Visual Slices of Life: Views from Conferences

Here are two photo collages from two conferences that I am in the midst of: our Western Massachusetts Writing Project Spring Symposium and the Teaching and Learning Conference (tied in with Digital Learning Day).

And the session I facilitated around remixing …

Lots to share and little time to do it …

Peace (in the whirlwind),

PS — Here’s a bonus from a session on Scratch that I sat in on:


We Play with Language and Words

invented words 2015

We play with language and words a lot in my classroom, and we recently finished up our Word Origins unit, which culminates in each student inventing a new brand-new word. They then use our classroom wiki account to add their invented word and definition (and podcast) to a collaborative dictionary project that has been underway for many years, with hundreds of invented words now in our online space.

Here is this year’s collection of words. I have students working to move these words into the larger wiki dictionary site.

Peace (Word!),

Slice of Life: The Teaching Conference Anxiety Rush

(This is a Slice of Life post, for a month-long writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write about the small moments of our days. You write, too.)

Teaching and Learning Sessions

The next couple of days are just going to be nutty, and I am hoping I can still Slice. I’ll make time, of course, and I probably will share out what’s going on in the two conferences that I am attending in three days.

This weekend, I am flying down to Washington DC for the Teaching and Learning Conference. I was only vaguely aware of this conference, but I guess it is pretty huge, and the National Writing Project (facilitated by Tanya Baker) is sending me, Troy Hicks, Janelle Bence and Gail Desler (four of my favorite NWP people .. actually, that list is pretty long) to do two sessions on Saturday around digital learning. My own area will be talking about video game design as literacy practice.

I’ll be sharing out:

The conference also collides with Digital Learning Day this year. I’m not sure what to make of the conference, as the tone of the programming seems very different from the writing project-flavored conferences that I often attend. There are a lot of consultants and administrators/education officials on the program, and my very informal and very unscientific analysis of the presenter list a few weeks back indicated this:


I’m not sure what to think of this analysis (will it be all EduSpeak all the time? Will teachers’ voice be front and center, or sidelined?) but I am going in with an open mind and see what I can see, learn what I can learn, and hang out with friends.

WMWP Invite to Spring Symposium

Meanwhile, tonight, I am helping to facilitate our Western Massachusetts Writing Project Spring Symposium, with the theme of Technology, Assessment and Justice for All. I am also co-presenting a session around the Remix Culture and learning, and our hope (crossing fingers here) is that we will get everyone making media with Webmaker Popcorn Maker. Our session is in a lab that I have not ever used … so, yeah … a little antsy about that unknown element. I am interested to hear our keynote speaker, and to learn more about the work he has done empowering urban students with media and social justice themes.

So, late night tonight for WMWP and then a very early flight to DC tomorrow for Teaching and Learning (plus, a visit with one of my best friends who lives in the DC area) …. lots going on!

Peace (in the whoosh),

Slice of Life: Theater Critic

(This is a Slice of Life post, for a month-long writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write about the small moments of our days. You write, too.)

It may be that I am a little sensitive in role as teacher of sixth graders. I am not naive about the world, of course. But I am sensitive in my role as filter. And yesterday, that made me a silent theater critic sitting uncomfortably in the audience of a preview show of a stage production of Little Shop of Horrors.

Let me back up …

Our sixth graders, along with fifth and sixth graders from the other elementary schools in our district, took a bus trip up to our regional high school yesterday to see a preview performance of Little Shop of Horrors, which the high school theater group is putting on this coming weekend. This was an invite from the high school, which paid for the busses and cost us nothing. Let me say up front: the performance was wonderful, with great acting and singing, and the brief appearance by the plant was a huge hit with the elementary-school audience.

Here’s where the filter critic in me comes into focus.

It has been many years since I watched Little Shop of Horrors (all I now remember is Steve Martin) and I guess I forgot that the female protagonist is in an abusive relationship, entering the story with a black eye, and then an arm in a cast, and deflecting jokes about handcuffs in the bedroom. I forgot that the dentist tells the audience how he happily tortured dogs and cats as a kid (with support of his mother?), and how he enjoys inflicting pain on people. I didn’t remember the character in a long trench coat who flashes girls on stage nor the stumbling drunk with a bottle in his hand, falling down, evoking laughter from the crowd.

I forgot all that until I saw it on stage and thought, maybe this preview is not for this age group? You think? Of course, by then, it was too late. We were there, seated. The show goes on. We watched, and then the best part for me was the end, when some of the high school actors came out on stage to answer questions about acting, production and being in front of live audience.

When I got home, I told my wife about the performance, and she said, “Doesn’t that play have sadomasochist overtones?” Eh. Yep.

