Slice of Life: Of Facebook, Fighting and Frustration

I’m disappointed to say that there was a fight yesterday at our school between two boys. These students are two boys, from different classes, whom I would never have thought would square off at recess and throw punches. They did. I won’t get into some of the reason behind the altercation except to note that it began with negative remarks on one of the boy’s Facebook pages and those words spilled over into our school.

More than a few things frustrate me about this situation:

  • I wish the two boys had come to me, or another teacher, to help resolve the issue. I can see a path to resolution that they could not see, apparently;
  • I wish the parents of my sixth grade students would not allow Facebook at all (they are not yet 13, the age of registration at FB). I worry that much of their time on FB is unmonitored and unchecked. They’re not yet mature enough for that. In fact, they should not even be on FB at all yet, in my opinion (and that of FB, too);
  • I feel a bit right now that all of my work with the classes around using social media spaces for the positive, and not the negative, fell on deaf ears with these two boys. Just thinking of how we spent weeks working around Digital Life, and all of our conversations and activities, and work around this issue … led to naught when the boys were in the situation to use that knowledge;
  • I’m thinking of how to talk to my class today about the situation, to avoid the class/friends versus class/friends standoff. We don’t want this one incident shifting gears into something larger;
  • I’m just disappointed in both of my students right now for their actions.

I won’t say that Facebook is the culprit here, because it isn’t. But it certainly opened the road for trash talking that led to something more serious. I wonder if the parents are actively monitoring their children’s Facebook pages (are they “friends”? do they even know their child has a FB account?).

Finally, I wonder if it is worth an email home to our parents, reminding them about social networking spaces, and the developmental issues of 11-year-olds in online environments (“I can say what I want!”). Perhaps parents need some educating, too. They were certainly appreciative when I shared our Digital Life unit at parent-teacher conferences. I’ll be chatting to my colleagues about this today, trying to sort it out, trying to put out the fires left over from the incident, and trying to remind my kids about responsibility.

I was going to write my slice today about the start of Little League baseball season, and the first practice last night in the cold wind, but I couldn’t get my heart into it. I have those two boys on my mind.

Peace (on the page),

Slice of Life: New Literacies Consulting

Yesterday after school, I dashed to my car and drove to another school district in the area, where I am beginning to do some consulting work around the integration of technology and New Literacies ideas in an elementary school setting (this is all through the Western Massachusetts Writing Project). This district received an Innovation Grant from our state and is doing inquiry around how they can better use technology for student engagement and learning.

I was brought in yesterday to chat with a committee of teachers, parents, School Committee members, and the principal about the venture. I’ll also be spending an entire day there in late April, doing some demonstrations in classrooms and then working with the staff in the afternoon. It’s exciting to be part of this school’s push forward, and I hope I can help them do it in a meaningful way.

Our meeting yesterday was pretty informal. I presented some of my views around technology:

  • Helping student make the shift from consumers of media to creators of content
  • Using the backwards design model so that technology is just a tool to get where we need to be, not the focus of the instruction itself
  • Making sure teachers have time to play and investigate and reflect on technologies in a safe, nurturing community
  • Moving away from the isolated Computer Lab model to a more integrated model of technology right in the classroom
  • Valuing the technology literacies of students outside of school
  • Understanding that online communities provide important professional development opportunities
  • Reaching the “middle group” of teachers who are ready to make a shift, but need a path forward

One of my suggestions is that the school consider a “theme” for its move forward, and so we talked a lot about digital storytelling and its power to use voice, image, multimedia and writing across various age levels. My demonstrations will focus on digital storytelling in the various grades, although it will be only a taste (in a limited time).

In the meeting, there were questions around a lot of topics already, including:

  • Differentiated instruction and reaching all students with technology
  • The potential value of 1-to-1 computing environments
  • Ways to consider digital citizenship as part of an instructional unit
  • How technology can create pockets of collaboration
  • The potential of publishing for students
  • How does an ICT position (the lab teacher) transform into a technology coach position
  • How technology use might look different in the lower grade levels (and what that might look like)

I have to admit, I felt pretty honored and humbled to have been invited into this role. While I know I do a lot with technology with my students, and I am invited to give PD at various times for other districts, I’d love to see this consultant gig emerge into a partnership with this school where I can provide resources, advice and learning experiences for the teachers there in a way that makes sense for them. I want to value their school culture in our work. I see the role of consultant in this way as more of a partner, and guide, than the “expert.” My hope is to learn from them, as they learn from me.

