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),


Celebrating International Women’s Day w/Women in Science


I know every day should be a day of recognition for women in all fields. But it is nice to have today designated as International Women’s Day around the world. I try to do my part in my classroom by countering the gender biases that my sixth grade boys are already beginning to develop (just the other day, this happened when we were using a Time for Kids magazine that featured women pioneers) and to remind my students of the inequities of history, where women were often forgotten or shunted aside.

Google has a cool Google Doodle today.

And I wanted to share out (again) a video game that I made for my students about Women in Science.

Peace (in the recognition),


Developing a Keynote: Why Literacy Matters

screenshot of Literacy Matters Presentation
It seems like a long, long time ago that I was invited by my friend Ben Davis to give a keynote address to the Red Mountain Writing Project’s 21st Century Literacies Conference. And yet, here it is. Tomorrow, I will be presenting my thoughts and stories on what it means to be teaching in a world dominated by shifts to the Common Core, and technology as tools for writing, and more. (Today, I travel). I’m excited about the opportunity to visit Birmingham, Alabama, and of course, a tad bit nervous about the responsible of giving one of the keynote addresses (the other is by writer Sharon Draper). I hope what I have to say resonated with the crowd, and I hope I am not boring.

As I have been developing the ideas to present, I have been working hard to connect what I teach to not only what is expected of me as a teacher in this standardized environment (ie, Common Core influence), but also, how I can best engage my sixth graders as writers in this digital age when our definitions of writing is in the midst of some shift, and just what that may mean to a classroom teacher.  My aim is to share my own classroom experiences, and to relate how I try to “pay attention” to what my students are doing with their literacies outside of school. I’ll work to weave those stories together into a narrative that (hopefully) inspires others.

I named my talk “Literacy Matters” because it seems to me that now, more than ever, writing and literacy is at the heart of all that our students are doing — in school and out of school. When they communicate via text messaging, they are engaging in literacy. When they shoot a video and post it online, they are engaged in literacy. When they play a video game, they are engaged in literacy. When they write a story or an essay or a poem or a reflection, they are engaged in literacy. The technology aspect of composition sometimes hides the literacies taking place, however, and we need to make those ideas more visible, bring them to the surface.

That’s part of my intention, anyway. I hope it goes well.


Here is a handout that I developed to accompany my talk.
Literacy Matters Handout


Peace (in the keynote),


Exploring Pinterest 1: Books About Technology and Learning

I’ve been reading so much about Pinterest that I finally got into the site to give it a shot (thanks to an invite from a friend on Twitter). It’s OK. I like the visual element of sharing, but it seems like navigation is sort of tricky and not very intuitive to me.  The homepage of the site is a visual mess. I do like how easy it is to create a project in Pinterest, and the javascript button now in my tool bar sure is handy for adding new elements (oh, excuse me, a new “pin”) to existing sites (eh, they are called “boards”).

Still, I created some “boards” around some themes that I am interested in. Here is one: Technology and Writing.
Pinterest book board

Technology and Writing: Book Reviews

Peace (on the board),



Young People, Search Evaluation and Information Quality

This infographic comes from The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University where researchers examined various literature around youth and the Internet, focusing in on how young people use the Internet to gather information and assess credibility.

The study notes:

As youth increasingly turn to the Internet as a source of information, researchers, educators, parents, and policy-makers are faced with mounting challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, the amount and diversity of “speakers” online, the lack of traditional gatekeepers and quality controls, and new modes of dissemination mean that youth are faced with challenging information quality judgments. On the other hand, these same shifts in the information ecosystem afford youth the opportunity to access, share, and create knowledge in entirely new ways, presenting myriad learning opportunities inside and outside of school.

Here are some key findings from the study (entitled: From Credility to Information Quality) worth noting:

1. Search shapes the quality of information that youth experience online.
2. Youth use cues and heuristics to evaluate quality, especially visual and interactive elements.
3. Content creation and dissemination foster digital fluencies that can feed back into search and evaluation behaviors.
4. Information skills acquired through personal and social activities can benefit learning in the academic context.


Peace (in the info),


Using iMovie’s Movie Trailer Tool

This is the first time I have tried out the “movie trailer” option in iMovie. Here is a teaser from my son’s upcoming movie project — Robbers on the Loose. He wrote the story and directed the scenes, with friends and family in the movie itself. I was behind the camera (with our Flip HD) and we are working on the editing. (Volume of voices … very tricky)

Oh, my son is seven years old, as is everyone in the movie. They’re all seven and just about all of them are in first grade.

The movie trailer option is interesting because iMovie does much of the work for you, after you choose  style. My son chose the adventure theme, of course, and then we dropped video segments into the system. We added the text, too. It got a bit cumbersome at times to figure out which video segment would work where. The tool could be a little better designed … BUT, he loves what the trailer looks like. And his older brothers’ snarky comment: The trailer is better than the movie. Ouch.