Peace (in the play),

Slice of Life: The Overlooked Moments

(This is a post for Slice of Life, a writing challenge throughout March, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We notice the small moments. You write, too.)

Night outside

In another writing space with National Writing Project colleagues (including Bonnie), our good friend Kim Doullard hosts a Photo Fridays feature, where she shares photos on a theme and asks us to keep our lens open for possibilities. This week’s theme is all about “the overlooked” moments. Last night as I was taking the dog out, I looked at the sky from our driveway and saw a plethora of colors in the night. The tree provides a nice frame, as does the stars in the sky, and the street/house lights give off yet another color.

It’s the perfect image for a visual slice of life, and Kim’s advice to notice the overlooked dovetails so nicely with our writing activities, of noticing those things we see all the time but now we see them in a slightly different light. Turn your head a bit. Squint your eyes. Reframe what you see. Notice the overlooked.

LATE ADD: This morning, when I went outside after writing, I saw this:
Morning sky

Peace (in the visual),

Slice of Life: A Day for the Birds

(This is Slice of Life, a writing challenge sponsored by Two Writing Teachers. We’re writing every day, if we can, throughout March on the small moments of life. You write, too.)

Some days just naturally end up with a theme. Yesterday was one for the birds. Literally.

(image from

I took my youngest son to a Birds of Prey demonstration by a very knowledgeable educator named Tom Ricardi, who runs a rescue operation for hurt birds in Western Massachusetts. He regularly visits schools to talk about endangered species, in general, and birds, specifically. We’ve seen Tom before but that doesn’t ever stop us from gazing with wonder at the owls, hawks and eagles that he pulls out of his boxes. Yesterday’s highlight was a huge Golden Eagle, which is really a magnificent bird — much more beautiful and majestic than the famed Bald Eagle. In this kind of nature presentation, you can see how science can transfix kids, if it is relevant and intriguing.

Then, in the late afternoon, I took another son to see Birdman in the theaters. He’s been wanting to see it for some time, particularly after it won a bunch of awards, and I was intrigued, too. We were both surprised that it was still in the theaters, but I guess that’s one benefit of the awards. We were both blown away by the cinematographic element of the film, which has been edited to seem like one long shot, and by Michael Keaton’s re-emergence on the screen (although my son only knows of him from the Batman movies, appropriately enough, given the theme of the movie of a washed up movie star trying to find relevance while keeping his sanity).

And so, yes, a day for the birds .. but I am still waiting for the bluebirds to zip by my window, announcing Spring.

Peace (in flight),

Slice of Life: Not Another Trophy

(This is Slice of Life, where we write about the small moments. The month-long writing activities are facilitated by Two Writing Teachers. You write, too.)

TrophiesThe coach means well. Yesterday, at my son’s last youth basketball game of the season, the coach of the team pulled the parents aside, explaining that he was sorry they had not won a game all season and that he knew some of the kids were frustrated. He talked about the hard work and drills he taught them. I don’t think he needs to apologize — it’s youth basketball, after all, and he did teach them new skills — and I think losing at a young age is not the worst thing in the world.

Then he went on to say that he was organizing a pizza gathering and he had bought participation trophies for everyone. He asked us, does anyone have an issue with that? I wanted to raise my hand. I wanted to shake my head. I wanted the trophy train to stop.

These kinds of good-hearted gestures by coaches seem like they have value on the surface — honoring the commitment of young players — but I don’t think getting a trophy just for coming to games on Saturdays really has much value. Instead, what we found with our older kids is that it does the nearly exact opposite: trophies have little value when you have a shelf of participation awards. It’s that old supply/demand concept.

We’re finding the same syndrome at our school. Our sixth graders leave our school to head to the regional middle school, and you would think they were graduating high school or college with the special events that go on. We’ve tried to tone it done over time, but the pull of parents is hard to hold back. So, the yearbook becomes this glossy affair and our Recognition Night is nearly a formal event.

I wanted to say, save your money, coach, we’re good. But he had already ordered the trophies and no other parent seemed even remotely the same way as I did. I could tell. So, I didn’t say a word. It turns out the day of the pizza gathering is a day our family is overbooked anyway, so maybe the trophy will gather dust in someone else’s house. I didn’t mention the trophy concept to my son and he didn’t ask. He’s more focused on baseball now.

Peace (in the award not really an award),


Slice of Life: The Cold Gig

(This is a Slice of Life, a monthly challenge to write every day facilitated by Two Writing Teachers. You can join in, too. Come write.)

