Me, on the Mound

Dads v Kids Baseball2
Way back in early spring, I wrote about being a coach with my son’s Little League team for Slice of Life. Well, the season just ended (believe it or not) with my son’s team having a great regular season and a weak All-star season. But, we had a blast, and on the last practice, we had a fun game of adults versus kids baseball. The pictures here are of me, pitching to the boys. Yeah, my arm hurt the next day but it was worth it!
Dads v Kids Baseball

And the game ended on a tie: 3-3.


Peace (on the field),


Remembering Woody Guthrie at 100

You may not know it, but today is the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth. There was a big lead article on one of our alternative newspapers this week about the 100th anniversary because Guthrie’s granddaughter is performing his songs at a local concert (Arlo Guthrie lives not too far away) and the article reminded me of the power of Guthrie‘s songs and fierceness of message and heart.

A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it or it could be
who’s hungry and where their mouth is or
who’s out of work and where the job is or
who’s broke and where the money is or
who’s carrying a gun and where the peace is.  – Woody Guthrie

One of my favorite Steve Earle songs is this tribute to Woody, called Christmas in Washington about the state of politics. I hope you enjoy it and remember Woody as an American icon.


Peace (in the song),

PS — Why isn’t today’s Google Doodle about Woody? (It’s about artist Gustav Klimt.)

The Cognitive Choices of Choose Your Adventure Stories


I have long been fascinated by the genre of Choose Your Own Adventure books (and how to flip that interest that kids have in those stories by having them plan and write them). I’ve used wikis to have my students create their own, and will probably do that again before the end of the school year, and I have presented the concept of merging technology and writing with those kind of stories that branch out in different directions.

See my Threaded Adventure resource

The other day, I came across a website that just blew my mind. It is a comprehensive look at how Choose Your Adventure stories unfold, and the researcher (whose name I can’t find) took a real analytical approach to what it means to read one of these books. They examined the books across the years, using colors to chart the various endings and choices. Using all sorts of data analysis and graphs, the writer really unpacks the critical thinking that goes into being an active reader. It’s fascinating.

“… their interactive function is to create a gameworld for the reader. This is part of the wonder of these books – they took a pre-existing set of interface conventions designed for utilitarian search tasks and mapped a new activity onto it. They were effectively a new kind of software application for the oldest information-display platform we have.”


I had not really considered the books in terms of gaming, or even software design, and yet … that makes complete sense now that I do consider it. The non-linear, problem-solving approach that puts much of the agency in the hands (or eyes) of the reader makes for such a different kind of experience when you are reading Choose Your Own Adventure stories. It made me wonder about why these kinds of narratives are not more in vogue with apps and ebooks (only to see that, indeed, there is a line of the books now available for the ipad)


CYOB Adventure Graph

On the flip side, having students plan and write these kinds of stories is an interesting endeavor. At least with my sixth graders, some “get it” and some don’t – mainly because of critical thinking skills. Those who get it compose rich stories with multiple exploration points, and some narrative branches will even arc back with others. Those who don’t get it still follow a very linear path — and who can blame them if that is all that they ever read. The use of the powerful “hyperlink” opens up possibilities for this kind of writing, though, whether it be via a wiki or powerpoint or even a folder of Word documents. (or even using Google Docs forms to do the same thing, which is another interesting twist).

And, if you want to stretch it even further, you can now annotate videos on Youtube, and create visual Choose Your Adventure stories. I did this experiment a few months ago when I was writing about mentor texts. Watch the video and click in the video to make your choices. Notice how the viewer is the one with a bit more agency than usual, just as the reader is with the books.

Come join the adventure with The Mysterious Fruit story.

Peace (in the choices),





My Classroom Angry Birds Experiment

After watching Paul Anderson’s TED talk about game design and classroom design, and his experiment about setting up Angry Birds on his computer with a sign that said “play” and nothing else, I got interested in what would happen if I did the same thing in my classroom. So, yesterday, for morning work, I put Angry Birds Space on the interactive board, and pinned a huge “PLAY” sign on it, and just watched as my sixth graders came in. I purposely gave them minimal directions and very little input.

