Slice of Life: Tears from ‘Wonder’

So, there I was, on my way from home in Western Massachusetts to Birmingham, Alabama, relishing the time I could finally spend reading Wonder by RJ Palacio. I had actually won it in a blog contest through my teacher network (thanks, Colby!), and passed it along first to my son, who gave it back up to me for this trip. (He wants it back). I started the book in Hartford, continued it via my layover in Baltimore, and finished it en route to Birmingham.

It brought me to tears, this book did. And I found myself wishing fervently for a more private place than an aisle seat on an airplane, surrounded by strangers as I was caught up in the emotional ending in which the power of “kindness” hit me like a punch to the gut. This wonderful book is about a boy entering fifth grade, about what it means to be different, and what it means to find your place in the world where good can bubble up in expected places. I won’t give the plot away. I won’t say more about why I was tearing up, choking back emotion. You’ll have to read Wonder to figure that out (and you should.)

What I will say is that, every now and then, a book crosses my hands that reminds me of why I read and why I keep on reading — and why I sometimes suffer mediocre books in hopes that a jewel will surface. Wonder is one of those books. I know there more of these jewels out there. I’ll just have to keep on reading to find them.

Peace (in the slice),


Slice of Life: Snow Day Activities

(This is part of the 2012 Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers.)

Here is a rundown of what happened in and around our house yesterday as the first (and last?) snowstorm of 2012 caused schools to close for the day:

    • Three games of chess between my 7 year old and myself. I won all three. But I did give strategic advice on a regular basis. It may not be long before he is beating me. I need to stay sharp!
    • My 11 year old played games of Parcheesi by himself. In honor of the upcoming March Madness College Basketball Selection Sunday, he has been charting games between “the pieces” on the board, conducting an entire tournament of animal pieces versus animal pieces. He refuses to let anyone of us play with him, much to the frustration of his younger brother. But, tournament rules are tournament rules …
    • An impromptu brunch party gathering at our house for some neighbors and family who live close by. We also showed a premiere of my younger son’s movie project: Robbers on the Loose. It was widely hailed as a great piece of work, except from the older brothers who laughed at it. You know how that goes …
    • My nieces and son built a snowman in the back yard. They worked on it for close to an hour. Then our dog went out and peed on it. You know how that goes …
    • A new version of Monopoly was invented. Money tossed into the air, falling like confetti. Houses and motels were lined up along the floor. The dice — left alone in the box. It didn’t end in tears, so you know it was a good game. And no parents were involved in the rule making or enforcement, although we did watch with fascination for a spell.
    • I brought up the “wooden city” from the basement. This is not easy to describe. It’s a plastic tray filled with wooden blocks, assorted super hero figurines, plastic animals and tons of, eh, junk that become the basis for imaginative play. My son and nieces literally sat there, inventing stories for about 45 minutes before moving on. I put it back in the basement, forgotten until another day.


  • Visitors all went home, and the older boys went off to hang out with friends — one to go sledding and the other to engage in a boys’ snowball fight on the lawn of a friend.
  • Reading time as my youngest son and I kept on reading Gregor and the Marks of Secret. We agreed that this series gets darker as it goes along. What will happen to the Nibblers? We still keep reading.
  • A little Wii time. Star Wars, to be exact. We have to keep shouting to our son, “step away from the screen,” as if we were police officers barking out some commands. Watching him play is like watching a dance in the living room. He shuffles around the floor as he plays.
  • More Gregor.
  • We shoo the kids upstairs for the night and my wife and I snuggle in for an episode of Boardwalk Empire.
  • Sleep time.

Peace (in the slice),


Slice of Life: Building Bridges

(This is part of the 2012 Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers.)

