Holiday Greetings

Whatever your beliefs, I hope you find peace and happiness today, and every day. Thanks for stopping by.

Peace (in the unwrapped box),


Thank You for the Edublog Nomination

This is a little late in coming (sorry) but I’d like to thanks the friends and folks who had taken the time to nominate my blog for the Edublogs Awards (Teacher blog category) this year. I always appreciate that folks hang out with me here and read what I share, and offer up comments and criticism,, and then some of you go the extra mile with that kind of nomination … it is very humbling. That I didn’t win is beside the point in my mind (which meanders anyway). Thank you. Thank you so much.

Peace (with appreciation),


What We Built: The Holiday Video Game


My 8 year son and I created this video game over the weekend, working a holiday/winter theme into a game experience. I’m sharing it here but also, I am creating a game challenge for my students to see who can created the most inventive holiday-themed video game (with my son, as the judge).

Here is the link to the game.

Peace (in the holidays),

Silence for Sandy Hook Elementary

Today, many teacher bloggers are going silent as a way to honor the memories of those lost in Friday’s tragedy. I am joining them.

On Tuesday, December 18th, there will be a blogger day of silence. We will post the button and that’s it. Please try to not post anything else that day if possible.
We are also raising money that will go to an organization in the memory of this tragedy. The organization is called The Newtown Family Youth and Family Services.
Here is the official description of the support service we are donating to:
“Newtown Youth and Family Services, Inc. is a licensed, non-profit, mental health clinic
and youth services bureau dedicated to helping children and families achieve their
highest potential. NYFS provides programs, services, activities, counseling, support
groups and education throughout the Greater Newtown area.
Please visit THIS PAGE to make your donation.

Peace (please),


No Time to Think: The Informational Age and Mourning

 … how to re-imagine the space

with laughter and talking and learning

in the days before

is where I am finding myself in trouble this morning

as images invade my mind,

and all I can think is,

my youngest son is the same age

as those children.

— A poem I wrote yesterday in our NWP writing space, the iAnthology

Like many of you, I heard about the Sandy Hook shooting in the midst of the school day. We refrained from mentioning it our sixth grade students, both out of uncertainty of the situation and appropriateness of who should be framing such news. But we heard about it from a young substitute teacher who got a text message from a student at the high school.

My first thought: my 12 and 14 year sons are at their schools, and they probably already know about it, and I am not there to help them process it.

Which was true.

The news apparently spread like wildfire through their middle and high schools, thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices and word of mouth and the constant flow of news in the information age.  I may be an advocate for technology, and I may talk a lot here and in other places about the power of digital media, but there are times — like this — when I wish there was a huge switch we could yank on to slow things down and give us — individuals, families, schools — time to mourn thoughtfully. Just to stop the deluge for a bit.

Listening to the radio news on my ride to get my oldest son from basketball practice after school on Friday, I was in tears. I could not shake the vision of the terror of the situation, and the sadness that must be consuming the families and the community. I picked up my older son, and then my 12-year-old son, and we talked a bit about what happened, about the madness of the situation. Not much. Just enough for them to know I was there, and they were safe, or at least, as safe as they could be. And that we could talk, if they needed.

“But don’t talk about it with your brother,” I warned.

My eight year old son was at home, blissfully unaware of the news. He’s far from plugged in, and yet, my wife and I knew that come Monday (or maybe sooner), the news of Sandy Hook would filter to him, and he would learn about it, and what he would hear would be filtered through the minds of other 8 year olds. In other words, it would be news from sources that could not be trusted for accuracy.

We hid the newspaper yesterday, burying the headlines in our bin of paper.  Out of sight. But still, he needed to know.

I struggled yesterday with how to broach it with him. I asked around on Twitter. I read some articles that gave advice, thought long and hard, and then, as he and I were sitting on the living room floor making Lego ships during the afternoon, I gently explained that he would probably hear people talking about a terrible tragedy, that some children in a school were dead, and I wanted him to know about it. I gave very general information, nothing specific, and emphasized our need to say prayers and send good thoughts for the families, and keep those kids in our hearts.