Here’s what I was expecting: a mad rush to play the video game first thing in the morning, particularly when they were expecting some math morning work. I figured we would have a crowd of kids up in the front of the room, all clamoring to play (I also hoped that the interactive pen would work for pulling back the birds, but it didn’t, so they had to use my computer.) I even had my camera ready, to capture the scene as it unfolded.

I was, therefore, surprised by what did happen. Not at all.

Only three or four of my students sat down to play. A few watched, but then milled about to chat with friends. They sort of kept the game in view out of the corner of their eyes. But mostly, it was a small handful that played. And they weren’t dominating the game. They would play, walk away, see no one else playing, go back, play, etc.

I did notice some teaching going on, as the more experienced Angry Birders showed another student how to play the Space version (which uses physics and gravity), and there was some interesting cheering going on.

But I was surprised it wasn’t much of a hit. Certainly not like Paul Anderson showed in his video. (Maybe they are already bored with Angry Birds? Maybe the social interaction with friends was more important? Maybe they didn’t know what to make of my “PLAY” sign? Maybe they need explicit instruction from the teacher? Or maybe they were tired on a Monday morning.)

Peace (in the experiment),


Post-Professional Development Reflections

Last week, I spent a day at another elementary school in my area, focusing on sharing some activities that integrates technology into the writing activities as a consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. The principal of this school (who is probably reading this .. hey, Mike) has impressed me with his energy and also his commitment to helping pave a path for his staff to see some possibilities and start planning out more steps forward towards considering how media and technology are part of young people’s lives and how we as teachers need to start tapping into that for learning. It really does take the leadership of a principal and support of administration for teachers to feel like they can take that first step (even if it is handing over the pen to the interactive board to students for an activity). When a teacher feels isolated, and if they are already wary of technology, then change will rarely happen in the classroom.

The team at the school who brought me in wisely asked that I do some demonstration lessons, so I spent much of the morning in a first grade classroom (using Storybird), a third grade classroom (digital storytelling) and a fifth grade classroom (more digital storytelling) working with students while the teacher and other guests from the building and district watched. Then, I gave a presentation to the entire staff about the issues around technology, focusing in on digital storytelling in particular. Finally, the principal invited me to join a few others in a podcast discussion around technology and the lives of young people.

It was a fantastic day, all around.

Sure, I got to share some expertise of mine from my own classroom and work with WMWP, but for me, it was so wonderful to go into another elementary school, meet a really dedicated staff of caring professionals, interact with different groups of students, and become part of a larger conversation about what kind of shifts need to be taking place as we consider the changing nature of classroom instruction in the age of Common Core (which our state is part of) and digital media. It makes me wonder why we don’t do more school visitation programs.

The principal kindly sent me feedback and reactions from his staff regarding my day at the school.

I was impressed by how many ideas are now being sparked by what we did that day. Teachers are considering digital storytelling ideas for activities across the curriculum, envisioning new ways to use their interactive boards, having students become photographers for images that will spark more writing, creating Prezi presentations for their students and by their students,  thinking of the ways that technology might motivate and reach a diverse group of learners and provide access to learning in new ways, and considering how to use technology do more cross-class collaboration projects.

Now it falls to the principal and his group to keep the momentum going (I still have a few hours to work there so we are now working on a follow-up plan), and he wisely asked his staff the question of “what do you need” from him to make progress. Again, the teachers were very insightful and specific with their recommendations. One theme: time to explore and time to reflect on how to make the technology meaningful in their classrooms.

As a consultant coming in from the outside, this school clearly has a lot of positive energy, and is inquisitive, and is on the path towards interesting things.

Peace (as the presenter),


When Computers Write The Stories

There’s been a lot of discussion recently in the educational communities that I am part of around computer-based assessments of student writing, and what that means for the teacher (less work?) and students (inauthentic audience!) and companies (profit!) when writing is put into a computer program for assessment. You can probably tell by my snarky comment inserts that I am not all that supportive of the idea, although I understand the reasons why some districts might consider moving into that direction for some writing assessments (college entry exams have long used these kinds of automated grading systems).