Yesterday, our superintendent called for a half day, due to the snow storm on the way (which is now here, leading to a day off today – our first since the blizzard hit us in the fall). Half days don’t leave us a lot of time to teach because our sixth graders have their specials (art, music, etc.) in the mornings. By the time they arrive back to our classroom, we have short periods. It can be a wasted day, in some ways.

bridge collage

Yesterday, my science colleague decided to take advantage of the half day by declaring it “Bridge Building Day” in the sixth grade. They do a toothpick bridge design project for their engineering curriculum, and so we transformed each of our four classrooms into a construction zone for about 90 minutes. It was fun to watch the collaboration and listen to the chatter as my kids were working. I put on some pop music with Pandora and a few times, the whole class broke out into song while gluing toothpicks together. (It was like they were in Glee or something).

While I had to delay the start of a project myself, it was worth it. They had sustained science time and I got an opportunity to see them working in another subject area (I see them for ELA). And I got to hear them sing once or twice.

Peace (in the zone),


The Slice of Life Challenge Begins Tomorrow

If you are looking for a way to get yourself writing every day, and connecting with a supportive community of other teacher-writers, I urge you to consider joining in the Slice of Life challenge. Now in its fifth year, Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers encourage you to reflect on a moment of your day — bring a small slice into focus, and consider it as a writer.

The Slice of Life Challenge starts tomorrow (the first day of March) and goes through the last day of March (so, you could do 31 pieces of writing). Sure, you may not write every single day — or you just might! Slicers post their links to their writing at Two Writing Teachers every day, and Stacey and Ruth encourage folks to visit the writing and add comments and reactions.

Oh, and there are prizes for Slicers! (Including a copy of my book — Teaching the New Writing). And teachers are being encouraged to consider the Slice of Life Challenge for students, too.

Learn more about Slice of Life

Peace (in the slices),


Slice of Life: It’s Movie Time!

(This is part of the Slice of Life activity over at Two Writing Teachers).

My seven year old has this vision: he wants to make a movie.

No doubt, this inspiration comes from watching his older brothers and friends shoot a movie just about every year in our neighborhood (and one was even featured in a local film festival). But he is determined, and excited, so I have been helping him talk through the storyline, gather up his friends, and I’ve been running the Flip video camera for him. I’ll also do much of the editing.

But it has been fun to watch his mind at work. The story — called Robbers on the Loose! — is about the theft of a jewelry box from the Queen  of France (played by my niece) by a fortune teller/robber (my son, with too-big fake beard), and the police (friends) chasing the robbers (my son and friends) to recover the stolen piece. Oh, and our dog is in the movie, too.

Yesterday, we shot the first scenes with my son and my niece in the woods near our house. While they know the storyline, they are ad-libbing the dialogue. So, well, many calls of “cut” and “let’s try that again!” They were so cute! And they were psyched about the footage we got. They think it was the best video ever created, and we’re not even done (gotta love the enthusiasm of a seven year old). The hardest part is to make them speak loud enough for the camera.
fortune teller and queen

At home, I moved the video that we got into iMovie and we began a little editing. Then, I decided to try out the tool in iMovie to create movie trailers. What a blast! We set the whole thing to the ‘adventure setting’ and the movie trailer came out like a Steven Spielberg production. We just need some more footage to liven it up a bit more. That will come today, as we are gathering together about seven 7-year-olds for the cops and robbers scenes.

It will, do doubt, be chaos. Hopefully, fun chaos.

Peace (in the movies),


Slice of Life: The Valentine Day Dilemma

(This is part of the reflective Slice of Life feature at Two Writing Teachers. Next month, the entire month is reflective Slices of Life, with prizes and support from other writers. You should join in.)

I was watching my youngest son finish up his class Valentine Day cards. He looked a bit like Michael Jordan, driving to the hoop. His tongue was out; his eyes were narrow; his fingers held the marker as he scribbled more to his picture. He was putting a lot of effort into what he was doing … for what? So that he would have some cards to give out to his classmates, who would have cards to give to him, and all because of a greeting card holiday.

It didn’t help that his teacher sent home a class list last week. If that is not pressure, what is. And my wife and I felt the pressure, too, and urged him to finish up those cards.

