Newspaper/Podcast: Sparking A Love of Independent Reading

Gazette Chalk Talk

A column that I wrote for our local newspaper through an ongoing monthly publishing partnership via the Western Massachusetts Writing Project to feature WMWP teacher-writers ran yesterday morning. In it, I explored how the book Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst has me wondering what else I can do to get my sixth graders deeper into independent reading. The stats they provide, and my own classroom observations, indicate a decline in “books in hand” and I find that alarming. I decided to do a podcast version of the piece.

Peace (listening in),
Kevin

The History of Stories through the Eyes of Book

This is the second year I have used the creative nonfiction text — Book: My Autobiography by John Agard (illustrations by Neil Packer)– as an opening novel with my sixth graders. I read it aloud (and we do some various activities with it, including some sketch-noting) so we can talk about where stories come from, and where books and texts have evolved from.

This short book (which we humorously refer to as Book book in class), with lots of woodcut drawings, does a nice job of giving Book (a collective voice of every book ever written) a role as personable and wise narrator as we move through the timeline of history, from oral storytelling to papyrus to paper to illuminated texts to printing presses to libraries to ebooks and more.

In using the Book book, I laying the historical foundation for why we write and why and how we read stories, and how stories change who we are in powerful ways. I wish I could spend a few more weeks doing more activities — long ago, I did a printmaking activity for a newspaper unit — but I need to keep moving along.

We do make time for activity in which they design a book, or story delivery system, for a time 100 years into the future. I wonder what they will be making this week …

My students mostly enjoy Book book, although the chapter where we learn about book burning and the ways dictators often target writing and writers as symbols of dissent is a little unnerving. (It gives me a chance to chat about banned books, too).

I also do love how the book itself is scattered about with poems and proverbs and excerpts from writers from all over the world, from many cultures.

And of course, the storyline of Book book is another entry into how literacy has shaped the world, particularly during moments when an innovation opened up the possibilities of reading and writing to those who would not otherwise have had access, leading to eras like the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

Circle the Story/ Make the Dot

Dot Day Circle Stories 2017

Yesterday, my sixth graders took park in International Dot Day (which celebrates artistic and creative spirit) by writing Circle Stories (short stories with either a circular object or a circular theme) and using the words to paint the stories into circles (or dots).

Dot Day Circle Stories 2017

We then added them to a Padlet canvas as part of the sharing out with the millions of people who were also participating in Dot Day around the world. If you look at the #dotday hashtag stream on Twitter, you can see some incredible and amazing Dot Day activities going on. It’s all pretty inspiring, and dots are simple and flexible for all ages.

Made with Padlet

Peace (dots everywhere),
Kevin

Celebrating Dot Day

Dot Day ... come create

It’s International Dot Day. Nearly 10 million people in nearly 170 countries have signed up to be creative today, inspired by Peter Reynold’s The Dot picture book. That’s a whole lot of dots being made in the world with positive ink. What mark on the world will you make? (I made the comic above).

My sixth graders will be making Circle Stories today (writing about round objects in a short story format) and then using Visual Poetry to draw dots with the words of their stories. They will then add then to a Padlet canvas to share out with the world.

Simple, but powerful connection points.

Peace (making a difference),
Kevin

Strange Things in Sixth Grade (Picture Book Project)

Sixth Grade Picture Books

Last spring, my sixth graders worked on a book of memories from their time at our elementary school (they have now all moved on to either the regional middle/high school or another place). It’s a tradition that our librarian and myself have started with our writers as they leave our school.

For the past two years, we have also been working with author/illustrators Peter and Paul Reynolds through the Fablevision media company out of Boston, beta-testing their Get Published publishing site for writing, illustrating and publishing books. Like any beta system, the spring project had its glitches and only this week did the boxes of published picture books get delivered.

Sixth Grade Picture Books

The books look great, and I am coordinating with families to get them into the hands of the writers. It’s pretty neat to see a story in a bound edition like these, looking very official. And the books are packed with memory stories from kindergarten through sixth grade.

I was also writing and illustrating with my students, so that as they were working, so was I. Partly, it was to experience what my young writers were experiencing, from a technological standpoint. And partly, it was because I wanted to write a book, too.

My picture book is called Strange Things in Sixth Grade. It’s about funny things that have happened in the classroom over the years. I’m pretty happy with how it came out.

Take a look. I used Animoto to make a video book of the book’s pages.

Speaking of Peter and Paul Reynolds, tomorrow is International Dot Day! Make your mark and get creative!

 

Peace (between the pages),
Kevin

Slice of Life: The Ethical Questions of Ease (Who Pays the Price?)

(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.)

We’ve been a Google Apps for Education (or whatever they call it now) classroom for a few years now, using Google Docs and Slides and more on a regular basis with our sixth graders, but I haven’t dipped into the Google Classroom space until this year.

One reason I was holding off is an ongoing concern that everything we do is becoming more and more Google, a company that just loves to bring more young people into its data fold and nurture future Google Search users. Because the business model is pretty transparent: more searches means more money for Google.

So while I recognize and utilize the power of Google Apps with my students for peer editing, collaboration, use of media and words, publishing and more, I am always a bit reluctant to keep telling my students to crawl into the Google hole. (Maybe it’s just me but there’s something odd about the whole Google Superstar Teaching retreats that go on … I can’t quite explain it but it makes me feel icky to think that Google sponsors Professional Development and then has those educators self-identify as Google teachers … It’s also a brilliant marketing move.)

Another reason I haven’t ventured into Google Classroom is that I wasn’t quite ready to try something new. I was learning the management of Docs and Slides and how my curriculum might best use those features. I wanted to get a handle on what we were doing, and why we were doing it, before diving into new terrain.

