The walking, talking, teaching man

Our physical education teacher was able to get about 25 pedometers donated to our school as part of a data-gathering exercise challenge. He has handed off the pedometers to us teachers, asking that we record how many steps we take for each day, over four days, while in school. Later, the sixth graders in math will use the data in Excel spreadsheets to talk about mean, median and mode, I think.

So, of course, this new pedometer strapped on my belt provided a nice morning activity.

First, I asked the kids about the word “pedometer” and we broke the word down into its parts (root and suffix) and began making new words from “ped” and “-meter”, which dovetails nicely with our work in Language Arts this week around the Origins of Words.

Then, I asked my students to estimate how many steps I would take before the end of the school day. I did give them a hint, as I had already been wearing the device for 30 minutes before they arrived. Some, not all, used that information to think about the hours of the school day and base their number on that information.

We wrote all of the estimates down and in the afternoon, I announced my step count — roughly 4,000 steps — and we all cheered the winner.  A lot of students asked when they can get a pedometer (that’s is phase two, I think). I’ll be putting the pedometer on again today as I teach.

According to some websites that I found, approximately 2,000 steps equals a mile. That all depends on your foot size and your stride, but I am about a size 12 and I think I have a normal stride.

So that means that during the course of my school day, I amble about the classroom and hallways (mostly the classroom) for about two miles per day. Interesting …

How far do you walk?

Peace (on the peds),

Getting Ready for the Concert

I’ve been trying to learn some bass lines for a few songs that I am playing in an upcoming Benefit Concert (to get books for New Orleans and donations for Pennies for Peace). I am the bass player in a quickly-formed band that includes a colleague, a drummer, two former students (one on guitar and the other on vocals) and a daughter of a teacher at our school (we named the band after her since she has such a wonderful voice).

I like the bass, but I haven’t played it much. Ever. It’s a whole different view of a song and I keep resisting the urge to get fancy. Keep it simple and keep it solid, I keep telling myself, and let the vocals be up front. I think my mindset as a sax player is to jump in front of the sound. And of course, hitting the right notes is always a good thing.

The other day, guitarist Steve set up his portable recorder and grabbed these from practice. The concert is next week and we are hoping to get the crowd singing along with the Fireflies song. They certainly all know it — I hear the melody down the hallways.

Collide (by Howie Day)

Fireflies (by Owl City)

The third song we will be doing is an original song written by some former students, but we didn’t record it that day. The song is called Hourglass.

Peace (in the muse),

Playin’ Jazz

I wrote a few weeks ago about my invitation to play with some musicians of high caliber for a jazz-infused service at our church. I was nervous because I was out of my league with these guys.

Yesterday morning was the service and, although I screwed up a few beginnings, I think I held my ground and kept up with the group as we made our way through about five songs, including God Bless the Child, When the Saints Go Marching In, A Child is Born and We Three Kings. I could feel that real intense concentration in my brain and I tried to remember where I needed to come in, what notes to transpose to the key of my saxophone, where to not play, where to play and more.

I’m glad I did it but I am also glad that it is is over.

Again, I am reminded of those student we put into a position of expectation but still need a support structure.  We know they can do something, even if it right now beyond them, but we can’t just let them sink or swim. We need to be there to help. I would not have done as well as I did without guidance from our piano player, who gave me visual cues and coaxed me along in some of the songs. I looked to him for that help, even though I was on my own when the song began and my saxophone was in my hands. It helps, too, that our church is so supportive. You could not find a better audience.

The best part? My wife is in the choir, and we got to stand near each other and play a few songs together  when the jazz group provided the music for a few hymns.

Peace (in the church),

Getting ready for Dublin (Ohio)

In a few weeks, I am off to Dublin, Ohio, for an exciting weekend event — the Dublin Literacy Conference. I have been asked by the wonderful folks over at A Year of Reading (Franki and Mary Lee) to come as a presenter, which is a great honor. And the event looks fantastic, too.

I like the conference tag line:  “Celebrating 21st Century Literacy as part of our 21st Year Hosting the Conference.”

Presenters and speakers at the conference include  Tim Tyson, Katie Van Sluys, and Ann Marie Corgill.  Children’s authors in attendance will include Melissa Sweet, Patrick Carman, David J. Smith and Denise Fleming.

I’ll be doing sessions around digital picture books and using webcomics in the classroom. But I am most interested in a family session that runs at the conference for parents and their children. I offered to show how to create stopmotion movies.

Imagine my surprise (good surprise) when Franki mentions to me that about 150 people have signed up for that session, with about 2/3 of them being kids. Wow. Now, I need to think of ways that not only can I get info out to the crowd, but also get the crowd working on something that we can quickly make into a movie. I am leaning towards handing out Wiki Stix, having people make characters and then create a parade of strange people (the wikistix folks, not the participants) as a movie.

