Slice of Life: remembering my great-grandmother

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)

Next week, in our final lessons around paragraph writing, my students are going to be creating short digital stories around narrative paragraph writing. Their aim is to find a physical object, and write about the strong memories attached with that object. It could be a souvenir from a vacation, something handed down from a family member, a trophy or medal from a competition, etc.

Yesterday, I began by reading Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partidge by Mem Fox, a wonderful picture book about a little child who helps an eldery friend “find” her memories by giving her a series of objects. OK, the book is for younger kids, but mine were quiet and interested and attentive as I read this one aloud to them, and talked about our own relatives who have lost their memories over time.

This led to me sharing my own narrative paragraph story about a tea cup that used to be my great-grandmother’s. It reminds me still of her, many years later.  This was first a podcast from last year, but I merged that old audio with some pictures. My students loved it and I hope it moves them to create their own wonderful narratives.

Next week, we move into Photostory for creation. This week, they find their objects, and their memories.

Here is my story:

Peace (in memories),

Slice of Life: On the other side of the fence

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)

I found myself on the other side of the fence last night. I was in a room with other parents, listening to teachers and administers at the middle school talk about the program. Next year, our oldest moves from the small elementary school to the larger middle school and it was informational night. I could not help reading into what the presenters were saying (I surely hope Language Arts is NOT just about grammar and mechanics, which is the message that I got) and comparing their sixth grade curriculum to our sixth grade curriculum. Why does that competitive streak come out? (Note: our report card, which is in the midst of transition as we speak, is far better than the sample report card they gave us last night, which said so little about learning that I wonder if it worth the paper it is printed on but they run a before-school Open Gym program and an after-school enrichment program that I wish our school had available).

What I loved is that they have exploratory blocks, so all kids get six weeks of Spanish and French, technology (engineering class), computers and more. I love the team concept that breaks the 200-plus kids into smaller teams where they can create an identity. I thought the message from the principal and counselors was right on – very child-centered. So, I was not disappointed overall, but excited for my son and the year ahead.

And wondering, where did all those years go?

Peace (in moving up),

Slice of Life: on the virtual racetrack

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)

A few weeks ago, we finally got a game system for our house. A Wii. This came after years of asking (by the kids, I swear) and after plenty of negotiations (they chose the Wii over cable television, which we don’t have) and then with parameters (they earn time with chores). This weekend, we got the Wii version of Mario Kart, which is a hopped up load of software fun.

Yesterday, I played it with my kids and the experience brought me back to my early days of Atari. It helped that I read an interesting article in the Boston Globe about a professor who studies the Atari phenomenon from the 1970s and how that little game changed our view of computers, technology and gaming. As I zoomed around the virtual Mario race track, avoiding all sorts of mushrooms and monkeys and things I don’t even know what they were, I realized that the Wii and the old Atari share a common trait: they are social games. There was a whole world of gaming systems that were designed for solitary play. Oh, you could get a friend to come along, but the design itself was clearly for single players. Not the Wii. It wants you to play with others (after you dole out cash for another Wii control, of course).And the old Atari, too. Pong and others were made for two people. You had to find a friend.

As we rode our virtual carts, I liked that we were all together, laughing and shouting encouragement with each other, in the same room. We were not inside our brains, but outside in our lives. It has been some time since I played a video game console and the Wii, with its odd controller system, seemed strange, yet it isn’t. The developers were smart — they made a game that is an extension of your physical self. We played Mario Kart with little steering wheels. We bowl with real bowling movements, etc.

On the flip side, I have too many students who come in the morning, eyes red and tired, who admit to being up into all hours of the night (and sometimes, mornings) on their Xbox, or Wii, or whatever, and I know (from my childhood) all too well the lure of the screen. We have a system in place here that we hope avoids those problems. Meanwhile, we are having some family fun.

Peace (in games),

Slice of Life: short, sweet and warmth

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)

My slice is simple: it was a beautiful day outside yesterday and most of the day was spent outside in the sun, gathering up warmth and breathing in the fresh air. Days like this remind us that winter in New England doesn’t last forever, although it often seems like that, and that soon, flowers will be poking their heads up from the grass.

