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),

Slice of Life: Slowing Down Time

Slice of Life 2011We were settling into a nighttime routine, my son and I, slowing down the day before sleep.

“What words did you learn at school today?”

“AT!” he shouts, with some frustration. He’s only six.


“We already knew it. It was already in our circle. Next to ‘the,’ and ‘to,’ and ‘and.’ You know … the circle,” he says, using his hands to demonstrate the circle. The circle is where they keep high-use words that they are learning in his kindergarten class.

“Well, it’s good to keep using new words.” I sound more like a teacher than a dad at that point, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

He nods, the frustration now fading.

I have watched him closely this year in kindergarten. His reading and writing skills has blossomed so much since September. Each week seems to bring new developments in his learning. With two other kids, you would think this would be no surprise. But it is. He surprises me daily.

When we read books, he picks out words from the text to read. He’s writing little stories, making comics. “We’re making books and books and books,” he informed me earlier in the day. He and two friends have become co-authors on what I can only guess, knowing them, will be another history of the Star Wars Universe.

His literacy development is on full display, if we just take the time to watch and observe him, and ask questions. His teacher is doing a great job, pushing him and nurturing him. And so is he. I guess we are, as well.

Peace (in the snapshot),

Slice of Life: Very Small Twitter Poems

Slice of Life 2011Yesterday morning, I read an article from The New York Times about efforts by writers to use the Twitter format to write very short poems. I am always intrigued by how technology informs our writing, and how our writing can be adapted to technology. So, throughout the day, I tried my hand at some Twitter poems, and used the #poetweet hashtag to share my writing with others.

It’s challenging, as you can imagine. The constraints of 140 characters leaves very little room for exploration. You need to be short and you need to choose your words carefully. It’s a great exercise in editing, actually, and I wonder if some variation might not work well in the classroom.

Here are some of the poems as screenshots off Twitter, which I recast into podcasts this morning, too.

Peace (in the poems),

Slice of Life: Leading a Digital Storytelling Workshop

Slice of Life 2011I spent four hours yesterday with a small group of teachers in our school district who wanted to learn more about digital storytelling. The principal found some money for Professional Development, we negotiated a fair price, and I developed a plan of action for the day, along with multiple resources.

The session went wonderfully well. We were doing hands-on work with Google Search Stories, then into iMovie, and then onto Voicethread. I peppered my work with leading questions around how technology and media are changing our perceptions of composition (and we had a long conversation about how important “design” is in this world). There was laughter, silence, sharing and reflection.

(see some of the Search Stories they created)

Then, one of the teachers asked, “What is this Writing Project I see on some of the books and papers you brought?”

It was an opening I wasn’t quite expecting, but I was ready to explain all about the National Writing Project, and most important, I talked about how the experiences within the NWP prepared me for the kinds of presentations I was doing with them. It was one teacher sharing their knowledge with another, or teachers teaching teachers. It was hands-on activities, followed by reflective pedagogical practice. It was examining what the students might need for learning. It was even about bringing enough food to the session.

(See a voicethread they played around with)

I owe a lot to the Western Massachusetts Writing Project for my ability to lead workshops and PD sessions. My experience there, and the nurturing that I got over the years (I remember Paul Oh inviting me to be his partner at my first National Writing Project Annual Meeting, to talk about advanced summer technology institutes) has profoundly shaped me as a workshop leader. I never would have known I had it in me, to be honest, until someone tapped me on the shoulder (Paul and Bruce Penniman, among others) and said, you should do this. You can do this. The door opened for me and it has remained open since then, and that has forever changed my own perception of myself as an educator.

Whether or not my teaching colleagues from yesterday follow me into the WMWP, they certainly got a taste of what it means to be in a NWP session around writing and technology. They were learning. They were doing. They were reflecting. They were writing.

(You can come view our workshop website and use the resources as needed. The NWP is also about sharing with the world).
digistory screenshot

Peace (in the workshop model),

Slice of Life/#blog4nwp: A Found Poem

Slice of Life 2011During free moments yesterday, I was reading many of the blog posts from National Writing Project teachers and supporters yesterday as we launched into a #Blog4NWP weekend to let our voices be heard about the importance of the NWP in our teaching and writing lives (read mine here).

I was often struck by some powerful phrases from many of my NWP colleagues and decided that it might be interesting to try a found poem from various blog posts. So, with sincere apologies to many of the bloggers whose words I have “borrowed” here (and possibly adapted slightly), I present my found poem and podcast. The links in the poem should bring you to the original post.

Dancing on the Surface of Water: A Found Poem
(listen to the poem)

When 130,000 teachers
reach 1.4 million students,
how can you argue that these professionals are not finding powerful ways
to motivate,
to educate,
to push learning in new directions ….

Great teaching is not as simple as breathing;
it doesn’t come out of a sparkling spring bubbling up from nowhere
as if it were some magic elixir handed down in secret handshakes
in shadowed hallways.
Great teaching comes from mentors,
from connections,
from learning together what works
and what may not work,
and reflecting on how we might adapt next time
to make more impact.

The small pebble of federal support creates a ripple effect
extending out,
expanding across classrooms
and schools
and cities and towns everywhere,
allowing us some precious moments to dance upon the surface of water.

We reach out our hands to our young writers — the struggling and the confident –
so that they, too, may make sense of their world on the page.
When they discover their power as a writer, their lives may be altered forever.
We teach for moments like these
and celebrate their arrival with the intangibles of
and wonderment,
and community.

The National Writing Project has been a refuge,
an intellectual and professional and collegial home
that has done more for us as teachers of teachers than even we might have first imagined
when we gathered together with strangers one summer
only to emerge as colleagues
- and as teachers of writing, it has meant more than we would have dreamed possible.
Each summer, teachers from across each state meet for weeks
to eat, sleep, dream and inhale writing.
They come together to do the essential, albeit difficult, work in their classrooms
of moving pens to paper, of words to the screen,
of thoughts into action,
of transforming young thinkers into powerful writers.
It is only because we are teachers
that we can truly begin to conceive of ourselves as writers.
We are dedicated to the development of networks.
And writing.
And, of course, to thinking

We’re counting on you, our government leaders,
to be an authentic audience for us
and our students.
We ask that you show support for the young great American authors working across
information age media that you –
with your support and with your ears open to the possibilities
of teachers learning together –
will help us as teachers to
and celebrate
even in these times of fiscal constraints.
We’re counting on you.

Peace (in the poem),

Slice of Life: Rally for the NWP

Slice of Life 2011

This is going to be a short Slice of Life today because most of my writing energy was taken up with composing a piece about saving the National Writing Project. We lost our federal funding and this weekend, those of us who are online are trying rally support for our organization by blogging and lobbying our legislators. If you have been part of any NWP event, or understand its importance in helping teachers, I’d encourage you to blog about it as well.

This is my post: Why the National Writing Project Matters

And organizer Chad Sansing has more information about the #blog4nwp weekend here at his own blog.

Me? I seem to have lost some of my actual voice with a cold (just in time for a four hour workshop tomorrow around digital storytelling) but my fingers are working just fine, and my other voice — my digital voice — feels pretty strong today.

I hope you can join us as writers, or at least, as readers and supporters of the National Writing Project.

Peace (in the rally),