The Scent of Books and the Tangible Experience of Reading

I guess I have been more aware of the tangible nature of books lately, for whatever reason. It began with receiving The Marvels book by Brian Selznick and has kept in the back of my mind as I have been reading some Sheldon comic collections by Dave Kellett on my iPad with the Kindle app.

I’m noticing form and function as I read, and paying attention to the beauty with physical books, in contrast to the flexibility and accessibility of digital books. I’m no Luddite, of course. But I’ve never been an e-reader sort of person. I do use the Kindle app to read e-books when I need to, and appreciate some of its attributes of annotation and bookmarking. But it’s not my preferential reading experience, however. On airplane trips, I’d still rather lug around a huge novel than open up the app on my mobile device.

So, yesterday, when one of my students brought in a gift from parents — the new illustrated version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — the entire class surrounded her in wonder at this beautiful book that has amazingly colorful illustrations. She said her mom pre-ordered it back in February, and she has been waiting (not really patiently) for it arrive. She was so excited, hugging the book as if she never wanted to let it go.

At one point, she opened the book up and put her nose right down into the spine. She closed her eyes as she inhaled deeply. We all watched her, curious.

“I love the smell of new books,” she said, smiling but sincere. “There’s something about that new book smell.”

A friend was standing next to her. This friend is another book lover whose father, I know, collects antique books. This friend nodded, in agreement to the comment, but then added an ancillary thought of her own.

“And the smell of old books, too. There’s something mysterious about the smell of old books,” she said, almost wistfully, as if she was imagining herself wandering through an old bookstore. I thought of my own childhood adventures in old book stores and in libraries, about the undiscovered stories and yes, the scent of those collections still linger in my memory.

I nodded in agreement to both of them. In the back of my mind, I thought: no e-book reader will never get a comment about the sense of smell like that and the way that sensory experience provides an emotional connection to a book. (Should I say “never” here? Who knows what sensory experiences they might build into the e-reader in the future? I should know better, perhaps and yet …)

There sure is something tangible and experiential about physical books — the ones with the covers and the paper pages. It’s the scent of a shared love of stories, of the ideas of writers, of other readers before you, of characters that move you and settings that draw you in. It’s the sense of magic about to unfold, and I still believe that the reader-to-book experience doesn’t quite cross the lines in the age of digital e-readers.

Peace (under and inside the pages),

PS — Ironically, Apple announced that is now has interactive Harry Potter e-books available (no doubt, part of some marketing effort connected to the release of the illustrated book). While I admit to being intrigued to what those might look like, I’d be more apt to shell out the cost for the hardcover illustrated Harry Potter that my student owns.

Student Mentor Texts: Hooking the Reader

At the start of this school year, and in the midst of our first real writing project, my students are writing short stories. Our focus is on “strong story openers to grab the reader’s attention,” among other things. It’s all about hooks, dialogue, inference and tension.

I’ve been showing some mentor texts and now that my sixth graders have enough written, I can begin to share some of their own writing as mentor texts. I’ll be post about a dozen openings around the classroom, and I created this Slides show as a way to publish at our class blog site, too. (Slides is like any presentation software, but I like how it has a folded box effect.)

I’d go full screen for better reading here, but you can also just glide through the show to get a sense of the stories and the writing, and how Slides works.

Peace (just gotta read about it),


Teacher-Writer, Annotate Thyself

Using comments via google docs

We’re in the midst of a short story unit right now, and my sixth graders are deeply engaged in writing a story. I gave them complete freedom on the story idea, and have been focusing in on strong openings, formatting of dialogue and plot design. This is their first endeavor in Google Docs, and they love it and I love it.

And we haven’t even gotten into any of the collaborative tools at our disposal yet ….

As per my norm (not Norm, from Cheers. Norm!), I am writing a story alongside them. (You can read my progress so far, if that interests you) Actually, when I am not conferencing with them about their stories, I am writing my story, and projecting it up on the interactive board, so they can track my progress as I write, revise, rewrite.