The melting snow reveals lost treasures in our yard — forgotten whiffle balls, lost water guns, and other assorted plastic things. Neighbors were walking the streets and we saw some families with whom we have not talked to since the winter began. It’s strange, but true. Where did we all go for such a long time?

This morning, I looked out and it was … snowing again, so I guess I can’t celebrate too soon.

Peace (in sunshine),

Slice of Life: When writing breaks down

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)

This morning, I spent a good hour going through about half of the culmination projects that my sixth graders finished last week around Parts of Speech. I often complain that the abstractness of dissecting a sentence down to its parts has very little value to a young writer, so I won’t rant again. In this project, my students have to color-code the eight main Parts of Speech in their own writing (over the course of at least 10 sentences), so my hope is that it has a bit more meaning for them.

I added another component this year — a tally sheet — that seems to have made a positive difference for this project. The sheet forced them to think about the words they were using and helped them track the work they were doing, according to the project requirements (ie, nouns are colored blue, verbs are colored red, adjectives are colored yellow, etc). A big plus: the tally sheet has made my job in correcting the project a whole lot easier. I move back and forth, between the project and the tally sheet. So far, I am about halfway through the 75 projects and most are doing a pretty good job. We do a lot of games and activities in the classroom around Parts of Speech (such as Bingo and tossing a Nerf Brainball around the room to demonstrate prepositions, etc.) and that helps with many of them.

The toughest Part of Speech? Adverbs. No doubt about it. Adverbs are the trickiest, by far. They are slippery parts of speech, moving from one job to another, and that ‘ol “-ly” rule works only sometimes, but not always.

Now, I just need to get through about 40 more of the projects. Sigh.

Peace (in living color),


Slice of Life: the bird’s eye view

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)

Last night, my older boys and I took a bus trip into Boston to watch the Celtics take on the Cavaliers (Go Celts!) with some neighbors of ours. The bus trip is sponsored by our city’s recreation department. Taking the bus sure beats driving the car any day, particularly for an 8 p.m. game that ended way past my bedtime. But tickets are often iffy, with nose-bleed seats the norm. This year, we got our tickets and could not find our seats. I finally asked for help and was told to find the elevator (“It’s the only way to get there,” the usher said, giving me pause) and head up to the ninth floor. The ninth floor? It turns out our seats were way up there, in the area known as the Promenade. It’s the section that we always loop up and wonder how people get those seats. True, we were the farthest from the court, but our seats looked almost “down” on the court from above, giving us an interesting view of the game. And there was plenty of room to walk around, run around (if you were a kid), and stretch.

Plus, we saw an exciting game. And the Celtics won. And we could all snooze on the way home. I would say: win – win – win.

Peace (in the game),

Slice of Life: the language of Boolean Squared

My slice of life is quick — I am updating my website home of my webcomic, Boolean Squared, this morning — adding in recent comics about the use of language when it comes to kids and teachers. This three-comic series begins with Boolean questioning why he and his friends get in trouble for not using proper English only to be taught the beauty of Jabberwocky and all of its invented words. Later, the students create their own words on a wiki (as I do with mine at our Crazy Dictionary project).

Visit Boolean Squared for more shenanigans. This week, the comic pokes fun at assemblies on Cyberbullying. (And here is the RSS feed from the newspaper where Boolean Squared runs once a week)

Peace (on the funny pages),


Slice of Life: Writing with my Students

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)

I love to write with my students. I love that all of us are there, in the moment, together, as writers. Yesterday was one of those days as all of my classes spent almost an hour straight in short story writing, using Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick illustrations as launching points for stories. When I mentioned how much uninterrupted time we would have to write in one class, one girl let out a cheerful and infectious “whoop” of delight. Is there a better sound than someone that excited about writing?

I, of course, gave them some directions: pay attention to establishing a good setting, make sure you are developing believable characters with depth, and effectively use dialogue. Other than that, though, they were free to write.