See Audrey Watters great post about this issue on Hack Education

In the most recent edition of Wired magazine, Steven Levy profiles the flip side of that coin: computer software programs that are now beginning to write news stories for publication by tapping into data streams. Sports and financial news are the first steps to this kind of “writing” but Levy brings up a lot of intriguing issues, such as: would a computer ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism? Well, I’d like to say, no, but can we really discount that sometime in the future, a program might be able to analyze some obscure data and create an article that would shake the world? It can happen. The folks at companies like Narrative Science (great name, btw) suggest that it may very well happen in as little as five years from now.

For now, the system built by Narrative Science is writing and publishing news articles on things like Little League and sports games and other areas of the news world that newspapers and media companies are ignoring. They are finding an audience niche, for sure, and actually, after reading the sample that Levy provided (and even this one from Forbes Magazine), the computer didn’t do so bad with the writing (as a former reporter, I’ve seen worse copy by fellow journalists). Of course, the computer-based writing misses the nuances of speech and other elements of style, but the developers claim they can tweak the program any way they want, and suggest that they could have the software cover the financial news in the style of Damon Runyan (I, for one, want to read that. See? Maybe there is an audience).

But, as someone who views himself as a writer, what does this all mean? If a machine writes, is it really writing as we know it? What does this do to the implicit compositional agreement that readers have with the writers, and what does this all do to that compact that if you read what I write, then we share a special connection? Does this idea even matter in these days when those bonds are very loose, and getting looser every day? I find it fascinating to think about. Could a machine write a poem? And what would that poem read like?

In my view, there is still something sacred about the process of putting ideas down on paper or a screen, and there is something very human about that experience. While I am intrigued by the direction that software might take writing, it scares me more than a little to know that someday, it will be difficult to judge whether a writer is a human or a machine. (And, why does it matter? Does it matter?) It brings me back to my complaints about automated assessments — the writer is composing ideas for some big black hole of nothingness, only a score. The act of writing has to be more than that.

Writing is about connecting with others, about making sense of the world around us.

Can a software program do that?

Peace (in the machine),


Dear Librarian (at my son’s school): Remember the Books


Dear librarian of my son’s school,

First of all, I want to thank you for being a librarian. I can’t think of a more important job. Your task is to place the right book in the right hands of the right child at the right moment, and when hundreds of kids are coming through your doors every week, I am in awe of your profession’s charge to reach every child. I also know that you need to be keeping track of so many new books each year, so that you are on top of the latest works of literature. And now, on top of all that, we are expecting you to be proficient media and technology specialists. Your role is constantly shifting. That’s a lot to ask of anyone. But librarians are nothing if not adaptable, and wise. I admire what you do.

I know that you are new to my son’s school this year, and therefore, you have to carve our your identity as the librarian. The last person in that library, an aide who filled in as librarian, did her best for many years and we are thankful for her years behind the desk. At least, the library was open for children. We didn’t necessarily like that she was so strict with our children around the books they could take out. We still don’t understand the day our niece came home and told us that when she (a second grader) tried to check out a fifth-grade level book that she really wanted to read, she was denied because it was not a “second grade book.” I have trouble getting my head around that, don’t you?

So, we have high hopes for you. You are young and energetic, and we like that you are offering after-school enrichment programs. You connected with the kids right from the start, it seems. Our son would come home, talking excitedly about going to the library. But we began to notice something strange.

He never had a single book in backpack.

All last year, after every library period, he would have a book for the week. He’d pull it out and we would read it together. Sometimes it was something new; Sometimes, it was an old classic. But he always had a book after going to library. This year, no books. His backpack is empty on library day. Instead, he has regaled us with talks of what he has been doing with the computer while in the library. He’s made little animated movies, created slideshows, played plenty of online games and more. All very nice.

But … no books.