They are fascinated with me as a writer, it turns out. I worry about my writing being intimidating to them, but that hasn’t seemed to happen at all.

I’m starting to annotate my thinking of my own story, too, to show them how a writer might reflect on the act of writing. This is all part of our digital portfolio work. Soon, I will be having them shift from writer to reflector of writing, and I need to model some of the ways this looks. Using the comment feature on Google Docs seems like a good way for me to do this, and it has been helpful.

The act of annotation, particularly of your own writing, forces you to consider agency. What choices did I make? Why this and not that? How did I overcome the obstacle presented by that cliffhanger? Where did I get tied in knots and how did I undo those knots to keep the story moving along?

I know, as a writer, I do these unconsciously, without thinking. I am forcing myself to become more transparent in my writing practice, in hopes that it provides a path for those students who struggle with the reflective stance. It is one of those critical thinking skills that some of 11 year olds get, and some don’t quite get.

Peace (off to the side of the world),

Writing Goals for Writing

As I’ve mentioned, I am piloting a digital portfolio system this year with my sixth graders, and I am trying to establish some reflective practice as they are writing throughout the year. Setting goals for writing class is one of those early activities, so they were working last week in Google Docs and then in Google Slides to establish three goals for themselves as writers this year.

I did model my own, but as I look over all of the goals that were submitted, I notice that too few were very specific enough, and I suspect we will be revisiting the goals, revising a bit to get more specific. (Now I know why we have SMART goals as teachers, with the emphasis on “measurable” in the mix).

Still, I was pleased by much of what my students wrote about wanting to accomplish this school year. There are budding poets, and story writers, and there are even those who know they need to be more attentive to spelling and grammar. A few chose expository writing and research writing as areas that will be on their radar screen. More than handful referenced technology and media as elements of writing in their goals.

Peace (in looking ahead),

Students, Meet Calvin and Hobbes

I guess I fulfilled my duty yesterday in my role as arbitrator of fine literature as I pulled out some classic Calvin and Hobbes comic strips to use as texts for lessons around writing and formatting dialogue (this is always an issue with my sixth graders.)

I did a little informal polling, too. I asked, how many have heard or read Calvin and Hobbes? I teach four classes, of about 80 sixth graders, and only seven students TOTAL raised their hands in response. The rest had never seen nor heard of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.

What a travesty!

And one that I quickly remedied, as first I gave an overview of the classic comic strip and then introduced all of the main characters to them, and then each student received a page with three Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, and began the task of rewriting the dialogue as a short vignette, using proper formatting.

The best part of the lesson?

The giggles and the sharing of the comics with neighbors (every student got three different comics on their page) and those who asked, Where can I get a collection of these comics to read for myself? (I have some, of course, but my sons would get angry at me for taking them into school. Our Calvin and Hobbes books are read all the time in my house.) Maybe a new generation of Calvin and Hobbes fans is being born right now after a little taste of goodness and mischief and imagination.

Mr. Watterson, you’re very welcome.

Which reminds me: I have yet to watch the documentary — Dear Mr. Watterson — on Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes, and I know it is on Netflix. I might need to do a little viewing this weekend.

Peace (in the panel),

My (Teaching) Writing Goals and the Start of Digital Portfolios

My sixth students are in the midst of developing some writing goals for themselves for the school year. They’re doing this work as their very first pieces of writing in Google Apps in Education system, which we activated last week for them, by first brainstorming in Google Docs and then moving into Google Slides to create a “writing goals” presentation.

All of this goal-setting is the start of a digital portfolio system I am piloting this year with our sixth graders (which is connected to an inquiry project that came out of the Making Learning Connected MOOC this past summer), and I am spending the year putting things into place for what this will look like. I’m learning as I go, to be frank. I still don’t have a clear picture of the “finished project” and am working on the best way to have them collect work and reflect on their own writing in a meaningful way.