This summer, I devoured an ebook by Alice Keeler who shared out 50+ ways to use Google Classroom (very helpful, but the Foreward in Keeler’s book by Google Product Management Executive Jonathan Rochelle made me cringe) and I have scanned through some of her videos, also helpful.

I learned enough about Google Classroom to know that I really needed to try out its features this year, if only to make my own life as a teacher tracking 75 students with Google accounts a bit easier and more manageable.

And it does. It really does, from allowing me to assign activities across multiple classes, to tracking who has finished and who has not, to a shared virtual classroom space, to scheduling assignments, to automatically creating student versions of my templates and putting them into a new Google Drive folder … there’s a lot that Google Classroom gets right.

Dang it. I’m sipping the tasty Google juice, and sharing it with my students.

But … I am also regularly talking about tech company’s intentions for gathering data and information about us, as means for making money from advertising and more. I hope that all balances out, and that in my attempt to make my life easier as a teacher I am not putting my students in the crosshairs of a technology behemoth.

Peace (go a little deeper),
Kevin

 

Helping Houston: Doing Good in the World

My class

In the first days of school, we don’t know each other. The incoming sixth graders wonder who I am, as their teacher. I’m trying to get a handle on them, my new students. Sometimes, things come together unexpectedly in ways that sets the tone for the year.

A week and a half ago, when our school year started, Hurricane Harvey and the deluge of Houston was underway (and now it’s Irma bearing down on Florida). It is difficult not to want to reach out somehow and help when natural disasters happen. On the first day of school, I asked my homeroom class if they wanted to try do a school-wide event to help the families of Houston, somehow.

It was unanimous. Yes. After some brainstorming of ideas, they voted as a class to host a Sports Day (with the start of the NFL season, it seemed nicely in tune with the season) and to ask our school community for donations for Houston’s recovery efforts.

Yesterday, we raised more than $900 with our Sports Day event, with my sixth graders doing most of the announcement work to the school community throughout the week. They went on school television each morning. They hung posters. They chatted it up with friends and other students.

Still, $900 is a lot for our Western Massachusetts school community. Clearly, we tapped a desire by others to help, too. There were bags of quarters, a dollar coin, crumpled bills stuffed into envelopes, staff members wandering in all day with donations to add, and even a surprising check from a family to the cause.

The American Red Cross was an obvious choice for where our donations could go, but I was more interested in finding a smaller, more focused connection. I wanted to find a school, preferably an elementary school like ours, that could use some help from the outside world, from another school. I wanted my students’ altruism to have a more immediate impact.

I did some searching and kept my eye on Twitter, and sure enough, I found a reference to the Bear Creek Elementary School in Houston, where the librarian had put out a public call for assistance and she has organized a Wish List on Amazon for cleaning materials, school supplies and more.

Last night, I got in touch via email with the Bear Creek Elementary School folks (Hi Anna) and learned more of the story there. The school is still closed. They will set up temporary operations in a high school. Families are in desperate need of help. They just met with families and students for the first time since the storm. Emotions and loss are running high. It’s been a very difficult time for all. They are grateful for help.

I know my new students feel proud of what they accomplished, and now, I hope to have them choose items off the Wish List that might help the Bear Creek folks. We’re working on the logistics of that part of things. Maybe something more durable will come of this, too. Maybe our school and Bear Creek could make a real connection.

And to top of off, we started the year off on a positive, productive note, looking to the greater world through the lens of compassion. Now that is a learning experience.

At the end of the day, one student asked, “What can we do to help Florida?”

Peace (to those in Irma’s path),
Kevin

An Infographic Reminds Me of Stability

My teaching stats

Someone in the Slice of Life community had shared out this simple tool to create an infographic of “teacher stats” — you provide it with some data and it spits out a small infographic. Nothing too fancy, but that’s OK.

What I realized as I was doing mine is how stable my teaching career has been over the 15 years I have been in the classroom (after a 10-year career in journalism and a few years as stay-at-home daddy). I know I am lucky in this regard, particularly given the budget situation in my school district (we are among the lowest per-pupil expenditure communities in the entire state of Massachusetts).

And I am grateful for the stability, for it affords me to keep digging deeper into my teaching practice, and so far, I have not hit the boredom button. That’s one of the magical elements of teaching: every day offers something new and every student is a challenge and a celebration.

I am grateful for my first principal — the one who took a chance in late August on me, an inexperienced teacher, and supported me along the first year to become a confident (as much as possible) sixth grade educator, which is where I still am, every single day.

Peace (looks like),
Kevin

President Trump Responds (not what you think)

Letter from President

It was the final days of the school year, late June, when one of my sixth grade students asked in the middle of class: Do you think President Trump will respond to what we wrote? Even now, I bite my tongue. Do you really want him to, I asked in my head.

Out loud, in my neutral teacher voice, I responded to his question: “Not yet but he might.”

My students took part in the Letters to the Next President project, even though they were too young (under 13 years old) to be part of Educator Innovator’s online initiative. We did it on our own, using the Educator Innovator’s framework for choosing topics, doing research on a topic, writing to the next president (at a time when we did not know who would win the election).

We mailed off a package of the student Letters to the Next President in late January, following the Inauguration, and then heard nothing. (We didn’t check his Twitter account, but we suspected he might be busy with other things.)

Then, I went to my classroom this week to bring in some books and do a little organizing before the start of our new school year coming up a bit too fast, and there on my desk was an envelope from the White House, postmarked mid-July.

Trump responded, or rather, his staff responded in an upbeat tone.

Letter from President (close)

I don’t get the sense that this was written by the president. I could be wrong. Now, to share it with my former students …

Peace (please),
Kevin