Slice of Life: Hanging Out With Teachers

(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.)

sol16Our students had a half-day yesterday because of teacher professional development session, but the presenter for our afternoon session on literacy was sick so a collection of us teachers in grades four through six spent the afternoon talking about writing in the content areas.

It was fruitful, if only to have time to meet and talk with colleagues in other grades about teaching. We only rarely have time to collaborate with colleagues outside of our grade areas these days, given schedules and district priorities and such. To be honest, we also all have report cards on our mind (they go out on Monday).

After my school day ended, I zoomed off to the second session of a course I am co-facilitating with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project around using the Library of Congress digital archives for primary source and student inquiry projects. It was another great session, even though everyone was tired after a long day in the classroom. We spent a lot of time working on creating primary source text sets and developing lesson plans, as they will be teaching a lesson with primary sources and bringing student work back to our last session in three weeks.

I wrote about this professional development course and the work we are doing with the Library of Congress at Middleweb, if you are interested.

In both cases — at my school and at the PD session — the level of discussions, questions and sharing reminded me of the power of teachers coming together. While the impromptu session at my school could have used more structure, the conversations were valuable. In the evening session, the exploration of something new with student inquiry as the focus remains a spark of celebration. I am grateful to have been part of both.

Peace (and connect),

Slice of Life: Of Zooks and Yooks

(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.)

sol16This is a sort of deja vu slice, since I think I have likely written about what I do for Dr. Seuss Day and Read Across America Day (they were both yesterday) at least once or twice in past Slice of Life. But I still enjoy digging out my Seuss The Butter Battle Book to share with my sixth graders on that day.

The real lesson for literature is Allegory (a term none were familiar with) and history (The Cold War) but any reason to bring out a Dr. Seuss book is fine by me. Not many have had The Butter Battle Book read to them (a few had watched the video version at some point) and I made sure my reading style projected both the absurdity of the tale (butter? bread? Yooks? Zooks?) with the sharp political commentary of the Cold War’s nuclear arms race.

I even found a great chart online that connected the symbolism of the book with geopolitics of the Cold War age, which led to long discussions in each class about the Berlin Wall, for example, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

You can’t go wrong with Seuss.

Peace (let is be now and into the future),

Words They Invented: 2016 Edition of the Crazy Collaborative Dictionary

Invented Words 2016

Each year, my students invent new words as part of our Word Origins unit. As we explore the many ways words come into the English Language (with a heavy emphasis on roots, prefix and suffix to support vocabulary acquisition), they invent some new words and then choose one of their words to donate.


Yes, they donate their word to an ongoing endeavor called The Crazy Collaborative Dictionary Project. Now in its 11th year, and more than 800 words strong, the dictionary project collects invented words each year. I can’t believe we are still doing it but we are, and each year, the students are intrigued by the project.

The word cloud above is the crop of words from this year’s classes that will be added to the dictionary in the coming week or two. Students also record themselves, saying their words and definitions, so that their voice becomes part of the dictionary project.

Peace (in the word),

PS .. and of course, there is Frindle as our inspiration …

Frindle: Words from Mr. Hodgson on Vimeo.

At MiddleWeb: Science-themed Research Projects

ncle brief

(My piece was the lead-off in this education newsletter, which is pretty neat)

I wrote my latest column at MiddleWeb about our science-based research project, in which I tried to balance an openness for students to choose topics while digging into elements of research itself. I think the results from students were pretty strong in terms of writing and researching. Plus, they did media projects as extension activities.

Come read Enter the Research at MiddleWeb

Peace (in the sharing),

Bob: Weird Al, Dylan and Palindromes

semordnilaP htiw yaD sdrawkcaB detarbeleC eW

Yesterday, our school celebrated Backwards Day as part of a Spirit Week event planned by our Student Council (of which I am the advisor). Lots of kids had clothes on backwards but I struggled myself on how to demonstrate Backwards Day.

My co-teacher came to the rescue with a brilliant idea: “Let’s do palindromes today.”

Only one or two students in my four classes knew what a palindrome even was, so it was a fun lesson but also gave them some other ways to think about playful language (and comes right after our unit on Word Origins ends).