I don’t know. Why push Valentine’s Day on schoolchildren? It’s not love. It’s the candy that they want. I would rather have had my son outside, practicing some basketball dribbling (he needs it, believe me) or creating an imaginary world in his tree fort, or reading a book (or having me read him a book) than making cards that will get tossed into a backpack, forgotten by tonight.

Or maybe this is just me.

I had a student in my class ask if she could bring in cupcakes today. I almost told her “no” but then felt like a Grinch or something, so I stilfled that negative impulse, and told her “yes” and she was all happy to be able to do something special for the class.  And they do love their cupcakes. Now that, I can understand and support. But the cards? Eh, leave them at home.

Peace (in the flip side),


The Writer in Me: Slice of Life, NWP, and More

slice of life 2011
I’m never more of a writer than in March, when the annual Slice of Life challenge rolls around with Two Writing Teachers. Every day (except I got started late this year because, eh, I forgot to get started), a bunch of teachers and writers zero in a small moment of their day and write about it. This is at least the third year I have been doing this with Ruth and Stacey, and so many others (some days, there were up to 80 links for slices), and I find the prospect of knowing I am going to be writing the next morning sharpens my attention on small things: a conversation, an observation, a new angle on a familiar idea.

Up above, you can see the Wordle that I created from all of my posts this year. I guess it is no surprise that “writing” would loom large and that “students” is not far behind. I wrote a lot about my classroom, and that reflective stance is what writing as an educator is all about.

That stance is also direct nod to the influence on my teaching from the National Writing Project, which taught me how to see myself as a writer. NWP folks showed me the way forward into using writing to think through what is working in my classroom and what is not, and if it is not, then what needs to change. The National Writing Project gave me space to develop these skills. During my month-long Summer Institute at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, when we had long stretches of writing time, I felt as if I came into my own as a reflective writer, and I’ve never looked back.

Sure, it helped finding an online home here on this blog, but even that was spurred on by my work with NWP, where my good friend and mentor Paul Oh showed us all about blogging in a summer when that term was still foreign to most of our ears, and most of the world (right before Howard Dean realized the power of the blog for political campaigning). We were among the first Summer Institutes to not only use blogging, but to reflect on its possibilities, which you see unfolding all around you: collaboration, authentic audience, peer feedback, etc.

Blogging then connected me with others, such as the Two Writing Teachers community (which I found with help from another NWP friend, Bonnie). That, in turn, has helped me help others, with hosting of Day in a Sentence, and nurturing various online writing communities and projects (such as the Collaborative ABC Movie Project with Bonnie). NWP continues to lead us into the digital age with its amazing Digital Is site, where teachers are writing and reflecting on how technology is changing learning and teaching practices.

Do you see how I connect the dots? Do you see how the National Writing Project was the start of so much of that push forward for me, as a teacher of writing and also as a teacher of technology? Don’t you wonder about those teachers who won’t get that chance now that the NWP has lost its federal funding? What collaborative and explorative projects WON’T now happen? It’s  a bit self-centered, of course, but it frustrates me to think that the new wave of amazing young and veteran teachers with their own amazing ideas of teaching might not get the chance to inform me as a teacher if the NWP network is diminished.

That person might even be you, and I want you to be part of us. I want you to help me become a better teacher. I know my connections with others won’t fall apart if NWP changes, but NWP is a lifeline for so many teachers and writers, and teacher-writers. It’s important.

If you get the chance, drop an email to your representative or senator, urging support for NWP. Or if you blog about NWP, please add it to the hundreds of blog posts that are gathering at the Blog4NWP site. We’re shooting for a thousand posts by next week but still have a way to go. There’s room for your voice. That’s the NWP way.

Peace (in the reflection),

Slice of Life: From Quidditch fields to Baseball fields

Slice of Life 2011I would be remiss not to write more about Quidditch and baseball before the Slice of Life challenges ends today. I’m somewhat avoided these topics because I felt like it would be Groundhog Day — echoing what I have written for SOL in the last few years in March (it’s amazing how much of our life really does repeat itself, if we take a close look.)