This will be an interesting experience, for sure.

Peace (in the stix),

The Kids are Ready! The Teachers?

A number of us gathered yesterday afternoon at our school district office to discuss the role of technology in our vision for our students. I’d call it a first step but I am not sure anything really got done in the 90 minutes. We talked a lot. We threw some ideas out.  We’re going to meet again in five weeks.

But I don’t think we really know where we are going with it.

For my part, I tried to make a few points:

  • We need to make sure that the concept of student learning is at the center of any vision plan. As we went around the room and each school talked about the elements of their five year technology plan, I heard a lot about “hardware” and “administration” and other ideas that are important (for sure) but we need to shift our language to more student-centered ideas.
  • After a discussion about what students are doing outside of school as compared to what we are doing inside the school (ie, a disconnect between the literacy and media they use in their lives and the literacy we teach them), I mentioned that, when it comes to using new technology, “The students are ready. The teachers are not.” I am referring to the fact that so many teachers have not yet  made the leap into using technology beyond gathering information from websites. We need to help our colleagues.
  • Thus, the concept of a technology coach, who could work directly in the classroom with a teacher to weave technology into the curriculum, and not have technology as some stand-alone cool concept. But teachers need  a helping hand. If we want to really transform teaching practice, this coach concept would make a huge difference.
  • Access for all students — whatever their socioeconomic level — is critical and we can’t rely on our students learning these New Literacies outside of our door. The kids with families of means will be fine, but the ones without means — those ones we really need to reach, in fact — will fall further behind. This means that technology-infused work has to be done in school and we need the tools and the know-how to make that happen.
  • And finally, technology need not be some new initiative on its own — technology should be woven into the curriculum work we are already doing (such as our two-year Literacy Initiative). If we do this, then teachers will see our district values this push and that it is just part of what we do. It isn’t right now.

I’m sure my friend and colleague, Gail, will add her own thoughts. She was there and I was glad — too often, the early elementary grades get completely left out of the conversations around technology. She made sure the kindergarten set had a voice.

I often have to bite my tongue at these gatherings, for fear of taking over the discussions. I am pretty passionate about it and have strong ideas. And when it is a room of principals (nice people, all, and open to ideas), I need to be careful of what I say. I don’t want to inadvertently step on toes or give the wrong impression about what our schools are doing. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last five years — light years of progress, actually — but I find myself impatient.

A few years ago, when I was paid a stipend for some tech work, I drafted a vision statement for our school that continues to be part of the evolving plan. The vision began:

Emerging technology continues to play a vital role in the modern industrial society in which computers and software are integral to success in the life of our citizens.

The William E. Norris Elementary School Technology Team views its role as important in integrating technology into the classrooms in ways that will help prepare students to succeed in this rapidly changing world. The primary goal of all technology initiatives within this plan will be the positive impact such endeavors will have student learning.

I still believe in that.

Peace (in the vision),

Me, Outside my Zone of Proximal Development

Bear with me on this one …

Yesterday was full of music for me, but I was challenged in ways that I have not been challenged for some time and it made me reflect a bit on those students of mine whom we do push and cajole to move onto unfamiliar ground and how uncomfortable the experience can be in the moment for them, but how empowering the effect can be later on as a learning experience.

I have been asked to play my saxophone for a jazz-infused service at our family church in two weeks. With a bunch of professional jazz musicians. On songs that I really don’t know. On a saxophone I have not really touched much in the past seven or eight months. I said yes, but then, as I listened to the other guys at practice yesterday, I gulped and wondered if I had done the right thing. I am way, way out of my league with these guys. These folks play in touring bands, run music programs at colleges, they pull chords and melodies from their heads, they are immediately in sync with each other.


I was a fish out of water yesterday as we ran through the six or so songs that we will be playing, with two more to be written by the piano player “for the occasion.” They all nodded at that, but all I could think was: I sure as heck hope he writes it out for me.

I could feel my brain working overtime just to find the right notes as we played, since all of the music was in C concert key and I was on my tenor sax, which a Bb instrument. I had to transpose on the spot and then keep in time, and then take solos from time to time, and I really did not know what I was doing.

I was at the upper reaches of my Zone of Proximal Development, for sure, and they were unknowingly moving me forward. The trick for me was to keep going, to remember what I was learning so that I would not make the same mistakes the second (or third) time around, and then, now that I am home, to practice what I learned. I want to be near the Zone where these guys are, if only for this upcoming performance. I want to find a place inside this musical bubble.

Later in the day, I was with other musical friends. Now, here, I was on bass and we were practicing for the first time for a benefit concert coming up next month (more on that another day). I am not a bass player in the slightest and my fingers plodded along on the fretboard as I searched for root notes. But, like the morning jazz session, I was determined to keep up and by the end, I think I pretty much had it grooving. This was a little less stressful setting — no professional musicians in the house — but still a learning experience.