But the work on this piece for my son got me thinking about the possibilities for my own students, creating short trailers for books or short stories.

Peace (in the little screen),


Remixing Advertising Media for Gender Awareness

There’s no doubt that the Lego corporation is trying to make inroads with girls. Just look at the pink sets of pieces, and the themes that they are generating. And notice how the sets aimed at boys continue to be adventure-orientated, and mostly blue. This interesting site that I found called The HTML5 Gendered Lego Advertising Remix brings this difference to light in an interesting way. The site (which requires an upgraded browser) allows you to pull the audio from a boy or girl Lego set and put it beneath a video of a girl or boy Lego set.

What you notice is the way that music and voice is used, and color (of course), and theme. My youngest son loves Legos (as did his older brothers) but he is turned off by the girlie Lego sets. I’m not sure of the answer to how to best address gender by businesses, who after all are in the business of selling things.

The results from this remix site are pretty fascinating, I think, and provide a good insight for students to be thinking of the way they are targeted for advertising through design, theme, image and audio. I may need to try this activity with my students as part of our Digital Life unit. (Question for me: will our browsers allow it?)

Peace (from a boy),


Top Ten Things I Heard People Say About My Nerdy Book Club Sweatshirt

Yesterday was dress-down day at our school, where staff can dress casual and donate money into a fund to support families and staff of our school who might need a little extra help. Normally, I just wear jeans and a dress shirt. But yesterday, as we were about head into February break, I decided to put on my Nerdy Book Club sweatshirt. (For those not in the know, the Nerdy Book Club is an online collection of teachers, librarians, writers and others who like books. There is a blog website and a #nerdybookclub hashtag on Twitter. You can join, too. You just did. That’s how simple it is.)

I got a lot of interesting reactions to wearing the sweatshirt, which I had hoped would generate some conversation. Here are some of them — from students and colleagues.

  • What books are they reading? They don’t really have titles.
  • Nerdy Book Club? Where does that meet? In a library?
  • That’s my husband… right …. there. (points to the Nerd in image)
  • Let me get this straight. You’re all teachers. You love books. And yet, you are nerds? That’s so weird.
  • Those kids look pretty happy on your shirt, Mr. H. Must be good books.
  • I think my mom is part of that Nerdy Bookie Club. Or, she should be. She reads, like, all the time.
  • Do Kindles count for your club?
  • No offense, Mr. H, but I don’t think I’d want to be in that club. Sitting around, reading? No thanks.
  • I get the nerd part. That’s you, Mr. H. But how do books fit into it?
  • There’s a stain there, Mr. H. Looks like you spilled juice or something.

Peace (in the nerdiness),

Interviews Force Reflection on Teaching

This suddenly has become a week of getting interviewed or at least, scheduling interviews.

First, on Sunday, I had a great chat with Franki Sibberson (of A Year of Reading) for the wonderful site, Choice Literacy, about digital writing. The first part of the interview focused on how I use tools of digital media, personally, as a writer, and why, and how the National Writing Project helped nurture me in that direction (which it surely did!). Franki asked some great questions about how a teacher explores possibilities before bringing those ideas into the classroom, and how one goes about doing that. Her inquiry really had me thinking and reflecting. The second part of the interview was about student learning and how a teacher can consider the possibilities for digital composition, particularly around the gains that I see when we use technology for learning. Again, her questions allowed me to reflect, and consider what I do with my students from a different angle. The podcasts will be published at Choice Literacy sometime in the coming months. (There are some great podcasts at the site’s itunes home already.)

game interview

Then, yesterday, I sat down with a student of mine and we both got interviewed by some students in George Mayo’s class down in Maryland. They are working on a video project with the central question of “Are video games bad for you?” My student and I discussed our video game design project, and the interviews asked some really great questions about the value of gaming in the classroom. It was interesting and a great opportunity to highlight one of my students, who really dove into our game design project. The interviews are going to be playing his game and working that experience into their video project. It should be interesting to see, when it is done.

And, I am working on scheduling a Google Hangout with a college class being taught by a friend who was a leader of the Massachusetts New Literacies Initiative. He wants to have his students chat with a teacher who uses digital media.

While there is a lot of scheduling that has to happen for these kind of interviews, I realize that I get a lot out of it. Questions from outsiders force us to reflect on just what it is that we are doing, and why. It forces you to move beyond a certain comfort zone and think through the rationale of why technology can enhance a learning space, or not. So, I appreciate the opportunity to engage in these kinds of forums, and I will share out the links from various interviews as they become public.

Peace (in the Q&A),