I gave them the option of either writing stories in their writing notebooks or on the laptops, and close to 90 percent of them chose the computers. I was not surprised, but still … it is interesting. In surveys with my students, many will say that they believe they can writer “better” on the computer. I am not sure that is actually the case, but it certainly is the perception.

So, my young writers were spread out around the room like bohemians in a coffee shop, composing away, and I was right there with them. I chose an illustration from Harris Burdick entitled “The Seven Chairs” which shows a nun in a hovering chair as two priests look on. The caption reads: The fifth one ended up in France. I decided that I would tell the back-story of the chairs and so (making some changes, such as it being six chairs and not seven) I began:

The Woodworker lived for the isolation. He had long ago found that people in general were far more trouble than they were worth. They asked questions. They needed information. They could not think for themselves. It was enough to drive anyone mad. The Woodworker, in particular, could not abide other people who were not smart enough to see this world as he saw it – as something magical that could be carved, created and brought to life with their own hands.

Ten years before, he finally given up on people and went off on a journey to find a space where he could work alone. It was there, in the cave up high in the Andes Mountains, that he could finally do what he always wanted to do: create the Magical Chairs. This had been his vision for as long as he remembered, and he had spent the 10 years before gathering the perfect wood, foraging for the perfect pieces of fallen trees in the rain forests of the Amazon, the dense forests of the Redwood Forest, the oasis areas of the Sahara and so on. The perfect piece of wood was crucial for his work and The Woodworker spared no expense.

Now, with wood in hand and isolation guaranteed, he spent the next 10 years of his life creating the chairs, wonderfully ornate chairs that held unlimited possibilities. His plan all along had been to create 10 chairs – items that would change the course of history forever. He never got that far. At four, he felt the illness coming on – the slight sounds of Death approaching. He vowed to continue and rushed to finish the fifth chair even as the night approached in his sleep, beckoning him to come closer and find peace. The Woodworker resisted and worked on the sixth through the long winter months, with the cold snapping at his body like a ravenous dragon.

The pieces of the seventh chair lay scattered on the floor of his cavern when The Woodworker finally collapsed and this is how he was found three years later when an Expedition into the Andes Mountains in search of an elusive Lost City came into the cave to escape a torrential downpour.  Led by a man who had eerie sense of peace about himself, unsettling really, the expedition had turned up nothing of value after three months of searching. No hints at all of an ancient civilization that came to power with magic, only to lose it all to magic. The lost city that the Leader of the Expedition had promised them was elusive. The crew itself was ready to abandon the wild goose chase and go home. But not the Leader. He was nowhere ready to give up on the things he intended to find.

(you can read the rest of what I have written so far here)

Do you write with your students?

Peace (in the classroom),

PS — Not sure what Harris Burdick is all about? Here is a podcast I once did for Just One Book on The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

Slice of Life: Haiku Postcards

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)
This is kind of cheating, but I finally gathered up all of my haikus that I wrote on a family trip to Japan two weeks ago and created this slideshow, so it is a Slice of Life — but not immediately recent. One interesting side note, though, is that I was talking with a teacher at my son’s preschool and he mentioned that he has been writing haikus recently, too, and we are now exchanging our poems with each other. Very cool to be on a poem hand-off with another teacher.

Peace (in poems),

Slice of Life: The Beast Across the Street

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)

A conversation with a four year old in the car as we are almost home:

Son: Did you know kitty talks to the beast?
Me: Huh?
S: Our kitty. Coltrane. He talks to the beast.
M: Which beast?
S: The one I was talking about.
M (now thinking of past conversations): Oh. The beast who lives in the woods across the street?
S (nods): They talk.
M: What do they talk about?
S: I don’t know.
M: Do they do other things? Do they play scrabble?
S: Nooooo.
M: How about checkers?
S: Noooooo.
(quiet pause)
S: The beast eats birds.
M: Really?
S: And chipmunks and squirrels.
M: Really?
S: Yep.
M: So does kitty. Maybe that’s what they talk about.
S: What?
M: What birds taste like.
S: Maybe. The beast sleeps in winter. It comes out in summer.
M: Oh.
S: So be quiet. Shhhh. Don’t wake the beast.
M: I won’t. Promise.

Peace (in stories),