Peace (in the sharing),



Video Slice of Life: The River Art Installation Project

We found our way back to the river again yesterday. This time, my 14-year-old son came along and he brought his iPod so that he could video some footage of the log with all of the found objects from the river that a neighbor has been creating (I wrote about this the other day although now there is a “guest box” where people can leave notes, so I left a poem).

Suddenly, my son got inspired. He stuck a large stick in the ground, took off his shoes and waded out to a little island to gather bricks. He then started to create his own art project.

We mostly watched him at work, although my wife and younger son helped him collect the red bricks (which are everywhere, remnants of the Great Flood decades ago that swept through the area, killing more than 50 people) and white stones and pottery and rocks. The little one kept asking “What are you building?” and the older one kept replying, “I don’t know yet.”

But build he did.

He then came home, downloaded a video editing app on his iPod, edited his footage and uploaded it into his YouTube account, connecting the video to his new Facebook account, too. (ahh, the modern childhood). I noticed this morning that his video invites others to come to the river, too, to add to the natural art installation now emerging. (His art is the last image of the bricks in a circle around the branch stuck in the ground)

If you are in our neck of the woods, feel free to pick up some river glass or brick shards and add it to the artwork. Imagination is the only thing required.

Peace (by the river),


Audio Slice of Life: The Two Young Engineers

Yesterday, I took my youngest son and his friend, and our dog, down to the river. The kids then proceeded to spend about an hour “building a dam/bridge” with rocks and sticks. They didn’t say damn bridge, by the way. They were clear this was a dam/bridge. Anyway, I took out my phone and called in a Slice of Life podcast from the river, using Cinch (a great app that allows for podcasting from your computer, your phone or your mobile device).


Peace (in the building of things),


Slice of Life: The Quidditch Fairness Doctrine

As I have mentioned before in Slice of Life, we play a version of Quidditch at our school (see the tutorial video we made a few years back) and March is the month where the Quidditch excitement takes hold for our sixth graders, as it leads to our 13th annual Quidditch Tournament in early April. Yesterday, we took our students to an indoor soccer arena for the entire school day, playing soccer and other games, but mostly focusing in on scrimmage matches of Quidditch between classes.

I love watching them play and my class did exceptionally well, working together, supporting each other and playing the game itself. It’s learning that won’t be found on next week’s standardized testing, that’s for sure.

The trickiest part for us, as teachers, to make sure the playing time is fair and equitable for everyone. It’s a lot of work, and I try to share with my students the tricky task of making sure that no one sits too long during the game (there are seven squads, each four minutes long). There are also some prime positions that most everyone wants to play (beater, chaser, seeker), and I need to make sure everyone gets some time at the positions they want to play. The larger the class, the harder that becomes.
Q Lineup Work

I think I must have spent about two hours working on the lineups for yesterday’s scrimmages. First, I take the requests that they make. Then, I pencil in a chart, marking off on another chart which position they are playing and in which squad. Then, I move those names over to a color-coded chart, which is also what I hang on the wall. Honestly, it is a pain in butt. But I don’t want anyone to feel cheated or left out.

That’s my Quidditch Fairness Doctrine: everybody plays.

We’ve had a few years where we have lost the big tournament because of my doctrine. I could  have easily stacked the decks with my athletes and let the non-athletes do very little. I refuse to do that, and if it means losing, I am OK with that. I want everyone to walk away from their special time with Quidditch (they look forward to it from preschool/kindergarten) and think, that was fun.

Of course, even with all my planning and cross-checking, sometimes things slip. Yesterday, one girl came up to me.

“I’m on the same squad twice, Mr. H, ” she said.


She brought me over and showed me the list. Sure enough, there she was as a seeker and a sidelines tosser. I looked at her and smiled.

“Did you bring your magic potion? That one that allows you to be in two places at one time?”

She laughed, and then we moved things around to straighten it out. And then they played. All of them.

Peace (on the Quidditch pitch),
PS — this is this year’s symbol for my team
Permafrost symbol

Slice of Life: The ‘Inside This’ Poetry Podcast

I’m a big fan of how technology can bring student voices forward. Yesterday, I pulled out my voice recorder as my sixth graders were sharing a poem entitled “Inside This …” and asked if anyone wanted to share their poems as a podcast. I got a handful in each class, and the poems were nicely done, and sound wonderful. (The poem uses figurative language techniques to get at the essence of an inanimate object. I allowed one exception for the girl who wrote about a chicken egg. She loves writing about chickens.)

Enjoy the voices!