The gig

We have nicknames for some of the gigs my band — Duke Rushmore — has played over the years. We have the Ice Gig, where the roads were so slick coming home one night after we played at a bar in a very faraway hill town that we were all sure we’d end up in a ditch at 3 a.m. in the morning. There was the Bug Gig, where the outside event turned into a mosquito fest, and we were the main entree, apparently. There was the Quiet Gig, where we played loud but the audience just sat there, like stones in their seats, and refused to dance. There was the Loud Gig, where the engineer for the venue cranked it so loud people had to leave the room.

And now we have the Cold Gig. We played out last night at a brewery that does two-hour tasting (it is a real brewery, not a brew pub) and they have bands entertain the crowds drinking their homebrew beers. It’s a good gig, and we love playing there, which we do a few times a year. It’s a funky space — wide open floors, very little seating. You have to climb five stories of steep steps to get there (although the band uses the freight elevator). You rough it at this place.

Last night was a bit more rougher than usual. The heating was on the fritz (meaning: no heat) and the outside temperature hovered around the single digits. It wasn’t so cold we could see our breath but it was close. It took all of my courage to take off my jacket to play, and my saxophone — that temperamental piece of metal — does not like the cold air. We wrestled all night for the right notes. Oh, and the only toilet in the place wasn’t working, so there were huge buckets of water to use to flush.

Like I said, you rough it.

But we had one the biggest crowds of the year there, with more than 160 people jammed into this tight space, dancing the cold night away to the music, and we warmed up quickly, jumping around and finding the groove, and it was a great night of music. It was the Cold Gig, but we turned up the heat, and it was all right.

Peace (in the gig),

Slice of Life: Lifting Lines to Honor Writers

sol15 icon

(This is a Slice of Life post. It is part of a month-long writing adventure facilitated by Two Writing Teachers. You write, too.)

Slice of Life: I Lift Lines

I’ve written about my line lifting before … of reading other people’s blog posts, and finding a phrase or line that seemed particularly interesting, and then building out a poem from it, leaving it as a comment in the blog. I hope that folks get pleasantly surprised by it. (or at least, amused.)

Yesterday morning, I wandered to a few blogs via Slice of Life that I don’t visit all that often, hoping to catch a flavor of the writer and maybe a line that I could build off (that sounds like I am using Legos for poetry, doesn’t it?). I was not disappointed, and while my own poem collection is a mixed bag (some hold up more than others), that is the nature of the quick poet at work.

You can view all of the Line Lifted Poems here as a collection on Notegraphy.

If you were one of the bloggers I visited, thank you for lending me your lines. I hope you saw my poem as a gift. I was grateful that Greg, one of the bloggers, sent me my poem back, wrapped up in a lovely PicCollage.

A Line Lifter gets his poem back
Peace (from a line lifter),

Slice of Life: Saying Sensei

(This is for Slice of Life, a writing adventure with Two Writing Teachers. Each day, we are looking at the small moments of life and writing. You write, too.)

saying sensei

(Check out the Word Map for Sensei)

I am doing a read-aloud of a novel entitled Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz with my son. We’re both liking it (although the story starts with a ritual suicide by the protagonist’s uncle as part of a Samurai code ceremony and this unnerved me more than a little bit.) But there is a word in the story that I keep mispronouncing. Maybe you have your own arsenal of words that whenever you see it, you say it wrong.

My current word trouble is “sensei.” I don’t know why this one causes me so much difficulty. When I read it in my head, I hear it just fine. Sens-ay. When I read it out loud, it comes out Sens-eye. I suspect it has do with the spelling of the word. My son called me on the carpet last night. Again.

Him: Dad! (sigh). You said it wrong. Why do you do that?

Me: I did?

Him: Yes. It’s sens-aye. You said sense-eye again. Why are you doing that? It’s so frustrating!

Me: Sorry.

I pause to look at the word. I’ve paused to look at that same dang word many times now. I’ve seen Karate Kid (both versions) enough times to know how it sounds. I put my finger on the word. I keep reading, and when I run into the word, I slow my voice down, carefully pronouncing each syllable. Se-ns-ei.

Him: Dad!

Me: What? I said it right. Right?

Him: Now you’re reading too slow!

Me: (sigh).


This reminds me of a time when I was about seven years old, and I found I was saying the word “very” wrong. Somehow, without my even knowing it, I began saying vurrry (maybe I watched some British show?). A friend finally pointed it out to me (in blunt terms: why are you saying that word like that?) and it was like a punch in the stomach. What? What am I doing? I could not believe it. Then I said “very” out loud and sure enough, it was all wrong.

I practiced that word by myself, mostly because I did not want to be embarrassed in front of peers. I said “very” many times. Very Very Very Very. Now I find myself doing it with “sensei.” Sensei Sensei Sensei.

Me: I’ve got it now. Sensei.

Him: That sound right. Now, can you keep reading?

Me: Hai!

Him: Dad!

Peace (in the pronunciation),