We were hanging out with some other parents the other day and one of them noted that her child told them (and we will take this story for what it is and consider its source) that you told their class that if they could not behave themselves, they would not be allowed to use the computers and instead, they would have to spend their library time with books. “As if that is a punishment,” this mom said, shaking her head in exasperation. “If the punishment is quietly reading a story, then bring it on!”

I think I get what is going on. The push for technology in our schools (which is a priority of your principal) and the lack of expertise among your staff (which we know all too well … this child is our third) has you front and center with Animoto, Glogster and Go Animate. Sure, the kids are loving it. I get it.

But, please, in the hype to be teaching 21st Century Skills, don’t forget the power of the book. Don’t forget the quiet moments of story. Don’t forget the magic that can truly happen when the right book finds the right hands, and touches the right heart. You won’t find a bigger advocate for technology skills than me, but I want my son to keep loving books, too, and not just the ones that flash across the screen. I want his fingers and eyes and brain to move across the page, to connect an author’s ideas to his own experiences. I’m not ready to give up paper for bytes.

And it’s not just for my own child that I write. Here, in our home, we immerse our children in books and writing. You should see the stacks of books that we bring home from the city library. You should see the piles of books in our living room. As a librarian, you’d be very happy. No, what I worry about are those children who come from homes that are not immersed in literacy. Those children, and those families, need you more than ever. They need to have the love of reading and books instilled in them. You can make a difference in their lives just by allowing them time to read, and to choose what to read, and to help them navigate that experience.

Please, turn off the screens and open up a few books with the children of the school. There’s nothing more important for you to do than that.




Dr Seuss on the Driveway

Dr Suess on the Driveway
My seven year old and my two young nieces took out the sidewalk chalk yesterday and created this wonderful driveway masterpiece to celebrate Dr. Seuss. I was going to share it as part of my Slice of Life, but … I already had something there. So, this is a visual bonus Slice of Life.

Peace (with some chalk and imagination),


On Reaching and Nurturing Teachers as Writers


I’m going to try to pull a few different strands together here …


The other day, I was invited to present at a school district to the north of me. My focus was on the expanding definition of literacy and how the four strands of English Language Arts (writing, reading, speaking and listening) remain the center of the new Common Core standards (which our state has adopted and adapted) and the concept of 21st Century Skills (re:technology). The district wanted me to focus on how I nurture and value writing in my own sixth grade classroom.  I began the session with what I thought might be a good opening — I asked the crowd of about 45 teachers (mostly 4/5/6 classroom teachers) what their philosophy around the teaching of writing is.

I was not ready for the silence.

You could hear a pin drop.

I am not sure if my question was unfair to them at that point in the session or whether they have not really had the time to sit down and think about this issue, and articulate a philosophy. I don’t want to make any judgments. They were an attentive group of educators, with lots of questions and insights as the day moved along. They were very engaged, and they wanted to be there. (Sometimes, that is not the case). But I keep thinking back to my question and the lack of response, and what it might mean in a larger picture.

I did try to articulate my own philosophy around writing and literacy in the session. Here is what I share with parents and students, and which is part of my classroom curriculum website:

  • The act of writing is an important way for students to learn by processing their ideas into coherent and organized form;
  • Writing should be done across various curriculum areas and not be taught in isolation;
  • Students should write for various audiences; At times, they may write just for themselves, for the classroom or, sometimes, for the world;
  • Technology can be a useful tool for composing various forms of writing and media, including audio podcasts and video;
  • Writing should be authentic and allow students to make connections between school and the world outside of school;
  • Artistic elements and the concept of design play a role in the way that young people compose writing and other media;
  • Reading quality books and stories of various genres provide an insight into the writing process and allow students to reflect, connect and utilize critical thinking skills;
  • All students can succeed and improve as writers and readers and composers of multimedia.


A day or two later, I picked up my latest edition of Voices from the Middle journal from the National Council of Teachers of English. The theme of the March 2012 edition is “Preparing our Student as Writers.” This is right up my alley! But something struck me in the introduction by the editors (Diane Lapp, Doug Fisher, and Nancy Frey). They note the results of a survey they administered to about 120 practicing teachers in summer courses they taught.