He nodded, and said, “Can I ask a question?”


“Did it involve guns?”

Here was the topic what I was hoping to avoid, but I both acknowledged that guns were involved, and then I deftly dodged/weaved around the specifics. I brought our discussion to a close with another reminder about prayer and thoughts for the world undone by tragedy. He looked at me closely, seriously, and asked if our church pastor had heard the news. I said, he probably has, and that he would likely ask the congregation to pray for Sandy Hook families.

My son nodded, thoughtfully, and got back to making his Lego ship. We worked in silence on our Legos, both of us deep in thought. It was the best I could do.

Peace (in the mourning),


The Reading Teacher: Writing and Digital Literacies

Between my wife and I, we get a lot of teaching and educational journals. In the latest edition of The Reading Teacher, Bridget Dalton writes about the connections between multimodal composition and the Common Core standards, and she notices many openings for bringing technology and emerging literacies into classroom instruction. I agree, although I would have liked more overt references to how technology is changing our view of writing in the Common Core, but maybe that is asking too much at this point.

I liked the way Dalton defines what is happening:

“The fixed display of the printed page is being transformed on the screen into an interactive, dynamic experience that can be manipulated across time and space by the reader/viewer and the author.” — page 334.

She then ventures into the idea of a Digital Writing Workshop (which Troy Hicks has also done with depth in his Digital Writing Workshop book) and touches on issues of developing not just scaffolding of instruction with technology and composition, but also, establishing the idea of a “design community.” I love this concept, since design is a critical part of digital composition — particularly as we merge media together into something new. And, to be frank, not many teachers teach design.

One area of interest for me is in a section Dalton entitles “Pitfalls!” where she tries to lay out things to avoid. I liked her idea that we, teacher, cannot scaffold too much because that limits what students envision for themselves. She also encourages teachers to dive in and not wait for expertise to arrive. The only way to know the possibilities is by doing it, playing with it, and using it.

But she also suggests that writing not come first. She suggests that while “… we often ask students to write first and then to enhance what they’ve written with media. For many multimedia compositions, this is not the way to go.” While she acknowledges that some students benefit from writing first, others need to create first and then backtrack to writing.

I’m mixed on this.

While I agree with Dalton that there is a “back-and-forth” to digital composing — a constant shifting in strategies that can seem disorientating but often has a certain logic to it — I still believe that writing remains at the heart of digital composition, even if it is reflective writing that gets them started. My view of technology is that ideas are best developed by writing,  and then creating, and I have come to this by watching too many of students lose focus on their work because they did not have their ideas in place as guideposts (which I always tell them can be reshaped by their experiences in a project).

Still, I see where she is coming from, and when we think of the various strategies of our students as writers and media creators, it may make sense to have a bigger picture of what helps who. The tricky part is providing them with enough varied experiences, and reflective moments, to understand what works best for them. And those reflective moments? Yeah. That would be writing.

In another part of The Reading Teacher, Ernest Morrell lays out a rationale for a new column he is doing around youth literacies, and why digital literacies will be at the heart of his writing. Morrell (who gives powerful speeches about technology and the culture of kids, and is the new president of NCTE) notes that while technology is everywhere in the lives of young people, “…there is still a great deal that these youth have to learn about how to process the information they are innundated with via these new portals of information.”

I agree, and hope that Morrell’s work will further dive the division of the digital native/immigrant into the ground, and also, buffer the idea that teachers and librarians are in the ideal place to help young people navigate and make sense of this media-rich, technology-infused world, and become critical of it all so that they have choice and agency in their lives. I’m looking forward to following Morrell’s column and learning from his work and his perspectives.