To show palindromes, we shared this Weird Al video, called Bob, which is full of palindromes in a fun way that only Weird Al can pull off, and as with most of his videos, it is also an homage to music.

In this case, the video references almost completely the famous Bob Dylan video for Subterranean Homesick Blues from the early 1960s. There were even fewer hands in the room when I asked, who knows who Bob Dylan is? So, I gave them a Dose of Bob, with this video and some discussion of his impact on music as a songwriter/poet/lyricist, and talked, too, about the Remix Culture, of riffing off the original to make something new and entertaining.

Then, they illustrated a bunch of palindromes (Taco Cat remained a fan favorite) and tried their hand at coming up with their own (a very difficult task for many). So, they got some writing, some music history, some remix concepts and had fun. All in the name of being backwards.

Peace (ecaeP),

Book Review: Book (My Autobiography)

You know those moments when serendipity hits?

I had one of those moments yesterday, as I brought my son to the library and stumbled, just as I was thinking of creative non-fiction that would make sense in my classroom, on Book: My Autobiography by John Agard (illustrations by Neil Packer). There the book was, just sitting on a bookcase, with the word “Book” facing me. I picked it up and was immediately lost in the story. Took it home. Kept on reading. Kept on thinking.

Book tells the story of the book, in a very creative narrative style, bringing us Book as the narrator of the book through the ages. It begins with:

My name is BOOK and I’ll tell you the story of my life.”

And from there, it moves briskly through ancient times of writing across cultures, through the refinement of paper, to moveable type to the Age of eBooks. The voice is poetic, and funny, with enough research behind the story of Book to provide multiple in-roads for discussions about various cultural advancements (Egypt, China, India, Sumar, etc.). The text is also complimented with rich illustrations and a handful of poems about reading and writing and books as physical objective manifested with imagination.

Book is my kind of book.

As I was reading, I was remembering an old unit I used to do around the printing press and newspapers (it was a Student Teacher project). I had this activity where students created their own moveable press device for printing text. And as I read further, I could see timeline constructions, argumentative writing, and mapping activities and more as I read this story. Mapping the changes of how we write and how we read … that’s a perfect text for the kinds of discussions we have in our classroom on a regular basis, to be honest.

As it happens, this year’s class parents are asking about how they can give a “gift” to our grade from fundraising money they have, and they wondered if a book set might be possible … so I see this as one possibility. (Cost might be prohibitive, though, as it is only in hardcover right now).

It also has been reminding of me this cute video from a few years ago (which is a version of the picture book). The video is a trailer for It’s a Book by Lane Smith:

Peace (in the love of books),

Workshop: Video Game Design, Science and Writing

Game Design Workshop TIE

Today, my science teaching colleague, Lisa Rice, and I will head to a local technology in education conference to present our collaborative science-based video game design project. I’ve written a lot about what we do over the years in various spaces, and I have presented about it before, but this is her first time presenting, and so I am excited to give her an opportunity to share her knowledge as a teacher and collaborator. (Our principal, technology director and our school superintendent will be at the conference, too, and we hear they will be in our session.)

The keynote speaker will be my National Writing Project colleague, Antero Garcia, and the overall theme of the conference is all about Connected Learning. Antero will no doubt be talking about youth action projects, as he has done a lot of work and writing and research in that area of Connected Learning and Participatory Culture.

We only have an hour in our game workshop session, but I still hope I have time to pull out Uno cards and dice, and get the participants hacking a collaborative game, if only to experience the act of game design. I also see it as another venue to showcase work of students and to validate how video game design can find a place in the ELA classroom (particularly with a science connection).

Peace (in the share),

Video Game Design: Plenty O’ Reflecting

Video Game Journal Collage 2016

We’re at the tail end of our science-based video game design project that lasted through much of December, and I have been spending time this weekend reading through the online Game Designer’s Journals that students kept as the project unfolded. I wish I had budgeted even more time for reflective writing because the entries in the journals give such a good glimpse into what they were doing and learning and thinking about.

I’ve been going in to each student’s game designer journals and leaving comments and ideas about what I saw in their games (I have played nearly 65 video games since holiday break) and what I see in their reflective writing.

