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),


Slice of Life: Questions He Asks

Slice of Life 2011Today is my middle son’s birthday, and he has always had a very inquisitive nature (I once wrote a poem about him as a young child asking about God). Here, in no particular order, are some of the questions he has lobbed my way in the past three days.

“What if Gaddaffi bombs us?”

Here’s a question that I wish I would not be asked, but I can’t just ignore it, either. He reads the newspaper. He has some idea of the world. I tell him that Libya does not have the capability to bomb us here, and that we are participating in the no-fly zone initiative to save lives. I tell him he is safe. I am not sure if I put him at ease, though.

“Do you believe there is life somewhere other than Earth?”

I told him that I often wonder, given the size and scope of the Universe, if there might be some form of life somewhere. I don’t imagine it will be little green men, but maybe something. He agreed, and then rattled some statistics about how many adults believe versus how many kids believe (I think he heard it on the radio).

“If I get a scholarship to  a college for sports, but it is not the college that I want, can I turn it down?”

This still a number of years down the road, I assure him. Wow. I honestly tell him that it would be hard to say no to a free ride to college, and given our finances, it would be a difficult decision. He wants to go to LSU to play basketball. We can only hope some sort of academic and/or sports scholarships are in the cards.

“What is the meaning of life?”

I am not kidding. He asked this one morning. I was caught off-guard, but rattled on about love, peace, helping others, family and inner happiness. I sounded like a greeting card, I fear, but what could I say? That I have it figured out? I was honest, in that I don’t have it figured out.

I love this kid. He’s a fifth grader with a mind wide open.

Peace (in the questions),

Slice of Life: Cool is the Way it Plays

Slice of Life 2011Last night, my wife and I went to a jazz concert that celebrated the music of John Coltrane. It featured tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson and beyond the drums was the legendary Jimmy Cobb, who has played with everyone from Charlie Parker to Miles Davis and more. He may be getting on in years but he can still kick it.

As I was listening, my mind drifted along with the music and this one line of words kept popping in my head. “Cool is the way it plays …” and this morning, I still had it there. “Cool is the way it plays ….” and as I was walking our dog, under the stars, this poem started to form for me.

I purposely tried to weave ideas in and around the lines, making an attempt to captures some of the ways I heard Javon Jackson play around with melodies and lines.

Cool is the Way it Plays

is the way it plays
on stage
the way the notes graze
against each other
in melodic memory
in harmonic time
in the rhythm of the line
is where the notes
take chances, sometimes,
I’m out here alone -
in there
you’re trying to find
the hook, the head,
the crazy way I said
to listen to that sound
coming from that horn
as if it were some theme
I’d heard before
we were born
reminding us
to listen,
to listen,
to listen to the currents
weaving in and out
of each other -
is the way it plays
on stage,
Put away the rage
dance along the line

You can listen to the podcast version of the poem, too.

Peace (in the cool),

Slice of Life: Jammin’ and Listenin’

Slice of Life 2011The other day, I had a student pull me aside, out of earshot of his classmates. He was sort of whispering, so I had to bend my head to hear.

“Mr. H, if I bring in my guitar, will you jam with me?”

“Sure,” I said, without hesitation.

This isn’t the first time I have given up a prep period in order to play a little music with a student. It is the first time this year, however. There is actually a large crop of kids this year who play guitar and/or drums, and this student is one of those on my radar screen.

We set a day — it was Thursday — and he forgot all about it.  I had my acoustic guitar all set to go.  I told him I would keep my guitar in school for another day. He promised he would bring his gear in the next day. He didn’t. But he remembered that our music teacher keeps a few guitars around, so he asked her if he could borrow one of hers. She, of course, agreed, and soon he and I were strumming some songs.

Or rather, he was playing riffs for me to hear.

I think it was less that he wanted to play some songs with me than he wanted to show me that he has a musical talent. I was an attentive audience. As teacher, I often see him through the lens of writing and reading, and he can struggle at times. But he does have a good feel for the guitar, and he certainly loves music. His repertoire was mostly Green Day with a little Guns n Roses, but you have to start somewhere. We played a few songs — “Good Riddance” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” — but mostly, I just listened to him.

