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),


Todd Whitaker: What Great Teachers Do Differently

Here are two videos from Eye on Education that zero in on what makes a good teacher better than a bad teacher.  Maybe. But the message of “responsibility” resonated with me, particularly here at the start of the year where I do make assumptions about every weakness I see in my student instead of seeing those areas as possibilities for growth. It’s a shift in thinking. I’m not saying I am a great teacher, but I strive to be.

Peace (in the teaching),


Caine’s Arcade and the Global Cardboard Challenge

Maybe I have been out of this loop but I had not heard of the story of Caine’s Arcade, but it is fascinating on a number of levels. First, there’s this young kid who used cardboard and odd parts to create his own arcade in his dad’s shop (Maker Movement reference). Then, there is a fimmaker who stumbles into the arcade, is fascinated by the invention of games out of cardboard and creates a documentary movie. Finally, the story goes viral, people all over line up to play and a scholarship for the boy is funded beyond belief.

And now, there is a Global Cardboard Challenge being planned for October 6 by the Imagination Foundation. Here, kids are challenged to create their own games and play out of cardboard, just as Caine did. I wonder if I can pull together something for my classes on that day — some kind of Make Game activity, and have them become part of the global activities on that day (which, I see, is a Saturday …) Or maybe I can do something with my own kids at home.

If there is one thing that schools often have a lot of it, it is cardboard, right?

Peace (in the play),



Summer of Video: The Bike Trail Project

The other day, I shared out what my youngest son has been up to with a flip video camera, but really, he has been mostly inspired by his 14 year old brother, who has developed a real gift and feel for video. This stretches way back to when I taught him about stopmotion. (see his old website where he posted a bunch of his movies)
This summer, I saw a contest through a local group that promotes our rail trail/bike path, and I suggested that he create a video and enter (and maybe win some prize money). He got together with a bunch of friends, and they created two videos. The first one is slightly funny (or hilarious, depending on your age) and the second one is more serious, with interviews of folks on the trail.
My son did all the editing in iMovie, which I never taught him. I like how he is seeing the editing process as composition (notice the slow-down effects, the moving between interviewees, and angles.) Both videos came out great, particularly when you consider that no adult had anything to do with the planning, shooting and editing.
The Fun One:

And The Serious One:

Peace (on the rail),


When Education is (Big) Business

Business and the Core


Two posts this week have me thinking about the ways that business is shoehorning its way into our classrooms, and how alert we have to be to those influences, and those who are influencing our policy makers at the upper levels. Of course, most of this stems from the Common Core implementation now underway in most states. Businesses see an opportunity they just can’t pass up: a nervous market facing deadline pressures (school superintendents, curriculum coordinators) and unsuspecting clientele (teachers, students), plus public cash. I know that sounds a bit cynical, but it feels more and more to me as if schools are the next open market.

First, Bill Fitzgerald over at Funny Monkey posted a few pieces about start-up businesses trying to carve out a niche in education. It seems to me that everywhere we turn, some app developer or business venture is trying to get a piece of the educational action. Maybe it has always been this way, but the Common Core movement has really opened up the floodgates, or at least that’s how I perceive it. Bill first notes that one start-up site (which includes a news collection that I subscribe to) appeared less about education, and more about the commercial aspects.

“From a quick visit to their site, it felt as much like an advertising portal as an informational resource. Admittedly, I didn’t spend much time there, but I didn’t see much in the way that would compel a longer visit either – but that could be a design issue, and I digress.” — Bill Fitzgerald

In a second post, Bill notes how start-up ventures don’t always “get” what is needed in the classroom. He said some companies are good at building “widgets” that meet a specific need, but may not have real value when in the room with real students.

“… this creates another collision point as startups careen into education: many people building educational products fail to understand why, where, or how their product fits into the process of learning. Some of this can be chalked up to unfamiliarity, and some of it can be chalked up to hubris, but there are a lot of funded startups building products that only look good on a pitch – when they get shoehorned into a classroom, they stand out like a substitute teacher trying to get kids excited about phonics.” — Bill Fitzgerald

Then, Paul Bogush crafted a piece this morning in which he dove into some test questions from his state of Connecticut, which is part of the Smarter Balance consortium for Common Core assessments. (We’re a PARCC state up here to his north, so I am curious about differences, etc.). Paul has written before about the business connections to the Common Core movement, and tried to make clear who is behind the movement.

This morning, in his post entitled “In Bed with the Enemy,” Paul investigated some of the resources being used for the test questions that are aimed at his students, and realized that almost all of the online sources and sites being used were owned or at least partially-owned by the educational giant, Pearson.

Paul ends with this:

“I don’t think anyone would teach using a unit on tolerance given to them by the enemies of civil rights.  No teacher would put up with that.  But yet, teachers (including myself) will start off this year fully supporting the Common Core in the classroom.  I feel as though every day when I come home I need to take a shower, because I have spent my day in bed with the enemy.” — Paul Bogush

As teachers, we need to always have our eye out on these kinds of developments. Hey, the Common Core talk about “close reading” of texts and supports media literacy skills, and Bill and Paul are doing that with their writing. Are the rest of us doing it, too? Are we being critical enough of the resources we bring into our classrooms?

Peace (in the money),


Video Share: Design Thinking and Education

This an interesting view of a teacher reflecting on how design ideas can reshape learning experiences for students. While the video does not go into too many specifics, it is clear she and her colleagues and the school are undergoing inquiry to couple design ideas with education. I’m curious to know more about what that means, and how a school begins.

I was intrigued by this description at the Design Thinking for Educators site:

(Design is) involves storytelling, sorting and condensing thoughts, until a compelling point of view and clear direction for ideation emerge.

(The video was shared by VideoAmy over at Edutopia. See her entire playlist around design ideas in education for more information – you can also view the IDEO site, which is a design consultant that produced the video. They have a whole section on education).

Why Design Thinking? from Design Thinking for Educators on Vimeo.

It’s interesting because a recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine is themed around design, and the legacy of Steve Jobs at Apple. The idea of simplicity, but not simple, is what is intriguing, I think, and how to make the form of something match it function without interfering with the function. In education, this raises questions about the roles of the classroom, the layout of the classroom and school, the experiences of students in a given day, and all the ways that we interact with other adults and with students.
Peace (in the design),