So, how does this all help me as a teacher?

My discomfort reminds me of those students who often venture into a new subject or a weak area and feel themselves grasping at straws just to keep up. Instead of swimming, they feel themselves sinking. For me, the musicians I was with in both settings yesterday were patient with me (although in my own head, I heard the invisible negative comments and I had to shush myself towards quiet) and this support allowed me to make mistakes. But I had a responsibility, too. I could not give up. My students also have to be encouraged to keep pushing forward when they run into a wall. To not give up. They need to see small steps of success to know that larger accomplishments lay around the corner. And we, as teachers, have to be there to help them swim. We can’t let them sink.

Yes, I was uncomfortable yesterday, but today, I woke up thinking of the structure and melody of Thad Jones “A Child is Born” and the bass line to “Collide” by Howie Day, and that little run on the original song performed by a former student for the concert, and the backup singing to “Fireflies” by Owl City, and how I am going to solo on “When the Saints Go Marching In” and how, darn it, I need to make time in my days ahead to practice so that I can push myself forward.

That’s called learning, right?

Peace (in the zone),

When Professional Development is about us, the teachers

On Friday, our school district held a half-day professional development sessions around literacy. This PD continues the work of our Literacy Initiative (still in its first year) and I want to give props to our administration for listening to the feedback from teachers after our Literacy Conference in November in which many of us asked for grade level meetings for sharing out some of our own best practices around literacy. The idea really echoes the philosophy of my National Writing Project, where teachers are at the center of the learning.

I am part of our district’s Literacy Committee (our district is a pretty large geographic area with five elementary schools and then a combined middle/high school — although the ms/hs folks apparently have “opted”out of the Literacy Initiative — which surprised me because I didn’t know staff would have that option …) and so I helped plan the day, and I was asked to co-facilitate the sixth grade teachers’ session with my co-teacher. The district had teachers in grades K-2 in one building in one town and 3-6 in another town because of space issues.

Every group first discussed the Five Components of Reading and how these ideas come together in our teaching practice, no matter what level you are at:

  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

We then each had ample time as grade level teachers to share out a lesson plan, an activity, a strategy or maybe some student work. (I brought in ideas around developing rubrics and questions around reading comprehension, for example).

As sixth grade teachers, we focused most on vocabulary and comprehension skills, and it was great just to have space to talk, chat, ask questions and learn ideas from each other. One of the projects we have in mind is to develop a summer reading list for upcoming sixth graders and I am already envisioning using Etherpad among my colleagues for collaborative writing around this idea. If nothing else, the meeting on Friday sparked us all to want to collaborate more on ideas and become more of a community of teachers.

At the end of our grade level sharing, all of the teachers in 3-6 gathered together to share out our points from our discussions, and I was the facilitator of this large group gathering as well.

Here are some things that I saw as themes emerging from the teacher-based discussions:

  • Playfulness with words enriches vocabulary instruction for students;
  • Reading skills are important beyond the Language Arts class. We must pay attention to reading in the content areas;
  • Moving students to think “beyond the text” has been a struggle for many of us (note: I personally think that the use of Accelerated Reader in some of the middle grades of our building is partially to blame and told our principal that after the conference);
  • Students benefit from skill of learning common roots, suffixes and prefixes;
  • Repetition and Practice in comprehension-style questions are crucial — also, in use of vocabulary;
  • Reading aloud, mixed with silent reading, benefits fluency;
  • There needs to be even more family support for reading and literacy at home for  many of our students;
  • The question of how to appropriately reach all learners across the spectrum came up here and there — how to use differentiated instruction;
  • and more …

I did notice that much of our whole group discussion focused around vocabulary instruction more than comprehension, and fluency seemed to get very little attention.

I wonder how our colleagues in the K-2 grades did at their session (Gail?). Our administration is supposed to compile all of the general discussions into one file and share with all of the teachers so that we can all see any trends around our literacy instruction and identify possible ideas for improving what we are doing in the classroom.

I hope the focus continues to be on what teachers need and already do around literacy, and not some top-down, canned  Literacy Program that dictates what should be taught, when and how. I am hoping that the use of our time on Friday for teacher-led discussions is a good sign of where we are heading right now.

Peace (in the discussions),

Bringing Collaborative Stories to an End

The three strands of this week’s collaborative storytelling — in Google Wave, on an Etherpad site, and in a closed network of teacher-writers — were brought to an end this morning as I wrapped up the adventures under the title The Datastream.

You can read all three stories together on a Google Docs website that I created. You also have the opportunity to read each story on its own through links that I put on that master document.


