Slice of Life: You Call That Cheating?

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

I live in the heart of New England, surrounded by New England Patriots fans. Yesterday was a somber day in the classroom. Many tired eyes following the defeat in the Super Bowl to the Eagles.

I’m no Eagles fan. Neither am I a Patriots fan. I am, alas (this year, anyway), a New York Giants fan, and my students know this. (They also know I am a Yankees fan, which is a kind of blasphemy here in New England but I stand proud in the storm).

The first student to arrive yesterday is my most competitive. He has often has trouble shaking off events from recess. He’s an athlete, a star football player. He came in shaking his head.

“They cheated,” he mumbled as he passed me, and I could see it was a phrase he probably had on his mind since the game ended the night before. “The Eagles cheated.”

He looked at me, calculating that a Giants fan could not be an Eagles fan. Surely, he was thinking, I’d agree with his post-game analysis. He was looking for affirmation.

“Don’t you think the Eagles cheated in the Super Bowl, Mr. H?”

He was looking in the wrong place.

“Nope. Nobody cheated. There were some … interesting plays, but the Eagles won, fair and square. They outplayed the Pats. It was a great game to watch.”

This quieted him. For a second. He clearly didn’t want to hear me. When another student, another athlete, came in and said, “They cheated,” the first student echoed, “I know. They did. Right?”

Which led to a discussion in our Circle of Power morning meeting about sports, and competition, and losing gracefully, and being humble when winning, and a reminder of how we are moving into our annual Quidditch season at our school, where bragging and accusations of cheating and more between classes and students will not be tolerated.

I thought I reached them, with some perspective on fandom and sports and maybe a view of the biases of reality that exist in favor of those ideas which we already support (ie, my team lost, therefore, the other team cheated). But, maybe not. As the class was moving out the door, I could hear the conversation going again. “I know, right? Even the refs were in on it.”


Peace (need not be competitive),

Making Music in Colleagues’ Google Classrooms

Cell Music Analogy Project

We’re more than half-way through a professional development session on learning how to best use Google Classroom. The session is being run by my colleague, Tom Fanning, from the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. I’ve been using Google Classroom since the start of the year, but I asked our district to consider PD for other teachers, since I was getting a lot of inquiry from colleagues about how it works and why use it.

The session has nearly 20 teachers from our entire school district, and Tom has us making pilot Google Classroom spaces, inviting each other in as small groups of “students” to play the role of learner.

John Coltrane Jazz Project

My group has three other elementary teachers, and as I was working on their assignments — a cell analogy project, a state history project and a notable African American biography (and mine is a Parts of Speech project) — I decided to keep to a common theme of music across my work.

Taj Mahal BluesMan Project

My cell analogy project used a musical score as the point of comparison. I chose Taj Mahal as the Massachusetts history project, since he is the state Blues Artist. And I researched John Coltrane’s musical legacy for the biography project.

Look. Google Classroom is a fantastic work management tool that my students enjoy using and which has certainly made my work as a teacher a whole lot easier. It’s also clearly another finger reaching out to grab more Google users. We talked about this in our PD session and I talk about it with my students. Google wants to nurture young eyeballs for later in life, when it can target them for advertising, and make money. To think otherwise is to delude ourselves.

For now, I see more positives on our end than negatives with our dive into Google Classroom, but it’s always important to keep the larger perspectives in focus, on what we give up when we use free technology with our students. I’m glad we addressed and debated Google’s mission and motives in our PD. We can all move forward, knowing to some degree what we and our students are getting into.

Peace (in the rooms of music),

Slice of Life: That Didn’t Go As Planned

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

It wasn’t a disaster, but still, a lesson I had envisioned as a multimedia way to connect my sixth graders to characters in Watsons Go to Birmingham novel didn’t go the way I wanted, and now I am pondering how I might change things next time.

In the book, as the family gears up to head south, the father buys an Ultra-glide record player (a whole discussion about vinyl records ensued in class) and they listen to a few songs in the days before their journey south. Each year, I pull out the songs that Kenny, the narrator, loved — Yakety Yak — and mom loves — Under the Boardwalk.

Listening to the songs gives an audio connection to the story, and helps establish setting and character.

All good.

Watson Mix Tape Assignment

So yesterday, I thought: why don’t I have my students create a “mix tape” on Google Slides, finding songs to represent the other three members of the family on the road trip, and have students choose their own “travel song” for the mix tape. I even added a song of my own in there – Life is a Highway by Tom Cochran (the kids all knew the Rascal Flatts version from the Cars movie).

We dug into the project, and students were definitely engaged — but they seemed to be more engaged in the “search” for music than the connection to the characters. In my mind, I wanted them to really find songs that represented the characters as know them,  and perhaps I missed a step in my lesson. Perhaps a writing piece before the search would have helped. Or they needed our character trait chart in front of them.

Many students were just … well … listening to songs. Some had trouble with the search engine itself. What keywords should they use? What songs? Were modern songs OK or did they have to be “old songs”? None of them finished the assignment and I’m not sure that audio/music connection to the book really happened as I wanted it to happen.

And I admit I got a bit nervous when they were searching for songs to represent themselves. “Do we need to use the clean version of the song?” a few asked. “Yes,” I said, rather quickly, now looking closer at the screens near me.

Still, as one class was leaving, one student said to me, “That was so fun, Mr. H. I found a rebel song for Byron (the other brother whose troublemaking is the catalyst for the journey). When can we use music again?”

So, maybe the hook was there, after all.

Peace (in the music),

Fourteen Years and Nearly a Thousand Words and Counting

invented words 2018 pt2

Invented Words 2018, Group 1

This project still amazes me, for both its goofy element and for its cross-time collaborative element. It’s known as the Crazy Collaborative Dictionary, a project connected to my sixth graders learning about the origins of words into the English Language.