The teachers were asked questions such as how they define themselves as writers and do they like writing and teaching writing?

“The majority reported they did not enjoy writing, did not believe they were good writers, and did not believe they were well-prepared to teach writing.” (p. 8 )


Is that just a fluke of the teachers in their programs or is that an indication of something larger among teachers?


This brings me to two personal observations.

First, most of the readers here know that I am part of and a strong advocate of the National Writing Project, which is built on the premises of teachers as writers, and writing to learn. Now, more than ever, as many states make the shift to standards that have writing and research and analysis at the center of classroom instruction, organizations like the NWP that support and nurture teachers as writers, and allow for reflection for how to bring those skills into the classroom, are more important.

And more in danger than ever, too.

The NWP lost all of its federal support a few months ago during budget cuts, but recently, it received some back through the federal SEED initiative. Teachers need support networks and places to share expertise and learn from each other.

Second, I began thinking of the Slice of Life challenge that has been going on this month over at Two Writing Teachers. Each day, more than 100 educators are now writing, and sharing, and commenting, and creating a writing community. Some days, the numbers reach nearly 200 posts, plus countless comments that writers are leaving for each other.

This is a huge jump from other years of Slice of Life, and it shows how technology can transform writing practices for teachers. Ruth and Stacey, the wonderful overseers of ideas at Two Writing Teachers, have really nurtured a lot of teachers who sometimes express in their posts their fear of writing in a public space coupled with a desire to see themselves as writers, if not just for themselves then for their students. They are diving in with Slice of Life, and hopefully, they are experiencing something transformative.

Teachers, as well as young writers, need places to be nurtured as writers. Formal organizations like NWP and informal networks like Two Writing Teachers and countless more that are out there in the world are making a difference. If you have been on the outside looking in, come join us with your own writing and then reflect on how that experience as a writer might shape or reshape your own teaching instruction with your students. Writing is more than writing for the classroom. Writing is about making sense of your world.

Peace (on the soapbox),


Some Thoughts on Digital Curation

digital is pinterest

I’ve been taking part in an online study group through the National Writing Project around the topic of digital writing, with the NWP’s Digital Is website as our “text.” This week, we’ve been giving some guidance to consider the importance and role of “curating” content for ourselves and our students. Being a thoughtful curator means gathering pertinent resources that, taken together, have some meaning to the one who is viewing the collection.

In some ways, teachers have always been curators, right? We seek resources and information that we can share with our students in hopes of sparking insights and education along a line of thinking or inquiry. We lead our young people into places will get them writing, thinking, shifting. We help them see the value of things (through our own lens.) Why I choose this article over that article for them to read is all about the act of curation.

But the access to information and data in the digital world has made this responsibility ever more important, it seems to me. Given the deluge of sources (some maybe not so useful) and materials, our students often have trouble navigating in a way that is meaningful. Our role as educators is to provide some intellectual framework, and we do this by curating the content. (On the flipside, curation can also be viewed as a negative by narrowing the possibilities or filtering the content, right?). Technology tools that allow this kind of curation navigation include Diigo and other bookmarking tools; Jog the Web and other Internet site “tours”; Webquests, and more.

And even Pinterest is a curation tool, of a sort. (See my board on collections within Digital Is that I find notable and notice how I was able to provide a little commentary on each, and how others can react to my comments.)

An interesting discussion we have been having in our study group is all about annotation, and how technology can provide more and more means for collaborative marking and sharing of ideas and reflections right within the documents themselves (sort of like margin notes, but saved and shared electronically, and conceived for collaboration). I have not yet done this kind of activity with my sixth graders, but with the shift towards more research-based writing under the Common Core, it makes sense to try to figure out if there are tools that might pave the way for better and more efficient research gathering for our students, who then can make the shift themselves into the role of curator.

I like the NWP study group is sparking my thinking along new paths, and new possibilities.

Peace (in the information),