It reminded me, in this season of testing, how we need to remember that our students encompass more than just the sliver of time that we see them in our classroom. They are artists, musicians, actors, athletes, and more, and when we narrow our focus to a single academic area in a single hour of a single day, we sometimes lose sight of that. And like this young guitarist, they desire not only our approval as adults in their lives, but also, they yearn for our praise. He wanted me to “hear” him in a way that I might not otherwise.

So, I listened, and kept my guitar mostly quiet.

We ended our Jam Session and as we were packing up, I remembered back to a time when I was his age, when a group of us from my neighborhood used to gather together all sorts of musical gear — hand-me-downs from siblings or forgotten amps and guitars from parents — and play for hours, out of tune and a bit too loud, in the dingy basement of a friend whose mother was sympathetic. We were bad — maybe even awful — but we didn’t care. We were making music.

“You need to find some friends, start a band, and write some songs, ” I told him, pointing out some of the riffs he had played. Riffs are like sentences, and you string them together in a way to make a song.  “Get out there and play.”

He nodded. You never know when a comment might connect. He just might do it.

Peace (on the fretboard),

Slice of Life: It’s OK to Argue in Here

Slice of Life 2011We’re working on some daily persuasive writing as I toss out topics that I figure will garner some strong opinions from my sixth graders. The other day, we discussed the validity of our state’s MCAS test as a requirement for a high school diploma (you’d be surprised at how many students agree, given how much they dislike the test, and how many were completely unaware of the seriousness of the test in 10th grade). Yesterday, our topic was whether or not schools should allow students to use mobile hand-held technology devices in class.

We begin with some framing of the question, as I explained how many schools are grappling with this topic right now, and then we pushed into brainstorming around the issues for and against the topic at hand. This is where I try to balance between encouraging independent thinking and respectful listening. But they get it. They listen. They talk. They debate. It doesn’t get personal.

Since my students were mostly divided on this topic of mobile devices, I thought I would share out our brainstorming list of the pros and cons of allowing cell phones, iTouches, GPS and other devices from home into the classroom. I am sure you will find their insights as interesting as I did.

The Pros:

  • Handy research tool
  • Educational Apps
  • Built-in calculators and dictionaries
  • Ability to contact family
  • Ability to contact anyone in an emergency situation (they had a past lock-down drill on their minds, I think)
  • Less need to purchase expensive laptops
  • You can easily take pictures/videos
  • Email/Text teachers (I joked that this might fall under the “cons” side for teachers)
  • Move towards paperless classroom
  • e-books available for reading at any time
  • Some students work better, harder with music soundtrack

And the Cons:

  • A distraction for students
  • Inappropriate texting/instant messaging
  • Device might get damaged
  • Device might get stolen
  • Someone might hack into it
  • Games, not always educational
  • Social distraction (paying more attention to device than to people around them)
  • How would it get power/charge all day?
  • Pictures and video of others might be an invasion of privacy
  • The “cool factor” of the most expensive devices would create an equity issue (I was so proud of them for seeing this as a problem)

They then wrote for a bit and then a few shared out their writing. This was not a full writing project. It was a writing prompt, but I loved how it got discussions going around the room.  I could not help noticing that many of my most tech-savvy students were against the concept. Perhaps they were realizing their own difficulties with meshing their understanding of technology with the rules of the school.

Oh, and did I mention our school now has a class set of iTouches? We’re still working to use them (some PD is now underway) but that addition to our tech has piqued their interest and prompted the question by one student, “Why can’t I just bring my own in from home? It’s got all the apps I need.”

Peace (in the argument),

Slice of Life: Shhhh! We’re Testing

Slice of Life 2011Round one of this week’s Reading Comprehension state testing began yesterday and I don’t think I have had a class work as hard, or as long, on the test as I have with this year’s crew. Some of them were at it for more than 2 1/2 hours (on a test the state suggests will take about an hour).

