we did the voting anyway, just in case anyone had other ideas not yet considered.

In the end, they chose the name “Polar Vortex” — which I like now that winter is nearing an end — over the second place choice — Arctic Apocalypse (which I have a hard time spelling, and which is hard to say) —  and this is our student-created team design that will go on the T-shirts they are making, as well as posters we will be creating in the coming weeks.

polar vortex

And this is how you play our game:

Peace (on the Quidditch Pitch),
Kevin