Peace (beyond the game),


Deconstructing Video Game Advertisements (and Making Their Own)

Game Advertising1

I have the good fortune of having a very talented paraprofessional in my classroom for one period each day. She is compassionate and firm and helpful. She also had a career in design and advertising before coming into education, so when I was thinking of a lesson plan around Video Game Advertising and the use of persuasive media and writing, I asked if she would lead part of the lesson.

She said yes, and yesterday, our students were engaged in deconstructing advertisements in order to create their own advertisements for their science-based video game projects (with central themes of Buoyancy and Gravity).

She brought her own experiences in designing brochures for the company she used to work for, explaining techniques for blocking out advertisements in draft form, how to consider audience for a product, using “loaded words” to sway the customer, the importance of catch-phrases/slogans, how fonts can be most effectively used, and ways to avoid “floating texts.”

I learned a lot just from listening to her, honing in on the power of art and words together to create persuasive text/media.

Game Advertisement Deconstruction

I created a slideshow of video game advertisements for the lesson, and after deconstructing the first one, we had students talking through what they saw in the other ones, noticing what seemed most effective.

Game Advertising2


Then, they got to work. And work, they did. It was an incredible contrast to what I described in my post yesterday — when we had some chaos in the room during a peer review activity of video games. They were intensely engaged in this advertisement activity. Most will be finishing up today, our last day before holiday break.

I can’t wait to see what they have created ..

Peace (free of charge, always),

Slice of Life: Well, That Was Chaotic

(This is for Slice of Life, a weekly writing invitation by Two Writing Teachers to capture moments in our lives. Come write with us.)

Buoyancy Games Collage

Well, that was chaotic.

My goal in class yesterday was pretty straightforward. We are working on nearing the end of our Science-based Video Game Design unit, and peer-review/play-testing is an important element for young game designers to gather an outside perspective. When you build a video game, you know all the ins and outs of it — all the tricks of the game —  and at some point, that is not a good thing. You lose perspective.

What you need is an outside voice. A player to play your game.

So, our activity had students working the room, playing each other’s games in a rather logical sequential order, and writing out “warm” and “cool” feedback on the games. We’ve used this same strategy with writing this year, so it is not new. I even had sentence starters for both feedback points on the interactive board and situated around the room as paper copies.

But clearly, giving feedback on writing (while not easy) is much more focused than giving feedback on student-created video games. I don’t know what I expected but the craziness that ensued was not quite it.

First of all, every game took a different amount of time to complete, so we were never quite in sync with the rotations. Some were still playing while others were done and ready to move on.

Second, the designers of the video games kept their eyes and ears open for players talking about their games, and they would leave the game they were play-testing to talk to the players of their game. That messed up the whole rotation idea. (It also made me think, next time I am going to more of a partner/feedback activity to allow for this to happen in a more controlled fashion.)

Third, I had to keep emphasizing that “cool” feedback did not mean merely writing “this is hard.” Some of the games are indeed hard to beat and play. That’s why we were getting a peer reviewer, to give that perspective. Instead, I said over and over and over (and over and over and over) that good advice would follow that with “and here is my recommendation …” and be specific.

Fourth, the noise noise noise noise. Ok. So my room can get noisy at times, particularly with game design when work and sharing and socializing seem to mingle more than usual, but this was just a bit too noisy even for me. (Good thing my supervisor didn’t wander in). I suspect it is the combination of holidays – vacation – game design – adolescence. I needed ear plugs.

I would not call the peer review/play-testing activity a failure, but I was not sure I quite achieved what I hoped for — the learning objective centered on giving and receiving specific feedback on a project that will provide insights for revision and improvement.

And then .. and then … as they shifted back to our games, I noticed so many of them reading with attention the comments left on their games by peers, and then they were asking follow-up questions, and then some of them (thankfully) began the process of revising levels — adding more lives, fixing the narrative text, revisiting the science concepts, removing obstacles — and suddenly, the chaos was worth it.

Some days are just like that, aren’t they?

Peace (beyond the games),

PS — this chart that I put together one year guides my thinking here ..

Writing and Game Design Compared