Peace (in the journal),


Reflections on National Writing Project Annual Meeting, part 1

I’ll be sharing pieces of my experiences here in Las Vegas at the National Writing Project Annual Meeting over the coming days (today, it is on to NCTE). I attended a number of very interesting sessions yesterday, and co-presented one around game design. I also joined 600 NWP colleagues in the main plenary sessions where we wrote (naturally) and got inspired by some terrific speakers.

What stuck out for me over the course of a very full day, however, was something rather surprising and for me, unexpected. I was reminded once again about the power of the narrative. I say surprising because the shift to the Common Core has reduced how narrative writing might figure in our classrooms, in favor of informational, expository and argumentative writing.

But, starting in the first session I attended around Systems Design and Digital Writing, I realized that so much of this theory around elements shaping outcome, and how the parts define the whole, and how one twist in an element can potential alter the system is pretty close to what we do when we write a story. We add a character, toss in a plot twist, design a story through its parts for a larger meaning. It’s really a narrative understanding of the world.

And the keynote speakers at the big session — Jeff Wilhelm, Michael W. Smith, and Jim Fredricksen — have written three books centered on some main elements of the Common Core, but all three spoke passionately about the ways that narratives inform our lives, and provide a framework (again, a system) for understanding. So, when Wilhelm was talking about how making lists for informational text and understanding is one way of organizing our understanding, he also noted how we use narrative to put those lists in order in a meaningful way. The other two speakers touched on narrative, too.

And then, in both our gaming session (where narrative is the design backbone of my game design project, but with a science theme), and in a last session around tools that allow you to compose/hack the web, we talked again about how story and narrative are an essential thinking framework.

All this is heartening. I know the Common Core doesn’t remove narrative, but it does minimize it, and that worries me as a teacher and a writer. If we can find more ways to weave those strands together, of remixing narrative in the scope of informational/expository writing, so that writers have more options, then we are providing an interesting road ahead for our students.

Las Vegas, not New York

Peace (in Vegas),


The Atlantic Magazine Series: Why American Students Can’t Write

Education Debate bug

Have you been following the ongoing series of posts at The Atlantic Magazine on the theme of writing?

I’ve been back and forth over the past few weeks as the magazine first featured a controversial but very insightful article about a turnaround school that focused its writing curriculum almost solely on expository writing and grammar instruction. This was spurred on by poor test scores and the admission that its students were struggling to write even complete sentences. What the real theme of the series centers around, it seems to me, is the role and balance of creative, narrative writing and expository information writing — which really drives into the heart of the discussion of the Common Core. The first article by Peg Tyre kicked off a series of other posts about the craft of teaching writing with students, and the pieces have been very interesting to read and think about.

I take my hat off to Cindy O’Donnell-Allen (a National Writing Project colleague) who argued that teachers need to be writers, and viewed as writers, for students to really take writing seriously as a means of expression. And there have been insightful pieces about the creative process (about developing strategies for ideas) and the need for poetry in the curriculum to nurture logical thinking, and how organizations like Dave Eggers’ Valencia 826 writing centers have energized and supported young writers.

And a high school student even responded with a fantastic piece of writing, talking about how some of her best teachers have shown her how to see her own writing through various lenses.

And then there are the two technology-related pieces that caught my attention.

The first piece talks about how teachers need to start envisioning the assessment and support of student writing with technology as a tool. The notes in the margins to students rarely get read. What if our time was spent more wisely, the authors write, in the early stages of writing, conferring directly with students (or outside of class, with online conferences) and using the technology tools to help with the grammar and syntax. The authors also suggest that the advent of software to read essays might be one of those tools. I’m still not sure about that.

The second piece makes interesting connections between traditional writing skills and programmers creating code, and ponders the question of whether software would be less buggy and more innovative if programmers had better writing skills. He notes that documentation of software is often a mess, and that writing focuses a person on logic, and sequence, and clarity.