Peace (in the podcast),


Slice of Life: Thinking in Haiku

Yesterday morning, I realized that it was World Poetry Day. OK, so I am not sure what that kind of holiday is but it sounds good to me! (I’m a sucker for writing-inspired-days). I decided that I would spend the school day, periodically writing down haiku reflections as my students were doing some poetry writing themselves (which we had already planned.) I also began sharing the haikus on Twitter when I had a few moments. Haiku works well with Twitter due to the brevity of lines and words.

The first poem came from the moment when I made the decision to write poems.

I celebrate poems
Small lines that entwine my heart
released to the world

On the drive to school, it was foggy. Very foggy. I was reminded of Carl Sandburg’s famous poem, and used that as a hook.

Sandburg speaks of fog
I see the cat this morning
shining bright car lights

As I pulled into the parking lot at school, the sun was trying to poke its way through the fog and mist. You could just make out the rays extended through the cloud cover. I know it was illusion, but it looked like strings from a balloon.

Defused sunlight drips
like tether lines off balloons
we chased as children

Before the kids arrive, and as I am getting ready for the day in my classroom, I often play (crank/blast) music in my room to gear up. I chose The Gaslight Anthem, a hard-rocking band that echoes Springsteen.

The Gaslight Anthem
soundtracks my morning with blasts
of blue-collar lives

I turned off the music as the clock struck 8:30 a.m. and then …

Noises in hallways
breaks the silence of morning
the day then begins

During our writing time, I watched the room, observing my sixth graders, writing lines myself.

They’re all poets now
carving out space between words
rhythmic thoughts collide

After the writing, there is the independent reading of novels. I’ve been amazing at how quietly and focused they can read for extended periods of time. (OK, so not everyone. But most of them)

Silence gets broken
only by pages turning
slowly, in their minds

The temperatures outside were reaching 70s by the end of the day and even I was looking wistfully out the window.

Inside; the Outside
beckons you to stare, helpless
as Spring comes alive

And finally, the kids went home, the school calmed down, and I closed up my classroom, walked outside to my van. I closed my eyes to take in the sun. Now, it is family time.

Out into the air
the building releases me
my mind shifts its gears

And that is my school day in haiku. If you are up for it, and you want to comment as haiku, I would be thrilled. (no pressure)

Peace (in the poetry),


Slice of Life: Overheard in the Van

I had the “pleasure” of driving five eighth grade boys to AAU basketball practice last night (and then, did some grading before picking them up and bringing them back home). Our five families are splitting the driving chores, and last night was our night. I quickly realized how big these kids have gotten in the past year as they crammed their way into our van, like clowns in a clown car. They were just missing the make-up.

For the most part, I just listened in to their conversations. Some of the things these eighth grade boys chatted about:

  • The difference between “smart math” and regular math classes.
  • How one of them was sent into the hallway for talking (“so unfair!”) and then when told to go then go to the vice principal’s office, refused to do so (“I just went back in the classroom and sat down at my desk. She didn’t do anything.”)
  • What cell phone carrier everyone had, and the relative merits of each.
  • Whether or not the new basketball jerseys they received from their Suburban basketball team is a  “sweater” or a “fleece” or something else.
  • How a friend of theirs dropped their iPod in the hallway at school, watched it get accidentally kicked down the hallway, and then when he finally retrieved it, he accidentally stepped on it, cracking the glass. (“You know how mad he gets, too. It was scary.”)
  • How they were “fooling” a mutual friend into thinking two of them had a fight with each other. It appears to be an elaborate ruse.
  • Whether baseball is a better spring sport than lacrosse but how basketball beats them both.
  • Whether the history homework was really due today (and if so, they needed to work on it when they got home)
  • How to take on a bigger person when you are playing one-on-one, playground-style.
  • Whether this year’s AAU team has any promise.

I had the windows cranked open as we drove home. They smelled like a sweaty gym. (Which, of course, was the source of many jokes). And we we listened to the final minute of the UMass vs. Drexel game in the NIT tournament as UMass clawed its way back from a 17-point deficit to win the game and move on to Madison Square Garden for the NIT. There was a collective “whoop” and then it was back to other topics.

Peace (in the front seat),


Slice of Life: Analyzing Student Writing Data


I’ve been trying to use more data in my analysis of my classroom instruction. I’m not obsessed with the numbers, but I have been convinced that the use of data can help me think about how to bring my students along. I suppose this idea has its roots in the vast amounts of numbers now being provided by our state from our standardized testing. That information has been helpful in identifying overall weaknesses of our school and that has helped me make some shifts towards open response, non-fiction reading and more.