I did very little editing or tidying up of the text, although I wanted to re-form the stories to make more sense as we neared the end.  That was the editor in me. I resisted the urge, figuring that the way the stories get tangled and untangled is interesting in itself, and part of the process, and I did not want to lose the various voices of the collaborators. I loved how links, images, even Twitter, became part of the Wave story.

I struggled with how to end the three stories, even as I tried to steer the narrative towards each other in the last day or two. It became a science fiction-ized story at that point because I could not see any other way to bring the stories together and to a close. What I did not want was a project that never ends.

Ending are as important as beginnings, right?

I decided that I would write the ending piece as second-person narrative — an attempt to draw the reader into the collaborative experience as much as the writers (and there were more than 20 writers across the platforms collaborating on different strands of the story).

So, the obvious question: does this kind of collaborative story have a place in the classroom?

Absolutely, and as Tracy wrote about on her blog, you don’t need technology. Simply having students write the start of a story on paper, and then pass that paper around the room two or three times (it’s a good way to have them think about plot — one person does exposition, another person takes on rising action, etc.).

A few years ago, I used a wiki for this kind of student collaborative writing over a vacation and the students loved it, although the story made no sense whatsoever. Perhaps it would be good to designate some “student editors” of the story, to do sort of what I did here — gently shaping it.

This story project began because I wanted to know what Google Wave was all about. I figured a collaborative story might make sense, and I did learn a lot about Wave from the story writing. I don’t like Wave all that much but I learned how to use it. Then, it occurred to that I am part of a writing community already — the iAnthology — and why not draw them into the concept? So, a second strand began. Someone complained that they could not access Wave, so I started a third strand over at Etherpad, an online word processor that requires no registration.

You should have seen me bouncing around between the three stories, trying to keep plot lines and characters straight in my head. It was fun but strange, as if I were dancing with three partners to three different styles of music, all at once.

If you were a participant in this particular collaborative adventure, I want to thank you. If you are just a reader, thanks, too. We’re in this together, you know.

Peace (in the stories),

How the collaborative stories are evolving

For the past few days, I have been overseeing three different collaborative stories that jumped off from the same starting point:

To say she was connected would be too simple a statement. She was never disconnected. Even in her sleep, her dreams came to her in bursts of 140 characters. (She knew this because she often woke up and jotted down her dreams, a habit she acquired in her college psychology course. Her notebook was full of nighttime ramblings.)

And so, the night of the storm, with the weather forecasters freaking out about the high winds and possible lightning, she, too, began to freak out. She checked for batteries. She stood waiting near the electrical outlets, ready to pull the plugs at the first flash of lightning.

The last thing she expected was the knock at the door, but then, the unexpected always comes at the least convenient moment …

One story has been evolving at Google Wave; another at our iAnthology networking site; and the third, on Etherpad. I am calling the adventure DataStream because of the parallel stories but also because the ending will have to do with a stream of data coming together.

My aim is to close up the stories tomorrow (Sunday) and to weave the three together with a common ending, so that they all start and at the same place but the heart of the stories are different. I’m fascinated by this but also struggling with it.

You can join us — I need more writers at the Etherpad site, in particular, and the beauty of Etherpad is that no registration is required: you just go and write. So, please come join us, even if it is only for a few lines:

The Etherpad Story:

Here are a few observations that I have:

  • It’s not easy to keep three stories in my head. I am dancing between the stories here, trying to keep the plot moving along with clues from the writers (There have been about 20 people writing with me on these three platforms).
  • Google Wave may have some potential but I have not been impressed with it, to be honest. It is slow, and not so easy to use. Not intuitive at all. I started the story to experiment primarily with Wave, and so, that has been helpful, but I don’t really like it.
  • Writing on a Ning (the iAnthology) is nice because you can thread the story as discussions. I was hoping I could get a few more of our teacher-writers involved, but the holidays make that difficult, and I don’t want the project pushing into next week, when school starts up again.
  • The Etherpad is probably the easiest to set up and use. It is so simple. But it has had the least amount of traffic, even though I have blasted about it on my Twitter network.
  • I’m working right now in Google Docs to create a master document with all three stories together, in tables. It looks kind of odd this way, but it was the best way I could think of.

Peace (in the collaboration),

To say she was connected would be too simple a statement. She was never disconnected. Even in her sleep, her dreams came to her in bursts of 140 characters. (She knew this because she often woke up and jotted down her dreams, a habit she acquired in her college psychology course. Her notebook was full of nighttime ramblings.)

And so, the night of the storm, with the weather forecasters freaking out about the high winds and possible lightning, she, too, began to freak out. She checked for batteries. She stood waiting near the electrical outlets, ready to pull the plugs at the first flash of lightning.

The last thing she expected was the knock at the door, but then, the unexpected always comes at the least convenient moment …