Here are some snapshots from my perch as teacher:

  • The school provides some pre-testing snack food. Yesterday, it was goldfish and juice. Before I knew it, they were all trying to toss the fish in the air and catch them in their mouths. I let it go on for a second, until the fish were landing on the ground. “OK, enough,” I shouted. “Pick up the fish.” Their response? “Ahhh.”
  • They had to put my name on the cover of the test this year. This is new and no doubt, it is a result of some cheating or accountability problems in some districts (not ours). Even at this point in the year, some kids still have trouble spelling my name! And one of them wrote down me as a MRS. I explained that my wife was in another school that day, helping to oversee high school MCAS (true).
  • They asked if they could take off their shoes. I had never been asked that before, but I didn’t care. Almost everyone did, and one of my more exuberant student shot her feet into the air to show off her mismatched, colorful socks. “Look at my toes!” she giggled, which eased some of the stress in the room.
  • I saw a hand across the room. A student, whose second language is English and who struggles with reading comprehension, called me over and pointed to a word. “What does that mean?” he asked, looking up at me. I could only shake my head and tell him I could not help. I saw tears in his eyes for a second, then he got back down to the problem. It broke my heart.
  • I had to exchange nine pencils during testing because they were writing so much on the open response questions, they had run their pencils down to the nub. In fact, I saw them doing a lot of writing, making notes and making outlines. I believe a few even wrote a first draft in their test booklets before a final draft in their answer booklets.
  • Another hand. I wandered over. “I think I made a big mistake,” she whispered. These are not words you want to hear in a state testing environment. She had written the open response answer in a space for another question. OK. I grabbed an eraser and told her to rewrite her response in the right space and then do a good job erasing the other one, and she should be fine. “You’re fine. Don’t worry,” I told her, and she seemed to settle down.
  • Once they are done, they can read. Only read. But the time stretched on so long that one of my antsy boys lost interest in his book and began to dissemble his pen and then use the spring to launch the pen cap into the air. He was doing it silently, and with focus. I let him go until another student began to imitate him, adding her rocket to the launch sequence. Suddenly, the airspace felt crowded. I told them to stop, and told the boy later, “Make sure you have a good book with you on Friday.”
  • We are not allowed to look at the tests or their answers, and I don’t. But I couldn’t help noticing as I was wandering the classroom that there was a play skit as one of the reading passages this year. We had done an entire unit this year on writing and reading plays. I have myself a little mental fist pump on that one.

Round two for Reading Comprehension is tomorrow, and then we are done for awhile (until Math rolls around in May).

Peace (in the testing),

Slice of Life: Expert Advice from Students

Slice of Life 2011We’ve been working in class on paragraph writing in a slow, logical progression that began first with the Origins of Words, then shifted into Parts of Speech, and then on to the Structure of a Sentence, and now into Paragraphs, to be followed by a Research Essay.

Yesterday, my students shared out their expository paragraph on the theme of explaining how to do something. This is a pretty typical school assignment, but it does tap into student knowledge about a task, and puts it into explanatory writing.

I was thinking that I wish I had time for two more expository activities (maybe next year, when the Common Core starts to creep further in, as it shifts writing more into informational next and away from narrative): creating a video tutorial, using the writing as the script, with groups working on how to videos;  and moving into a Make Session around students in groups working on hands-on projects, and then learning aspects of technical writing. I’m not there yet, but I see the possibilities of extending informational writing.

While some of the topics of their writing sound familiar to anyone who has done this activity, (sports, baking cookies, etc.), there were a few paragraphs this year that were nicely off the beaten trail, a bit. As they were sharing them with the class, I jotted down some notes on topics they chose that seemed interesting:

  • How to create a movie with Pivot Stickfigure animation software (frame by frame, patience is key for a smooth movie);
  • How to read and play Drum Sheet Music (each line is a different drum or percussion instrument);
  • How to clean a fake beard (which she wore for her presentation and giggled a lot);
  • How to annoy your siblings (a crowd pleaser for the younger siblings in class — a warning shot for the older siblings);
  • How to build an arctic igloo out of ice cream (then, you get to eat it, so it’s win-win);
  • How to play the ukelele (which he demonstrated to the cheers of the class);
  • How to kickstart a dirt bike (in case you get stuck in the woods);
  • How to make a live action movie (start with a script, but then improvise. You’ll have more fun that way.);
  • How to fill out an NCAA Basketball Bracket for March Madness (go for top-seeded teams and hope for some luck);
  • How to use a ripstick (motion of your lower body makes the skateboard-like object move, and but don’t fall. You’ll get road rash.);
  • How to wear pointe shoes for dance (protect your toes. We all agreed the shoes looked uncomfortable.);
  • How to play power chords on the guitar (crank your amp for greatest effect).

Peace (in the expertise),