This year, our principal asked our team of teachers (our Community of Practice) to set an ELA goal early in the year. We decided that our goal would be around open response writing to reading, which is something I have been doing yeoman’s work around this year and last year with my students. I see the difference in the quality of their writing. Anyway, our goal was that 80 percent of our sixth graders would be “meeting the standard” of our open response rubric by January. (The “meeting the standard” is connected to our standards-based reporting.) I’ve been keeping charts of how all of my students have been doing as a way to document their growth.

Literature Open Response Sept11
In September, after administering an open response question to some literature, this is what the numbers looked like.  You can see that only 7 percent of my sixth graders were where we needed them to be. Many were in the “progressing” stage, which is what one would expect at the start of the year. What the numbers don’t show is that the writing across the board was pretty weak. They had trouble with using evidence to support their answers, with showing connections in the text, and with using critical thinking skills for analysis.

Japanese Paper Houses dec11
In December, that gap began to close. Notice in this next diagram how the shift began to move from various sections, upward. That was a good trend. But we were still far away from our January goal.

China Warrior Open Response march12
Two weeks ago, they were given another open response assessment. On one hand, we’re nowhere near our goal of 80 percent in the Meeting category, and I am wonder if that was even a realistic goal for us. On the other hand, notice how few students there are now in the lower bracket — the Beginning to Understand category — which is where our struggling writers have often found themselves. We’ve worked hard on graphic organizing and structure, and that is paying off for a lot of kids. And there is a slight shift from Progressing into Meeting, just not nearly enough.

So yesterday, I began to ponder my own roles. Am I being consistent with my scoring from September through the present? (I think so). What does it mean if not everyone “meets” the sixth grade standard around writing? What else can I be doing to support the development of my students as writers and thinkers? I think, as teachers, this kind of internal inquiry never ends. I feel like I am in a constant state of trying to make my approach more effective and more engaging for my students.

Peace (in the sharing of the data),

Slice of Life: Ridin’ with the ‘Wrecking Ball’

My youngest son spent the weekend with my father, who lives about 90 minutes away. He regularly takes one of the three boys for an overnight visit, coming to get them from our house and then I go pick them up. Before I jumped in the car, I downloaded the new Bruce Springsteen album to my iPod. I figured this was the perfect time to give it a listen, in its entirety.

I hit the highway and hit the volume, and soon, I was cruising south down Interstate 91.

I’m a fan of Springsteen, although not one of those rabid ones who thinks he some sort of rock god. I often have mixed emotions on his albums. Most have one or two great tracks stuffed in with some fluff tracks. The one album of later Bruce that I hold in high regard is The Rising, which he wrote in the aftermath of 9/11 and still chokes me up sometimes when I hear some of the tracks. His ability there to bring the listener into the lives of characters experiencing profound loss and sadness … and hope, even, is something often missing in modern songwriters.

Sprinsteen’s latest album, Wrecking Ball, is another mixed affair. With Bruce returning to his tried and true themes of economic disparity and political corruption and the state of the American Dream (and using more studio work to layer his sound, echoing the Born to Run days), the album skewers the fat cats on Wall Street and mourns the loss of opportunity for the blue collar folks in our country. There’s a real Celtic edge to this album, too, which no doubt reflects some of the work he has done in recent years around the songs of Pete Seeger and that live disc recorded over in Ireland.

And Woody Guthrie’s words and voice seeps through the album, too. As does the saxophone of the late Clarence Clemons, whose sax part was engineered into the song,  Land of Hope and Dreams, after he had passed away from complications from his stroke. (Bruce gives an emotional interview about Clemons in the most recent Rolling Stone magazine, too. It’s touching the relationship and friendship that Bruce and Clarence had developed over the decades together.)

I didn’t skip any of the songs on the first listen, but on round two, I found myself centering on just four or five songs. While the song We Take Care of our Own is getting the spotlight because its a message that the song hammers into your head, I think the title track — Wrecking Ball — is the much better song. There’s a moment in the song where the band pulls back, and Bruce’s words come to the forefront. It’s a reminder of the power of a few lines, and the poetry of songwriting.

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
And your game has been decided, and you’re burning the down the clock
And all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires, are scattered to the wind
And hard times come, hard times go ….
Yeah, just to come again

By the time I got to my father’s house, I was immersed in Springsteen’s music and words. Sometimes being alone with music is the best way to spend your time alone.

Peace (with Bruce),