Way back in 2005, I had this idea of students inventing their own words and definitions, and creating a small class dictionary. It was a huge hit with the kids, and allowed us to consider the evolving nature of our language — of how new words arrive all the time.

invented words 2018 pt1

Invented Words 2018, Group 2

What began on paper developed into a Wiki site, where students learned about wikis and collaborative writing. I’ve used different platforms over the years, and this year, I tried out a Submission Form to create a database of words. A few years ago, I added podcasting to the mix, too, so that all students get to have a recorded version of their sixth grade voice attached to their word in the dictionary project.

Take a listen to some of this year’s words and voices:

I’ve moved the dictionary from the wiki (for fear of another platform dissolving on me) to a page in our classroom blog space, which provides an easier and connected platform.)

Check out The Crazy Collaborative Dictionary (in its entirety)

Check out this year’s submissions to the Dictionary

We’re close, if not beyond, 1,000 invented words in the dictionary, and it occurred to me that the first set of words were created before my current students were even born. The original word-makers are now in their mid-20s. Some of the older siblings of my current students have their words in the same digital document as their younger brothers and sisters.

I often refer to the dictionary as a “collaboration across time.” There’s something about that idea — of a collaboration that unfolds slowly, over many years — that I find intriguing, sort of a nice counter-balance to the need for immediacy in our lives.

Peace (means …),

Collection of Student-Made Hero’s Journey Video Games

We’re nearing the end of our video game design unit. Here are a few of the Hero’s Quest games created by my sixth graders that I think showed good use of story and game design. Not all are easy to play and to win (although I have, as I graded them for story and design).

Peace (in games),

Dear Gamestar Mechanic .. letters from student game developers

Dear Gamestar Mechanic

One of the many writing activities that I do with my sixth grade students as part of our video game development unit (which is taught in writing class) is to write a letter to Gamestar Mechanic about their project, what they like about the site, and some ideas for making Gamestar even better.

Dear Gamestar Mechanic

I’ll be mailing the letters off in early January.

Dear Gamestar Mechanic

I don’t know if we will get a response from the company (my main contacts no longer work there and Gamestar is part of the larger eLine Media) but the act of writing to Gamestar — a site we we have been using rather extensively since the start of December — and articulating some ideas gives me a chance to see what they are thinking. The letter follows a community brainstorming about features they wish the site had.

Dear Gamestar Mechanic

The letters act as one sort of reflective end point as they finish up their games.

Peace (sincerely),


Creating Print Advertisements for Video Game Projects

Making Video Game Advertisements

I’m continuing to share out elements of our Video Game Design Project, as my students race to the finish line with publishing and reflecting on their work of the past weeks with designing, creating and publishing an original video game with a Hero’s Journey story-frame narrative.

Making Video Game Advertisements

Today, I’d like to share about our Video Game Print Advertisement Campaign assignment, in which we explore the art of advertising and then turn the students loose on making a print advertisement for their own projects. After holiday break, we will hang them up all over the room and hallways.

We begin with a presentation that allows us to closely examine the way video game advertisements are constructed, noting layout, art, lettering and other elements.

Making Video Game Advertisements

Then, I turn the class over to my paraprofessional colleague, who was a graphic artist for various companies before becoming an educator. I am grateful every day for her presence in the classroom. Beyond her skills as a support educator, her knowledge of art and layout is expansive, so she becomes the teacher during this part of our activity. She provides visual examples of works in progress …

Making Video Game Advertisements

Students have to lightly draft out their advertisements in pencil, and then go through a process of creation (after proofreading): blocking out letters and images, erasing pencil marks, coloring in the page. They have a lot of fun with this assignment — art connected to writing connected to design — and seeing them working so hard at something they love to do is always a nice experience.

Video Game Advertisements Dec2017

The results run the gamut — it depends on how careful a student is being, really — but taken together, the ads are always impressive and the posters become visual invitations to play the video game projects that have been working so hard on.

Peace (free and over the counter),

Where Persuasive Writing and Game Design Meet

My students reviewed video games through a design lenses, with a persuasive element to the writing. They could either choose a game they like, or one they don’t like, and write a review of various elements in relation to our work in class with game design principles (visuals, audio, game play, effectiveness, etc.)

Video Game Review organizer

These are a few of the video game reviews from this year. What games do you play?

Peace (10 out of 10),

Slice of Life: Mystery Words

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

I introduced a game-style activity yesterday for our vocabulary lessons called Mystery Word, where you give a series of escalating clues for the guesser to guess the word. Honestly, I needed about twice the time I allocated for this during classtime (we had other things to get to, too), and it all felt too rushed to be as effective as I wanted it to be.

Next time … more time.

This is my very simple sample (which I followed with a sample of a word from our class vocabulary list):

Mystery Word Sample

But, the students really enjoyed the challenge of coming up with clues that pointed to a vocabulary word without giving it away completely at the start. I had them write the clues out on notecards, which we then distributed around the room. A better version would have been to have each one read the clues, one clue at time, to a partner, and use our listening skills to locate the words. And I probably should have done more quick mini-lessons on syllables, Parts of Speech, rhyming, etc.

Mystery Words Help Slide

I didn’t make up the Mystery Words activity, and I was trying to remember where it came from. I think it is both a variation of a Mystery Number activities that our math teacher does earlier in the year (complex clues to find a number) and an adaptation of a lesson from a writing project teacher who co-taught a digital writing summer project for struggling high school students with me as my English as a Second Language partner, and I gleaned a lot of vocabulary acquisition ideas from her work.

The game-and-guess format makes for an engaging time, and adds a wrinkle to learning and using new words.

Peace (is the lesson),