I also appreciated that Tyre came back after those other articles were posted, and responded with another insightful piece, arguing again about the need for balance. Of course, if you look at how The Atlantic frames the series — with the overarching title of Why American Students Can’t Write, you get a sense of rhetorical stance via writing, right? The unspoken answer is that students can write because teachers can’t teach writing. Or don’t.

Here’s how Tyre ends the series:

What I have seen in my many years writing about education is that teaching creative writing in place of the mechanics of writing is a disaster for children at the other end of the economic spectrum. Many enter high school unable to write a coherent paragraph. At the tender age of 16 or so, at a time when affluent children are thinking about SAT prep classes and service projects in warm countries, it becomes obvious to some underserved students that they have not acquired the ability to reflect, analyze, and dissect ideas in writing – a set of skills that will enable them to persist through high school English and history and into college.

Others, unable to keep up, simply become bored, disengaged, and academically disconnected. They drop out and, if they are lucky, begin working a job or series of part-time jobs for hourly wages behind fast food counters, in retail, in a garage, or for a cleaner or landscaper. At the end of the workday, the conditions of their employment often causes parts of their bodies to ache.

I suggest to you that these young people needed more from their teachers than inspiration and a safe space. All students should have a chance to write poetry in school. But all students need the opportunity to gain the basic skills that will allow them to move forward in school and make a decent life for themselves and their children. Shame on us if we fail to provide that.

from The Atlantic

Peace (in the writing),


Focusing on Literacy, not Technology

norris tech checkin survey

Yesterday, we began an after-school inquiry group with teachers around literacy instruction and technology. There is a small group of us planning various sessions and I was up first. So, I brought up the Draw a Stickman site (episode two) on my interactive board and asked the teachers to help make the story, referring periodically to the ways in which I use the site with my students early in the year to talk about the main literacy concepts we will touch upon: protagonist/antagonist, setting, foreshadowing, conflict/resolution, etc.

I offered up the view that we need our students with the interactive pens in hand, not the teachers. And here is a perfect site with an engaging activity with many points for discussion about literacy, and even the opportunity afterwards for students to retell or write the story of the hero stickman.

What this allowed us to do with the 15 or so teachers who stayed after school, on their own time, to do is to think in terms of literacy, not technology. In fact, we are working to frame the inquiry group around the ideas of teaching literacies in all of its varied forms through the lends of using technology to engage students. The point is that the focus is not the technology. That’s no small thing, I would argue, and we often fall into the trap of the tool shaping instruction as opposed to the instruction using the tool.

After our interactive story activity, which broke the ice nicely, we shifted into using Edmodo for an inquiry space that I had set up for us as teachers. Our challenge is that we have teachers from kindergarten right through sixth grade, and that is a wide span. But we are all teachers and learners, and one of our goals is to create a community of learners that is built on sharing, reflection and exploration. You can see from the survey results above that we all have a mixed group in terms of their own perceptions of technical savvy (and also, that they want to focus on writing instruction in our sessions). So we went slow and methodical, and Edmodo worked well for our goals (easy set-up, easy to use, familiar format to many), and in very little time at all, we were all busy writing and sharing and replying, and building the connections.

Their writing task was to create a Technology Autobiography, where they were to write about their first brush with technology that made them step back and say “wow.” The responses were fantastic, from one who wrote about remembering an earlier career in programming (who knew?) to another remembering an early version of Logo programming (the Lego-styled system that Scratch is built on), to others whose first brush with Skype opened up a range of possibilities.

And they were writing, which is the literacy connection. The technology — Edmodo — allowed us to connect as writers but we all agreed that, as best as time would allow, we would return to our writing space to share resources. I know that is easier to promise than it is to do, and there are ghost towns of online spaces all over the place. But we facilitators will see what we can do to encourage us to keep coming together as writers and learners (and one colleague reminded us that our new teacher evaluations require some reflective writing, and so, why not our Edmodo space?)

Peace (in the inquiry),