Luckily, I have a few upcoming conferences in October (at our Western Massachusetts Writing Project site and at the online 4C Digital Writing Conference event) where student writing portfolios are topics of sessions. I am hoping to gather some insights and ideas from other teachers.

At our Curriculum Night last week, parents were very intrigued by the concept of digital writing portfolios, particularly when I explained how these pieces of writing in our sixth grade would follow them up to the regional middle/high schools, with the hope that other teachers in our system will have students add to them, creating a six-year portfolio of writing and reflections. I’m not saying that will happen, but I would love for that to happen.

As usual, since I had my students working on some goals for writing class, I worked on some of my own goals, too, as (teaching) writing goals, which I shared out with them on Friday as they began work. It also gave me a chance to show how Slides works (and to realize that only five out of nearly 80 sixth graders have ever created a Powerpoint or slideshow before …. interesting, right?) My goals here are slightly different than my SMART goals for our school administration (which both center around instituting digital portfolios as reflective writing spaces).

Peace (that’s our goal, right?),

Documenting Our Dreams and Aspirations

Dream Scene Collection 2015

What we were making for the first few weeks of school. This Dream Scene project is a stalwart for me, as it fuses student engagement with technology, writing about aspirations and sparks lots of discussions about where they see themselves in the future.

The arrows should move you along through this Flickr album.

Dream Scenes 2015

Peace (keep the dream alive),

Six Word Webcomic Memoirs

I’ve written about this project before at Middleweb, and yet, every year that I put this Six Word Memoir out to sixth graders as an extension activity, I am always amazed at what they create.

Here are some of this year’s memoirs. I put them into a digital flipbook this year for easier sharing and embedding in our classroom blog site:

Peace (in six),

Getting Sticky with It: Reflection and Revision Practice

rikki tikki exemplar sticky notes

It may be early in the school year, but we’re moving right into the craft of writing. While we will shift into some narrative, creative writing next week, these first two weeks have had a focus on the start of “response to literature” writing pieces. This is a big focus of sixth grade — responding to reading, using evidence from the text, adding insights to understanding.

Yesterday, I shared four “not-really-random” student samples of some open responses that they wrote a few days ago (after listening to Rikki Tikki Tavi, they wrote about protagonist and antagonist), and we went through an activity in which students read the sample responses, identified strengths in the pieces before them, put observations on sticky notes, and then stuck the notes up on the wall where the student exemplars were located.

I like the visual here (who doesn’t love sticky notes?), and I like making the notes about the positive public to the students. But most of all, I loved the conversations we had about “noticing” and “reflecting” on the pieces, particularly as they made connections to their own writing. This reflective stance and being able to see the strategies of others is the first step in a year-long push for reflective practice.

Reflection will move into revision, if all goes according to plan. But you can’t revise if you don’t see what needs revising, right?

Peace (in the reflect),

Two Funny, Slightly Scary Pop Culture Moments

Last week, there were two moments that stood out for me on the first days of school because they shone a light on the influence of pop culture and television programming on my sixth graders. Both were funny, but also … a little disconcerting.

First, every morning, our school has the typical “morning announcements” on our system television, and music comes on as a way to alert us to turn on our televisions. The music choice is recommended by students, but ultimately approved by a teacher in charge of morning announcements. We have preschool through sixth grade in our school, so no Kanye … if you know what I mean.

On Friday, the theme from the Little Einsteins show came on, and with the very first note of the melody, my entire classroom of sixth graders began singing the song. It was an immediate thing. A chorus of voices. I was laughing, but thinking: Wow, they remember this theme from when they were toddlers. That’s a commercial hook.

Second, earlier in the week, we were going over some vocabulary words, and I was explaining the meaning of “lofty” and how to remember its various definitions. I referenced Bob the Builder, which has a character named Lofty, and one girl mentioned how they were revamping the cartoon for a new generation of kids.

“You know your childhood is over when they remake your childhood cartoons!” she moaned. She’s only 11 years old. I hope her childhood is far from over.

Peace (in the think),