First up, we took our students on a field trip yesterday to an indoor soccer arena, where we had an entire (and exhausting) day of sports activities. There was soccer. There was dodgeball. And there was our game of Quidditch. We (Atomic Blur) played against two other sixth grade class teams in scrimmage, without keeping score. We’ll play our third team in scrimmage in two weeks, just days before the 2011 Quidditch Tournament at our school (where all four sixth grade classes compete for the Quidditch Cup). Next week, we’ll be doing artwork and coming up with plays.

I know I have written this before but: I truly do have one of the nicest classes I have had in years. I see it in the classroom, of course. I see it in the hallways. But on the Quidditch field — where they get very passionate and we have to temper some competitive spirit when it gets too intense — they were marvelous to coach and wonderful to watch. They were supportive of each other. They were cheering each other on. High fives, everywhere. The game seemed to bring out the best in just about everyone.

I know some of you may be wondering: what is this game of Quidditch you play? Here’s a video we made two years ago (for our tenth anniversary of the game) to show others how to play it.

Second, my middle son had his first little league baseball practice yesterday. Once again, I am one of the assistant coaches. Really, I am just “helper man.” We had our “draft” the other night, which I usually write about but didn’t this year, and we got a good crop of kids, it seems. The strange twist this year was that there were not enough little league kids to field all the teams (more are playing lacrosse than every before) so our team got folded into another team.

My son was fine with that shift (except for losing his team name and the color shirt, which used to be yellow and now will be green), since now he is on a team with two of his best friends, and we have more older kids who have played this level than any other team. I think we may be the favorites this season, which would be nice, since it has been a few years of awful, terrible records (but still fun). We have more talent this year than ever.

My arm is a bit sore from throwing the ball for the first time since last summer, but it was fun to see the kids tossing the ball, hitting on the diamond, and catching fly balls. That sound of the ball smacking the glove, and the laughter of young players back on the field, is spring to me.

And now — a winter storm might be rolling in. Just in time for April …

Peace (on the fields),

Slice of Life: Singing with the Band

Slice of Life 2011My new band is really coming together. We’re still working on a name (but have it narrowed down to some finalists) and we need some gigs down the road (our first outing may be a benefit concert at my school), but the rock and roll groove is there. We’re working on songs from Creedence, to Motown Soul, to The Outsiders, to some original stuff.

Mostly, I am the saxophonist, and one of the songwriters as we slowly mesh some original material into the mix.

Last night, our lead singer was absent and I had to step in and do the vocals, so we could at least practice through some songs (including a medley of Johnny B Goode, I Saw Her Standing There, Summertime Blues, and Runaway — way out of my range for most of those). Man, I’ve sort of lost my voice this morning and taking on that role of lead singer was more difficult than I remember it. It also brought me some renewed appreciation for our singer, who has a wonderful voice and a wide range.

It was fun, but strenuous, and I am going to need my voice today. If you see it, can you remind it to come back home. Thanks.

Peace (in the band),

Slice of Life: Wild Chives

Slice of Life 2011“Ahh. The first chives of spring.”

I was tossing the baseball around with my middle son, who is breaking in a new glove. The younger son was chasing the dog around the yard with a large stick in his hand, yelling out some sort of battle cry. The older son had bent down to pluck something off the ground. He popped it into his mouth and chewed slowly.

The chives are back.

Each spring and into early summer, our yard becomes a wild landscape of wild chives. When that first day of mowing the lawn arrives, the air will be sweet with chives. It’s enough to sometimes make you gag. A little bit of chives goes a long way. A lot of chives goes too far. The kids love to munch on the pungent weeds. I worry about what the dog has been doing, if you get my drift.

My son reached down to pluck another tender green shoot. The dog lumbered over and he fed the chive to the dog. Now, both of them were chewing, rather thoughtfully. The temperature here in Western Massachusetts is still hovering around the mid-30 degree mark, so spring is taking its time.

The chives tell us that we won’t have much longer to wait. I can smell it in the air.

Peace (in spring, please, come),